Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Namur, Belgium

Friends: Over the years The Tour has had some truly jaw-dropping and breath-taking backdrops to its stage starts and finishes--at mountaintops, on grand boulevards, in front of stunningly beautiful chateaus, magnificent cathedrals, majestic castles, stately town halls, along side serene rivers, beside historic plazas and monuments and other places that define France and make the French proud.

The finish to this year's Stage Three in the small mining town of Arenberg will rank among the more memorable and moving in the 106-year history of The Tour. The huge tower of the closed down coal mine where cycling legend Jean Stablinski worked will overlook the finish. And not more than two hundred meters beyond the finish line is the entry to the Arenberg Forest and the mile-and-a-half stretch of cobbles that define Paris-Roubaix, a race older than and almost as storied as The Tour de France. It may be the most dreaded and most renowned mile-and-a-half in the world of bicycle racing.

At the entry to the forest is a monument to Stablinski. It was at his urging that it was added to the Paris-Roubaix course. He may be as feted for that as for his many racing exploits.

A huge yellow vinyl banner welcoming The Tour de France to Arenberg hangs from the tallest structure in the complex of buildings that once comprised the mine. A mobile home, such as those that serve as offices on construction work sites, is parked below it and is adorned with Tour jerseys. It is the local headquarters for The Tour. The cluster of 39 small mining towns in the area have been appointed hosts for The Tour, similar to the four ski villages in the Jura Mountains. Hosting The Tour is a monumental event for these somewhat depressed communities.

It is a most appropriate site, as for many decades bicycle racing was the domain of the hardened working class, providing young men who would otherwise be destined to the mine or factory or farm an opportunity to escape their destiny. It might not have been any easier of a life for the journeyman racer, but it afforded them some glory and the chance to see the world beyond their environs.

The three women in The Tour headquarters couldn't have been more friendly or helpful or excited about their month ahead. They had a detailed map of the stretches of cobbles that will be included in The Tour route. They also had a large brochure with a couple of dozen events in the next month relating to The Tour. Under glass was a water bottle and hat that current world champion Cadel Evans had given them. He had recently scouted out the route and stopped in at their office.

There was a smooth paved path alongside the Arenberg cobbles. It may be denied to the racers, but knowing I had other cobbles to ride, I gave my bike and my vertebrae a break by taking the unjarring route. I had seen so many photos and filmed highlights of this stretch and could recall countless battles waged along it, that it was as thrilling to be riding it as riding up Mont Ventoux or L'Alpe d'Huez.

Once again I followed this stage route in the reverse direction that the peloton will ride it, from finish to start. The final stretch of cobbles for the racers comes six miles from the finish. It is a mile-and-a-half long through a wide open field. There is no alternative to the cobbles there. I stuttered along at not even five miles per hour hoping I wasn't jeopardizing the health of my spokes too much. I haven't had a broken spoke in over 4,000 miles, since early in my travels in Uganda in February.

I discovered that though I might be going in the opposite direction that The Tour would follow, I was going in the direction that the Paris-Roubaix race follows. There were yellow "PR"s stenciled on the road with arrows at the intersections pointing which direction to go and even a few course markers left over from Sunday's recreational recreation of the ride. Those left over markers were all posted high on wooden telephone poles beyond my reach and nailed in rather than strapped with wire, as they are on the lower metal posts, so I was unable to add one to my collection of Tour markers.

The markings were a huge help as the roads wound all over the place through the many small towns. Whoever is in a breakaway will have a huge advantage the last 25 miles of this stage, as it will not be so easy for the peloton to chase them down. It will be a dilemma for me where Vincent and I should stop to watch the action. I doubt I will go all the way to the finish, as it takes me out of the way to get to the next stage start in Cambrai, twenty miles to the south.

The first 110 miles of the stage are in Belgium, starting in Wanze. I'd be there already if I hadn't been slowed today by two detours for road construction and rain and wind. It is twenty miles away. Though I haven't noticed any bicycle decorations erected along the route yet, there is a frequent billboard featuring Sven Nys, champion Belgian cyclo-cross racer, promoting the Credit Agricole bank. None yet of Merckx or Boonen.

Most of the roads in Belgium I have been on have a very ample shoulder/bike lane, unlike in France. Not many are out biking in this weather, but the Belgians are much more fanatical about the bicycle than the French. I have received more friendly toots and thumbs up in 24 hours here than in the past two weeks in France. This is the fourth time in the seven years I have followed The Tour that it has visited Belgium. There are always more Belgians out along the road, partying and cheering, than even in France. It will be a gala three stages in Belgium.

Later, George

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