Thursday, July 8, 2010

Vitry le Francois, Off The Tour route

Friends: Just as planned, David, the German touring cyclist I met in Rotterdam, was waiting for me in a shady spot facing the jumbo television screen at the finish in Reims yesterday. But not according to plan, he wasn't able to bike out of Reims with me, as he'd broken his second spoke in a week and needed to replace his wheel.

Although there were dozens of the best bike mechanics in the world right there at the finish line with hundreds of wheels, not even Skippy with all his connections could get David a wheel in time to ride out of town with me, though Skippy did volunteer to build him a wheel if he could come up with a rim and spokes.

It was too late to find an open bike shop, so David had to wait until the next morning to get a wheel. I would fall behind schedule by over fifty crucial miles if I waited until then. We made arrangements to meet in Chambery, the departure city for Stage Ten in six days. I will be highly anticipating it as in the ninety minutes we had to talk watching the end of the race we had another fabulous conversation.

I want to hear more about his travels and his job as a bird-watcher. He earns as much as 400 euros a day making studies for large corporations that want to put in bridges or other towering structures that could effect migratory patterns. He's often summoned to work at sea for days at a time.

He's had a fascination with birds his entire life. As a seven-year old he was given his first pair of binoculars, mini-sized, to gaze upon the feathered creatures. He has a highly trained eye, able to identify hundreds of different species.

Oddly enough he has a fear of flying, so doesn't range as far in his travels as he'd like. He did make it to Iran on his bike, where he was kidnapped with two other cyclists and held for a month in 2002. He said I could google "David Sturm, kidnapped" and read all about it. I'm hoping to learn more first-hand.

As we talked, we were standing just past the outlet for all the team cars and other vehicles driving the race course shortly before the finish line. Skippy stood alongside us and greeted many of the team mechanics and others as they passed. He stuck his hand in the open rear window of the Lampre car and shook the hand of the mechanic to congratulate him for his rider Petacchi just winning the sprint, his second victory of the race.

Skippy and I

Everyone in the car had great beaming smiles. They weren't as extreme as those of Chavanal after his win two days ago in the rainy hills of the crash-filled Ardennes stage, but that one would have been hard to beat. As Chavanal sat in the small interview booth immediately after his win, he was practically levitating from joy. He'd already begun his interview before the peloton crossed the line three-and-a-half minutes after he did.

His teammates were equally ecstatic. Each of them barged in on the interview to give him a hearty hug, adding a little extra voltage to his smile. Though he is French, he rides for the Quick Step Belgian team. Most of his teammates are Belgian. His lone French teammate gave him kisses along with a hug. Eddie Merckx also stopped in to congratulate him, as the Quick Step team rides Merckx bikes. The interviewer stuck the microphone in Eddie's face for a few words. Watching such ecstasy is another of those great delights of being here for The Tour that give me an emotional jolt and make me glad that I am no where else.

Skippy has teamed up with a couple of Belgians following The Tour in a camper who had space for one more, so he's no longer looking for someone to drive his car. One of the Belgians is riding a hand-me-down bike of Johan Bruyneel, the man who guided Lance to his seven Tour victories and is alongside him again this year.

It will be a couple days before I will learn how it is working out for Skippy, as I'm bypassing the next two stages, taking a short cut directly to Stage Seven, the first mountain stage on Saturday, when Evans has a good chance to take the yellow jersey and make Vincent and all the Aussies happy. He's presently third behind two non-climbers, and has a lead of over a minute on Contador. I doubt I'll be able to make it to the finish line before the peloton for that stage as it has three category two climbs. It is going to be a tough two days to even reach the stage start before the peloton does, but I'll be giving it my all.

At least I won't have to worry about cops threatening to take my bike away or to throw me in jail these next two days, as Skippy has been threatened. I'm hoping that yesterday's stage in Reims was just an aberration of over zealous big-city cops putting the clamps down way too early.

The policy has always been that the course is closed to all but official vehicles three hours before the peloton is due at a particular point, but the majority of cops understand that the policy only applies to motorized vehicles and let us bicyclists keep riding for another hour up until shortly before the caravan is due to pass, about two hours before the peloton.

But we never know when we might be ordered off the course by a cop all too eager to start exerting his authority. It makes for a very anxiety-ridden final hour of riding. I feel like the sprinters with their nerves growing taunt as the finish approaches. The two Australian women I rode with that final hour yesterday were quite upset at the great arbitrariness of the enforcement of the policy. One was nearly in tears and said it had ruined what had been up to that point an utterly perfect day of cycling. They went from exalting to being quite pissed.

In that final push Vincent fell off the pace. We had agreed to meet at the jumbo television if we got separated, but he never made it, preventing us from a farewell after a great week together. If his wife will let him, he will most surely be back next year. Last year he lasted one stage. This year with all his extra conditioning he was still going strong after four stages. Maybe next year he'll be good for a week or more.

He trained hard this year, putting in several three or four hour rides a week and one hour a night on his trainer in his shed while his wife watched some soap-opera on TV that he had no interest in. When he showed up at The Tour last year he thought riding it would be a "dawdle." This year he came ready for action, knowing that it was anything but a "dawdle.".

Besides genuinely training for it, he had better gears for the climbing and also better distribution of the weight on his bike adding front panniers mounted on a nifty rack he designed and welded himself. He also slept better on an inflatable mattress rather than on an ensolite pad.

The one change he'll make next year will be a kickstand to keep his bike upright, so he can more easily load it in a field where he has nothing to lean his bike against, as often happens when we camp. I'll be very curious to see his latest design.

He might also bring along more small packets of Vegemite--not for himself, but to toss to Aussies along the road. He brought a few this year inspired by the items I toss that I gather from the caravan and don't care for. He delighted the Aussies with the Vegemite. He presented a pack to The Devil at the same time I gave him a travel brochure from his home town to let him know I had visited his museum while he was at the Tour de Suisse. He gave us both a twinkling smile of delight. He's featured this year in a commercial on The Tour broadcast, even though the producers of The Tour coverage rarely show him any more.

I haven't been able to do any tossing yet this year, as I haven't succeeded in gathering much from the caravan and what I have, I've given to Vincent, as he has four sons, aged thirty to twenty-two, and others to bring souvenirs.

I did have a decent haul in Reims, as I was far enough from the finish line when the caravan passed that I didn't have much competition. I gathered a couple of hats and some candy and a packet of detergent that I'll be able to distribute when I return to The Tour route. "L'Equipe" is among the thirty sponsors again this year, but I have yet to see them give out any of their treasured newspapers. All I've seen them giving away are mini-vinyl fold-up Frisbees. That is one of the few items I am keeping.

I gave out four more of my German flags yesterday before the Germany-Spain semi-final match. Two of them went to a family in a small town who provided me water. I hadn't been able to find a cemetery or water spigot in the previous three villages and I was getting desperate as night neared. I noticed a spigot on a house. The window was open next to it and I could see people inside.

I called in and asked if I could fill my bottles. They said the water inside was preferable and filled them for me. They were watching the game and rooting for Germany, so I dug out flags for them. Earlier in the day I gave flags to Skippy's two Belgian mates. I still have seven or eight left. I was hoping to distribute them for the championship game, but I learned this morning from a cyclist that Germany won't be playing, as they fell to Spain 1-0. I have an orange Dutch flowery necklace on the back of my bike I scavenged in Rotterdam. If it had been a German-Dutch final I might have had difficulty choosing who to root for. Now I won't.

Later, George

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