Sunday, July 19, 2009

Pontarlier, Ville Départ

Friends: I had expected to be biking luggage-free the past three days, but I failed to connect with Jesse at Vittel. But if I'd been accompanied by a support vehicle, I might not have spent too much time on the bike these last three stages, as it has been raining most of the time, and I would have missed out on some fine riding and more exceptional experiences.

I was able to watch the final ten miles of yesterday's fourteenth stage at a portable roadside tavern with Stella Artois on tap. There was a small television at the bar with a crowd standing in front of it. I'd had a great hour's ride after the peloton had passed me, scavenging three course markers and four water bottles. Two of the bottles were from teams I hadn't collected over the years, Caisse d'Epargne and Liquigas, and another was a bright orange Euskatel bottle that is among my favorites.

It was turning into a great day, even though earlier in the day I was soaked and shivering, with hypothermia nipping perilously close. It was cold enough that I was wearing a long sleeve shirt for the first time in days along with a sweater and vest under my Gore-tex jacket. But that was barely enough to keep me warm, as my bare, soaked legs were allowing more body heat to escape than I could retain with my multiple layers on my torso. I was fully prepared to stop at any moment to set up my tent along the road and crawl into my sleeping bag to warm up.

In rural France on a Saturday, one simply doesn't find warm spots to retreat to. I thought I was in luck in one town when I passed by its Mediatheque, a fancy name for a library. I was due to send out a report anyway. But a sign on its door said it was closed due to the Tour de France passing by. I came close to stopping several times in search of warmth when I started becoming uncomfortably cold, but each time the rain dissipated just long enough for me to recover, before reinflicting its punishment. By mid-afternoon after I had been halted in a medium-sized town, the rain relented for more than a few minutes and blue patches appeared above. I had been cowering under the awning of a small shop, while all about me the road was lined with people under umbrellas and ponchos. The pavement dried and I could later even stop and do some wash.

Stages 13 and 14 into and out of Colmar have been along the German border. There is more of a German flavor to the environs than French. Many of the towns end with "heim" (German for home)--Wintzenheim, Pfaffenheim, Ungersheim. People along the road shout "Hup-hup" rather than "allez-allez." The television at the beer stand was tuned to the German broadcast. The commentators were much more restrained than the French.

George Hincapie was in a 12-man break eight minutes up on the peloton. The German announcers seemed to take as much delight in rolling "Hincapie" off their tongues as do the French announcers. They blurted out his name almost exclusively. I didn't realize it was because he was far enough ahead of the man in yellow back in the peloton that he was the virtual leader of the race and would inherit the coveted jersey if the break could hold its time advantage.

It wasn't until he crossed the finish line and there was a brief interview with him in English that I learned he could assume the sacred yellow jersey if the peloton finished five-and-a-half minutes after his group. But the peloton managed to chase back just enough time to keep the yellow jersey on the back of the Italian who has worn it the past week, though by just five seconds. Hincapie moved up to second, just ahead of Contador and Lance. That will all change today with a mountain top finish in Switzerland.

As I walked back to my bike, a tall lanky guy in his 30s followed me and asked if I spoke English. He was attracted by my panniers and asked how it was following the Tour as a touring cyclist. He had been following the Tour the past five stages since Limoges with a car and bike, he said. After several minutes he divulged he was the guy who chases alongside the peloton wearing a football helmet with the horns of a Texas longhorn steer while brandishing a large flag, sometimes the American flag and sometimes the Texas state flag.

I'd been eager to meet this guy ever since first seeing him on television and in magazines and newspapers a few years ago, but had never spotted him out along the road. He is the American version of The Devil, though unlike The Devil, he isn't perpetually in costume. The Devil is such a fanatic he wears his costume when he flies to races that he can't drive to. He causes quite a commotion if the airline personnel don't know who he is when he tries to walk on with his pitchfork.

The "Longhorn Steer Man," also known as "Antler Man," depending on what costume he's wearing, introduced himself as Dore Holt. He had done his routine several miles back on a steep climb. He always selects a steep climb, enabling him to somewhat keep up with the racers. He said he's good for 80 meters or so and that he warms up for an hour just before the racers arrive. He had stumbled upon this outdoor bar with a television, just as I had.

Like The Devil, Dore has a sponsor, the Rudy Project, an Italian company that makes sun glasses. His costume has "Rudy" on it. A French guy, who met him at the Giro this year and was telling me earlier in The Tour what a nice guy he was, thought that was his name. Before Dore revealed who he was, I never would have guessed I was talking to the "Longhorn Steer Man." He was a surprisingly normal guy, not the wacko I suspected he might be. He lives in Seattle and works for Boeing. His first Tour was in 2002 when he was laid off by Boeing and given a nice severance. He is back with Boeing now.

He was inspired by The Devil and Lance's book "It's Not About the Bike." He's on good terms with the premier Tour photographer, Graham Watson, who likes his photogenic image ambling along behind the racers with flag afurl. Watson's latest coffee table book of photos features two of Dore. He has three costumes--a football helmet with long steer horns honoring Lance, a helmet with elk antlers honoring Leipheimer, and the most recent addition, a helmet adorned with an eagle honoring fellow Washingtonian, Garmin's ace sprinter, Tyler Farrar, the first person from Washington to compete in The Tour.

We talked for nearly an hour. Only once has he gored someone with his horns. It was Lance's chef. Dore was waiting to meet Lance for the first time before the start of the final stage of the 2002 Tour into Paris, when he turned his head and just barely nicked the chef below his eye. He said if he ever seriously injured someone, that would be it for him. He had missed the last three Lanceless Tours, though in the interim he has followed the Spanish Vuelta and this year's Italian Giro. He had never acquired a Tour course marker, so I gave him one of those I had just scavenged. He said he plans to start a website so people can keep up with him. He is a fanatic football fan too. He considers Austin, home of the University of Texas and its great football team, as well as Lance, a holy site. I look forward to meeting up with him again. He has a fascination with Japan too and was excited to learn I had biked there as well.  He was eager to go to my blog and read about my impressions of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Later, George

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