Friends: I spent 50 miles biking off The Tour route between the end of stage two and the start of stage three, thirty miles Sunday night, then twenty miles Monday morning. I rejoined the course at 9:15 yesterday morning about 25 miles north of Marseille.
It is one of life's great moments to see an official Tour course marker up ahead, especially after having not seen one for so many miles. It means I can relax, back in their safe care, knowing that I no longer have to worry about finding my way. And even better, I can revel in anticipation of the many bike- and Tour-related works of art erected by fans along the route and the many signs celebrating and welcoming The Tour. It was a bit tricky negotiating my way through the sizable city of Aix-en-Provence in the morning rush hour without the help of those course markers. I let my intuitions and the map guide me. I stopped three times to confirm I was headed in the right direction. Not once did I have to backtrack or alter my direction.
Shortly after I returned to the course I came upon a cemetery, my first chance that day to fill my water bottles and do a little wash. I was sorry Vincent was no longer with me, as I hadn't had a chance to introduce him to cemeteries as a water source, though I had told him all about them. There hadn't been a single one in the hundred miles we biked together. Instead, we had to rely on town water spigots to refill our water bottles and to splash water upon us. There had been an adequate number of those, one even with a pair of continually running spouts, one for each of us.
Even if Vincent hadn't broken a spoke and run out of energy, he needed to depart The Tour, as his panniers were approaching the bursting point from all the Tour souvenirs he had gathered from the caravan. He only had rear panniers. He was envious of my extra pair on the front, not only for carrying capacity but also for balancing the weight. He claimed his bike was too wobbly with all the weight in the rear to stand on the pedals for extra effort when climbing, making it much more difficult for him.
Another stage of gathering caravan booty would have done in his panniers, and perhaps his legs too, as he couldn't restrain himself from gathering whatever came his way, as he had four bicycle-crazy sons back home to appease. He was happy to take everything I gathered as well, and I was happy to let him have it, as I too can't resist all the bounty, though I hardly needed any. Among his load is a knife for each of his sons. As anyone who has seen "Crocodile Dundee" knows, Australians have a thing for knifes. When Vincent discovered a small wooden-handled knife that most French men carry around, he had to get one for himself and his sons. He said it was a minor challenge to find them as he doesn't speak a word of French and gets by at first trying English, which rarely works, then pantomime.
I was hoping to make it to the feed zone 64 miles into the Stage Three route, but I was halted a couple miles before it at the summit of the second of the day's two categorized climbs just outside the town of Les Baux-de-Provence, the town where bauxite was discovered. I had visited this quaint tourist town of narrow cobbled streets atop a hill a couple of years ago, and well-remembered its spacious town toilet with sinks by the parking lot on its outskirts.
It wasn't an entirely bad place to be prematurely halted, as the easily accessible water source gave me an opportunity to soak my shirt and fill my water bottles with cool fresh water. Later on, I was especially happy I had been halted here, as a woman brought me a heaping plate of slices of pizza that was more than her group could eat. I had been sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against a wall at the road's edge eating a bowl of yogurt with cornflakes. She must have taken pity on me when she next saw me haul out a loaf of bread and peanut butter. Before I could begin making sandwiches she came over with the pizza. It was a great feast, perhaps my best feed of the trip.
I ended up having a three-and-a-half hour rest, as the peloton was an hour late in arriving, slowed by the heat and the winds. They were due at three and didn't arrive until four. That lost hour of riding time wasn't as disastrous as it could have been, as the next day was the short team time trial around the city of Montpellier 20miles beyond the town where stage three ended. It was a rare occasion when I didn't need to get as far down the road as possible that night. I only needed to get to Montpellier by early afternoon the next day, and then park myself at the finish line of the 25-mile loop around the western side of the city. If the next day had been the typical 120-mile stage, I would have been peeved by the peloton's lassitude, as I generally need every moment of daylight to be on my bike trying to keep up.
Still, I was exasperated when twice after I was able to resume riding after the peloton passed, the gendarmes wouldn't let any traffic, even bicyclists, continue on The Tour route. Immediately after the summit, we were all absurdly rerouted down an alternate road. It would have taken me ten miles out of my way if I had continued on it, so after half a mile I took a side road back to the official route, re-entering it half a mile from the point where I had been evicted. Only one other cyclist dared to attempt such a tactic. He rode a bit ahead of me and was halted by a lone gendarme when we reached the intersection. While the gendarme was occupied with the cyclist, I zipped on past him without eliciting a shout or a whistle from the gendarme. It was clear sailing for several miles until I came to another set of gendarmes blocking the route, making everyone take a detour. I tried not to fume too much, as I know these delays inevitably work to my advantage, almost as if they had been planned by some supervising power looking after me. I just wondered what it would be this time.
The second detour cost me about three miles. Less than an hour later, as I approached the large city of Arles, the city where Van Gogh was institutionalized after cutting off his ear, a Japanese cyclist caught up to me. I had noticed him in Monaco, as he was wearing a flamboyant Rock Racing jersey. He wasn't riding that much faster than I was, so I was able to tag along with him into Arles, where he had parked his car. Like Skippy, he is following the Tour via bike and car. But he only had time for the first four stages. He was here because there are two Japanese cyclists competing in The Tour.
Only two other Japanese in the past have ridden The Tour, the last in 1996. Neither of them completed it. The first lasted only one stage in 1926 and 1927. The guy 40 years later lasted for 13 stages. He said the two Japanese cyclists in this year's Tour are getting a lot of attention back in Japan. They have been featured in the press here as well. One of the Japanese rides for the French Bouygeus Telekom team and speaks French fluently. He was among the handful of riders interviewed on stage in Monaco at the team presentation.
I wouldn't have met this fellow if I hadn't suffered those delays. But even better was joining up with an official Tour truck with "Frequent Stops" on its back just as we entered Arles. I hoped it was following the Tour route and could lead me through the city if I could keep up with it. I was thrilled to see a course marker ahead that hadn't been plundered, also indicating I was on course. I had already nabbed one just outside of Baux for Christian Vande Velde and was going to grab this one as well, even though it meant the sacrifice of my potential escort. But as I approached it, the official Tour vehicle stopped and a guy jumped out, snipped the wire band holding the sign in place and tossed it in the truck. That was a shock. I had been under the assumption that The Tour officials didn't care about the course markers since so many campers and cars have them in their back window. This was the first evidence I had ever seen that they are indeed contraband of a sort, as I initially thought at my first Tour.
Though I was disappointed not to be able to add this marker to my collection, I was happy that the occasional pauses this truck would make to retrieve whatever markers still remained would help me keep pace with it. If I'd had to figure out my way through this highly congested city, it would have been a major headache and I would have lost considerable time. There were a few other larger course makers at the entry to roundabouts indicating which artery to take out of it that no one seems to care about that the truck stopped for, and a few more arrows as well.
The course went through the very heart of the city, but then took a sharp turn down a narrow side street that I never would have guessed had been The Tour route. As we exited the city we came to another roundabout with a pair of signs preceding it that the truck had to stop for. Up ahead were two arrows in the middle of the roundabout. While the officials were retrieving the preceding signs I had the chance to grab the markers in the roundabout if I were quick about it. I wondered if that would irk those guys and might provoke a tussle.
I wasn't hiding the sign I had lashed atop my gear. They could have hopped out and demanded it on those occasions when I passed them as they were taking down a sign, but they didn't. It might have been a different story with a sign still in place that they were gunning for. I feared that if I were so belligerent to plunder a sign they were closing in on, they might demand back the one I already had, so I let those ahead be.
Earlier in Monaco, I had seen for the first time in my six years of following The Tour the crew that goes out to set up the signs a day ahead of time. I was sitting outside a supermarket on the outskirts of the city at 8:45 Saturday morning waiting for the supermarket to open. A pair of vans stopped in front of me and a guy leaped out and mounted a sign on a post right in front of me faster than I could react to grab my camera or even to leap to my feet to peer inside the vans to see their stacks of arrows or to ask the guys any of the many questions I've had about how they decide where to put up the signs and how many they go through in a Tour and if they've ever made a mistake and on and on.
The much larger truck taking them down wasn't the first escort I've had this year. Leaving Brinoles after the stage two finish I slipped in with a single file line of 30 motorcycle gendarmes riding through the mobs of fans leaving the city clogging the streets. They were slowly edging along at little more than ten miles per hour, but they were the only moving vehicles. I was right in the middle of the file as if I were some potentate being giving an escort.
If I hadn't had the escort through Arles I might have stopped to watch the final hour of the stage on a large screen television set up in a plaza. But there didn't promise to be any real action to watch until the final couple of kilometers as the sprinters set up for the final mad dash to the line. But I had a hard ride of nearly 15 miles to the next town where I could find a bar and television. I was cutting it very close to make it there by six when I expected the stage to finish.
As it was, I arrived just as a breakaway group was going under the four kilometer to go arch. I was shocked to see Lance in the lead pushing it and that he was part of a group of about 20 cyclists that were 40 seconds ahead of the main bunch. I wondered how that had happened and who all was in the lead group. Someone at the bar explained that the break had occurred about ten minutes previously. It was an audacious and opportunistic move by Lance that moved him up to third place from tenth and ahead of his teammates Contador and Leipheimer, who hadn't been paying attention and were caught behind. The sports newspaper "L'Equipe" observed after the opening time trial, Lance is here to race and not as a "cycling tourist." He proved it once again. I don't care for disparaging remarks about touring cyclists, but I could accept their metaphor, even though they have no idea what effort it takes to be a touring cyclist following The Tour.
Lance is 40 seconds behind the yellow jersey. He has an outside chance to make up that difference in the team time trial later today. It will add a very large extra element of suspense to the day. I am eager to get over to the finish line and park myself in front of the large screen for all of the day's action. The course is just 25 miles long. The winning time will be around 40 minutes. The first of the 20 teams will set out at 2:30, in two-and-a-half hours. They will go off at seven minute intervals.
When the stage finishes I have 20 miles to ride to the start of tomorrow's stage. I will skip the next four stages as the peloton heads to Spain and the Pyrenees, as there is a huge transfer of over 200 miles after Sunday's stage. I will begin heading north to Limoges tomorrow, rejoining The Race route on stage ten. My ride to Limoges will take me through St. Cyprien, where I can visit my friend Julie who joined me at L'Alpe d'Huez last year. She is great traveler and touring cyclist herself, a person with a rare questing spirit, not one paralyzed by lethargy or the fear of venturing from her safe little cocoon. I would gladly bicycle miles out of my way to meet up with her.