Friends: Once before in Tour history Cambrai has served as a Ville Etape. It will forever be remembered in Tour lore as the starting point for the team trial in 2004 won by Lance's US Postal Service team in the rain. I was there at the finish line at my first Tour watching all the action on the giant screen after having ridden the sixty kilometer course that morning.
I have many, many fond memories associated with that stage, including the large bed sheet hung along the course with a heart around Lance and Sheryl. The next day I rode 75 miles of that day's stage with a former American racer who'd shared a pizza during the time trial with Sheryl, not knowing who she was until the end of the meal. I could go on and on recalling my day with this racer who competed against LeMond and Phinney.
As I biked into Cambrai this afternoon a gardening crew was busy installing some topiary in a round-about shaped to spell out Le Tour in the shape of a bicycle. On the backside of the round-about was a billboard announcing it as the "Jean Stablinski round-about." The billboard had his picture and accomplishments--winner of the 1958 Tour of Spain, Champion of the World in 1962 and four time Champion of France in 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1964. Across from the round-about was a nice marble plaque with his image and the years 1932-2007. He grew up in a nearby mining town.
I was a day late to see an exhibition in the town hall devoted to him. But when I return in less than a month along with the peloton for The Tour's fourth stage and first stage to start in France after four days in the Netherlands and Belgium there will be two other bicycle exhibitions to check out if I have the time.
I have the great news to report that I will be accompanied during the first week of The Tour by Vincent, the enthusiastic Australian I met in Monaco last year and bicycled with for two days. He has Tour Fever and just booked a flight to Paris to give it another go. He promises to train harder this year. Vincent has raced as a master for years, but like the American racer I rode with in 2004, he had never toured before or ridden a bicycle with a load. It was much more demanding than either of them realized.
Vincent was wiped out after our two days together and wasn't sure if he ever wanted to do such a thing again. The same thing happened to the American. He was accustomed to riding all out for three or four hours, but wasn't conditioned to rationing his energy out over a twelve hour period at a slower, steadier pace.
I was able to put my two weeks of conditioning to a test a couple days ago as I rode into Montargis, a double Ville Etape, arrivée and départ. I had a thirty mile flat stretch through the Loire Valley, some of it forested, making it a virtual wind tunnel. I was able to hold it steady at eighteen miles per hour, great news.
The forest scenery was enhanced every mile or so at the occasional pull-off or dirt road into the forest by a curvaceous woman in high heels and mini-skirt and provocative pose. No prices were posted. I was feeling so triumphant, flying along well ahead of the peloton, I pondered stopping to ask how much for a kiss on both cheeks as each day's stage winner is awarded from a pair of podium girls. But the fear of a whiff of cheap cologne prevented me from even passing too near.
Rather than a Ventoux-sized yellow jersey adorning one of its civic structures to proclaim itself a Ville Etape, Montargis chose a billboard featuring the caricatures of the three most beloved and high profile French racers of the past half century, each of whom maintains a close association with The Tour--Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of The Tour, who is there on the podium to give a hand shake rather than a kiss to each stage winner, Laurent Jalabert, former polka-dot jersey winner and multiple stage winner who now announces the race from a motorcycle in the thick of the action, and Raymond Poulidor, the man who was the great rival of Jacques Anguetil in the '60s without ever winning The Race.
I was unable to follow the first few miles of The Tour route out of Montargis to its starting point in Epernay as it was being repaved. Eperney had much more Tour adornments to offer at this pint that Montargis. Long vertical Tour banners hung from many of its light poles. It was fully in the spirit of being a Ville Etape.
Reims, though, twenty miles north of Epernay, was too big of a city with over 200,000inhabitants and previous ten-time host of The Tour to begin getting excited about The Tour coming to town. Reims is one of three Ville Etapes this year to have a World Heritage Cathedral. Paris and Bordeaux are the others. It would be hard to say which of the three cathedrals is the most impressive. The one in Reims may be the largest and gaudiest with carved sculptures inside and out, top to bottom and all around. It could take a guide a week to explain its many features.
Despite its size, there was not an Internet outlet open in Reims yesterday, a Sunday. Many cities of that size in France have a large immigrant population. I can generally count on finding a business or two offering cheap Internet service along with cheap international phone service. But Reims is far enough north, it doesn't have much of an African or Algerian population and thus no Internet-phone outlets. Finding Internet in France is a much greater challenge than in China or Africa, especially with the scarcity of libraries and their very limited hours.
But I can't complain about the wild-camping. Its almost as easy to come by as Lewis and Clark had it. The French are amazingly conscientious about leaving patches of forest every few miles. After tonight the camping could be a challenge though when I head off into Belgium. Tomorrow I will begin riding The Tour's much-anticipated third stage, highlighted by seven stretches of cobble stones, or pavé as the French call them. The stretches only total eight miles, but they could have bone-jarring consequences on The Race.
The Spanish threat Iban Mayo lost two minutes to Lance in 2005, the last time The Tour included cobbles. Those this year are just a few of those included in the Paris-Roubaix race. There is a chance that I could see some of The Tour contenders scouting them out. Just yesterday a couple thousand recreational cyclists rode the Paris-Roubaix course, including the brother of my friend Yvon. The week before Davis Phinney's nineteen-year old son Taylor, riding for the Livestrong team, won the junior edition of Paris-Roubaix for the second time, the first time the junior's have had a repeat winner. He seems destined to be the next great American champion.
With it just 25 days now until the start of The Tour, I can feel an increased sense of anticipation as I ride along The Tour route, knowing that in a month these quiet rural roads will be thronged with thousands of picnicking, cheering fans. It thrills my heart to know what awaits me.