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


Jeanie said...

Great post, George! Always learn lots when I read you!

Andrew said...

That was a great stage, I really felt for the poor bugger who was caught just before the finish after being out there on his own for so long.

I really have to get back to France for another cycling trip...