Thursday, July 30, 2009

Montereau-Fault-Yonne, Ville Départ

Friends: With my arrival in Montereau-Fault-Yonne, starting point for the final stage of this year's Tour, about 50 miles outside of Paris, I have now ridden all or part of 16 of the 21 stages of this year's race, not as good as last year's 20 of 21, but right around my average these past six years.

This year's route was particularly heavy on transfers from stage finishes to the next day's start, so much so I was wondering if the course had purposely been designed to thwart anyone from trying to follow The Race by bicycle. The gendarmes sure seemed to be in on the conspiracy, as they were extra fierce this year in harassing me. One cop in a car ordered me off the course several minutes after the peloton and all the team cars and official vehicles had passed, including the final vehicle with "Fin de Course". As soon as that "Fin de Course" vehicle passed, I hopped on my bike and headed down the road. That's always been accepted policy. But not by this cop. He told me I had to wait 15 minutes before I could continue on. And he actually expected me to sit there and look at my watch and count down the minutes before proceeding. If he'd been serious, he could have called over to a nearby gendarme to quarantine me, but he just sped off. After giving my neck a rub I took off after him.

The Race's final transfer from Mont Ventoux to here was by far the longest, some 400 miles, possibly a record. The total number of transfer miles this year increased the course's official distance of 2,100 miles by nearly 50 percent. There was another transfer of over 200 miles before the first rest day, and several in excess of 50 miles. No one likes them except those who are pocketing the fees from the city that paid for the privilege of being a Ville Etape.

While the peloton was whisked by TGV train after competing its climb of Ventoux, I remained faithful to my bike. I nearly resorted to alternate means of transportation this year for the first time, but I never managed to meet up with Jesse and his car-driving posse. I wasn't disappointed at all to be saved from being transported by car. It no doubt would have been exasperating as hell trying to coordinate the desires of five others--deciding on meeting points and camp sites and getting food and how many miles to ride each day and when to set out. I might have destroyed a computer keyboard or two pounding out the tales of that experience. It would have enabled me to ride more miles of the actual race route, but at what cost I can't say. I was interested in sharing the exaltation of several first-timers to The Tour, as well as teaming up with Jesse once again, back for his third. Maybe next year with a little more advanced planning it will happen.

I arrived in Montereau with five photos remaining in my old-fashioned, non-digital camera, hoping the town would have enough bike art and celebrations of The Tour still standing to finish off my roll. At the roundabout outside of town were a couple of mannequins covered in greenery straddling bikes in a flower bed. That was photo number one. Many of the shop windows were still adorned with bikes and such, but none exemplary enough for a photo. I'll have to hope for some worthy bike and Tour acknowledgements as I follow the route towards Paris.

I have been negligent in photographing any of the road graffiti this year. There was an abundance on Mont Ventoux, as many people arrived a couple days early to secure a spot and had plenty of time to decorate the road. A fan of English rider Bradley Wiggins was quite busy writing "Wiggo" on steep turns and "15 Seconds," the amount of time he needed to make up his deficit on Lance for third place.

People with causes take advantage of the opportunity to convey their message to the thousands of people that will be traveling The Tour route and watching it on television. On Ventoux someone had frequently written "Non Au Parc." Someone else had come along and added "Fig" to the "Non," turning it into "Fignon," a French two-time winner of The Tour in the 1980s who was diagnosed with cancer just before this year's Tour. If the local authorities do not approve of someone's political message they send out a crew with black paint to paint over it.

One of the biggest hits of this year's Tour, along with the crew passing out the Bouygues Telecom jerseys, was a couple of Nike vans passing out packets of three sticks of thick yellow chalk several hours ahead of the official publicity caravan. It gave those early arrivals something to do. Few though were using it to write exhortations to Lance.

My biggest prize was finding two Liquigas team water bottles along the road, bottles I had been on the hunt for, as they were one of the few team water bottles I had never found in my years of following The Tour. They are a distinctive mellow green. That will be my bottle in the airport and on the plane tomorrow as I fly back to Chicago. It is an eye-catcher that will mean something to any racing fan. Liquigas is an Italian company, but any racing fan knows that it sponsors a Tour team. Liquigas had an exemplary Tour, with one rider finishing in the top ten and another winning the climber's red polka dot jersey.

Usually the rider wearing the polka dot jersey goes red polka dot crazy, putting red polka dots wherever he can, on his gloves, his helmet, his shorts, his socks, his sun glasses, his bike, his teeth. When Pellizotti took possession of the jersey he surprisingly continued to wear his green Liquigas shorts, as if he was being faithful to his sponsor. It was quite a surprise, as Pellizotti, like any Italian, is extremely fashion conscious. The green shorts clashed quite garishly with the red polka dot jersey. But he was just waiting until he received a repainted red polka dot bike before he went with the red polka dot shorts and gloves and all else.

"Cycle Sport," an English monthly, will no doubt have an array of snide remarks about Pellizotti in polka dots, probably wondering why he didn't polka dot his long curly hair as well. Hardly an issue passes that it doesn't ridicule his hair. A glance at the photos of the magazine's staff explains why, as they are all follicly challenged. Hair is not the only thing they are short on. Integrity is another. They continually deride Lance, though when he announced his return to cycling they put him on their cover three straight months. They know what sells on the news stand.

If there were an English Better Business Bureau I would unleash them on the magazine. Last July it published a letter-to-the editor of mine and named it the letter of the month, the "Star Letter," earning me a 160 dollar Fiz-ik saddle. I'm still waiting to receive it despite repeated assurances from Nicole in marketing and deputy editor Edward Pickering, that they were about to send it. I finally told Ed that he could hand deliver it to me in Monaco at The Tour start. He said he wasn't attending The Race this year, and didn't care to entrust the mission to a minion. Instead, he said he would send me a bunch of racing DVDs and energy bars and maybe a skeleton he had hanging in a closet, not exactly the saddle I had been promised, but at least something. That was over a month ago and still nothing.

Lance has brought back so much more attention to the sport, dramatically increasing television ratings and no doubt magazine sales, maybe the "Cycle Sport" staff will finally be in a mood to live up to their promises. Ed will be hearing from me again soon. If anyone else would like to raise this issue with him, his email address is edward_pickering@ipcmedia.com.

Green was a theme of this year's Tour for me, not only scoring a pair of green Liquigas water bottles and the battle for the Green jersey between Cavendish and Hushovd, but also discovering an emerald green mint drink served in French bars--menthe à l'eau. It is a combination of mint syrup with water. It is as refreshing as it is pleasing to regard. Some bars serve it with a quarter glass of syrup and a bottle of ice cold water on the side. It is a traditional French drink that would immediately win the favor of any bar tender when I ordered it, indicating that I was somewhat wise to their culture, just as when I would address someone with a "Madame" or "Monsieur" along with "Bonjour." I grew to look forward to a menthe à l'eau. It took a bit of the sting out of having to watch a stage finish in a bar rather than on the jumbo screen at the finish line, as I would much prefer.

Every year I make new discoveries about the French culture and ways. I look forward to all those that await me next year. Next year's race could be the most riveting in years, as Lance will definitely be on a mission. He could surround himself with the most American team ever. Rarely did he have more than one or two fellow countrymen on his team in his seven victories--George Hincapie and someone else. It will be interesting to see if he can entice Hincapie from the Columbia team to rejoin him. It will be interesting, too, if he enlists the services of former teammate Floyd Landis, disgraced winner of the 2006 Tour, who has served out his two-year suspension and is back racing in the U.S. No chance to bring back Tyler Hamilton though, as just a couple months ago he tested positive again for an illegal drug. He's gone for good this time. Lance will no doubt have Leipheimer at his service as well as Chris Horner, one of the great warriors of the peloton, who was tragically left off the Astana roster this year. He will be a demon in Lycra next year. Bring it on.

Later, George

1 comment:

Stan said...

George, thanks for some great reporting on the Tour De France! You made me feel like I was there, experiencing the Tour like real fans do. I used to live in Chicago until 1987 and I am sorry I never ran into you. The Reader article on you was a great read too.