Friends: Vincent and I were joined for the first half hour out of Rotterdam of the stage one route yesterday morning by Skippy and a German touring cyclist I met the day before who intends to try to follow The Tour. He was committed though to watching the Prologue, unlike Vincent and I, and had left all his gear back at his hotel.
He was having regrets as we pedaled along following the yellow markers and actually contemplated rushing back to his hotel for his gear and hiring a taxi to drive him back to us. That was a bit far fetched. Instead, we hope to meet in Reims at the finish of stage four under the giant television. I sure hope it works out as he is a quite fascinating fellow, a 41 year old who earns his living as a bird watcher. He's never owned a car and is such a fanatic cyclist he has a banner on his home in Bremen that reads, "The bicycle is the noblest invention of man," the William Sarayon quote. He has toured extensively.
We might have a mini peloton of our own then as Vincent and I just met three other Aussies biking The Tour route here at the finish line in Brussels who asked if they could join us. I'm not sure how long we will stick together as rather than biking from Rotterdam to Brussels, they took a train. We'll at least do 25 miles or so tonight after the stage finish and camp together, and then see how it goes tomorrow. One is a bike shop owner with a very lively personality.
This is what I thought following The Tour would be like when I first did it six years ago, meeting loads of other touring cyclists biking The Route. I have met a few over the years, such as Vincent, but none have been able to last more than a stage, as was the case with Vincent last year. He returned this year much better conditioned.
We biked over 90 miles yesterday until 9:30 pm, just taking a two and a half hour break to watch the Prologue in a bar after Germany's four to nothing annihilation of Argentina in the World Cup. Vincent had enough energy to be up before me this morning, arising at seven preparing to go well before our hoped for 8:30 start for the final sixty miles to the finish line.
Getting started extra early meant we were under no pressure to get to Brussels before the course was closed down. We could ride at a leisurely pace, just as yesterday, not sapping our legs of any unnecessary energy. We would have been an extra fifteen miles down the course last night if we had been able to follow the course markers. Shortly after we left the Rotterdam metropolis the road became a cars only route and we were forced off on bike paths away from the road.
It was not only frustrating not to have the way clearly ad easily marked for us, but it was equally frustrating not to be going past all the homes and businesses that the peloton would pass as many of them were decorated with bikes and signs celebrating The Tour. It had become just another ride, pleasant enough on bike paths, but it was not a Tour experience at all. We had to waste considerable time looking at maps and asking directions. I will be very happy if The Tour does not return to Holland for at least twenty years. We took one five mile loop out to the North Sea returning to the point we started from. Among the people we asked directions of were a couple of German fans on the way to a bar for the game who did not have any flags and were thrilled to take a couple of mine.
All our delays meant we arrived in the large town of Goes an hour later than we otherwise would have. It made it much easier to find a supermarket and a bar with a television, as we hadn't seen any in the few small towns we had passed through out along Holland's distant North Sea coast.
We had been riding in a misty rain out along the coast, so weren't entirely surprised to see umbrellas along the Prologue course when the bartender switched the station from the World Cup to The Tour. It was a Dutch broadcast, so heavy attention was placed on the nine Rababonk riders of the only Dutch team in The Tour. Each was interviewed before and after their ride. As always we could feel a great sense of warm familiarity watching the riders on the course, having ridden it several times.
Lance was the third to the last rider to start. It was clear from the start he had regained his time trial form. He hadn't pounded the pedals so hard in either of the time trials last year. He didn't win it, but his fourth place finish, ahead of all the contenders, means he could well be a genuine threat.
It was eight pm when Vincent and I were back on the road. Our goal was to ride an hour and start looking for a place to camp. We both felt good when nine came around, so we didn't press the issue, waiting for a truly inviting place to camp. We were riding along a railroad tracks with a forest on the other side, but there were high weeds blocking the tracks. It was half an hour before we came to a service road over the tracks that led to a nice secluded hollow between the forest and an autobahn. We both had energy enough to keep riding and the sun was still well above the horizon, but we didn't care to overdo it. We were able to set our tents up in a meadow rather than having to risk scratching up our legs going into the forest.
The sound of the minimal traffic was no bother to Vincent after having spent the past six nights in a dorm room at the hostel. If Vincent learned anything from the experience it was the amazing variety of sounds the human animal can make when sleeping. Not all are pleasant. It forced Vincent to buy ear plugs for the first time. The hostel sells them. They are a big seller, that can be purchased at any time as there is some at the desk twenty four hours a day..
With ample time to reach the finish line today we could stop and take photos of whatever we wished. Belgium as always offered up quite a variety of bicycle tributes. A favorite Belgian tribute to the peloton is homes hanging local club cycling jerseys as well as jerseys from the pro teams from their windows and on clothes lines in their front yard. Cranes were also a popular item along the route dangling bikes or Vive Le Tour and other banners.
The Tour passed through Eddie Merck's home town Miese just six miles from the finish. There were two cranes hoisting large banners of Eddie on his bike during his heyday with that Cannibal look of his. I stopped to ask a police officer if there was a Merckx statue in town. There wasn't. He asked where I was from. When I said Chicago he said, "You've heard of Merckx in America?" "Of course, he's the greatest."
French fries, "frites," are almost as popular as bicycle racing in Belgian. Someone had created a three foot high sculpture of a bag of frites topped with ketchup on one side and mayonnaise on the other and mounted it on a high pedestal along the road with a bicycle in front of it. It looked like a high mountain peak. I also had to take a photo of a ladder mounted on the side of a house facing the peloton placed at a seven degree angle with several bicycles on top of it as if they were on a mountain climb.
There were quite a few businesses along the road with tents and tables set up in their parking lots and a large screen televising the action. It being a Sunday and this being Belgium The Race was being broadcast from the very start, not just the last two hours as is generally the case in France, so we could stop and check on the action. There was an early three person break. Now that I've filed this report I can return to the finish line television and watch the last ninety minutes with Vincent and our three new mates.
There is no better place to be in July than at The Tour.