Friends: For the first time in my six years of following The Tour I ended up watching a stage on a television set I had once before watched The Tour on--in the campgrounds at St. Cyprien.
I thought I might be watching it in Julie's recently renovated centuries old house overlooking the small town, but when the crew showed up at Julie's house the day before to install a satellite dish, the street in front of her house was being repaved. The cable guys didn't want to set their ladder up in the tar or lug their equipment an extra distance, since they couldn't park their truck as close as they would otherwise, and said they'd come back next week.
Even though St. Cyprien has a sizable ex-pat population, it doesn't have a bar with a television. I learned that two years ago when The Tour passed through the town. I was lagging behind the riders that day and hadn't made it to the finish line before they did, so I was in search of a television. Julie was in Michigan that summer tending to her store in Harbor City. I tried several bars and even a large department store that sold televisions. All the televisions in the store were playing DVDs, as they weren't hooked up to cable. I was getting frantic enough to start knocking on doors of any house that had a bicycle out front to ask if they were watching The Race when I noticed a sign to a campgrounds. Campgrounds occasionally have TV rooms, so I made a dash for it. As I approached the reception office a sign saying "television" on a building beside the swimming pool caught my eye. The room was packed with Tour followers who just a couple hours before had seen the peloton pass through St. Cyprien. That was the closest I have cut it to missing a finish, arriving at my finish line less than two minutes before the peloton reached theirs.
I was happy to return to that place of triumph, though we could have tried a television in the house of a friend of Julie's who was out of town. Julie had earlier failed to figure out how to get the television to work. I'm not so adept at such things myself, so declined to even attempt it. Another friend said he knew a bar in a nearby town had a television if the campground didn't work out.
The campground this year was nearly deserted. No one was in the swimming pool nor was anyone in the TV room. But we had no problem figuring out how to turn it on or to find The Tour channel. We arrived with nearly 90 minutes left in the stage as the peloton was climbing a category one mountain. There was a breakaway up the road with no threats to the leaders, so they were content to ride at tempo led by the Astana team over the climb.
The day before had been a mountain top finish that allowed Contador to show his climbing prowess and sprint away from everyone and to beat Lance's group by enough to move ahead of Lance by two seconds. He missed taking the yellow jersey by six seconds as Rinaldo Nocentini, a relatively unknown Italian rider on the French AGR2 team, had been in the breakaway that gained enough time on the field to take the lead. Contador would have loved to assume the yellow jersey, but it relieved his Astana team of the responsibility of having to defend it. Nocentini is no threat to keep the jersey, so for the team's sake, it worked out for the best, though it would have earned them a few extra dollars and some early glory.
The climb to the finish in Andorra wasn't steep enough for any dramatics other than Contador's surge. The most exciting racing of the day and of The Tour so far was Cancellera in the yellow jersey flying down the backside of a category one climb on Friday trying to catch up to the peloton after suffering a flat tire. It took him nearly 15 minutes. He had to pass all 20 team cars and even more official and press cars and motorcycles at 50 miles per hour. He had several close calls passing cars that the producers played back more than once that were quite harrowing. It was so riveting the producers ignored everyone else in the race and just kept the camera on Cancellera. I was glad I had gotten to a bar three hours before the stage finish to have caught this action, even though the rest of the day's racing was a disappointment.
I didn't stay overnight in St. Cyprien as I have quite a race myself to meet up with Jesse and crew Thursday afternoon. I have 500 miles to ride in four-and-a-half days. I was able to knock off 40 miles Saturday evening after the race finish and my afternoon with Julie. It would have been nice to spend more time with Julie, but we at least had enough time to plot a ride to Cannes and the film festival together next May from St. Cyprien, a 300-mile ride.
From my campsite in a hay field last night it was 55 miles to Limoges, start of Tuesday's Bastille Day stage. The racers will fly from today's stage finish in Tarbes into Limoges tonight. Tomorrow will be the first of their two rest days. I will be getting a head start on them down the course. If I'm not too far ahead I might encounter a few of the teams getting their rest day exercise scouting the next day's route.
This will be the 14th time that Limoges has been a Ville Etape. It is a large city, but I still had a challenge finding an open bar in its center with a television on a Sunday afternoon. One I tried was showing a Formula One car race and didn't want to switch the channel. I nearly went back to the tourist office to ask where I might find a bar after ten minutes of wandering, but then succeeded at a billiards hall. The Tour was on and several guys were watching. I arrived just as the peloton was taking on The Tourmalet, the most legendary climb in the Pyrenees, and the most climbed mountain in Tour history. I was near its summit last year when the peloton passed, the second time I had climbed it, so didn't overly regret not being there amongst the hoards of fans.
Once again there was a breakaway several minutes up the road. No one in the group was a threat to the race leaders, Contador and Lance and company, so this was another stage of lack luster racing. There will be a couple of mountain top finishes later that the main contenders are biding their time for. It may all come down to The Ventoux two weeks from yesterday.
I've had a wonderful several days of riding through the glorious French countryside without having to worry about gendarmes ordering me off the road, though I am looking forward to being back on The Tour route with all its energy and enthusiasm. In whatever form, France offers the ultimate in cycling, whether past gung-ho Tour fans or in the tranquility of quiet country lanes through majestic arcades of plain trees and past luxuriant rows of meticulously groomed vineyards or past acres and acres of impossibly bright yellow, almost blindingly so, sunflower plants gazing unblinkingly upon me and past miles of unfenced fields of golden grains and patches of forest often on a narrow ribbon of asphalt encroaching as little as possible upon nature's kingdom, but without peril from the passing traffic.