Friends: The most popular person on Mont Ventoux, that stand-alone monster of a mountain in Provence, as an estimated half million fans flocked to its steep and forbidding slopes Saturday, was the man dispensing Bouygues Telecom jerseys, one of five French teams in The Tour.
When I came upon him he was parked two miles below the summit, and two miles above the tree line. The last time I had seen him was at the summit of the Colombiere. There was a neat and orderly line of five or six people at his window awaiting their handout that time. By the time I parked my bike and sauntered over, he was on his way and I missed out.
There was no danger of him escaping me this time though, as his van was surrounded by an ever accumulating swarm of frenzied fans in a panic that he would run out before they got one. They weren't so desperate for a souvenir, but rather for an extra layer to protect themselves from the fierce, coldly biting wind that was ravaging the upper reaches of the mountain.
Even those who came with blankets and coats wanted an extra layer. It was 10:30, six hours before the racers were due. Those who were determined to last until then were already hunkered down in what crevices they could find protected from the wind. I was fully prepared with 50 pounds of gear on my bike, though I had sent home my tights before The Tour began. I still had a wool hat and gloves to go with a sweater and vest and more layers. I hadn't expected such cold though. The day before in Nyons, less than 30 miles from the summit, it was so sweltering hot at the outdoor cafe where I was watching Cavendish win his record tying fifth stage of the race, an overhead misting device sprayed the cafe's patrons every minute or so. I sat as close to the nozzle as I could.
That night though a northerly wind moved it, rocking my tent all night long. It was so strong it was a challenge to dismantle the tent in the morning to keep it from blowing away. As I wound around the back side of the mountain before making the long climb to its summit, I was somewhat protected from the full fury of the wind. I was also helped by a paceline of a trio of three Dutch cyclists. As we climbed higher the road was lined with parked cars and campers on both sides Leaving a passage not much wider than a car's width. There were many, many more people walking than biking clogging the narrow roadway. When the Dutch guys paused I latched onto an older French guy who shouted "attencion, attencion" to clear the way.
Four miles from the summit the forest ends and the landscape becomes lunar. There is a ski chalet and a wide open space where two roads to the summit merge. It was thronged with cyclists and pedestrians trying to decide if they wanted to go higher, or to make this their vantage for the day.
I knew from my last visit to The Ventoux five years ago for the Dauphine-Libere time trial, when Lance finished third behind Iban Mayo and Tyler Hamilton, that there was a water spigot off to the side of the chalet. I feared it could be a half hour wait to fill my water bottles. But only a handful of people knew about it. It was a brutally hot day my last visit. I needed to wear a long sleeve shirt to protect my arms from the intensity of the sun. I was prepared to fill all my water bottles for a long day in the ovenish heat, but on this day I figured four bottles would be enough.
The final four miles to the summit are the mountain's steepest, close to 10 per cent. It was more like 20 per cent into the blast of the wind. A mile from the summit is the memorial to Tom Simpson, the British cyclist who died at that very spot in the 1967 Tour overcome from heat and amphetamines. Nearly everyone who passed paused to mount the dozen or so steps and give a close look to the words on the slab of marble or to place a momento before it, along with the dozens of other items left by fans. I went around the backside and emptied out the small packet of ashes of Joey the Schnauser that I had carried for over 5,000 miles, about as many miles as she had been transported over her life across Iowa doing RAGBRAI on the back of Kathy's bike. I tried to protect them from the wind and place them under a rock, but most were sent flying.
As I neared the summit I peered about for the giant television screen mounted atop the 18-wheeler that transports it. There's not a great amount of room at the summit, so I wondered if it would be there, or if it was, whether the wind would be too strong to put it up. It was not to be seen. I asked an official if it it would come later, but he said it wouldn't. Then I had the dilemma of sitting up there in suspense for hours wondering how the race was unfolding, as the racers approached and then fought their way up the mountain until they emerged from around the bend where the Simpson memorial was for the final mile to the summit.
It was a suspense I did not care to endure, so after lingering at the summit for several minutes finishing off a liter bottle of chocolate milk and sharing the revelry of the swarms of cyclists who had made it to the top, most taking photos of one another, I continued on biking down the backside of the mountain, the third of the three arteries to its summit.
From Ventoux I had 500 miles to bike back to Paris for my flight five days later. It helped to be getting a jump on that, especially since I would initially be battling a strong head wind. I stopped at the town 18 miles away where the press headquarters for the day was set up and found a bar to watch the race. As it had been the last several days, people continually slipped into the bar to check on the race's progress and then was packed for the final 20 minutes of the stage.
France this year was somewhat akin to my experience of bicycling through New England in the fall when the Bosox were in the middle of a pennant race. Baseball was the prime topic of conversation then. The Tour, even without a French rider in contention, had captured the interest of just about everyone, much, much more so than in my five previous Tours. Everyone wanted to know if Lance had it in him to hold on to third place. And he did. Not only did most bars have the race on their televsion, most had that day's "L'Equipe" laying around as well.
Andy Schleck made several accelerations trying to shed Lance hoping that his brother Frank could hang on as he had on the Colombiere, enabling him to surpass Lance and slip into third place, but the only one able to keep up was Contador. Andy would let up, allowing Frank to latch on again, then repeat the process, but brother Frank did not have it in himself this time to keep up and shed Lance. Nor did Lance have the strength to keep up and put further time on Frank or anyone else. The strong head wind helped to neutralize their efforts.
Usually the third and even the second place rider of The Race is long forgotten. This will be a rare Tour when everyone will remember the rider who finished third. And even before this year's race concluded, people began talking about next year's Race when Lance will return with a team of his own sponsored by Radio Shack. It will be one of three American teams in The Tour. Last year was the first time there had even been two. Speculation began flying about who Lance would recruit for his team. There was even talk that he was interested in the Schleck brothers.