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

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