Friends: Today, the third Monday of The Race is traditionally its second rest day. Not this year. The racers are being pushed for an extra two days in the Pyrenees before they are granted a day of rest after nine straight days of punishing racing. Maybe The Tour organizers have an affection for Pau, a large city that is a frequent rest day stop, as it will be this Wednesday, just four stages before the end of The Race.
These nine days of non-stop racing are another factor making this the most demanding route in years. Lance says its the hardest course he's ridden. Henri Desgrange would be smiling his approval. The Tour's first director said it was his dream to design a route so tough that the winner was the only one left in The Race. He was notorious for his draconian measures. He didn't allow derailleurs, because he said it made climbing the mountains too easy. Nor did he allow the racers to discard layers of clothing if they started with a rain coat or extra shirt if it was cold. The stages were so long in the early days, at times they'd start before daylight. A rider had to finish each stage with whatever clothes he started it with or be penalized.
Two leading riders one year in the '20s were so incensed with Desgrange they quit in mid-race in protest and, like Floyd Landis is presently doing, went to a journalist and confessed the only way to find the energy to keep riding was to take all manner of drugs. Back then drugs weren't illegal. That didn't happen until the 1960s after the death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux from amphetamines.
It's been two days now since I've witnessed the racers on the road, thought I rode the first 30 mils of Sunday's stage before cutting over to the start of today's stage and riding its first 45 miles as far as St. Girons, then heading directly to Pau rather than venturing into the Pyrenees. That I'll do tomorrow with Yvon. I last saw the peloton on Saturday as they rampaged down a sight incline through a majestic arcade of plane trees. It was such a picturesque spot that one of The Tour photographers on a motorcycle stopped several trees ahead of me to shoot the peloton as it came by.
It was on the outskirts of Realmont and several miles past the feed zone. I thought I'd stop at the feed zone, but since the gendarmes let me keep riding I stuck to it until I came to this stretch with no other spectators. It wasn't the best spot for caravan booty as they came screaming down the incline at top speed with no one but me to toss items to.
When the peloton came around the bend they were in single file. I was surprised to see one rider peel off and ride on his own on the side of the road closest to me. I figured he might have had a mechanical problem, but he wasn't holding up his arm when that happens, signaling his team car that he needs assistance. As he neared I could see he was holding a sausage in his hand down below his waist. And then when he got closer I could see it was his wiener. He was giving it a final wag before stuffing it back in his shorts.
Several hours later, as I closed in on Revel, the stage finish, an hour after the racers had arrived, a steady stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic was leaving the city. Mixed in were several of the team buses (Radioshack, Columbia, Rabobank, Euskatel) and their accompanying team cars with bikes on their roofs.
The buses are grandiose emporiums that would be the envy of any touring rock band. I've never gotten more than a peak inside, but I have seen magazine spreads featuring their many luxuries. I could well picture the racers relaxing in their lounge chairs recovering from their hard day in the saddle. They'd be swigging ice cold beverages and receiving massages while listening to their ipods or watching replays of the day's action.
I felt not an ounce of envy for them. I felt as if I was the lucky one. I was still out riding my bike, and I wasn't being delivered to a hotel, but would spend the night in the cozy comfort of my tent in the tranquil countryside. I was happy to be able to ride with contentment at my own pace, not being barked at by a team director to pick up the pace or chase down a break or come back for water bottles. Nor was I under the scrutiny of hundreds of journalists and thousands of fans, only myself and whatever cycling gods there may be. I was pleasing myself and I was certain I was pleasing them as well. But I greatly appreciate the effort the racers give and the great beauty of the sport.
And then several hours later after I was beyond Revel the huge semi-trailer trucks carrying television gear and all the construction material for the finish line cluster of stands and buildings began passing me on the way to the end of the next day's stage, where they would be re-erected. It is a staggeringly large operation that can't be appreciated without actually seeing it.
I had to consult my map to find The Tour route out of Revel, as the course markers had been prematurely pilfered, and not just a haphazard few that occurs on occasion, but all of them for over fifteen miles. This is the second such stretch I've encountered this year, the other out of Las Rousses in the Jura Mountains on Stage Eight. This could be an alarming trend. I've also noticed other brazen taking of the signs before the peloton has passed unlike any other year--guys walking along the course with a course marker under their arm.
I was partially culpable for one such incident. I met an Italian/French couple (Paulo and Nicole) yesterday afternoon. They were four months into a six month bicycle tour. They had accidentally stumbled upon The Tour route. They noticed a course marker on the back of my bike. We met in a small town. They were just leaving as I arrived. I needed to eat, but we agreed to meet 15 miles down the road at St. Girons at a bar to watch the last two hours of The Race.
Two miles later the road went through a spectacular natural cavern for half a mile. They were so impressed by it, they stopped there and waited for me. Paulo was proud to show me the course marker he had just plundered. I told him that was a no-no, as they shouldn't be taken until after the peloton has passed, which wasn't until tomorrow.
It was surprising that his wife Nicole would let him take one, as she had grown up in Marseille and could expound on what an integral part of French culture The Tour is and had to know that the course markers are not to be taken until after the peloton has passed. They were otherwise an exceptionally enlightened and good-hearted couple. They were utterly aglow, as if they were enlightened souls, absolutely loving the bicycle touring life.
They have devoted several months a year to traveling by bicycle the past five years after having a life-transforming experience hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compestela. They came to the realization that there is more to life than work and now limit themselves to six months of work a year, she as a nurse and he working in a supermarket. We were all delighted to meet kindred spirits. You can read about their travels at http://soloconlegambe.wordpress.com We couldn't continue on together as we were headed in different directions after St. Girons--they to visit an abbey and I more directly to Pau to meet up with Yvon.