Thursday, July 9, 2009

Graulhet, France

Friends: I watched the electrifying team time trial in Montpelier with two friends from stages past--Ikki, the Japanese cyclist I'd met the day before, and Tony, a retired French advertising man I met last year.

Ikki found me about half an hour before the caravan was due to pass. I was sitting in a shady spot eating paté sandwiches about a mile from the finish line, a spot where hardly anyone else had gathered, meaning less competition for the giveaways.

Ikki was eager to track me down to learn more about bicycle touring and my Tour de France experiences over the years. His English was impeccable, as he'd spent four years at LSU studying design. He has his own business designing surf wear and more, but he'd love to be able to devote all his time to his many athletic endeavors and earn a living from them. He was able to attend The Tour as he came to France to compete in the Nice triathlon, which took place a week before The Tour started just ten miles up the road from Nice in Monaco.

Triathlons are just one of his athletic pursuits. He is also a surfer and an endurance runner and now an aspiring touring cyclist. He has climbed Mount Fuji three times, once running to its summit and then running down. He was well aware of the Japanese saying, "He who doesn't climb Mount Fuji once in his life is a fool, but he who climbs it more than once is an even greater fool." He looks forward to climbing it again, proving he is certainly fool enough to become a touring cyclist. He's also run the circumference of Mount Fuji, a magnificent experience he said, gazing upon its breath-taking summit from so many angles.

Even though he was an accomplished and exceptional athlete, he was like a giddy kid cheering on The Tour riders and waving a Japanese flag. It may have been the first time ever that the Japanese flag has been seen along The Tour course. He could well return home as a national hero. After the caravan completed its chores, Ikki and I moved to the jumbo television screen near the finish line. Ikki stood on a guard rail above the crowd at the 150 meter to go mark. Any long shot would have captured him and his rising sun flag.

I preferred to sit in the shade of a PMU truck, sponsor of the sprinter's green jersey, about 20 feet from Ikki and the race course. I'd join Ikki every seven minutes or so when a team came by. Ikki was in such a state of ecstasy his spirits couldn't even be dampened that the two teams with Japanese riders, Skil Shimano and Bouygues Telekom, had the two worst times. I was quite thrilled that the two teams powered by Americans, Astana and Garmin Slipstream, had the two best times.

Five years ago at the team time trial that finished at Blois, that I rode with Florence and Rachid, Lance narrowly took the yellow jersey from American Dave Zibrieski by less than a second. This year he just missed taking the yellow jersey by 22 hundredths of a second. For Lance and race aficionados it was of no consequence. But for the "New York Times" and the media all over the U.S. and in other non-cycling nations, Lance in yellow would have been front page news.

As I sat watching the big screen for all three hours of the day's racing action, Tony the Frenchmen stumbled upon me. "Do you remember me?" he asked. "Of course," I said, "You're the artist driving the van painted with caricatures of racers. I was hoping I'd see you again." He said he'd skipped the two Monaco stages and just joined the race yesterday. He lives in the north near the German border.

On the drive down he scouted out Mont Ventoux, looking for a place to park his van on the road up the mountain on race day. It was the first time he had been on Ventoux and anticipated there would be great competition for parking places. He plans to follow the entire race. He'd also followed the Giro earlier this year. "Do you know Rudy?" he asked, "The American with the long horns who runs along side the racers with an American flag. I met him at the Giro. He's a nice guy. You'd like him." I've seen him on television, but had yet to encounter him at The Tour, unlike The Devil, who I encounter nearly every stage. But he's easy to spot as he paints pitch forks on the road just before his position.

There were young women walking around selling Livestrong yellow wrist bands. Tony said they were giving them away at the Giro. My friend Funky came up with the idea of a georgethecyclist wrist band I could give away. He did some research and learned I could get a thousand of them for 540 dollars. I do enjoy tossing items I don't want from the caravan to people along the road. That seems enough for now.

The Tour's 24-page daily newspaper that the caravan distributes has a story each issue on some Tour follower. The stage five issue had a story on Skippy the Australian. Its taken them twelve years to discover him. The story said he has become as much a part of The Tour as The Devil. That is a bit of an exaggeration. Tyler Farrar, Garmin's ace sprinter who has finished second to Cavendish twice so far in sprint finishes, writes a periodic diary for the website. Earlier this year he made a passing reference to Skippy. That piqued someone's interest out there in the Internet universe to google "Skippy the Australian." The only other reference that turned up besides Tyler's was one I made on my blog at last year's Tour.

I was hoping to make it to the feed zone to watch stage five, but was ordered off the course twenty kilometers before I reached it by a battery of overly autocratic gendarmes on the outskirts of a small town. I could have sneaked further on, but since I would be leaving The Tour route at that point and didn't need to get as far down the course as possible, I just stayed where I was. I pushed my bike for several blocks to the center of the town, just a little ways from a rowdy band of 25 young musicians, mostly with horns, dancing and belting out lively music almost without pause for a couple of hours. Their revelry was a mini-version of Dutch corner on L'Alpe d'Huez, but without the alcohol. I was humming one of their tunes for hours afterward as I continued on.

I had to make a complete circle around the town of Trebes before I could find a bar with a television to watch the stage five finish. I was desperate enough to stop at the PMU bar that only shows horse racing to ask if they knew where I might find a bar with a television. The bar tender looked at his watch and observed that it was five p.m., "arrivée" time and that I was too late. But it had been another windy day, so I figured the peloton would be late, though I hoped by less than an hour this time. They suggested I try a bar down along the canal that ran through the town.

The first place I tried had no television, but they said the next bar did. They were right and it was tuned to The Tour. In the upper left hand corner of the television it said there were seven kilometers to go and the breakaway group had a 51-second advantage on the peloton. Since a hard charging peloton gains about ten seconds a kilometer in the final stretch, they were doomed to be caught. But miraculously not this time.

Thomas Voeckler, the most popular French rider largely thanks to the ten days he spent in yellow in 2004 by the grace of Lance, was one of the four breakaway riders. He made a tremendous surge that no one responded to with five kilometers to go, trying to make a heroic effort to stay away. And he managed to by seven seconds, perhaps by the grace of the Cavendish's Columbia team. It is good for The Race to let a French rider win an occasional stage and especially a rider as popular as Voeckler.

Voeckler crossed the line in shocked disbelief and was almost immediately swallowed up by the flying peloton charging at a much faster speed than he was riding. Cavendish didn't even win the sprint, finishing third over all, just behind a non-entity, and then followed by Farrar. Cavendish had been making it look easy in his two previous sprint wins. This gives some hope that he isn't totally invincible.

Today's sixth stage ought to finish in a sprint in Barcelona. Tomorrow is when the race truly begins with a mountain top finish in Andorra. In interviews after the stage four team time trial Lance spoke frankly saying The Tour was over for several of the favorites even before the race had reached the mountains. "I won't name names," he said, "But they know who they are." And so does anyone with half a cycling brain. Evans and Menchov are completely out of it, and Sastre nearly so. Astana has a decent chance for a podium sweep now, unless Andy Schleck can sneak in.

Friday will tell if Lance can keep up with Contador in the mountains. I'll find some bar where I'll be for several hours hanging on to every moment of the action.

Later, George

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