Friday, July 10, 2009

Cahors, France

Friends: For the second day in a row I found a bar with the television already tuned to The Tour and a small gathering watching. In my previous five Tours, rarely did I find TVs tuned to The Tour when I wasn't on the actual Tour route. Invariably I'd have to ask to have The Tour put on the television and then had it mostly to myself.

But not this year. Once again The Tour has captured the interest of the French. This is the most attention the locals have given it since Lance's early years. After he started winning it so easily, the French no longer cared, especially since there hasn't been a legitimate French contender in almost 25 years. But Lance's return and the rivalry with his teammate Contador have revived the long dormant interest of the casual fan.

During the three years of his absence there were no strong personalities or story lines to attract the casual fan's interest, and in each of those three years The Race was overshadowed by drug stories. Three years ago the three main contenders, Basso, Ullrich and Vinokourov weren't allowed to start because of their link to a Spanish doctor dispensing performance-enhancing drugs and storing bags of racer's blood. Two years ago the race leader Rasmussen was dismissed from The Race with a week to go. And last year the world's best team, Astana, despite having two riders who had finished on the podium the year before, Contador and Leipheimer, wasn't allowed to start because the year before one of the team's rider's, Vinokourov, had been caught blood-doping, even though Contador and Leipheimer weren't on the team at the time.

Last year was also marred by an Italian stage winner and his teammate testing positive for a new strain of EPO during the race, and then after the race two other stage winners, including the winner of the Mountains Competition, were disqualified for using the same drug. Lance referred to last year's Race as "a joke," offending the winner Carlos Sastre and the fourth placed American Christian Vande Velde, and had to apologize for his remarks. So far, this year's Race has been untainted, though a former head of The Tour commented that Lance's return stirred up the drug issue. The French really have it in for Lance, even though he is once again sparking tremendous interest in their Race.

When I walked into the bar the bartender chided me, "You're late. The Race is nearly over." There were 16 kilometers to go, much more than the ten of the day before and the four of the day before that, a solid twenty minutes of racing. David Millar, a veteran British rider who rides for and is a part owner of the American Garmin team, was alone off the front racing through the streets of Barcelona in a drizzle. A guy with "L'Equipe" spread out before him on the bar said he had been part of a four-man 120-kilometer breakaway and that he had left them behind on a climb a few kilometers before.

With ten kilometers to go he had slightly more than a minute lead, not quite enough, as he was gobbled up by the pack with a kilometer to go, even though he still had an 18-second lead at the two kilometer point. He couldn't hold them off for the final two minutes of racing. After several hours of envisioning the utmost glory and instant Tour immortality of winning the stage, all his suffering was in naught.

As I bicycled into Cahors just a little while ago, I met an English guy on a bike who was still thrilled by his Millar's effort, saying there wasn't another rider in the peloton who could have soloed as long as he did under such conditions. The Englishman had just completed the Marmot Tour, a one-day ride over some of The Tour's most famous climbs in the Alps--Glandon, Galibier, Telegraph and finishing on L'Alpe d'Huez. The annual ride attracts several thousand riders. He was an avid Tour fan. He hadn't missed attending The Tour since 1982, when he rode the entire Tour route as I am doing. Since then he's just been able to return for a stage or two. He was wearing a Coors Classic hat, an old American race that he had attended twenty years ago. He said, "All my gear is vintage."

He rode The Marmot wearing a Tom Simpson replica Peugeot jersey. All day long people along the road shouted out "Simpson" and "Thevenet" (who both wore the Peugeot jersey, Simpson up to 1967 when he expired on Mont Ventoux, and Thevenet as a two time Tour de France winner in the early '70s). He was only eight years old when Simpson died on Mont Ventoux, so wasn't old enough to be a fan of his when he was alive. He said that the man who put Simpson back on his bike when he first passed out on Ventoux was a good friend of his fathers.

I would have loved to have watched today's mountain stage with this arch-devotee of the sport, but he said he was obligated to watch it with his wife on a small black-and-white television in their camper with reception that wasn't so good. He'd prefer to watch it in a bar with a large color TV with me, but his wife doesn't think she gets enough attention from him, so he'd committed to being with her on her turf for this stage. They are on their way back to England, but he will return in a week on his own for a stage or two in the Alps. Hopefully, we'll cross paths again.

It could be a bit complicated, as next Thursday I meet up with Jesse the Texan, a triathlete I rode a few stages with last year. Jesse is flying into Geneva with a friend, renting a car and will be following the final ten days of The Tour. Three more of his friends will be joining us later, though not with bicycles. For the first time I'll be able to ride the passes without 50 pounds of gear. I'll also have the chance to get to Paris for the first time for the finish on the Champs Elysees, as we will drive the 400 miles from Mont Ventoux, the stage finish the day before, to Paris.

Its getting more and more exciting, with more and more to look forward to. In less than 24 hours, I get to meet up with Julie for a day in St. Cyprien. She said she is just now having a satellite dish installed on her house so we can watch Saturday's stage through the Pyrenees. Sunday I continue on to Limoges, where I will meet up with the peloton for three stages across the heart of France before they take on the Vosges and the Alps and venture into Switzerland and Italy.

Later, George

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