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.