Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chris Horner Appearance

Friends: Over 250 people, as many as the Trek store in Highland Park, an affluent suburb north of Chicago, could accommodate, turned out last night on less than 24 hours notice to listen to Chris Horner, fresh back from the Tour de France, chat with Robbie Ventura, former Lance teammate and commentator for Versus, about his tenth place finish at The Tour, the highest placed American.

I was among the crowd thanks to an email alert from Skippy in Europe, who had received a Twitter alert of the event. One had to register to attend. There were only thirteen spots left when I signed up.

Just as he races, Horner held nothing back as he vividly recounted his Tour experience. I was as thrilled to be listening to Horner as I was to gaze about at this enraptured audience of Americans stone-cold mesmerized by his highly detailed, insightful tales of riding the cobbles and the Tourmalet and the hills of the Ardennes and what its like on the team bus with Lance. I felt as if I was back in Europe re-experiencing my three weeks of following The Tour.

It was exciting to be part of this audience and to know that I'm not as much in a minority as I once was as a devotee of the sport. I'd been going through Tour withdrawal since my return. This was greatly helping to appease those pangs. Just as American racers have been measuring up to their European counterparts for the past decade, there are increasing numbers of American fans who can compare to those on the other side of the pond.

Horner transported us to the peloton as he told of being along side the Schleck brothers on the crash-filled stage two when they began a treacherous descent. "Andy looked at me and said, 'Let's not get carried away here.' I replied, 'You don't have to worry about me.' We came around a bend and there were bodies everywhere. Usually in Tour crashes there's just one big pile of bodies. On this one for a hundred yards or so, there were bodies everywhere. I slowed and guys were crashing behind me and sliding past. A motorcycle was down. When we came around a bend it was more of the same. I've never seen anything like it."

Horner didn't agree at all with Cancellera's edict to neutralize the stage and have everyone just roll across the finish line without battling it out. Nor did he agree with the condemnation heaped on Cavendish's teammate Renshaw for head-butting Garmin's Julian Dean three times in the Stage Eleven sprint. He thought the headbutts were an incredible bit of racing, helping him remain upright as Dean cut in along side him.

But he did acknowledge that Renshaw deserved to be ejected from the race for aggressively cutting off Dean's teammate Tyler Farrar after the headbutts, preventing Farrar from latching on to Cavendish's wheel. He said he has been a lead-out man himself for the best sprinters on the North American racing circuit, so knows how it is done. The lead-out man's job is to make a subtle sweep behind his sprinter's wheel after he peels off to prevent another racer from following, but Renshaw's sweep was anything but subtle.

On the day of cobbles, Horner said it was his assignment to ride on Lance's wheel to prevent anyone else from coming up behind him and cutting into him on the corners. The Radioshack team scouted out the cobbles just before they arrived in Rotterdam for the start of The Race. Lance had ridden them before but he and Leipheimer and Kloden and others on the team hadn't.

The team's strategy was to be at the front when the cobbles began towards the end of the stage. Eight of the Radioshack guys were among the first 25. Everything was going just fine until Kloden had a flat and then later Lance. Lance lost over a minute. "Lance was extremely upset after that stage," Horner said. "The tension in the bus was really intense."

Horner described how his role evolved over The Race from being a support rider to being able to ride for himself. He said if he had been a protected rider from the start he was certain he could have finished top five. "Schelck and Contador are in a class by themselves, and Menchov was really strong finishing third. I don't think I could have finished ahead of him, but otherwise I was as strong as anyone."

He said on the final climb on Stage Eight in the Alps after Lance had crashed three times, effectively ending The Race for him, Lance gave him permission to go on ahead. He legs were good, allowing him to storm up the mountain, though no one saw it on television since he was well behind all the leaders. But his efforts didn't go unnoticed. He said, "The next day a Liquigas rider came up to me and complimented me, saying he thought I'd had the best time of anyone."

He talked for ten minutes about the stage in the Pyrenees where he and Lance finished fifth and sixth and were in a ten-man break for the last half of the stage. The stage began with an immediate category-one climb. Lance was feeling great that day and just wanted help getting into a breakaway group. There was another big climb immediately after the descent from the initial climb. Horner said that his work was done for the day after those first two climbs. He fell back into the third group, but on the Tourmalet, about halfway through the stage, he moved back up into the first group and stuck with Lance to the end.

They knew there were three sprinters stronger than them in the group. He and Moreau did most of the work towards the end. Horner was hoping Moreau would let up once they caught the lone breakaway rider ahead of their pack with one kilometer to go. "Then we could play some cat and mouse games so Lance could get away," he said, "but Moreau kept riding hard as he had a teammate in the break too."

He said he would have finished in the top three at the Giro d'Italia last year if he hadn't crashed out. He came into his own at the Tour of the Basque country earlier that year with "the best form of my life." He crashed out of that race, but recovered and felt the same at the Giro.

He presently ranks eleventh in the UCI standings. He's in town for a local race and then will take two weeks off the bike, resting up for the rest of the year. He'll do a couple of races in Canada and then return to Europe for Paris-Tours and the Tour of Lombardy. The Paris race is a sprinter's race, so that's just to get some extra racing miles into his legs, but he's going to Italy for the hilly Tour of Lombardy intent on winning it, and ending the season in the top ten.

He came out of The Tour with a slight calf injury that still has him limping. He had only one crash in The Tour at the end of the first stage and was lucky to land on another racer so he had no road rash. He did wrench his back, leaving him with back issues for three or four stages. He injured his calf later in The Race after pulling a hamstring when he accelerated out of a corner on an easy stage when he wasn't drinking enough. The hamstring injury forced him to ride one-legged leading to a strained knee, which led to the calf problem. He could barely walk for a couple of days, but was okay on the bike. Still he feared having to quit The Race.

But he's used to all the aches and pains. "During The Tour I only feel good between hours two and three on the bike each day," he said "The rest of the day, I'm screwed. You have to take the bad with the good, and there's more bad than good."

The evening concluded with the auction of the jersey Horner wore on Stage 18, the stage between the Tourmalet summit finish and the time trial, along with the number pinned to the jersey from that stage and a laminated copy of the stage route that he carried in his jersey pocket. The bidding began at $500 and ended at $1400.

It concluded a remarkable evening of Inside Racing. It was amazing to see such racing interest here in America. There was no time for questions from the audience, as the few that Ventura was able to ask kept Horner going for well over ninety minutes. Ventura spent nearly half an hour recounting his Tour experience even before he brought on Horner. One of his highlights was being halted by a gendarme as he was riding The Tour route and being rescued by the Radioshack team physiologist, Dr. Lim.

If you wish for more of Horner's take on The Race, go to for his daily dispatches to his hometown newspaper.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tour Reflections

Friends: Among the many signs along Saturday's time trial course was "Merci Les Francias--Chavanel, Casar, Riblon, Voeckler, Fedrigo," thanking the five French riders who won six stages among them, one more than Cavendish. It was such a big deal to the French to have won so many stages that President Sarkozy invited the five French riders, along with the French rider who won the polka dot jersey, to his residence in Paris the evening that The Race finished on the Chaps Elysees.

Its been twenty-five years since a French rider has won The Tour--Hinault in 1985--and its been twenty years since a French rider has even been in contention--Fignon losing to LeMond in 1989 by eight seconds. I would love to ride The Tour in a year when there is a French contender to enjoy the heightened interest and excitement of the French along the course and throughout the day.

When Chavanel assumed the yellow jersey after his second stage victory, the road was full of Chavanel graffiti and signs. People shouted out "Chavanel" at me as I passed several hours ahead of the peloton. In a year with a French rider vying for first, especially after this prolonged dry spell, the country would go crazy. The bars would be packed with people watching The Race on television and the roads extra thick with spectators.

Chavanel acknowledged he could feel the hope of all the French that he could stay in yellow until Paris. He said he would try, and offered encouragement, saying he felt stronger than ever and felt confident he could stick with Contador and Schleck in the mountains as he had finished just behind them on Mont Ventoux last year and rode with the leaders on the L'Alpe d'Huez stage this year in the Dauphine-Libere race just before The Tour. But when he faltered in the Alps, as expected, ending The Race in thirty-first, one hour behind Contador, he admitted that he knew it was "practically impossible" for him to win The Tour. A reporter asked, "Practically?" Chavanel corrected himself and said, "No, I meant to say, totally impossible."

Such thinking incenses "Fignon," a commentator for television. He has harshly criticized the French riders over the years, and in particular Chavanel and Moreau, for not trying harder and having such a defeatist attitude. It caused a war of words in the press the last few days of The Tour. Chavanel said, "I know he has been calling us imbeciles for years, but I don't pay any attention to him."

The French riders do have a battle among themselves to be the highest placed French rider. The winner this year was John Gadret, who finished nineteenth, ten minutes and three positions ahead of 39-year old Moreau, riding in his last Tour. Gadret was so intent on being the highest placed French rider that he defied his team director and team leader Roche on a stage in the mountains when Roche had a flat tire and was ordered to stop and give him his wheel. Roche was so incensed that he didn't think he could ever speak to him again. In his column that he writes for an Irish newspaper Roche reported that if Gadret was found dead in his hotel room, he would be a prime suspect. Roche ended up finishing The Race in fifteenth, seven minutes ahead of Gadret. He would have finished at least one position higher if not for Gadret's insubordination. It will be interesting to see if he makes the AG2R team roster next year for The Tour.

I returned to Chicago yesterday as aglow as ever from my Tour experience. I may have ridden more miles of The Tour course this year than any of my previous six. I rode eighteen of the twenty stages, some in their entirety and some just a segment, missing the final one into Paris and the third of the four stages in the Alps. I reached the finish line five times before the peloton and was able to watch the last couple of hours on the giant screen as well as the peloton passing underneath it. I saw them zip by on the road in the middle of a stage six other times. The most memorable was in the thick crowd on the last of the cobbles on stage three, probably my most memorable moment of this year's Tour.

I can't say any of my Tours has been better than another, but this was an exceptional one, being able to ride the first four stages and prologue with Vincent and then spending three days with Yvon in Pau, on the fringe of the Pyrenees. I shared more time with Skippy this year than any other year and met quite a few other interesting devotees of The Tour. After next year I will be half way to the number of most Tours ridden by a rider--sixteen by Joop Zootemelk. I will be looking forward to it all year. And looking forward to perhaps Chris Horner riding as a team leader for Radioshack and Heyerdal and Vande Velde teaming up for Garmin. They may not be a threat to Contador or Schleck, but they could cause a stir and get more Americans to pay attention to The Race.

But in the mean time, I'm off to Telluride in a couple of weeks, where I'll spend a month working for the Telluride Film Festival and also plotting a fall ride with a Telluride friend who has done considerable bicycle touring himself. We plan to ride from Athens to Turkey and then through the Middle East. Turkey has long beckoned. It will be nice to finally make its acquaintance.

Later, George

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pauillac, Ville Arrivée

Friends: The 2010 Tour has one stage to go, but fans can already start anticipating next year's Race and another battle royale between Contador and Schleck. Schleck is just 25, winning the best young rider award again this year, and Contador just two years older. Contador and Schleck finished one-two last year. It was an easy win for Contador last year, but not this year as Schleck considerably narrowed the gap between them.

He gave a valiant effort, giving it his all, holding back nothing on the Tourmalet as well as in yesterday's time trial. He was not willing to settle for second, and risked overextending himself and going kaput, but he nearly pulled it off. He actually closed to within four seconds of Contador early on as they battled each other and the clock three minutes apart on the course. If he had overtaken Contador it would have been as momentous as LeMond overcoming Fignon in the final time trial in 1989.

Maybe he found extra inspiration from all the road graffiti cheering him on. Nearly all of it was devoted to him. It even gave me extra energy as I biked the time trial course Friday night into a wind and the setting sun. I was over 100 miles for the day, but felt no fatigue as I was urged on by the fan enthusiasm--the writing on the road and the many campers parked along the roadside.

Schleck will be haunted for the next eleven months by those 40 seconds he lost when his derailleur failed him. If brother Frank hadn't crashed out of The Race on the cobbles in Stage Three, he would have been there with him to give him his bike or help pace him back to Contador. If not for those lost 40 seconds Contador would have been forced to attack on the Tourmalet, rather than simply riding on Schleck's wheel for half an hour the final six miles when they were a duo ahead of everyone else. Then we would have seen for sure who was the strongest.

Andy and his brother Frank will be riding for a new Luxumbourg-sponsored team next year. Everyone will wonder if they can maintain such a high level without Bjarne Riis as their director and without the support of their veteran teammates Voight, O'Grady, Sorenson and Cancellera, four of the toughest, most hardened riders in the peloton. When Sastra left Riis after winning The Tour two years ago, he's hardly been a factor in The Race, finishing seventeenth last year, the second worst finish by a Tour winner in the year after his victory. He did even worse this year finishing twentieth, three places ahead of Lance.

It was well that I biked to the time trial finish in Pauillac the night before, as the road was closed by nine the next morning with the first rider on the course by 10:15. The caravan started much earlier and reached the finish line about the same time that first rider was hitting the course. The large screen didn't come alive with Tour coverage until 1:30 with a 40 minute pre-Tour show. It largely focused on the wineries of the area that the time trial course passed.

There was a feature though on Ryder Hesjedal, the revelation of The Tour, coming in seventh. His Garmin team director, Matt White, was interviewed wearing a t-shirt with a red maple leaf and "Ryder" above it, acknowledging his Canadian heritage. Christian Vande Velde has been quoted as saying he looks forward to riding with the "new Ryder" in the upcoming Tour of Spain.

Finally at 2:20 the actual Race coverage commenced. I had laid claim to the shade and back rest of a plane tree facing the screen four hours earlier. I was just five steps from the barrier lining the course at the 200 meter to go marker. I could hop up for a quick look at a rider when he whizzed passed, alerted that he was coming by the fans pounding on the sponsor signs lashed to the barriers.

In year's past I have invariably found myself beside an English speaking fellow aficionado of The Tour for several hours of the time trial rehashing the preceding three weeks of racing. No such luck this year. I was hoping to be joined by a couple of young English fans I'd met the day before at the finish line in Bordeaux. They had driven down from the UK arriving in time to set up a campsite on the Tourmalet Monday night, three days before the dramatic stage in the rain.

Last year they had done the same on Mont Ventoux, experiencing extreme heat their first day and then plummeting temperatures on race day. They said they were surrounded on the Tourmalet by Spanish Basque fans who drank wine and coke out of goatskins non-stop, explaining their crazed behavior chasing after the racers. The runners were the worst ever as they had plenty of room to run with the rain thinning out the usual mobs. They said they would have gladly tripped any they could, but there was too much of a gap between them.

They were Cavendish fans and worried that he might not win the sprint in Bordeaux without his lead out man Renshaw, who had been kicked out of the race for head-butting a competitor in the last sprint finish a week ago. I assured them he would find someone else's wheel to launch himself from, which he did indeed, winning so easily he looked back two or three times to see where everyone was, an insult of a sort to his competitors. It was his fourth win this year. Only he and Eddy Merckx have won four stages three years in a row.

I did have one final good conversation with an English fan, though not until the next day out at the Bordeaux airport. I stopped by the airport, just six miles from the city center, to confirm my British Air flight for the next day and to verify that they could provide me with a plastic bag for my bike.

I saw a cyclist with a bike wrapped in a plastic bag. I was hoping he'd just arrived and I could have his box or bag if I needed one, but he was preparing to leave. He was a Welsh school teacher who'd just finished a week's ride from Barcelona, coincidentally connecting up with The Tour in Bordeaux and a little in the Pyrenees.

When he learned I was American, he said, "I was hoping to be biking across America this summer. I had it all planned out. I was going to do it in three stages over three years--Los Angeles to Denver, Denver to Chicago, then Chicago to New York, taking three weeks for each stretch. It was to celebrate turning fifty. But my wife would have nothing of it. She threw quite a fuss. She'll only allow me to go off for a week at a time. I don't suppose you're married."

"No, that's not a mistake I've made."

"It has its advantages and disadvantages. My wife just doesn't have the passion for the bike that I have and can't understand it. I bought us a tandem, but that didn't work. I've ridden it with my 14-year old daughter, but she'd prefer to be on her own bike. I know I'll eventually do the America ride, but it will take a while before I can get permissions from my wife."

This was Russell's first time flying with his bike. All his other excursions on the continent had come after taking the ferry or train over from the UK. He ordinarily stayed in bed and breakfasts, but spent one night in a barn on this trip and had also spent the previous night sleeping at the airport. I could do that tonight as well if there wasn't such easy and plentiful camping nearby.

Biking in Bordeaux kept reminding me of my imminent return to Chicago. In the central district I couldn't go a block without seeing a painted cow or a mini-billboard advertising "Night and Day," a Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz movie. The two stars were in town for a gala opening and to attend The Tour. Barriers had been lined up leading to the theater where the opening was Friday night. It was mobbed with people at six pm after the stage finish. If I didn't have 32 miles to bike before dark I could have stuck around and gotten a glimpse of them.

Now its time to find a bar for the finish on the Champs Elysees in Paris and Cavendish's fifth win. It will be interesting to see if the Sky team leads out the sprint again as they did in Bordeaux for the first time this year. It is an audition of a sort to Cavendish, as they will be doing everything in their power to pry him from the Columbia team, even though he has a year left on his contract with them.

Later, George

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bordeaux, Ville Arrivée/Départ

Friends: While today's stage from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux is a relatively easy 125-mile flat ride for the peloton, it was my final big push of these past three weeks following The Tour, as it included 50 miles of riding from Pau. I had 27 hours to ride 175 miles if I wished to reach Bordeaux before the peloton.

Yvon and I departed his brother's house yesterday morning at 10:30 in a hard drizzle that had been coming down all night and made the conditions for the peloton heading into the Pyrenees and the Tourmalet look as if it could make for an epic stage. Yvon planned to ride just the first few kilometers of the stage with me, then help guide me towards Meaux, while the peloton turned south into the mountains, and he returned to his brother's house to watch all the action.

Yvon was insistent that I pass through Mourenx as it has a giant mural of Eddy Merckx commemorating an epic victory of his in a stage that ended there in 1969. I had seen it five years ago when Mourenx was a Ville Etape, but thought it was put up just for that occasion. I didn't realize it was a permanent fixture, so I was happy to go give it a look again. Unfortunately, it was taken down while repairs were being done on the building where it hung. Even though going to Mourenx added a few extra miles to my ride to Salies-de-Bearn, I didn't mind at all revisiting a former Ville Etape, and at least reacquainting myself with its velodrome, named for Merckx.

The rain had let up by the time Yvon and I made our farewells. Yvon was able to shed the garbage bag that he was wearing over his cycling jersey to keep himself dry. It was still overcast and looked as if it could begin raining at any time.
I was riding hard to get to Salies-de-Bearn by three to find a bar with a television to watch the last couple hours of the stage with two big climbs up the Soler and the Tourmalet. My thought was preoccupied with what the conditions were like in the mountains. I couldn't wait to get to a TV.

The entry to Salies was the route the peloton would take the next day. It was already lined with barriers. The roundabout on the outskirts was decorated with bikes, a site I never tire of seeing. There were also bikes painted solid colors lined up wheel to wheel on several hillsides. Nearly every shop I passed had decorated its window with a bicycle. I didn't mind at all that it took me nearly ten minutes to find a bar with a television as it allowed me to make a through circuit of the town and see its many bike decorations, the most of any Ville Etape I had seen this year, just like I wish they all were.

I finally found a bar with a television just as an escape group of seven riders five minutes ahead of the peloton was beginning the climb of the Soler. It contained no one of significance, though former Tour winner Carlos Sastre was trying to bridge up to it, caught half-way between it and the peloton. I wasn't sure if Sastre was in the lead or behind. The only other patrons in the bar, a husband and wife from Tennessee were able to fill me in.

They had been following The Tour by car the past two weeks and were exultant over the experience. They had been able to drive only as far as the first climb today about 30 miles into the day's stage. They watched the riders pass and then headed to Salies, where they had a hotel for the night.

Several minutes later an Irish couple came into the bar. It was the first stage for them. They were quite pleased with the performance of the lone Irish rider in the race, Nicolas Roche, son of former Tour winner Stephen. He is the team leader of a French team, the first year he has had such a position. The Irishman was particularly pleased that Roche was well ahead of the British rider Wiggins, who ended the day 24th, just behind Lance, just as he was last year, except last year they were third and fourth. Wiggins' former teammate Ryder Hesjedal is even further ahead of him than is Roche. Bad year for the Commonwealth favorites, as Evans is even further behind Wiggins.

The roadsides were so packed with spectators it was hard to believe it was raining, except for the reminder every so often when a cameraman was caught wiping the water off his camera lens. It wasn't until nearly 4:45 that the climatic ten mile climb up the Tourmalet began. Contador and Schelck were wheel to wheel being led by a couple of Schleck's Saxo teammates. Just after they passed under the ten kilometer to go arch Schleck made his attack. Only Contador could stick with him. For the next half hour the camera hardly moved from their battle. There were no helicopter shots this day with the rain, just those from the motorcycles.

They opened up a minute gap on their pursuers and it remained at about that, though the producers gave us only a quick glimpse at what was unfolding amongst them, a battle as intense for third as for first between Sanchez and Menchov. Horner was hanging with them with another exceptional day on the bike moving up into the Top Ten. If he hadn't sacrificed himself on the day Lance crashed, he'd be even higher.

Menchov and Sanchez remained neck-to-neck as did Contador and Schleck. Just after the four kilometer to go arch Contador surged around Schleck and opened a bit of a gap, but he didn't have enough in him to leave him behind. They resumed a steady pace all the way to the summit with the mist growing thicker and thicker. Contador's face was more constrained than I had ever seen it. He could have jumped past Schleck at the summit to take the win but he did the "gentlemanly" thing and let Schleck have the win, as there was no time bonus as in year's past for first place. Its been two years now that the bonus has been waived. The bonus does make it more interesting.

Contador maintained his eight second lead on Schleck. Schleck was at least able to gain a minute on Sanchez and Menchov. Menchov had been a threat to overtake him in Saturday's time trial. Schleck may now have enough of a cushion to hold on to second place.

At the top French president Sarkozy awaited the riders. He greeted Schleck and Contador and also Lance. Earlier in the stage he had been interviewed by a reporter on a motorcycle as he drove up ahead of the peloton. He makes an annual appearance at The Tour at one of its mountain stages.

The Irishman in the bar bike tours and would love to be doing what I'm doing. The Tour starts next year in the northwest corner of France, just below Britanny in Vendée. It would be easy for him to hop down from Ireland. I told him I would welcome his company. He was envious that with the stage over I would get on my bike and ride until dark.

I was hoping to get 50 miles down the road before dark, but managed only 44, leaving me with 81 miles to the stage finish. I needed to be there by two before the roads were closed. I was helped early on by a vacationing Italian out for a morning ride. I drafted him for an hour at 16 miles per hour, two miles faster than what I had been riding on my own. I was on my own then for a couple of hours until I latched onto a five person group with Ronan Pensac Tours, a French company run by a former French Tour rider.

They were riding at 18 miles per hour. I lasted with them for over an hour until I needed to stop and eat as I was beginning to bonk, having ridden non-stop for nearly five hours. I talked for a while with a woman from South Africa. My first question for her was, "How many times have you ridden the Argus," the legendary 60-mile ride out of Cape Town that every serious South Africa cyclist rides. "Ten," she said. We could recount tales of the 2009 ride that was the windiest and hardest in its history.

I had some final drafting with three people riding with Marty Jemison Tours, run by an American who rode The Tour a few times. The assistance all got me to the finish line in downtown Bordeaux along the Garonne River a few minutes before two and road closure. Without the drafting I would have been battling gendarmes, as I did in Reims, and forced to ride side roads and sidewalks for quite a few miles.

At about the one kilometer arch I noticed course markers going down an intersecting road, the route for tomorrow's time trial. As soon as today's stage ends I will start following them for 32 miles to the end of the stage. There will be no pressure tomorrow. I can take up my position under the giant screen at the finish line early and have one final great day of watching The Tour live.

Later, George

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pau, Rest Day

Friends: The Tour is so fan-friendly, Pau's guide to The Tour given out at the tourist office, as well as the two local newspapers in their extensive Tour coverage, list the hotels each of the teams is staying at.

One is a small hotel just down the road from Yvon's brother in Idron, a suburb of Pau, hosting the Belgian Lotto team. Yvon and I swung by knowing the huge team bus would be in the parking lot with the mechanics on display tending to the bikes. Seven of the nine bikes were lined up and ready to go. The two other bikes were perched on stands with mechanics busily washing them down and spraying their moving parts with lubricant and testing the gears. Yvon noticed a mechanic wrapping handlebar tape in a manner he had never seen before, a technique he plans to use the next time he replaces his tape. There were half a dozen fans watching. For some getting so close to the bikes is the highlight of The Tour.

We had an appointment with a newspaper reporter at eleven. Yvon had alerted both papers to my story and our story as international cycling friends. A couple years ago another French newspaper had written about us. French newspapers frequently have stories about cycling adventures. The Tour newspaper passed out by the caravan and the national newspaper "Aujourd'hui," also passed out by the caravan, both feature a daily story about some French celebrity and their love for bike and The Tour. This would be the fourth time a French newspaper had written about me.

The reporter was a young woman who only spoke minimal English so Yvon was able to conduct the bulk of the interview. He traced our friendship back to our meeting at the cycling chapel not far from Pau six years ago. She asked how many countries I had bicycled. I told her I'm up to about 85, but that I always look forward to returning to France as no place is better for bicycle touring. She replied with a "Merci." Such graciousness is one of the many things that makes France stand out. There are frequent signs along The Tour route saying "Merci" to the caravan and The Tour and the riders.

Lance is one of those recipients of "Thank You." After the interview we went to the hotel where Lance's team is staying. As we approached we could see Lance straddling his bike and signing autographs. He and his Portuguese teammate Paulhino had just returned from a training ride. Two fans had a "Thank You Lance" banner that he had just signed. After he left people wanted to take a photo of the banner with the two fans holding it.

Two guys were reverently holding water bottles that Lance and Paulhino had just given them. Nearly every fan was wearing a yellow Livestrong bracelet. Some were wearing Livestrong t-shirts. There was also a guy in a "Mellow Johnny" t-shirt, Lance's Austin bike shop. Mellow Johnny is how Lance's Texas friends pronounce "maillot jaune," yellow jersey.

In our wanderings Yvon and I stumbled upon several other hotels with team buses and a small group of fans reverently gazing upon the mechanics at work. We didn't see any other riders, though if we cared to we could have lingered until they emerged for their rest day ride. The vast majority of fans and mechanics were wearing yellow bracelets, as Yvon and I do, signifying them as cycling fans, if not Lance fans.

We could have made a day of searching out all the hotels, though some of the teams are staying as far away as Tarbes, twenty miles to the east. Many of the hotels are putting up multiple teams. The Astana and Saxo teams of rivals Contador and Schleck are at the same hotel. The Saxo team might be looking for a new mechanic, replacing whoever it was who might have been responsible for Schleck's faulty derailleur that cost him 40 seconds and the yellow jersey.

We did hit a couple more hotels but not all of them. Then we ventured off into the quiet countryside for a couple of hour leisurely ride. We had to stop on occasion to ask for directions, though we couldn't get too lost, nor did it matter much until the air grew misty and we needed to hightail it home.

Yvon mentioned that once near his home in Mulhouse when he was out riding he paused to figure out where he was. A motorist stopped to offer help. Yvon told the man he was all right as he knew the area and had once made a tour around France on his bike. The motorist said he had made six Tours de France. Yvon then recognized him as the highly popular Roger Hassenforder, who raced in the late 1950s between the eras of Bobet and Anquetil, competing against both of them. Hassenforder was a jokester who would speed ahead of the peloton and hide in the bushes and then slip in the back after the peloton had passed. He'd stop and kiss pretty women along the road.

He was someone I had never read about. When we returned we dug into Herni's library of cycling books to read more about him. We learned he had won several stages of The Tour, twice those finishing in his home town, and had also worn the yellow jersey. He was an ardent hunter and had accompanied Coppi to Africa on the trip where Coppi contracted malaria and died. None of the books though profiled his antics as the prankster of the peloton. We googled him. There was a Wikipedia profile and also a lengthy interview on You-tube, but nothing about his crazy side that made him the most popular rider of his day. That will have to await further research.

With Henri spending the night camped out on The Tour route beside the tent where his cycling club would be selling beer and sodas the next day it was just Yvon, Henri's wife Anik and I for dinner, a French classic starting with salad from Anik's garden, followed by sliced meats and a baguette, an olive quiche, a platter of cheeses and then a dessert of a home-made tart and small containers of custard.

Anik went to grade school with Gerard Depardieu. She said he was a bit of a trouble-maker, and that nothing in the school or town had been named after him. Yvon knew that about Anik, but he was surprised to learn that she had once had an American boy friend, an Air Force pilot who had served on a nearby base, who was fluent in French, as Anik only speaks French. The base lasted until 1965.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Pau, Ville Arrivée/Départ

Friends: Lance may have been buried thirty places down in the standings and 40 minutes behind the leader at the start of yesterday's stage and riding at a somewhat leisurely pace at times, but he still has some motivation. It was heartening to read that he was happy that his team had regained the team lead the day before.

The leading team gets to wear a bright green number on their back distinguishing them from all the other riders and they also earn a 50,000 euro bonus for winning the award at the end of the race. Divided up, that's not much money to Lance, but to some of his teammates it means something.

Even though he's the fourth ranked rider on Radioshack behind Leipheimer, Kloden and Horner with only each stage's top three rider's times figuring in the calculations for the team award, he can still make contributions to the team's standing as he did with his day-long participation in the group off the front on the day's stage.

I learned of his position from a radio report shortly after Yvon and I had taken up a position twenty miles from the stage finish at a final small climb before a long descent to Pau. We had biked from Pau after paying a visit to the finish line where I encountered Ian, one of the three Australian cyclists Vincent and I met in Brussels. He had lost his two companions over ten days ago, but was still having a grand time. He had been especially impressed to see 10,000 cyclists on Sunday riding the Pau-Tourmalet route, a yearly special stage for cyclists to experience one of the toughest stages of each year's Tour.

I was riding with just one pannier, having left the rest of my gear at the house of Yvon's brother, making he climb seem effortless. We stopped at one pm. We had a two hour wait for the caravan and another hour for the peloton, but the roadside was already packed with French families picnicking. Someone beside us had a radio and reported that Lance was part of a ten person escape with three French riders nearly ten minutes ahead of the pack. People were as excited about the possibility of Lance winning the stage as any of the French riders.

It would have been nice to be watching all the action on the large television at the race finish what with four major climbs, but this was a genuinely authentic way to experience the race, with the anticipation building for hours awaiting the arrival of the riders. It was nice to know though that there was a bar a mile away, just over the summit, that we could rush to after the riders passed so we could see the finish.

Yvon, a life-long Tour enthusiast, was in his element. He was as buoyant and frisky as ever engaging everyone around in conversation and letting them know I had been following The Tour from its start in Rotterdam. There were those who wanted to take my picture and access the blog. I actually managed a little nap during the wait, my extreme exertion of the past five days since Gap finally catching up to me.

Lance's group was preceded by a minute by a Spanish rider for the Belgian Quick Step team. It was as much of a thrill to see Lance's teammate Horner in the breakaway group as it was to see Lance. Horner had a chance to make a significant jump in the standing, possibly into the top ten. There were also two Caisse d'Epargne riders in the group, the team four minutes behind Radioshack that had been in the lead the day before, so Radioshack wouldn't gain much time on them.

Once the group passed we counted down the minutes until the next large group of riders passed with Contador and Schleck and the other top ten riders. Then there was a huge gap before the stragglers began struggling by. It would take 20 minutes or more for all of them to pass, so we headed to the bar.

Lance's group was within 20 seconds of the rider ahead of them. There was a minor climb just before the city center where he lost more time and then was caught just before the one kilometer arch. People in the bar were exhorting Lance, but weren't disappointed when a French rider won, the sixth stage for the French this year, their best performance in years, though there isn't a French rider in the top ten.

Yvon's brother Herni wasn't able to join us as he was preparing for his cycling club's outing for the Pau-Tourmalet stage setting up a bar near the summit of the Soulor climb. He would be heading up the day before and camping out that night. He too is a great cycling enthusiast. He was a serious racer until 32 and still keeps his legs shaved. He had a bookshelf of cycling books and a case full of trophies and medals.

One of his books had a chapter on the great cycling journalist Antoine Blondin written the year after his death. The chapter was titled "La derniere échappée" (the final escape), a French euphemism for death. The French use the expression "escape" rather than "breakaway" for riders who leave the peloton behind and are in the lead.

Rain is in the forecast for Thursday's climatic stage to the Tourmalet after today's rest day. The standings for the entire race are at stake. Usually most things have been settled by now. This is truly an exceptional year. Any rider who has a bad day will not be able to make up for it and any rider who has a great day could come out shining. The tour organizers have to be thrilled with having designed such a great course this year, though early crash victims Frank Schleck and Christian Vande Velde might not agree.

When the route was announced last October everyone hoped this final stage in the Pyrenees would have meaning, just as they hoped last year that the penultimate Ventoux stage would have a huge impact. Last year the top two positions in the race were decided by Ventoux, making it rather anti-climatic. This year is just the opposite. I will be eagerly watching it in a bar somewhere along the next day's route to Bordeaux.

Later, George

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tarbes, France

Friends: Today, the third Monday of The Race is traditionally its second rest day. Not this year. The racers are being pushed for an extra two days in the Pyrenees before they are granted a day of rest after nine straight days of punishing racing. Maybe The Tour organizers have an affection for Pau, a large city that is a frequent rest day stop, as it will be this Wednesday, just four stages before the end of The Race.

These nine days of non-stop racing are another factor making this the most demanding route in years. Lance says its the hardest course he's ridden. Henri Desgrange would be smiling his approval. The Tour's first director said it was his dream to design a route so tough that the winner was the only one left in The Race. He was notorious for his draconian measures. He didn't allow derailleurs, because he said it made climbing the mountains too easy. Nor did he allow the racers to discard layers of clothing if they started with a rain coat or extra shirt if it was cold. The stages were so long in the early days, at times they'd start before daylight. A rider had to finish each stage with whatever clothes he started it with or be penalized.

Two leading riders one year in the '20s were so incensed with Desgrange they quit in mid-race in protest and, like Floyd Landis is presently doing, went to a journalist and confessed the only way to find the energy to keep riding was to take all manner of drugs. Back then drugs weren't illegal. That didn't happen until the 1960s after the death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux from amphetamines.

It's been two days now since I've witnessed the racers on the road, thought I rode the first 30 mils of Sunday's stage before cutting over to the start of today's stage and riding its first 45 miles as far as St. Girons, then heading directly to Pau rather than venturing into the Pyrenees. That I'll do tomorrow with Yvon. I last saw the peloton on Saturday as they rampaged down a sight incline through a majestic arcade of plane trees. It was such a picturesque spot that one of The Tour photographers on a motorcycle stopped several trees ahead of me to shoot the peloton as it came by.

It was on the outskirts of Realmont and several miles past the feed zone. I thought I'd stop at the feed zone, but since the gendarmes let me keep riding I stuck to it until I came to this stretch with no other spectators. It wasn't the best spot for caravan booty as they came screaming down the incline at top speed with no one but me to toss items to.

When the peloton came around the bend they were in single file. I was surprised to see one rider peel off and ride on his own on the side of the road closest to me. I figured he might have had a mechanical problem, but he wasn't holding up his arm when that happens, signaling his team car that he needs assistance. As he neared I could see he was holding a sausage in his hand down below his waist. And then when he got closer I could see it was his wiener. He was giving it a final wag before stuffing it back in his shorts.

Several hours later, as I closed in on Revel, the stage finish, an hour after the racers had arrived, a steady stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic was leaving the city. Mixed in were several of the team buses (Radioshack, Columbia, Rabobank, Euskatel) and their accompanying team cars with bikes on their roofs.

The buses are grandiose emporiums that would be the envy of any touring rock band. I've never gotten more than a peak inside, but I have seen magazine spreads featuring their many luxuries. I could well picture the racers relaxing in their lounge chairs recovering from their hard day in the saddle. They'd be swigging ice cold beverages and receiving massages while listening to their ipods or watching replays of the day's action.

I felt not an ounce of envy for them. I felt as if I was the lucky one. I was still out riding my bike, and I wasn't being delivered to a hotel, but would spend the night in the cozy comfort of my tent in the tranquil countryside. I was happy to be able to ride with contentment at my own pace, not being barked at by a team director to pick up the pace or chase down a break or come back for water bottles. Nor was I under the scrutiny of hundreds of journalists and thousands of fans, only myself and whatever cycling gods there may be. I was pleasing myself and I was certain I was pleasing them as well. But I greatly appreciate the effort the racers give and the great beauty of the sport.

And then several hours later after I was beyond Revel the huge semi-trailer trucks carrying television gear and all the construction material for the finish line cluster of stands and buildings began passing me on the way to the end of the next day's stage, where they would be re-erected. It is a staggeringly large operation that can't be appreciated without actually seeing it.

I had to consult my map to find The Tour route out of Revel, as the course markers had been prematurely pilfered, and not just a haphazard few that occurs on occasion, but all of them for over fifteen miles. This is the second such stretch I've encountered this year, the other out of Las Rousses in the Jura Mountains on Stage Eight. This could be an alarming trend. I've also noticed other brazen taking of the signs before the peloton has passed unlike any other year--guys walking along the course with a course marker under their arm.

I was partially culpable for one such incident. I met an Italian/French couple (Paulo and Nicole) yesterday afternoon. They were four months into a six month bicycle tour. They had accidentally stumbled upon The Tour route. They noticed a course marker on the back of my bike. We met in a small town. They were just leaving as I arrived. I needed to eat, but we agreed to meet 15 miles down the road at St. Girons at a bar to watch the last two hours of The Race.

Two miles later the road went through a spectacular natural cavern for half a mile. They were so impressed by it, they stopped there and waited for me. Paulo was proud to show me the course marker he had just plundered. I told him that was a no-no, as they shouldn't be taken until after the peloton has passed, which wasn't until tomorrow.

It was surprising that his wife Nicole would let him take one, as she had grown up in Marseille and could expound on what an integral part of French culture The Tour is and had to know that the course markers are not to be taken until after the peloton has passed. They were otherwise an exceptionally enlightened and good-hearted couple. They were utterly aglow, as if they were enlightened souls, absolutely loving the bicycle touring life.

They have devoted several months a year to traveling by bicycle the past five years after having a life-transforming experience hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compestela. They came to the realization that there is more to life than work and now limit themselves to six months of work a year, she as a nurse and he working in a supermarket. We were all delighted to meet kindred spirits. You can read about their travels at We couldn't continue on together as we were headed in different directions after St. Girons--they to visit an abbey and I more directly to Pau to meet up with Yvon.

Later, George

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Revel, Ville Arrivée/Départ

Friends: How sweet it is to be back on The Tour route after a two day hiatus, not only to have the way marked and to see the many bike decorations and tributes to The Tour, but also not having to worry about explaining what I am doing camping along the road.

For the first time ever in my bicycle travels around France, and just about anywhere, someone came to my tent two nights ago well after dark with a flashlight wondering what I was doing camping where I was and asking that I leave. He feared I might be a gypsy establishing an encampment, as they are known to do, though generally in campers.

I was on the outskirts of a small village in the mountains. It was a semi-desperation campsite, as I was caught on the climb through a canyon after dark and had to continue biking for nearly half on hour by starlight looking for a place to disappear to. I tried several spots with the assistance of my headlamp, but they were too overgrown with vegetation and not flat enough for a comfortable night. The cycling was so good with virtually no traffic and pleasant cool temperatures, I was happy to continue riding, as I had a lot of miles to do to catch back up to the peloton.

I finally settled on a little meadow with a few trees just above the road. Half an hour later, at eleven p.m., while I was still eating my dinner, the town mayor came by to question me. He wasn't welcoming at all. He told me there was a camp grounds down along the river just five kilometers away, and was rather insistent that I pick up and go to it. After a couple of minutes of halting conversation entirely in French through the tent wall, I realized he wasn't going to back down. I figured I ought to get up out of my tent and show myself, to win his favor.

I emerged holding my half-filled bowl of couscous and caussolete stew. He commented, "Ah you're still eating." "Mange" is a word I well know, as I once spent a week in the Sahara of Morocco on a camel with a Berber guide who continually encouraged me to "mange" when he had finished preparing our meals. "Mange" was one of the few words of French he knew, and the only language we could communicate in.

It was so dark, the mayor hadn't noticed my bicycle leaning up against a tree behind my tent. When I pointed it out to him, he softened up a bit, but he was still determined to make me pack up and leave. I finally told him I would be gone by seven in the morning as I was headed to Mende, 45 miles away for The Tour de France. That finally earned me some respect. With his favorable response to The Race, I dug into my pannier for a couple of Tour souvenirs, a polka hat and a stocking cap the Etape Hotel chain has been giving away. He was pleased with both, and let me be. I went to sleep half-expecting him to bring his wife and family around in the morning to meet me and to bring me breakfast as well. But the only morning visitor I had was a dog prowling outside my tent, awakening me shortly before seven. Though I needed a bit more sleep, I let him be my wake-up call and was glad for it, as I needed every minute I could muster to catch back up with The Race.

I made it to Mende just at 12:30 after two unexpected climbs of ten miles each. I was pushing it to make it by 12:30, as that's when the supermarkets ordinarily close for lunch. I rode five miles of the stage's route into Mende. There were no supermarkets on that side of town, just a sign for a Hypermarket on the other side of Mende. Hypermarkets are so large they generally don't close for lunch, but I wasn't sure if Mende was a large enough city for such a policy. Fortunately it was. Also at the hypermarket was a van of the Nestle's people who give away coffee and The Tour newspaper. It was a bonus getting the newspaper from them.

I couldn't stick around for the peloton as I had to make an immediate start on the seventy-mile transfer to the next day's stage start in Rodez. Rather than seeing the exciting finish at the airfield just above Mende in person, I saw it on television-- Contador dropping Schleck, then chasing down his teammate Vinokourov, though failing to win the stage as he was nipped by a fellow Spaniard who had tagged along with him. I reached Rodez half an hour before dark, passed by quite a few vehicles in the Tour entourage the last 15 miles. I went directly to the central plaza and found the arrows leading out of town. The first three miles were a neutral zone, and didn't count as part of the mileage for the stage. Then I continued four miles into the day's stage before it was too dark to keep riding on a road with more traffic than the night before.

The next day I made it to within 20 miles of the stage finish before I had to stop and wait for the racers to pass, finally arriving in Revel ninety minutes after the peloton. In my wanderings around town looking for a cyper cafe who do I run into but Skippy, the first I've seen of him in nearly a week. He's been cyclo-touring himself, as he lasted only one day with the Belgians and their camper, and didn't care to go back for his car. He was in search of the Santiago de Compestela hostel as he had no tent or sleeping bag as I do, just a pack of clothes strapped to his triathlon bars and a small pack on his back.

This cyper cafe is closing. I've two hours of light to get down the road as far as I can. Now I have 250 miles to Pau where I plan to meet up with Yvon, my French buddy, for several stages in the Pyrenees using his brother's house as a base.

Hardly a moment to catch my breath.

Later, George

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nyons, France

Friends: Unbeknownst to me my sliver of shade up against a shuttered storefront facing the jumbo screen 100 meters beyond the finish line of Stage Ten in Gap yesterday was Riders' Relatives Row.

Two men beside me were wearing "Allez Max" t-shirts and hats. The t-shirt also included the website One was holding a vertical banner on a pole with Max's picture on it in his AG2R uniform, a French team. Max is a 24-year old riding his second Tour, finishing 70th last year. The two men were his father and uncle.

They were receiving a fair bit of attention as Max was one of six riders in a breakaway twelve minutes up the road. He was one of two French riders in the break. It was Bastille Day, an extra special day for a French rider to win the stage. Tommy Voeckler had been intent on making an extra effort to win today, as he is reigning French champion, wearing a special jersey, and only once before in Tour history has the reigning French champion won on Bastille Day--just one of many odd statistics I gleaned from the day's L'Equipe. Bicycle racing may not be as laden with statistics as other sports, but its followers make up for it with their attention to the sport's past.

Voeckler missed the break and it appeared doubtful that the peloton would catch it this day. A truce seemed to have been declared in the peloton, with Schleck's Saxo team just riding a steady tempo at the head of the peloton. Things were so relaxed that Schleck in yellow was serving as team water boy dropping back to the team car several times to gather up bottles for his hard-working teammates. It is unheard of for the yellow jersey wearer to be expending such extra effort, though it happened once on Lance's team when Victor Hugo Pena from Colombia managed to beat Lance by a couple seconds in the opening prologue in 2003 and then took the yellow jersey several days later when Lance's team won the team time trial. But he was no threat to keep the jersey, unlike Schleck, who ought to be conserving every ounce of energy he can. His teammates, as well as his team director, ought not to have allowed him to be so gracious. They are as determined for him to win as he himself, as they all share in the half million euros he earns as the winner, considerably more than second or third place.

A camera crew was alerted to Max's relatives being at the finish line and came over for an interview and then periodically returned to have a few more words with them, trying to include the huge screen in the background with Max and his breakaway companions. The men only expressed emotion when Max faltered on a category two climb an hour from the finish and lost contact until the grade lessened and he caught back up.

He was clearly the weakest of the group and eventually fell off when with ten miles to go the alliance of the six riders ended and they began attacking one another. It was the first racing of the day. Until then it was almost a recovery day for the entire peloton. They were over an hour behind schedule. But I heard no complaints from the masses surrounding me, nor any lessening of the crowds lining the course where I was. By now the sun had fallen enough that the entire area where I was standing, about twenty feet from the course, facing the screen was in the shade.

After several minutes of attack and counter-attack two riders separated themselves from the six who had been in the break. Neither of them were French. One was Lance's Radio Shack teammate Sergio Paulinho of Portugal, a wily older pro who managed to just nip his rival at the line. As the two closed in on Gap, the broadcast took a momentary break to show Lance's legendary shortcut across a field to avoid Belocki's horrific crash on a descent in the 2003 Tour, just as the two passed that point four kilometers from the finish.

I recognized it myself as I rode past that bend several hours before. A monument has yet to be placed there, but when I came upon it, it was easy to recognize the sharp hairpin that he cut across. I was surprised how deep the ditch was he had to hop over after dismounting from his bike to return to the road. Lance's hop brought gasps from the crowd.

When Max fell off the pace for the second and final time his relatives left to go to the team bus. Standing just past them were two older men and a young woman wearing Team Sky hats who I hadn't noticed before. The woman had a Canadian flag draped over her shoulders. Michael Barry of Canada rides for Team Sky. He's married to Dede Demet, who won the silver medal in the time trial at the Beijing Olympics.

I asked her, "Are you Michael's wife?"

"No, Dede is at their home in Spain looking after their two young children. I'm his cousin, and this is his uncle and a friend."

Barry is riding in his first Tour despite being a pro since 1998. He's come close several times when he was on Lance's Postal Service team and also the last couple of years when he rode for the Columbia team. He wrote a book about riding with Lance--"On the Postal Bus."

I asked how he was holding up. She said he'd taken a fall on stage two when nearly everyone fell and scraped the skin off both his butt cheeks. It makes riding less than comfortable. She said the pressure is somewhat off him now that his teammate Wiggins has fallen out of contention. Rather than a podium spot, he's merely hoping to make the top ten, still a long shot at this point.

With the peloton not arriving until after 6:30 I lost over an hour of daylight of riding time, a crucial hour as I'm now in another 250 mile race ducking under the peloton's route skipping the next two stages hoping to meet up with them in Rodez for a couple of stages before the Pyrenees. I'm forced to take this "short-cut" as there is a dastardly 70 mile transfer from Mende at the end of Stage Twelve to the start of Stage Thirteen in Rodez.

I intersected Stage Eleven last night, but couldn't wait for the caravan and the peloton to pass the next day as that would have cost me too much time, more than half a day. Though I've been off The Tour route now for the past 70 miles, 30 last night and 40 this morning, the riding has still been as glorious as ever through the beautiful French countryside. Even though there are regular water spouts along the road, I took a plunge in a river this morning for my first full-fledged bathing in a few days.

Later, George

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gap, Ville Arrivée

Friends: Its Bastille Day. Who will explode next? Yesterday it was Evans. The stage before it was Lance. It could be anybody in this heat and another day in the Alps. It doesn't look as if it will be Schleck or Contador, the two at the top of the standings who are beginning to distance themselves from the field.

In the era of Lance's dominance, everyone was racing for second place. This year the race is for third, while Schleck and Contador battle it out for first. They went at it yesterday hammer and tong up the Col de Madeleine but neither could drop the other. It was another spectacular day of racing with racers strung out for miles trying to survive the heat and the fifteen-mile climb.

Evans looked like the most miserable man on the planet as he fell further and further behind, losing eight minutes and plummeting from first to eighteenth place. When he's struggling, no face shows more anguish than his. It looked as if he could burst into a torrent of tears at any moment. He may well have when he crossed the finish line, falling into the arms of his teammate who had accompanied him on the climb. They held each other helmet to helmet, still on their bikes, for a good minute or more--another poignant portrayal of the extraordinary emotional involvement of these racers, exulting tremendously in triumph and falling apart in defeat.

Wiggins, another favorite for the podium, lost five minutes, and now is sixteenth overall, seven minutes down. His Garmin teammate from last year, Ryder Hesjedal, finished just ahead of him and sits twelfth overall, a minute-and-a-half up on Wiggins. It will be a great triumph for the Garmin team to have Hesjedal finish ahead of Wiggins, who defected from Garmin for a huge salary from the English Sky team despite a year left on his contract.

I rode a few miles today on a category-two climb with a British family decked out in Sky uniforms. Mother and eight-year old daughter were on a tandem and father on his own bike. They were the first English fans I've met this year. They were typical English fans--well-informed and passionate. I had expected to be meeting many more of them with Cavendish and Wiggins major contenders, but there have been few to be seen. They had attended the English road race championships three weeks ago and had their picture taken by the Sky PR person for the team web-page wearing their Sky uniforms.

I camped last night just before the start of the five-mile category-two climb 27 miles from Gap. It's the second time this year that I've begun my day with a category-two climb. They're not as demanding as the category-ones,but significantly more so than the category threes. They frequently have grades as steep as the category ones, just not as long. They are not the best way to start the day.

I popped a few of the caffeinated gel tablets a Power Bar van had given me on an earlier stage. It is one of several sponsors that precedes the caravan by a couple of hours, along with a quartet of Nestles trucks giving out coffee. Its the first time I have resorted to caffeine this year. I have a few tablets of caffeine energy powder to put in my water bottle if necessary, but my legs have been holding up just fine.

I could have skipped the climb by staying on National Highway 85 yesterday evening after watching the last two hours of the day's stage in the town of Corps, giving me a 15 mile shorter and easier ride into Gap, but I was curious to see how packed the road would be with overnighting campers and to give the mountain scenery a gander off on the smaller roads the peloton would be riding. There hasn't seemed to be as many people following The Tour this year in campers, and last night was further confirmation. Despite the strain, having to climb an extra three thousand feet, I was rewarded by picture postcard mountain scenery and a quiet, cool campsite at nearly four thousand feet elevation. And it allowed me the encounter with the English family and also later a trio of Canadians.

It was the first day of The Tour for the Canadians, just the sort of people I love to encounter. They had just flown in with their bikes and rented a van. They hope to follow The Race for the next week. They were in ecstasy, especially with the performance of Hesjedal. One of the three pulled out a camera every minute or so as they rode along for another shot of the scenery and his comrades.

Getting an early start on the stage two days ago out of Cambery allowed me to arrive in Gap six hours ahead of the peloton. I was lucky to find this Internet cafe open on Bastille Day. I arrived so early the jumbo television screen had yet to be erected at the finish line, my destination once I send this off, so I'm not sure which side of the course I need to return to. It can be complicated to get from one side to the other with barriers for blocks and blocks if I guess wrong.

I struggled to find The Tour route out of Cambery, as I was half a day ahead of the course marker crew. I managed to get 25 miles into the course that evening. I expected to encounter the course marker crew sometime that morning going about their business. It was a hot and sticky night in the tent, so I stopped at the first town water spigot I came upon after five miles to splash some water on me and to wash some clothes and my Tupperware bowl.

When I resumed riding, just ahead was a yellow course marker, just put in place. I was simultaneously thrilled to now have the way marked for me, but also disappointed that I had missed the crew in action. It wasn't even nine a.m. I didn't expect them to catch up to me for at least another hour. They certainly got an early start.

Only twice before in my years of following The Tour have I been just ahead of them, with the chance to catch them, missing them both times. I was primed today, with my camera ready for a photo of their van stacked with markers and also a shot of the device they use to wrap the metal band that holds the marker in place and can't be removed by hand, one of the reasons I am able to collect them and others can't since I have a pair of pliers among my tools.

I have already collected five of them this year, my usual quota. I usually keep them wrapped in my purple towel on the back of my bike, but it is useful at times to have one on display on top, authenticating me as a Tour follower. It came in handy one evening when Vincent and I were looking for water. We stopped by the City Hall in a small town, knowing there is frequently a toilet or a water spigot available for public use. I couldn't spot either.

The door to the town hall was open and just inside was a group of people around a conference table. One man saw me circling about and came out to query me. I said I was looking for "un fontaine pour un peu de l'eau." He saw the course market on the back of my bike and realized I was following The Tour, which would be passing by the next day. He said he had some water and disappeared back inside, without taking my water bottle. A minute later he emerged with four half-liter Vittel bottles of cold water, the same bottles that the caravan passes out.

I have yet to scavenge a team water bottle yet though, as of the nine stages so far, only once have I been stationed along the Tour course when the peloton passed and then followed along after them. That one time was on Stage Seven in mountainous terrain with lots of other spectators scavenging after the racers had passed. With it so hot, the riders are tossing bottles left and right. I have targeted a couple of stages before the Pyrenees in the next few days where I will be caught mid-stage and will be able to ride the course after the riders. I always come back with as many water bottles as course markers. All it takes its one good isolated stretch and I could more than meet my quota.

I am looking forward to a fireworks display tonight. A small town a mile from where I was camping launched theirs last night, visible through the mesh of my tent.

Later, George

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chambery, Stage Ten Départ

Friends: Lance's collapse was just one of several huge stories in yesterday's first truly dramatic stage of The Tour as it presented the peloton its first genuine test in the mountains with two category one climbs, both coming in the last thirty miles of the stage.

Andy Schleck dropping Contador in the last kilometer was a stunning surprise and Evans taking yellow, though not unexpected, could greatly alter the complexion of the days ahead. Lance faltering in the blistering heat could have happened to anyone, but cracking on the final climb and losing twelve minutes was almost unimaginable considering his form and his renowned determination. At least he didn't make Chris Horner stick with him the entire way and let him go on ahead, so he's still somewhat in The Race as is Leipheimer. Lance left shepherding duties to one of his younger teammates.

The Race is over for Lance unless he does something crazy like Landis did four years ago when he lost eight minutes on one stage when he was in yellow and then regained it the next day after binging on testosterone. His momentous ride was considered the most incredible performance in the long history of The Tour. Too bad his drug test results didn't come until four days after The Tour had ended.

Contador may have been slightly off his form to be dropped by Schleck, but it is the first time that Schleck has been able to ride away from him in the mountains. He came into The Race saying he thought it was possible, that it was his dream to be able to look back and not see Contador on his wheel, but no one expected him to be able to do it. He gained ten seconds on him and a group of a dozen others winning his first Tour stage ever.

Evans would have begun the day in yellow if the French rider Chavanal hadn't surprised everyone with a truly inspired ride the day before, as if he had a blood-lust for the yellow jersey after wearing it for a day earlier in The Race. He attacked on the final nine-mile category two climb, while everyone else saved their energy for the next day's stage. Chavanal paid for it as he struggled in yesterday along with Lance. His comments in "L'Equipe" that he thought he could be a contender for the podium are now history.

"L'Equipe" also had a lengthy interview with Evans on the eve of his taking the lead. He expressed confidence that he could win The Race, though no one else except maybe his wife would agree. He said having a lead on his rivals at this point in The Race was unusual for him. In the past he has been a bit behind and has difficulty overcoming a deficit, as it isn't his style to be able to ride away from the elite climbers. He can generally stick with them, as he has great persistence. If he can do that, he'll stand on the top spot of the podium in Paris. He lost ten seconds to Schleck yesterday, but still has a twenty second lead, not much, but possibly enough, especially since he will gain time on him in the one remaining time trial on the penultimate stage in Bordeaux.

Ordinarily at the end of each stage the French post-race interviewer immediately pounces on the stage winner and then any French riders who might have animated the stage. Today he waited twelve minutes for Lance, showing no interest in Schleck or Evans or Contador. Lance knew he would be besieged when he crossed the line. He was the lone rider in his bunch to zip up his jersey as he approached the line so his sponsor's name could be fully recognized, and also sparing the world from close-ups of his pasty white chest.

He might have ridden away from the mob of reporters, but he was fully prepared for their questions, offering no excuses, admitting he'd had a "very bad day." He feared it would be, as he said he had suffered the day before in similar heat and humidity, but didn't lose any time because it wasn't as demanding of a stage.

Now he has two weeks of domestique duty to Leipheimer, who sits in eighth place. He is not unfamiliar to such work, deferring to him at the Giro last year and the past two Tours of California. He knew that might be his role this year at The Tour when he had an up and down early season. He will continue to make The Race interesting and could surprise the peloton with a burst of energy, not having to carefully ration it out to remain in competition.

Another significant story that is being overlooked is the performance of Christian Vande Velde's Canadian teammate Ryder Hesjedal, who nearly won the cobble stage and presently sits in sixth place. Last December at an appearance at Garmin's Chicago store Christian predicted that someone on his team could well be the surprise of The Tour, as he had been two years ago when he finished fourth and Wiggins was last year when he finished just behind Lance. A lot will depend on who is best at coping with the heat if it continues.

The peloton would have been quite envious of the conditions I had ascending the final nine mile climb of Saturday's stage four hours after them. It was so hot Chavanal's team director was squirting water on him as he made his ascent. Riders were grabbing bottles from spectators and immediately pouring them over their heads and down their backs, just as I do when I have water to spare.

I did the climb in a light rain and without the sun beating on me. Nasty storm clouds with thunder and lightning had moved in as I approached St. Claude at the start of the climb. I didn't know whether to seek shelter or to keep riding. I knew that the rain would feel good, so kept riding, not even bothering with my rain jacket. Dark caught me before I could reach the summit, but it was still cool the next morning when I completed the stage.

It took me a little over 24 hours to complete the Tournus-Las Rousses stage with its six climbs. I didn't reach Tournus until after ten p.m. the night before the stage began, two days and nearly 250 miles from Reims, so I was only able to bike one mile into the course that night.

Thanks to reasonable cops, I made it much further down the course than I hoped I might before being stopped, nearly 50 miles and over two of the climb. I was halted in a village half-way up the third climb. It was a perfect place to be marooned, as the town had a toilet publique with a sink. I parked myself on the road across from it and went over every twenty minutes to douse my shirt and head and refill my water bottle for the two-and-a-half hours I spent there. In this heat I make an extra effort to grab the bottles of water the Vittel sponsor passes out as it goes by, as they are somewhat chilled. The bottles are one item that are not thrown. One has to be ready for them and step out and grab.

There are four different newspapers being passed out by the caravan for people to read in the hour between its passing and the arrival of the racers. I make an extra effort, too, to grab "L'Equipe," the one item I am most eager to grab. If I fail to get one and some one near me does, I will trade just about everything else I have gathered for it.

I had expected to meet David the German cyclist here in Chambery tomorrow at noon, but he emailed saying the heat had dramatically slowed him down. That is not such bad news. It means I don't have to stick around and wait for him, but can start on Wednesday's stage nearly two days ahead of the peloton, right after I send this off.

There is a category one climb fifty miles into the stage. I will camp just before it tonight so I can climb it in the cool tomorrow morning. Tomorrow afternoon I will find a bar to watch the peloton tackle its first beyond category climb. They have today to rest up for it, the first of their two rest days. Contador will be out for revenge on Schleck. Evans will be battling to retain the yellow jersey. Lance will want to redeem himself. Wiggins will hope to stick with the lead group of climbers. Leipheimer would like to move up closer to the podium. And Hesjedal will get a chance to prove that he is for real. It only gets more exciting.

Later, George

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bigny-Sur-Ouche, France

Friends: If I didn't have the need to do better than 100 miles a day these two days to reach Tournus for Stage Seven before the peloton, I would have stopped in Brienne-le-Chateau and watched the final 90 minutes of Stage Five yesterday, but I pushed on for another hour to Vendeuvre-sur-Barse and saw the final half hour at the Bar de Paris with two other patrons and the bartender.

Three riders had a minute lead on the peloton with 14 miles to go. I hadn't missed any action during that extra hour on the road, not that I expected to on this flat, straightforward stage of 115 miles that I had ridden six weeks ago as I scouted the route.

I would have liked to have stopped earlier as much to escape the heat as to watch The Race. It was the first truly hot day of my summer in France, though the day before was a warm one too. I was stopping at every cemetery and village water spout I came upon to soak my shirt, douse my head and fill my empty water bottle with relatively cold water. I stopped at two small bars along the way once TV coverage of The Race began under the pretense of checking in on The Tour, but actually to fill a water bottle with the ice cold water they often have on tap. Neither of the Bar-Tabacs had TV, but they did have ice cold water from a bar tap as refreshing as I could hope for.

Mark Cavendish, the English sprinter who rides for the American Columbia team, had expected to have three stage wins by now after dominating the sprints last year, easily winning six of them, but he had yet to be a factor this year, crashing out of one and having his lead-out man actually beat him to the line the day before, so he had to be super-motivated to win this stage that all the experts had conceded to him before The Tour began.

And he came through, winning in a relative breeze. He let out such a forceful yell of delight, and relief, as he crossed the line with his arms upraised, he couldn't have opened his mouth any wider, even if a dentist had put a jack in it. Any hippo would have been mighty impressed by his jaw extension. He manages to vary his victory celebrations. He will be the favorite to win again today before The Race heads to the mountains tomorrow and the sprinters will be relegated to just chasing minor sprint points in the middle of the stages.

I will be tagging along behind the peloton for a few days after they pass me at about the two-thirds mark of tomorrow's stage, as I won't be able to beat them to the line, what with a final ten-mile climb that will take me two hours. I hope to watch the action in a bar at the start of the climb and then bike up it and start on the next day's stage.

There was no dew for the second straight night. Ian, the ringleader of the three Aussies that Vincent and I rode with for a day, had to be pleased, as he didn't bring along a tent, though he does have a protective holder for bananas. His two mates are sharing a tent, but its barely big enough for the two of them, let alone a third. He had no complaints though the night we camped with them nor the night afterward when we saw them later in the day.

The three of them are just winging it and having a grand, jolly time. They are bursting with the enthusiasm that infects all first-time visitors to The Tour, not only incredulous to be at The Tour, but incredulous at how it exceeds all their expectations. It is their first time in Europe. They are still getting used to the fact that not everyone speaks English. As we meandered our way out of Brussels they shouted in their Aussie English at pedestrians asking the way. Rarely was someone fluent enough to respond, though some tried. Out in the country when someone greeted them with a "Bonjour" they'd respond with a "g'day mate."

When we finally came upon the course markers indicating the route out of Brussels the peloton would be riding, it was the first time they were aware of them, as they hadn't ridden any of the first stage. I told them we no longer had to worry about asking for directions, all we had to do was follow the arrows. One commented, nodding toward a nearby woman, "I wouldn't mind asking her for directions."

The next day when we stopped at a supermarket for food, he was startled when a woman got out of her car on the left-hand side. He blurted to her, "Back home the driver gets out on the right hand side of the car. I'm still getting used to it being the other way around over here." She looked at him with a mixture of puzzlement and astonishment, then jerked her head around and headed into the store without saying a word. He thought she was being impudent and commented, "If I called her a dumb, fucking mol, I'm sure she would have understood me."

I had to ask Vincent what a "mol" was. "It's not something very nice, sort of like a slut," he said. My vocabulary was greatly increased being around these guys. I started referring to women as "sheilas" and would end my sentences with "mate" and even managed to sprinkle in a "fair dinkum" every once in a while.

I hope to cross path with these characters in the days to come, but there's no telling when or where. They will be taking the train sporadically to keep up, but do plan to make it to the Pyrenees towards the end of The Race.

Off to a bar now for the end of Stage Six and then fifty more miles to ride before dark.

Later, George

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Vitry le Francois, Off The Tour route

Friends: Just as planned, David, the German touring cyclist I met in Rotterdam, was waiting for me in a shady spot facing the jumbo television screen at the finish in Reims yesterday. But not according to plan, he wasn't able to bike out of Reims with me, as he'd broken his second spoke in a week and needed to replace his wheel.

Although there were dozens of the best bike mechanics in the world right there at the finish line with hundreds of wheels, not even Skippy with all his connections could get David a wheel in time to ride out of town with me, though Skippy did volunteer to build him a wheel if he could come up with a rim and spokes.

It was too late to find an open bike shop, so David had to wait until the next morning to get a wheel. I would fall behind schedule by over fifty crucial miles if I waited until then. We made arrangements to meet in Chambery, the departure city for Stage Ten in six days. I will be highly anticipating it as in the ninety minutes we had to talk watching the end of the race we had another fabulous conversation.

I want to hear more about his travels and his job as a bird-watcher. He earns as much as 400 euros a day making studies for large corporations that want to put in bridges or other towering structures that could effect migratory patterns. He's often summoned to work at sea for days at a time.

He's had a fascination with birds his entire life. As a seven-year old he was given his first pair of binoculars, mini-sized, to gaze upon the feathered creatures. He has a highly trained eye, able to identify hundreds of different species.

Oddly enough he has a fear of flying, so doesn't range as far in his travels as he'd like. He did make it to Iran on his bike, where he was kidnapped with two other cyclists and held for a month in 2002. He said I could google "David Sturm, kidnapped" and read all about it. I'm hoping to learn more first-hand.

As we talked, we were standing just past the outlet for all the team cars and other vehicles driving the race course shortly before the finish line. Skippy stood alongside us and greeted many of the team mechanics and others as they passed. He stuck his hand in the open rear window of the Lampre car and shook the hand of the mechanic to congratulate him for his rider Petacchi just winning the sprint, his second victory of the race.

Skippy and I

Everyone in the car had great beaming smiles. They weren't as extreme as those of Chavanal after his win two days ago in the rainy hills of the crash-filled Ardennes stage, but that one would have been hard to beat. As Chavanal sat in the small interview booth immediately after his win, he was practically levitating from joy. He'd already begun his interview before the peloton crossed the line three-and-a-half minutes after he did.

His teammates were equally ecstatic. Each of them barged in on the interview to give him a hearty hug, adding a little extra voltage to his smile. Though he is French, he rides for the Quick Step Belgian team. Most of his teammates are Belgian. His lone French teammate gave him kisses along with a hug. Eddie Merckx also stopped in to congratulate him, as the Quick Step team rides Merckx bikes. The interviewer stuck the microphone in Eddie's face for a few words. Watching such ecstasy is another of those great delights of being here for The Tour that give me an emotional jolt and make me glad that I am no where else.

Skippy has teamed up with a couple of Belgians following The Tour in a camper who had space for one more, so he's no longer looking for someone to drive his car. One of the Belgians is riding a hand-me-down bike of Johan Bruyneel, the man who guided Lance to his seven Tour victories and is alongside him again this year.

It will be a couple days before I will learn how it is working out for Skippy, as I'm bypassing the next two stages, taking a short cut directly to Stage Seven, the first mountain stage on Saturday, when Evans has a good chance to take the yellow jersey and make Vincent and all the Aussies happy. He's presently third behind two non-climbers, and has a lead of over a minute on Contador. I doubt I'll be able to make it to the finish line before the peloton for that stage as it has three category two climbs. It is going to be a tough two days to even reach the stage start before the peloton does, but I'll be giving it my all.

At least I won't have to worry about cops threatening to take my bike away or to throw me in jail these next two days, as Skippy has been threatened. I'm hoping that yesterday's stage in Reims was just an aberration of over zealous big-city cops putting the clamps down way too early.

The policy has always been that the course is closed to all but official vehicles three hours before the peloton is due at a particular point, but the majority of cops understand that the policy only applies to motorized vehicles and let us bicyclists keep riding for another hour up until shortly before the caravan is due to pass, about two hours before the peloton.

But we never know when we might be ordered off the course by a cop all too eager to start exerting his authority. It makes for a very anxiety-ridden final hour of riding. I feel like the sprinters with their nerves growing taunt as the finish approaches. The two Australian women I rode with that final hour yesterday were quite upset at the great arbitrariness of the enforcement of the policy. One was nearly in tears and said it had ruined what had been up to that point an utterly perfect day of cycling. They went from exalting to being quite pissed.

In that final push Vincent fell off the pace. We had agreed to meet at the jumbo television if we got separated, but he never made it, preventing us from a farewell after a great week together. If his wife will let him, he will most surely be back next year. Last year he lasted one stage. This year with all his extra conditioning he was still going strong after four stages. Maybe next year he'll be good for a week or more.

He trained hard this year, putting in several three or four hour rides a week and one hour a night on his trainer in his shed while his wife watched some soap-opera on TV that he had no interest in. When he showed up at The Tour last year he thought riding it would be a "dawdle." This year he came ready for action, knowing that it was anything but a "dawdle.".

Besides genuinely training for it, he had better gears for the climbing and also better distribution of the weight on his bike adding front panniers mounted on a nifty rack he designed and welded himself. He also slept better on an inflatable mattress rather than on an ensolite pad.

The one change he'll make next year will be a kickstand to keep his bike upright, so he can more easily load it in a field where he has nothing to lean his bike against, as often happens when we camp. I'll be very curious to see his latest design.

He might also bring along more small packets of Vegemite--not for himself, but to toss to Aussies along the road. He brought a few this year inspired by the items I toss that I gather from the caravan and don't care for. He delighted the Aussies with the Vegemite. He presented a pack to The Devil at the same time I gave him a travel brochure from his home town to let him know I had visited his museum while he was at the Tour de Suisse. He gave us both a twinkling smile of delight. He's featured this year in a commercial on The Tour broadcast, even though the producers of The Tour coverage rarely show him any more.

I haven't been able to do any tossing yet this year, as I haven't succeeded in gathering much from the caravan and what I have, I've given to Vincent, as he has four sons, aged thirty to twenty-two, and others to bring souvenirs.

I did have a decent haul in Reims, as I was far enough from the finish line when the caravan passed that I didn't have much competition. I gathered a couple of hats and some candy and a packet of detergent that I'll be able to distribute when I return to The Tour route. "L'Equipe" is among the thirty sponsors again this year, but I have yet to see them give out any of their treasured newspapers. All I've seen them giving away are mini-vinyl fold-up Frisbees. That is one of the few items I am keeping.

I gave out four more of my German flags yesterday before the Germany-Spain semi-final match. Two of them went to a family in a small town who provided me water. I hadn't been able to find a cemetery or water spigot in the previous three villages and I was getting desperate as night neared. I noticed a spigot on a house. The window was open next to it and I could see people inside.

I called in and asked if I could fill my bottles. They said the water inside was preferable and filled them for me. They were watching the game and rooting for Germany, so I dug out flags for them. Earlier in the day I gave flags to Skippy's two Belgian mates. I still have seven or eight left. I was hoping to distribute them for the championship game, but I learned this morning from a cyclist that Germany won't be playing, as they fell to Spain 1-0. I have an orange Dutch flowery necklace on the back of my bike I scavenged in Rotterdam. If it had been a German-Dutch final I might have had difficulty choosing who to root for. Now I won't.

Later, George

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Reims, Stage Four Arrivée

Friends: It was a desperate race against the clock to the finish today for Vincent and I. We had 76 miles to ride from our campsite along the road where we stopped last night at 10:15. We pitched out tents at a pull-off with two RVs, hoping they might be TV-equipped and watching the World Cup semi-final match between Holland and Uruguay that was down to its last few minutes. Twenty minutes before we had peered in at a bar and saw the Dutch go ahead two to one. We didn't have the time to watch the rest of the game. I was counting on finding an RV following The Tour parked along the road with a TV. When we saw a pair of them just before it was too dark to keep riding, we thought we were in luck. But neither of the RVs had a television, so we had to wait until today to learn from a cyclist along the road the Dutch held on to win 3-2.

We needed to get to Reims by three, before the roads were closed, two hours before the peloton was due. When we set out at eight this morning we figured we could do it in a little under six hours of riding time, which gave us one hour for breaks. We were set back when after 15 miles Vincent broke a spoke, no doubt weakened by yesterday's treacherous cobbles. He had taken a fall in the third stretch of cobbles, perhaps contributing to the weakening of his spoke. I missed seeing his spill as I was a little bit a head. Repairing the spoke took half an hour along the road, time for both of us to add a few more calories.

We got a lift a couple hours later when a hard-riding Australian caught up to us and rode with us for half an hour before speeding on ahead, unencumbered by any gear. He is trying to ride the whole route, assisted by his wife driving a van, transporting him between each day's stage finish to the next day's start. He had seen us in Rotterdam, but has seen no other touring cyclists or anyone attempting what he is trying to do. He asked if I had ever encountered anyone over the years trying to do what he. The only one I knew of was Jesse the Texan, who I met two years ago and had hoped to connect with last year. I had also seen a guy being motor-paced by a motorcycle a couple times one year, though I never spoke with him. He appeared as if he was trying to ride the whole route.

There are few Australian flags along the route this year, but a lot of Australians riding the course. The past few years the Australian flags greatly outnumbered the American flags after Cadel Evans' back to back second place finishes. But after Evans finished 30th last year, the Aussies evidently have given up on him. This year there are more American flags, though just a small fraction of what there had been during Lance's run of seven straight wins.

Skippy flagged us down yesterday in the middle of the fourth stretch of cobbles beside a camper with an American flag on it being driven by a couple from Boulder, Colorado. Skippy is the unofficial greeter of all English speakers following the course. He had stopped to have a chat when he saw the American flag and asked them if they could brew up a pot of coffee. When Vincent and I arrived, it was only a couple of minutes until there was coffee.

Not long after, the intrepid band of three goofball Aussies that Vincent and I met in Brussels and rode with for a day rolled up. They were happy to have some coffee too. The oldest of the Aussies, a 55-year old who races as a veteran, was exulting that he was having the greatest ride he'd ever had on a bike this day. He was gushing over the beautiful green countryside, the meticulous fields without any fences and the thrill of riding the cobbles.

Today Vincent and I were marveling over the paucity of cyclists riding the course. It is such a joy to be riding the course route it was puzzling that so few are doing it, fewer than any of the years I've been doing it. We had seen only one other in four hours until Keith the Australian with the sag wagon came by. An hour later we were joined by two Australian women just after we had been ordered off our bikes just a little after two, way too early. We walked to the top of a hill and were back on our way for twenty minutes until a cop directed us off on a dirt road. We were within six miles of the finish at this point and knew once we reached the sprawl of Reims we would have alternate streets to ride.

After a mile on the dirt road we returned to the course. We walked past the cop at the intersection and rode less than a mile when we were ordered off our bikes by two cops on motorcycles. We walked a bit and began riding again. For the first time ever the same cops came back around and strongly reprimanded us, waving their fingers, saying, "This is your second warning."

Soon after we came to a sidewalk along the road. We stuck to that for a few blocks until we saw bicyclists on the road, so we joined them. It was almost a set-up, as the two gendarmes on motorcycles pounced on us within a couple of blocks. They were red-faced livid. The younger of the two spoke in English for the first time and said this was our third and last warning. He said if we rode on the course again he would confiscate our bicycles. He wouldn't even let us ride on the sidewalk at this point the final two miles to the finish.

Just past the two kilometer arch I saw a shop that looked like it was a cyber cafe. It wasn't, but the owner said I could use his computer. I can't take up any more of his time. I'll sign off and head to the finish line giant television hoping to meet David the German touring cyclist and then bid farewell to Vincent, who has to begin heading back to Paris.

Later, George