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 maximebouet.wifeo.com. 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.