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

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mont Ventoux

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.

Later, George

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Aix-les-Baines, France

Friends: Back in his heyday Lance dominated The Tour with his legs. After a three year absence, despite returning with not quite the same dynamite in his legs, he is still dominating The Race, but with his personality and his legend.

After faltering in Tuesday's stage, falling behind the leaders by 30 seconds on a category one climb, but then recovering and rampaging back like the Lance of old to rejoin them before the summit, the front page headline in the next day's "L'Equipe" was "Armstrong does not abdicate."

Yesterday's third and final foray in the Alps on the Tour's most challenging stage with four category one climbs and one category two was a bit much for Lance, as he lost two minutes to Contador and the Schleck brothers, falling to fourth overall. He could regain a podium spot though today in the 25-mile time trial around the unspeakably beautiful alpine Lake Annency. Whether or not he finishes on the podium, he is not dispirited. He has demonstrated he is more than competitive and a force to be reckoned with. He has vowed to return next year in better shape. That's exciting news for all race aficionados. Lance is most definitely an animator in all respects. He lives up to his motto--"Go hard or go home."

I arrived at yesterday's finish in the ski town of Le Grand Bornard by eleven after finishing off the category one Col de Colombiere, 15 kilometers from the finish. I arrived in ample time to find an Internet and file a report, but in this touristy town the only Internet outlet was charging three euros for 15 minutes, way beyond my budget. That's about my limit for one hour of Internet time. Just after I arrived, clouds moved into the valley and a light drizzle began, the fourth mountain stage with rain. It was an off and on rain for several hours, just effecting the early part of the race, causing a few falls, including Menchov turning on a painted line.

The day's broadcast on the huge screen at the finish line began at one o'clock, giving us four-and-a-half hours of virtually uninterrupted racing action. The camera was focusing on Thor Hushovd in the green jersey when the telecast began. My first thought was that he was off the back and in trouble, as he is not a climber. But he was off on a solo breakaway gobbling up a few more intermediate sprint points to sew up the sprinter's jersey.

He was all tuckered out when the peloton hit the final two category one climbs 25 miles before the race finish. The first was the Col de Romme just outside of Cluses. It had never been included in The Tour. It began with a killer grade of better than ten per cent for its first two miles, a steeper start than L'Alpe d'Huez. Sastre attempted to repeat his heroics of last year on L'Alpe spurting ahead, but it was too much for him. The afternoon before it took all my might standing on the pedals to manage the climb. It was just under six miles. There was a four mile dip after its summit to the start of the Col de Colombiere, another killer with an average grade of just under nine per cent. Those back to back at the end of a 100-mile stage would be tougher than Mont Ventoux.

I camped on the descent from the Col de Romme, doing something I rarely do, setting my tent up right alongside the road. If the race had come from the opposite direction, my sliver of turf would have had a couple of RVs already parked on it, but few care to establish a watching point on a descent with the racers flying past at 50 miles per hour. I had camped the previous two nights on narrow ledges just above the road in gorges with a minimum of flat spots. There is so little traffic after dark in the mountains, I didn't have to worry about my sleep being interrupted, and the terrain so steep, there was no worry of deranged wart hogs on the loose.

As I began my day climbing the Col de Colombiere it hardly seemed like a weekday, as there were hundreds of people on foot and on bike flocking to the mountain. As always, it was a thrill to be a part of this throng of devotees, thousands of them gathering for an all day picnic on the mountain. Only official cars were allowed on the road even at that early hour. There were police barricades at the top and bottom of the climb.

The large screen in Le Grand-Bornard was in a semi-graveled parking lot alongside the race course. It was one of the larger viewing areas I've encountered. I tried several different spots for my vantage. I left the first as the exhaust from an idling truck was drifting past. I abandoned my second spot as there was a nearby smoker. Body odor sent me scurrying from my third, before I finally settled on a corner location on a slight rise. I flattened a cardboard box for a dry and soft cushion to sit upon. I was near a booth that was tossing small packages of biscuits to the crowd.

I was hoping to finally connect with Jesse the Texan, but we continue to miss each other. I did run into the English school master though once again, with his son and daughter-in-law. He was as exuberant as ever, thrilled that Wiggins could finish top five.

There was a huge exodus of cyclists from Le Grand Bornard after the finish all flocking down hill to Lake Annency. Once I reached the lake I followed the yellow course markers for the next day's time trial around the top third of the lake before breaking off and heading towards Mont Ventoux. Friday's stage begins 60 miles from Lake Annency, another most unfriendly transfer for me. But I'll make it well before the peloton and be on schedule to reach Saturday's finish atop Mont Ventoux before they do. I'll be content to watch the time trial in a bar later this afternoon.

Later, George

Monday, July 20, 2009

Geneva, Switzerland

Friends: There was simply too much pep in the young legs of Lance's teammate Contador and the Schleck brothers for the old war horse Lance to keep up on the climb to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier and the finish line of the 15th stage of The Tour. Lance has looked painfully hollow-eyed and at his limit whenever there has been any climbing during the previous 14 stages. It was no act, as he once famously hoodwinked Jan Ullrich on L'Alpe d'Huez. Lance needed his German teammate Andreas Kloden to pace him the last few miles, finishing over a minute and a half behind Contador, though holding second in the overall standings. Eight riders finished ahead of him, including Cadel Evans by nine seconds. I couldn't tell if he muttered to Lance as he passed him, "c'est fini," as Lance pronounced of Evans' chances over a week ago.

With Leipheimer out of the race with a broken wrist, the next American to cross the line was Vande Velde, a disappointing 22nd on the day, 2:41 behind Contador. He dropped to 12th in the standings, 3:59 back, his podium aspirations gone. The biggest surprise of the day was his English teammate Bradley Wiggins coming in 4th. He's never been known as a climber. Few are stronger on the flats though. He won two gold medals on the track at the last Olympics. Since then he has lost 25 pounds, making him into a potent climber. He is the surprise of The Tour so far.

An English school master, who I met at last year's Tour and rode several hours with after the Dignes-les-Baines stage, and encountered again this year was thrilled by the result. Wiggins had tossed him his water bottle a few years ago when he was on a long solo breakaway. The school master later had him autograph it. The school master spotted me and my loaded bike along the race route just after the peloton had set out from Pontarlier, a veritable miracle. It was the second stage he had seen this year. He's in a camper once again with his wife. He is headed to Lake Annency and a campgrounds right on Thursday's time trial course around the lake. There are two more stages in the Alps before the time trial. Contador is looking so invincible, the race ought to be decided by then, though anything could happen on Mont Ventoux on Saturday, two days later.

Lance has conceded the obvious and vows to be Contador's domestique for the remaining six stages. The question is if Lance can hold off his teammate Kloden and also if this will be his final race or if he will return next year. Kloden has twice finished on the podium. He has served as a super-domestique for both Ullrich and Vinokourov over the years, pacing them up mountains just as he did for Lance up Verbier, sacrificing his aspirations. Lance did let Kloden sprint ahead at the end to finish a couple seconds ahead of him, securing a fifth overall place in The Race.

As I followed the peloton out of Pontarlier I was on the alert for a "L'Equipe," the French daily sports newspaper, along the road. The caravan is passing out copies this year. It is the most exciting item for me that the caravan has ever dispensed. It is a sports periodical without peer that I occasionally even buy. It reports on The Tour with an incomparable thoroughness and intelligence, devoting up to eight pages an issue to The Race. "L'Eqipe" is owned by the same company that owns The Tour de France--ASO, Amaury Sports Organization.

Since The Race was short on sponsors this year, "L'Equipe" was added to the entourage. I arrived in Pontarlier at eleven, 45 minutes after the caravan had set out and an hour before the official race start. It didn't take me long to find a discarded copy in one of the translucent green plastic trash bags hung along the course route. That gave me plenty of reading material as I watched the last two hours of the stage in an Irish bar in a small ski town.

Unlike most of the other items the caravan gives out, the crew distributing "L'Equipe" looks for adult males to hand them to, rather than children and pretty young women. They do toss out refrigerator magnets indiscriminately, one of the few items I will scramble for. I'm also on alert for the food items--crackers and sausage, and also the pen one sponsor tosses. Quite a few sponsors toss key chains. The only one I'm interested in is one with a yellow jersey with "Rotterdam 2010" on it. Rotterdam will be the start of next year's Tour. That will be a sensational starting point, as the Dutch greatly embrace The Tour, almost as avidly as the Belgians. The Dutch start means a couple of days in Belgium as well. The Tour has skipped Belgium the past two years. It tries to make a visit every other year, just as it does to "L'Alpe d'Huez." The Belgians line the road two and three times as thickly as the French and make a wild, boisterous party of it, often with quite a bit of drinking. The best part of Belgium for me is that the Belgian gendarmes are far more lenient than the French in letting bicyclists continue riding on the course right up to the arrival of the caravan.

The oddest item the caravan is tossing this year is a balloon with a plastic nozzle for inflating and a handful of pebbles inside as a noise maker. That is less obnoxious than the long plastic tubes that people clang together to make noise. One of the most popular items, the red polka dot cycling cap, is slightly different from last year's version, as the Champion supermarket is no longer the sponsor of the King of the Mountain competition. Rather it is Champion's parent company, Carrefour. This year's hat includes the Carrefour emblem among all those red dots.

Later, George

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chaumont, France

Friends: I was camped in a thin strip of a not very thick forest between a quiet country lane and a field of wheat twenty miles into the Limoges-Issourdan stage of The Tour a few nights ago. Even so close to the starting point of the stage a few Tour followers had parked their campers along the road for the night, but none in my vicinity.

When I turned into the forest less than an hour before dark I feared I might have some mosquitoes to contend with, as there were a few puddles of standing water. But none materialized, so I could leisurely set up my tent and forgo its rain fly until just before I went to sleep. If there had been mosquitoes on the attack, I would have immediately added that extra layer to keep them at bay so when I went out for my final ablutions they wouldn't be ready to pounce. With the upper third of my tent a see-through mesh, I could gaze out upon the tranquil, idyllic, setting as I chowed down.

It was mostly a pine forest, so I had a thick bed of fallen needles to sleep upon, promising a good night's sleep. I hope I didn't sleep too soundly and late, what with the sun, my usual alarm clock, blocked by the trees. There didn't promise to be much early traffic on this secondary road that didn't even have a line down its middle. It was a classic Tour road, winding through tiny, sleepy villages that might not have more than a dozen vehicles pass through on a typical day. I had already given The Tour route makers an A plus for this route, first leaving Limoges along the la Vienne River and then climbing up into almost Appalachia country. It was not a road that I would have ever discovered on my own, as it was a faint doodle upon my map.

I was soundly asleep when I was suddenly jarred awake by an all out stampede through the forest of a frantic animal or two. I knew I wasn't dreaming, as I have occasionally experienced such a sound, but usually in the distance, and never so close to my tent. I had no time to wonder how close this sound could come as an instant later an object crashed into my tent at full speed smashing into my shoulder and knocking me over.

I had no idea what had just happened, but I screamed at the top of my lungs out of instant terror and to frighten off my attacker. I thrashed wildly about, not sure if I was being clawed or bitten. After a couple of seconds I realized I was not engaged in hand-to-hand combat with some creature and all was still. I dug out my headlamp to assess the damage. I expected to see a gaping hole in my tent and perhaps a buckled pole, but there was no immediate discernible damage. The worst casualty was my silk sleeping bag liner. My kicking had torn it to shreds.

It seemed so unimaginable that an animal could have plowed into my tent, I thought that maybe a tree bough had fallen on me, but no, that was only wishful thinking. I pondered whether I need be concerned about this assault--had it been a fluke accident or a premeditated attack? My first impression was that a deer had been fleeing for its life, chased by a cougar or some predator and had lept over my tent and his chaser hadn't had time to react and simply collided with my tent.

When I went out to examine the rain fly, I noticed a small six inch rip and a twelve inch diameter wet spot where the animal's head had made contact. There were also two six inch slashes to the inside of my tent. I could detect no odor from the stain. A cougar ought to have been able to make a leap and not hit the tent so low. I wondered if a rogue wild boar had taken issue with my presence and charged me.

I was so jacked up by the assault I couldn't go back to sleep, so I ate some couscous and ravioli left over from dinner that was to be my breakfast. Half an hour later, as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard the prowl of a nearby animal, snorting as if preparing for another charge. My heart froze. I shouted out a few times then dug out my Swiss Army knife as well as my bread and butter knife for spreading peanut butter, one knife for each hand, though I wondered if either could penetrate the thick hide of a boar. I turned on my headlamp and pointed it towards the top of my tent, hoping light might deter this creature. I didn't know whether I should curl in the fetal position to protect myself from the initial charge, or if I should sit upright. As I lay waiting I wondered what other defensive measures I could take. Then I remembered the Kryptonite lock attached to my bike. That would make a good weapon.

The creature ventured off. It was now nearly two a.m. I'd gotten about three hours of sleep when I was initially wakened. If I'd had four or five hours of sleep, or if it had been closer to dawn, I would have simply packed up and started my day early. As it was, it still might be the best idea to clear out of this place and let this animal have his domain to himself. I managed to fall back asleep before long and that was that.

Its been quite a year--attacked along the road in South Africa by a couple of knife-wielding thugs who threatened to kill me and now this. I didn't encounter anyone the next day who could offer any hypothesis as to what animal might have taken issue with me. It was such an out of the ordinary happenstance in terrain much more isolated than I usually find myself, it won't give me much pause in my selection of camp sites, unlike my attack in South Africa that still haunts me. I had a momentary panic attack in Italy when I came around a forested bend in the road and there stood two Africans.

Its easily the most terrifying night I've spent in my tent, though I have had my tent ransacked by a bear in British Columbia and attracted the attention of a wildly barking dog in Chile that brought his owner wielding an ax concerned about what his dog had found. I had a cow butt my tent in the brush in Baja, not knowing what to make of it, then walking around me. I was in quite a sweat on that one, but didn't want to holler and spook a stampede.

My sleep shortened night didn't prevent me from maintaining the 110-mile daily average I've needed the past three days to make it to Vittel in time to meet up with Jesse the Texan. I'm less than 60 miles away. Then will start a new adventure trying to coordinate the riding styles of a couple of others. Our first day together includes two category one climbs.

For three days now I've been riding stages ten through twelve a full day ahead of the peloton. All along the way I've passed villagers on ladders hanging decorations and banners and bikes, often with one person on the ground or off to the side doing the supervising, pointing and saying, "No, not there, over a little bit." I've passed farmers on tractors stacking rolls of hay to form a bike or to be decorated in some manner. There is a great sense of anticipation for the enormity of the next day when their village will be on center stage around the world for a few moments.

I've been surprised to see a few campers already parked along the road, forgoing that day's stage to find a prime spot for themselves. I thought I might have to resort to asking one of them if I could watch the Bastille Day stage on their television, but I miraculously came upon an open bar/restaurant as the stage neared its conclusion. It was an hour away, much earlier than I would normally stop for a flat stage, but I couldn't pass this up. It was more of a restaurant than a bar and had no discernible television. As I gazed about in search of a television and then had to ask, a woman behind a small bar said she would go get one. She put it on a table in the corner of the dining room for my private pleasure.

It was another supremely delightful way to experience The Tour. When it comes to The Tour, the locals are eager to accommodate. This was one of the more memorable of the many places I have viewed a Tour finish these past six years, distinguished not only by its unexpectedness, but also by its novelty. Though my preference would be to reach the stage finish to watch it on the jumbo screen with hundreds of others right there alongside the finishing straight the racers would be flying past on, such unique, out-of-the-way, unexpected viewing spots are especially gratifying. Ah, to be in France, experiencing and participating in The Tour. It doesn't get much better than that.

Though there was no suspense for an hour as the peloton chased down a breakaway of three Frenchman and an Italian, I didn't mind at all gazing upon the riders and the French countryside. Whether on a small or over-sized screen, the French countryside is stunningly beautiful and ever captivating. The aerial views of the lush fields and small villages and forests and historic sites that I have just biked or soon will are a special treat. There is a continued, magnificent variety to the terrain. France has no monotonous plains or deserts. The entire country could be declared a World Heritage site.

Later, George

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Limoges, Ville Départ

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.

Later, George

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cahors, France

Friends: For the second day in a row I found a bar with the television already tuned to The Tour and a small gathering watching. In my previous five Tours, rarely did I find TVs tuned to The Tour when I wasn't on the actual Tour route. Invariably I'd have to ask to have The Tour put on the television and then had it mostly to myself.

But not this year. Once again The Tour has captured the interest of the French. This is the most attention the locals have given it since Lance's early years. After he started winning it so easily, the French no longer cared, especially since there hasn't been a legitimate French contender in almost 25 years. But Lance's return and the rivalry with his teammate Contador have revived the long dormant interest of the casual fan.

During the three years of his absence there were no strong personalities or story lines to attract the casual fan's interest, and in each of those three years The Race was overshadowed by drug stories. Three years ago the three main contenders, Basso, Ullrich and Vinokourov weren't allowed to start because of their link to a Spanish doctor dispensing performance-enhancing drugs and storing bags of racer's blood. Two years ago the race leader Rasmussen was dismissed from The Race with a week to go. And last year the world's best team, Astana, despite having two riders who had finished on the podium the year before, Contador and Leipheimer, wasn't allowed to start because the year before one of the team's rider's, Vinokourov, had been caught blood-doping, even though Contador and Leipheimer weren't on the team at the time.

Last year was also marred by an Italian stage winner and his teammate testing positive for a new strain of EPO during the race, and then after the race two other stage winners, including the winner of the Mountains Competition, were disqualified for using the same drug. Lance referred to last year's Race as "a joke," offending the winner Carlos Sastre and the fourth placed American Christian Vande Velde, and had to apologize for his remarks. So far, this year's Race has been untainted, though a former head of The Tour commented that Lance's return stirred up the drug issue. The French really have it in for Lance, even though he is once again sparking tremendous interest in their Race.

When I walked into the bar the bartender chided me, "You're late. The Race is nearly over." There were 16 kilometers to go, much more than the ten of the day before and the four of the day before that, a solid twenty minutes of racing. David Millar, a veteran British rider who rides for and is a part owner of the American Garmin team, was alone off the front racing through the streets of Barcelona in a drizzle. A guy with "L'Equipe" spread out before him on the bar said he had been part of a four-man 120-kilometer breakaway and that he had left them behind on a climb a few kilometers before.

With ten kilometers to go he had slightly more than a minute lead, not quite enough, as he was gobbled up by the pack with a kilometer to go, even though he still had an 18-second lead at the two kilometer point. He couldn't hold them off for the final two minutes of racing. After several hours of envisioning the utmost glory and instant Tour immortality of winning the stage, all his suffering was in naught.

As I bicycled into Cahors just a little while ago, I met an English guy on a bike who was still thrilled by his Millar's effort, saying there wasn't another rider in the peloton who could have soloed as long as he did under such conditions. The Englishman had just completed the Marmot Tour, a one-day ride over some of The Tour's most famous climbs in the Alps--Glandon, Galibier, Telegraph and finishing on L'Alpe d'Huez. The annual ride attracts several thousand riders. He was an avid Tour fan. He hadn't missed attending The Tour since 1982, when he rode the entire Tour route as I am doing. Since then he's just been able to return for a stage or two. He was wearing a Coors Classic hat, an old American race that he had attended twenty years ago. He said, "All my gear is vintage."

He rode The Marmot wearing a Tom Simpson replica Peugeot jersey. All day long people along the road shouted out "Simpson" and "Thevenet" (who both wore the Peugeot jersey, Simpson up to 1967 when he expired on Mont Ventoux, and Thevenet as a two time Tour de France winner in the early '70s). He was only eight years old when Simpson died on Mont Ventoux, so wasn't old enough to be a fan of his when he was alive. He said that the man who put Simpson back on his bike when he first passed out on Ventoux was a good friend of his fathers.

I would have loved to have watched today's mountain stage with this arch-devotee of the sport, but he said he was obligated to watch it with his wife on a small black-and-white television in their camper with reception that wasn't so good. He'd prefer to watch it in a bar with a large color TV with me, but his wife doesn't think she gets enough attention from him, so he'd committed to being with her on her turf for this stage. They are on their way back to England, but he will return in a week on his own for a stage or two in the Alps. Hopefully, we'll cross paths again.

It could be a bit complicated, as next Thursday I meet up with Jesse the Texan, a triathlete I rode a few stages with last year. Jesse is flying into Geneva with a friend, renting a car and will be following the final ten days of The Tour. Three more of his friends will be joining us later, though not with bicycles. For the first time I'll be able to ride the passes without 50 pounds of gear. I'll also have the chance to get to Paris for the first time for the finish on the Champs Elysees, as we will drive the 400 miles from Mont Ventoux, the stage finish the day before, to Paris.

Its getting more and more exciting, with more and more to look forward to. In less than 24 hours, I get to meet up with Julie for a day in St. Cyprien. She said she is just now having a satellite dish installed on her house so we can watch Saturday's stage through the Pyrenees. Sunday I continue on to Limoges, where I will meet up with the peloton for three stages across the heart of France before they take on the Vosges and the Alps and venture into Switzerland and Italy.

Later, George

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Graulhet, France

Friends: I watched the electrifying team time trial in Montpelier with two friends from stages past--Ikki, the Japanese cyclist I'd met the day before, and Tony, a retired French advertising man I met last year.

Ikki found me about half an hour before the caravan was due to pass. I was sitting in a shady spot eating paté sandwiches about a mile from the finish line, a spot where hardly anyone else had gathered, meaning less competition for the giveaways.

Ikki was eager to track me down to learn more about bicycle touring and my Tour de France experiences over the years. His English was impeccable, as he'd spent four years at LSU studying design. He has his own business designing surf wear and more, but he'd love to be able to devote all his time to his many athletic endeavors and earn a living from them. He was able to attend The Tour as he came to France to compete in the Nice triathlon, which took place a week before The Tour started just ten miles up the road from Nice in Monaco.

Triathlons are just one of his athletic pursuits. He is also a surfer and an endurance runner and now an aspiring touring cyclist. He has climbed Mount Fuji three times, once running to its summit and then running down. He was well aware of the Japanese saying, "He who doesn't climb Mount Fuji once in his life is a fool, but he who climbs it more than once is an even greater fool." He looks forward to climbing it again, proving he is certainly fool enough to become a touring cyclist. He's also run the circumference of Mount Fuji, a magnificent experience he said, gazing upon its breath-taking summit from so many angles.

Even though he was an accomplished and exceptional athlete, he was like a giddy kid cheering on The Tour riders and waving a Japanese flag. It may have been the first time ever that the Japanese flag has been seen along The Tour course. He could well return home as a national hero. After the caravan completed its chores, Ikki and I moved to the jumbo television screen near the finish line. Ikki stood on a guard rail above the crowd at the 150 meter to go mark. Any long shot would have captured him and his rising sun flag.

I preferred to sit in the shade of a PMU truck, sponsor of the sprinter's green jersey, about 20 feet from Ikki and the race course. I'd join Ikki every seven minutes or so when a team came by. Ikki was in such a state of ecstasy his spirits couldn't even be dampened that the two teams with Japanese riders, Skil Shimano and Bouygues Telekom, had the two worst times. I was quite thrilled that the two teams powered by Americans, Astana and Garmin Slipstream, had the two best times.

Five years ago at the team time trial that finished at Blois, that I rode with Florence and Rachid, Lance narrowly took the yellow jersey from American Dave Zibrieski by less than a second. This year he just missed taking the yellow jersey by 22 hundredths of a second. For Lance and race aficionados it was of no consequence. But for the "New York Times" and the media all over the U.S. and in other non-cycling nations, Lance in yellow would have been front page news.

As I sat watching the big screen for all three hours of the day's racing action, Tony the Frenchmen stumbled upon me. "Do you remember me?" he asked. "Of course," I said, "You're the artist driving the van painted with caricatures of racers. I was hoping I'd see you again." He said he'd skipped the two Monaco stages and just joined the race yesterday. He lives in the north near the German border.

On the drive down he scouted out Mont Ventoux, looking for a place to park his van on the road up the mountain on race day. It was the first time he had been on Ventoux and anticipated there would be great competition for parking places. He plans to follow the entire race. He'd also followed the Giro earlier this year. "Do you know Rudy?" he asked, "The American with the long horns who runs along side the racers with an American flag. I met him at the Giro. He's a nice guy. You'd like him." I've seen him on television, but had yet to encounter him at The Tour, unlike The Devil, who I encounter nearly every stage. But he's easy to spot as he paints pitch forks on the road just before his position.

There were young women walking around selling Livestrong yellow wrist bands. Tony said they were giving them away at the Giro. My friend Funky came up with the idea of a georgethecyclist wrist band I could give away. He did some research and learned I could get a thousand of them for 540 dollars. I do enjoy tossing items I don't want from the caravan to people along the road. That seems enough for now.

The Tour's 24-page daily newspaper that the caravan distributes has a story each issue on some Tour follower. The stage five issue had a story on Skippy the Australian. Its taken them twelve years to discover him. The story said he has become as much a part of The Tour as The Devil. That is a bit of an exaggeration. Tyler Farrar, Garmin's ace sprinter who has finished second to Cavendish twice so far in sprint finishes, writes a periodic diary for the website. Earlier this year he made a passing reference to Skippy. That piqued someone's interest out there in the Internet universe to google "Skippy the Australian." The only other reference that turned up besides Tyler's was one I made on my blog at last year's Tour.

I was hoping to make it to the feed zone to watch stage five, but was ordered off the course twenty kilometers before I reached it by a battery of overly autocratic gendarmes on the outskirts of a small town. I could have sneaked further on, but since I would be leaving The Tour route at that point and didn't need to get as far down the course as possible, I just stayed where I was. I pushed my bike for several blocks to the center of the town, just a little ways from a rowdy band of 25 young musicians, mostly with horns, dancing and belting out lively music almost without pause for a couple of hours. Their revelry was a mini-version of Dutch corner on L'Alpe d'Huez, but without the alcohol. I was humming one of their tunes for hours afterward as I continued on.

I had to make a complete circle around the town of Trebes before I could find a bar with a television to watch the stage five finish. I was desperate enough to stop at the PMU bar that only shows horse racing to ask if they knew where I might find a bar with a television. The bar tender looked at his watch and observed that it was five p.m., "arrivée" time and that I was too late. But it had been another windy day, so I figured the peloton would be late, though I hoped by less than an hour this time. They suggested I try a bar down along the canal that ran through the town.

The first place I tried had no television, but they said the next bar did. They were right and it was tuned to The Tour. In the upper left hand corner of the television it said there were seven kilometers to go and the breakaway group had a 51-second advantage on the peloton. Since a hard charging peloton gains about ten seconds a kilometer in the final stretch, they were doomed to be caught. But miraculously not this time.

Thomas Voeckler, the most popular French rider largely thanks to the ten days he spent in yellow in 2004 by the grace of Lance, was one of the four breakaway riders. He made a tremendous surge that no one responded to with five kilometers to go, trying to make a heroic effort to stay away. And he managed to by seven seconds, perhaps by the grace of the Cavendish's Columbia team. It is good for The Race to let a French rider win an occasional stage and especially a rider as popular as Voeckler.

Voeckler crossed the line in shocked disbelief and was almost immediately swallowed up by the flying peloton charging at a much faster speed than he was riding. Cavendish didn't even win the sprint, finishing third over all, just behind a non-entity, and then followed by Farrar. Cavendish had been making it look easy in his two previous sprint wins. This gives some hope that he isn't totally invincible.

Today's sixth stage ought to finish in a sprint in Barcelona. Tomorrow is when the race truly begins with a mountain top finish in Andorra. In interviews after the stage four team time trial Lance spoke frankly saying The Tour was over for several of the favorites even before the race had reached the mountains. "I won't name names," he said, "But they know who they are." And so does anyone with half a cycling brain. Evans and Menchov are completely out of it, and Sastre nearly so. Astana has a decent chance for a podium sweep now, unless Andy Schleck can sneak in.

Friday will tell if Lance can keep up with Contador in the mountains. I'll find some bar where I'll be for several hours hanging on to every moment of the action.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Montpellier Ville Depart/Arrivée

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.

Later, George

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Brinoles, Ville Arrivée

Friends: With the Australian Cadel Evans having finished second in The Tour the past two years and a favorite again this year, Aussie fans are in great abundance. I sat beside a trio of them at the Thursday night presentation of the teams. It was their first Tour. They had rented a car and planned on following the first four stages. They were already overloaded with souvenirs.

Saturday morning, as I was riding ten-mile time trial course that would be contested that afternoon I passed a pack of 25 or 30 Australian cyclists, most of whom were wearing Bikestyle jerseys, an Australian tour company I've encountered the past couple of years and drafted a few times. They were standing alongside the course receiving a briefing from one of their leaders.

A little later I caught up to a touring cyclist of my vintage with rear panniers and tent and sleeping bag piled atop--another Aussie, Vincent. This is first Tour de France and also his first cycling tour. He races, now in the masters class, and had long dreamed of coming to France to follow The Tour. His wife told him to quit talking about it and do it. He wasn't sure if he was really up to it. He had flown into Milan five days before and taken the train to the coast. He was staying at a hostel in Menton, six miles out of Monaco and had hardly done any riding. He was feeling rather homesick and on the verge of returning home, a month before schedule. This was just the second time he'd been out of Australia, the other a family vacation to Bali, just north of Australia. He was a hard working man--a chef and cab driver who had raised four sons. He'd accrued enough vacation time that he had to use it or lose it, so he took this plunge.

He was a true blue Aussie, quickly calling me "mate" and occasionally uttering a "fair dinkum!" when I mentioned something that astonished him. He'd only planned on watching the time trial and the start of the next day's stage leaving Monaco, but I tried to recruit him to join me and at least ride the first stage to tis finish. I told him I planned to get started in a few hours before the time trial started, as watching riders come by every minute or so wasn't all that exciting. Watching them as were now giving it a test was much more interesting. We could get thirty miles or so down the road and then stop at a bar and watch the last 90 minutes of the action. It was only ten o'clock and the time trial didn't start until four. I told him I would position myself at the extreme western end of the course so I could make a quick getaway after the caravan of sponsors had passed two hours before the first rider would set out and not be trapped behind barriers if he cared to meet up with me.

When I took up my position at noon Vincent came over and gave me the good news that he'd join me. The caravan of sponsors began their ceremonial procession and dispersal of trinkets at 1:30. With only 34 sponsors, down from 40, it only took them 35 minutes to go by. There was no reason for Vincent and I to wait two hours for the first racer to pass. We had seen them all out test riding the course. Vincent had seen his hero Evans pass by three times. He'd stationed himself at a corner, and Evans took it sharper each time, nearly sliding out the third time.

Vincent wasn't fully prepared to tour. He was riding one of his back-up racing bikes, rather than a bike designed for touring. He had only two chain rings and only a 28 as his largest ring on his cassette. His tires were narrow, with a 25 on the rear and a 23 on the front. He had considerably less rolling resistance than I and was much faster on the descents. But the climbs were a strain for him. Still, he had so many racing miles in his legs, he knew how to suffer and endure on the bike. He hadn't trained for this, but he was tough enough to hang in there and maintain his good-natured disposition. He was a jolly good riding companion.

We reached the town of Grasse, high above Cannes, right at six as I hoped we would and stopped at the first bar we came to. There were two guys playing pool and a blank large-screen TV. The bar tender kindly put the race on for us. It was a wonderful setting. There was niety minutes of racing to go and about sixty more racers to leave the starting blocks. Surprisingly, Leipheimer and Lance had already raced so we missed seeing them, but none of the other favorites had yet to go. Leipheimer had the best time at that point and Lance the third best, ten seconds behind.

The second to last racer to hit the course was the Swiss Fabian Cancellara riding for Team Saxo Bank, formerly CSC. He blasted the course, winning by a staggering eighteen seconds and catching Denis Menchov, recent winner of the Giro, who had started ninety seconds before him. Cancellera's victory wasn't totally unexpected, as he won the prologue in London two years ago and also the time trial at the last Olympics, but there were doubts that he could win on such a steep course since he is a very big guy.

If Cancellera hadn't had such an exceptional ride, Contador would have won the yellow jersey. But Contador had to be thrilled by his ride anyway, beating Lance by twenty seconds and Leipheimer by ten. Lance still finished tenth and Leipheimer sixth. The other surprises were Evans finishing fifth, a second faster than Leipheimer and also Andreas Kloden, teammate of Lance and Levi and Contador finishing fourth. They are both fine time trialists, but they weren't expected to outdo Lance and Levi. Astana had four riders in the top ten, quite an achievement. It was nice to be able to share all the excitement with Vincent, as he is a very knowledgeable fan. All four of his grown sons raced, so it is deeply ingrained in his blood. We have an exciting three weeks of racing to look forward to, though we probably won't share much more of it together after tomorrow.

We left the bar at 7:30 and cycled another hour, stopping just before we reached the summit of the third of four categorized climbs on the next day's stage. Vincent said he was "knackered." Still, we had ridden nearly fifty miles of the day's 120-mile stage, putting us in excellent position to reach the stage finish the next day before the course was closed. And we did, managing to make it Brinoles by 2:30.

We had those seventy miles mostly to ourselves, as it was too hot for most people, not only cyclists, but fans as well. It was a nice introduction for Vincent. He was thrilled to receive his first "allez-allez" and pass by The Devil and the various picnickers in whatever shade they could find. But we didn't see Skippy out riding, the first time in four days I hadn't seen him. Vincent had met him, as Skippy recognized that he was an Aussie by his jersey and struck up a conversation.

It is about forty miles from Brinoles to the start of tomorrow's stage start in Marseille. It is unlikely Vincent will make it. He unsurprisingly broke a spoke near the end of today's ride and was thoroughly exhausted. No complaints though, as he's had much more of a Tour experience than he anticipated. He flies home from London July 26, after The Tour has finished. We could well meet up again in the middle of the country on The Tour route or in the years to come.

Our ride together may have changed his life. He could be a natural, easily wild camping for the first time in his life. He had no problem eating cold ravioli out of a can, saying it was as good as some spaghetti he'd had in a restaurant a couple nights before, high praise coming from a chef. He's been impressed, too, by the French canned cassoulet stew, also part of my diet.

I spent half an hour at the finish line here at Brignoles watching some mid-race action on the jumbo screen before taking a break to send out this report. Alongside me was a married couple from Texas who are following the entire Tour by car. They'd done it several times before, but not since Lance's retirement. Now that I've completed this, I can head back to the finish line to see if the usual breakaway group has been caught by the hard-riding Columbia team setting up the sprint for Cavendish.

Later, George

Friday, July 3, 2009


Friends: A mountain ridge rises steeply behind the small principality of Monaco and the harbor its built around, so the twenty teams gathered here for The Tour have only two viable choices for training rides if they wish to spare their legs of the steep, demanding mountain routes. They can either ride west along the coast towards Nice or east to Italy, just six miles away.

As I bicycled in from Italy yesterday morning about half the teams had chosen Italy as their training destination for the day. The route in that direction included several miles of Saturday's opening ten-mile time trial. It begins with a steep climb from the harbor for almost half of the course, rated as a category four climb, and then a descent back to its starting point.

One of the teams that passed me was Astana. As they passed I heard Levi Leipheimer ask, "Are you going to use a 21?" Then I heard the voice of Lance reply, "Probably." They were referring to the size of the largest ring on their cluster. The steeper the climb, the more teeth they would want. Twenty-one is more than usual. Lance and Levi are the only two Americans and native English speakers on the nine-man Tour roster. Chris Horner should have been among them but he was tragically left off the roster even though he has been a dominant force in the two tours he has ridden this year, the Tour of the Basque Country and the Giro.

Unfortunately, he crashed out of both of them, though that's not the reason he didn't make The Tour team. It was the usual--politics. One roster spot had to go to a Kasthatan rider, as a consortium of Kasthathan companies sponsors the team. There went one spot that Horner could have filled and another went to a Spanish rider. Since Albert Contador is the de facto team leader, he pressed to have an extra Spanish rider on the team, whose loyalty he couldn't question, even though Horner served him brilliantly and most faithfully in the Tour of the Basque Country. Contador feared Horner would work for Lance and not for him. Astana appears to be a team divided. Only Lance and Levi wore yellow wrist bands at the team presentation. It shouldn't be as ugly as the Lemond/Hinault rift in 1986, but it will be a factor.

When the Belgian Quick Step team passed me on my ride into Monaco I looked closely to see if Tom Boonen was among them. He recently tested positive for cocaine, just as he did last year. Tour officials wouldn't let him race last year and are trying to keep him out of this year's race as well, even though he is one of the most popular and best riders in the world and his use of cocaine was for recreational use, not to enhance his performance, at least on his bike. His team has taken the case to a Court of Sports Arbitration. I thought I saw Boonen in the Belgian national champion's jersey as the team passed, but I couldn't be sure, as he has several teammates who bear a resemblance to him, especially when they're all wearing helmets and riding at speed. I had to wait until the team presentations that night to discover he wasn't on the roster.

When the French AGR2 team passed, I overheard one of the riders comment, "Skippy." Skippy is a notorious Australian who has followed the Tour since 1998 by bike and car. He too has a white beard and is as skinny as I. When I saw Skippy later that day, hanging around, as he usually does, in the area where all twenty of the team mechanics are stationed working on bikes, just around the corner from the starting line, I told him about it. He said he'd have to talk to those AGR2 guys, as they well knew that I wasn't him, as he doesn't ride with panniers, and he's always decked out in Lycra, unlike me. He said they were just having some fun amongst themselves.

Skippy said he had his picture taken with Lance the night before at his hotel and Lance gave him a bunch of yellow wrist bands to pass out as he rides the course. The yellow wrist bands are a little more evident than they have been the past couple of years. George Hincapie is back wearing one, even though he is riding for the rival Columbia team. Prince Albert was wearing one at the team presentation last night too. He was a part of the festivities, giving a welcoming speech.

Three sets of grandstands with a seating capacity of 6,500, left over from May's Grand Prix auto race, facing out towards the harbor and the stage where the presentation took place, were packed. The roadway in front of the stands was also thronged with spectators getting an up close look at the caravan of sponsors as they passed and the team riders after their introduction, also heading out for a short spin. The ceremony went on for over two hours. The Astana team was the second to last of the twenty teams introduced, just before the new Cervelo team, the team last year's winner, Carlos Sastre, now rides for. When Lance and his teammates arrived there was a mad scramble of photographers as if there had been a shift in the earth.

Lance looked very relaxed. One or two riders per team were asked a question or two after their team introduction. Lance, of course, was one of them. He was just one of four to be interviewed in English-- Christian Vande Velde, Mark Cavendish and Cadel Evans were the others. Most were conducted in French, though there were also some in Italian, German and Spanish.

The interviewer commented to Lance that in the past he always arrived with supreme confidence. He wondered what he was feeling this year. Lance said that since it had been four years since he last raced The Tour he wasn't sure what to expect, but that he knew come Saturday he would have "a heck of a lot of nerves."

Lance has actually been back racing for nearly a year, ever since last fall's Leadville 100 mountain bike race in Colorado. Rather than saying that he's missed the last three Tours, he prefers to exaggerate it a bit, saying its been four years since he last raced The Tour. That's not entirely wrong, but still a slight clouding of the facts. He's not exactly looking for sympathy or building a case for not doing as well as he has in the past, though to a degree he is.

Lance was greeted with a resounding cheer beyond what anyone else received, though The Tour organization hasn't been hyping his return in the least. Contador didn't look so comfortable. He wore a look of nervous, flighty, edginess like the birds that he is so fond of. The opening time trial will be a quick revelation of how strong each is on a most demanding course, but it won't be until stage seven when the race reaches the Pyrenees that the true test of who is the strongest and the man to be supported by all the team will begin to become evident.

I had two prime objectives to take care of before The Race started--replacing my tires, as they had 3,500 miles on them, and sending off some books and unnecessary clothes to lighten my load. I expected it to be a snap to find my preferred Continental Touring tires in one of the many Italian bike shops well-stocked with quality gear as I proceeded along the Riviera before returning to France. So I put off my search until my last day in Italy.

I was drastically mistaken. I was told time after time that a shop only carried Michelin tires, as Continentals were too expensive, or if they did have Continentals, only in sizes thinner than the 700 X 28s I was looking for. I stopped at more than a dozen shops and was resigned to wait until I got to Monaco to hope to find them. But at nearly seven p.m., at the last town before France, I stopped at a shop only because it was on my side of the road. It was a rare shop without bikes out front nor expensive wheels hanging from the ceiling and accessories lining the walls. It was filled with mostly used bikes, many children's. Glancing in I could see that the proprietor was sitting on a chair reading a book, not busy at a work stand or dealing with customers as at every other shop I had stopped at.

"This is a waste of time," I thought, but I was in need of a slight rest and I am always curious to peek in on any bike shop. The guy spoke no English, but I had written down what I wanted on a piece of paper. Shockingly, he didn't scornfully shake his head and send me on my way. Rather he took my slip of paper and disappeared into the back of his shop. After several minutes he returned with exactly what I was looking for, a veritable miracle.

I had stumbled upon the Joe Hall of the Riviera. His back room and basement were packed with obscure parts. I could imagine him going home that night and telling his wife that he sold those Continental 28s that he bought three years ago that no one else wanted. After I replaced my tires, I asked if I could wash my hands. That's when I got to go back into his inner sanctum. He led me to a deep and wide sink, then grabbed a tube of hand cleaner and squeezed out a couple of dabs for each of my palms.

I was equally lucky with finding a small post office in Menton, the first French town across the border, with a friendly post mistress who didn't have many customers. She gave me a box to send five pounds worth of gear home in.

My next challenge when I arrived in Monaco was to find a place to camp. I noticed a cave tunneled into the cliff side of the time trial route that offered a potential refuge. The route was already lined with barricades, but there was a slight gap nearby that my bike and I could slip through. The cave lost its allure when I discovered it was filled with toilet tissue and empty beer bottles and other refuse. I asked at the tourist office if there were was a spot for people with RVs following The Tour to park for the night as there frequently is along The Tour route. There were two such locations about a mile from the harbor by the heliport. I went out there and found them not yet full. One even had a portable mobile installation with six showers. That couldn't have been better. I had asked Skippy if he had found a place to camp. He hadn't and was simply sleeping in his car.

This morning as I was biking to a grocery store, Skippy biked up from behind me and patted me on the back. When I looked over I noticed the Garmin team was with him. Skippy called out, "Hey Christian, meet one of your fellow countrymen." Oddly enough I had met him last December at a Chicago bicycle shop Christmas party.

"Hey, Christian," I said. "Remember me? You signed a course marker for me last Christmas."

"Oh yeah," he said, "You sure do get around."

"I meant to ask you back then if you had a course marker yourself."


"I'll grab one for you, if you'd like."

"That would be great," he said.

So now I have a mission for a potential podium winner. Christian finished fourth last year, moving up one spot after the Austrian Bernard Kohl lost his third place finish when one of his urine samples tested positive for EPO after The Tour was over. Christian winters in his hometown Chicago suburb of Lemont, so if I don't get a course marker to him before the race is over, I can deliver it to him back in Chicago, maybe in exchange for a Garmin water bottle, one of the few I don't have.

Hanging around the team mechanics, I noticed the mechanics tossing used water bottles to fans off the bikes the riders had ridden that day. The riders have such a germ-phobia, they don't reuse their bottles or even take the trouble to wash them. I unwittingly ended up with a Cofidis water bottle, one I already have. I'll save it for trading purposes or to toss to a fan along the road.

There were teams of Livestrong/Nike representatives walking around selling wrist bands and giving away packets of three yellow chalk sticks for scribbling on the road. That is a new novelty item.

Friday, today, is a rest day and tomorrow the three week Grand Boucle commences.

Later, George