Friends: Among the many signs along Saturday's time trial course was "Merci Les Francias--Chavanel, Casar, Riblon, Voeckler, Fedrigo," thanking the five French riders who won six stages among them, one more than Cavendish. It was such a big deal to the French to have won so many stages that President Sarkozy invited the five French riders, along with the French rider who won the polka dot jersey, to his residence in Paris the evening that The Race finished on the Chaps Elysees.
Its been twenty-five years since a French rider has won The Tour--Hinault in 1985--and its been twenty years since a French rider has even been in contention--Fignon losing to LeMond in 1989 by eight seconds. I would love to ride The Tour in a year when there is a French contender to enjoy the heightened interest and excitement of the French along the course and throughout the day.
When Chavanel assumed the yellow jersey after his second stage victory, the road was full of Chavanel graffiti and signs. People shouted out "Chavanel" at me as I passed several hours ahead of the peloton. In a year with a French rider vying for first, especially after this prolonged dry spell, the country would go crazy. The bars would be packed with people watching The Race on television and the roads extra thick with spectators.
Chavanel acknowledged he could feel the hope of all the French that he could stay in yellow until Paris. He said he would try, and offered encouragement, saying he felt stronger than ever and felt confident he could stick with Contador and Schleck in the mountains as he had finished just behind them on Mont Ventoux last year and rode with the leaders on the L'Alpe d'Huez stage this year in the Dauphine-Libere race just before The Tour. But when he faltered in the Alps, as expected, ending The Race in thirty-first, one hour behind Contador, he admitted that he knew it was "practically impossible" for him to win The Tour. A reporter asked, "Practically?" Chavanel corrected himself and said, "No, I meant to say, totally impossible."
Such thinking incenses "Fignon," a commentator for television. He has harshly criticized the French riders over the years, and in particular Chavanel and Moreau, for not trying harder and having such a defeatist attitude. It caused a war of words in the press the last few days of The Tour. Chavanel said, "I know he has been calling us imbeciles for years, but I don't pay any attention to him."
The French riders do have a battle among themselves to be the highest placed French rider. The winner this year was John Gadret, who finished nineteenth, ten minutes and three positions ahead of 39-year old Moreau, riding in his last Tour. Gadret was so intent on being the highest placed French rider that he defied his team director and team leader Roche on a stage in the mountains when Roche had a flat tire and was ordered to stop and give him his wheel. Roche was so incensed that he didn't think he could ever speak to him again. In his column that he writes for an Irish newspaper Roche reported that if Gadret was found dead in his hotel room, he would be a prime suspect. Roche ended up finishing The Race in fifteenth, seven minutes ahead of Gadret. He would have finished at least one position higher if not for Gadret's insubordination. It will be interesting to see if he makes the AG2R team roster next year for The Tour.
I returned to Chicago yesterday as aglow as ever from my Tour experience. I may have ridden more miles of The Tour course this year than any of my previous six. I rode eighteen of the twenty stages, some in their entirety and some just a segment, missing the final one into Paris and the third of the four stages in the Alps. I reached the finish line five times before the peloton and was able to watch the last couple of hours on the giant screen as well as the peloton passing underneath it. I saw them zip by on the road in the middle of a stage six other times. The most memorable was in the thick crowd on the last of the cobbles on stage three, probably my most memorable moment of this year's Tour.
I can't say any of my Tours has been better than another, but this was an exceptional one, being able to ride the first four stages and prologue with Vincent and then spending three days with Yvon in Pau, on the fringe of the Pyrenees. I shared more time with Skippy this year than any other year and met quite a few other interesting devotees of The Tour. After next year I will be half way to the number of most Tours ridden by a rider--sixteen by Joop Zootemelk. I will be looking forward to it all year. And looking forward to perhaps Chris Horner riding as a team leader for Radioshack and Heyerdal and Vande Velde teaming up for Garmin. They may not be a threat to Contador or Schleck, but they could cause a stir and get more Americans to pay attention to The Race.
But in the mean time, I'm off to Telluride in a couple of weeks, where I'll spend a month working for the Telluride Film Festival and also plotting a fall ride with a Telluride friend who has done considerable bicycle touring himself. We plan to ride from Athens to Turkey and then through the Middle East. Turkey has long beckoned. It will be nice to finally make its acquaintance.