Monday, June 28, 2010

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Friends: I gave my legs a good final test to see how Tour ready they are with a three-day 300-mile race to make it to the Green Butterfly Bar in Amsterdam by 4 p.m. today to catch the Amsterdam-Slovakia World Cup match. I will have many such a race, though not necessarily as long, in the days to come, trying to get to a Tour stage finish before the course is closed.

Eelco and I had made the bar our rendezvous point before knowing there would be a Dutch game today. We arbitrarily set our meeting time at six p.m., so I moved it up for myself by two hours to catch the game.

I would have made it in ample time if I hadn't lost a couple of hours trying to extricate myself from the clutches of Hamburg three days ago and then another hour in my last twenty miles of Germany when the road suddenly turned into a no-bike zone. It was no fun riding through the industrial wasteland of western Hamburg of oil refineries and factories contending with 18-wheelers in a rush.

It was a mini-nightmare of a different stripe trying to make my exit from Germany. It was as if I were being held prisoner. I was biking this way and that trying to find the bike route out when an older couple out on a Sunday ride came along and gave me their detailed bike route map. It helped considerably, but I still had a fair amount of orienteering to do to find my way out of the country. I was wishing I hadn't stopped riding at 8:30 the night before to watch the US-Ghana game and had instead just made a dash on that final fifteen-mile stretch out of the county on a road that prohibited bikes. I might have been able to get away with it, as there hadn't been much traffic anyway on a Saturday evening.

The bike route signs through The Netherlands had been so good I thought I was going to have an easy time of it all the way to Amsterdam, but the final ten miles it became too complicated for there to be an adequate number of signs and I frittered away another half hour or more having to stop to ask the way and making a few wrong turns. But once I got into the metropolitan area there were so many bicyclists I had someone to ask at every red light.

As it was, I arrived at the Green Butterfly in the Albert Cuijp Market neighborhood of Amsterdam twelve minutes after the game started and just a minute before the Dutch scored the first goal of the game. Bars up and down the street had multiple screens out of the sidewalk thronged by orange-clad fans. There was no telling if Eelco was at the Green Butterfly it was so packed with people, inside and out.

Though the Dutch flag is the same red, white and blue tri-color as the French flag, but with horizontal stripes rather than vertical, orange is the national color. The car window flags are orange. Many homes and businesses were decorated with lines of triangular plastic orange flags, a feature the Germans hadn't adopted yet. Orange wigs are also popular, not only on fans, but on store mannequins. One fans told me the Dutch were destined to win today because they got to wear their home orange jerseys, rather than white of the visiting team.

He was right. I was barely able to see the action peering through the crowd of onlookers as bartenders walked by with platters of cups of beer. When the Dutch scored a second goal towards the end of the game, the crowd thinned a bit. Two tall guys I was standing behind could relax and turn their attention from the game and ask me about my loaded up bike behind me. One of them was the local sales rep for Giant bicycles. The other was wearing a Lance yellow bracelet. He planned on being at the Tourmalet during The Tour. When Eelco showed up after the game, he greeted him as an old friend, as they are both active members of Amsterdam's cycling community.

Eelco hadn't come to the bar for the game. He was at his apartment two blocks away studying his exercise physiology textbook for an upcoming interview. He was one of the few people on the street not wearing orange. Nor were the two bicyclists I was talking to. They said they were anarchists of a sort in that respect. I told them I had been collecting German flags along the road and they could have some of they wished. They eagerly accepted my offer. One said he couldn't show it to his dad, as he still felt resentment towards Germany from WWII. When the family took a vacation to Switzerland a few years ago, he refused to drive through Germany, but took a much longer route around.

When Eelco and I met while we were biking around Japan three-and-a-half years ago we eagerly asked each other what local foods we were eating hoping to learn of a discovery we hadn't already made. Touring cyclists are always looking for more fuel options. As a physician, Eelco is well aware of good nutrition. We both expanded each others diets in Japan and six months later when we me up in France, Eelco introduced me to madeleines, a high-caloric egg-flour pastry. Now it is one of my French staples and I think of Eelco whenever I pop one into my mouth.

So I was delighted to head to the supermarket with Eelco after we had lugged my bike up the steep, steep steps to his third floor apartment. We compared caloric content of chocolate milk versus yogurt drinks, with the chocolate winning out. Eelco pointed out quite a few unique Dutch food options--a mashed potato/vegetable mix in the deli that was cheaper than potato salad and more potent, strips of pressed coconut with a high caloric count that make a tremendous snack, and assorted cookie and snack foods that he highly recommended that I hadn't seen elsewhere.

Eelco whipped up a sensational dinner of Indonesian noodles and beef. Afterward we went out for ice cream cones. All day yesterday every town I passed through, large and small, people were walking around with ice cream cones. Ice cream cones seemed almost as popular as bicycling. At some of the more popular ice cream outlets there was a line a half a block long, just as there was at Eelco's favorite ice cream shop here.

Tomorrow's top priority is a museum with a tribute to bicycle messengers that one can bring their bicycle into and ride around in. Eelco says helmets are required to ride on the track in the museum. That is a surprise as hardly anyone wears helmets here, unlike Germany. Wednesday it is on to Rotterdam, fifty miles away, for The Tour. Vincent has already arrived. If Eelco can change an appointment he will be able to join me. There is a sixty mile recreational ride of some ten thousand cyclists Thursday morning around Rotterdam we might join.

Less than five days now to The Prologue.

Later, George

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hamburg, Germany

Friends: Even if the daylight had hardly begun to wane at 10:30 p.m. when I walked out of the bar where I watched Germany beat Ghana 1-0, there was a bright full moon just rising over the trees providing enough illumination to bike by. Within ten minutes I came upon a clump of trees beyond the outskirts of Husan, a port on the North Sea, to disappear into, but it was such a pleasant evening I couldn't quit riding.

Plus my lungs needed some purging after having just spent two hours in a smoke-filled bar. Even though I was usually asleep by now, being out on my bike in the daylight, I didn't feel tired at all. And I couldn't help but be a bit charged from the enthusiasm of a bar packed with exultant German soccer fans. It hadn't been an easy win with the lone goal of the game coming half-way through the second half, making the game all the more intense.

Though not everyone in the bar was fully focused on the game, this was not like a Super Bowl gathering of wise-cracking and partying friends not really caring about one team or another or even the game. National honor was at stake in this huge event that comes along every four years and captures more global attention than even the Olympics or The Tour de France. As many people may watch the Olympics, but they don´t have the fervor or the commitment of these soccer fans. They really care.

There were three large screen TVs in three overlapping rooms in the neighborhood, working-class bar. I arrived just in time to lay claim in to the last available booth. A few minutes later I was joined by seven 18-year old girls who were more interested in the guys in the bar than in the game. They hardly gave the screen a look, quietly chatting amongst themselves and with the occasional guy who slipped in for a few moments with them.

They may have not been much interested in the game, but being at a bar where it was being shown was definitely the place to be. They didn't have to speak loud to be heard as there was little banter or commentary from the crowd as they concentrated on the game. I didn't need to know much German to follow the broadcaster, as he said hardly more than the name of each player as he touched the ball in a dry, almost hushed, matter-of-fact tone. He didn't need to hype the action, as everyone understood what was at stake. Nor did he go delirious with delight when a goal was scored. He left that to his viewers. When Germany finally did score, there was a great release of emotion, but it didn't last long, as the action quickly resumed and Ghana was on the attack.

I was hoping Germany would score another and sew up the game, so I could make an early departure and get out of the city while its streets were empty. But the post-game traffic was minimal, as was the revelry. It is still too early in the tournament to get too excited. With the win Germany qualified for the final single-elimination field of sixteen. Now it really gets serious. Two weeks to go. Too bad the final week conflicts with The Tour. I may have seen the last German game on German soil, but with luck I may be able to experience a Dutch game while on their turf.

A low mist was beginning to gather over the landscape beyond Husan as I pedaled along, such as I usually see being burned off early in the morning. There was a dead calm, no wind nor noise nor much traffic. My legs nonchalantly went about their business making circles and circles and circles without any prodding. I felt as if I could ride through the night. This is what I live for--the end of the day euphoria when conditions are ideal and I don´t want to stop riding. I´d had a sublimely perfect day, starting some 14 hours and 85 miles ago in Denmark.

It brought to mind Julie from earlier in the trip. Her constant refrain was "How many more miles until we've done 50," her quota, so we could stop. I didn't realize she was such a cyclist. That´s not the regard of a devoted cyclist. She made it sound as if the riding was a job, a nine-to-fiver, that she wanted to get over with so she could have her bottle of wine.

The truly committed cyclist never wants his day of cycling to end. The only reason to stop is to rest and refuel, so he can resume. When such a cyclist reaches his goal for the day, whether it be a destination or a certain number of miles, it should always be a dilemma of whether to stop or to push on a little further.

But one must think about the morrow and not totally deplete himself. If I were obsessed with centuries, I could have ridden for an hour and had another, but I made eleven p.m. my deadline and stuck to it. When eleven struck, there was a meadow blocked by a hedge of trees for my campsite. The weeds were higher than they looked, up to my thighs, and already taking on a dew. Mixed in amongst the weeds were some nettles that gave me a sting and kept my shins and calves tingling all night and most of the next day.

My campsite was a little too close to the road to be able to sleep soundly when the morning rush of traffic began. With less than eight hours of sleep my legs felt leaden and sluggish for the first time since leaving the Alps. I had originally hoped to get Hamburg over with, 90 miles away, but I feared running out of energy before I had escaped its sprawl, so I stopped after 70 miles. I took a long lunch outside a bike shop and put a new chain on the bike and replaced the rear tire. The tire had worn through the tread after 3,000 miles, a little earlier than usual.

When I got within 15 miles of Hamburg´s town center the urban sprawl began and I was relegated to sidewalk riding, limiting my speed to less than ten miles per hour with all the curbs to go over and the not-so-smooth pavement and remaining on heightened alert for cars coming out of driveways. I have more close calls riding on bike paths than on the road. It is going to take me half a day to get through Hamburg. I only went astray once heading into town. I will be happy if I do no worse as I head out.

Just eight days to the start of The Tour.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tønder, Denmark

Friends: Holland isn't the only country with dikes. Denmark has some too. Not only do they hold back the North Sea, but they provide a nice wind break. I needed it today. I cycled just under the shoulder of one for over ten miles this morning. I was hoping for a scenic coastal ride with views of the shoreline, but if I wanted to look out to sea I had to stop and climb up the periodic staircases in the thirty-foot high embankments.

I had the ten-mile stretch all to myself, as a sign said the road was closed for dike maintenance. A farmer told me, though, that the work was completed and the way was perfectly passable. I did have to circumvent a couple of gates and cross a few cattle guards for the grazing sheep and cattle in the somewhat marshy, wide open terrain.

There were distant patches of forest, but the most prominent feature in the landscape, other than the ubiquitous three-pronged windmills, was the next town´s church steeple piercing the sky, visible at times from five miles or more away. They were a welcoming magnet, standing majestically in the center of a town, unadorned with frills as cathedrals elsewhere, but projecting a quiet dignity. They were invariably surrounded by a meticulously groomed lush green lawn, often accompanied by an artfully constructed stone wall.

Occasionally the town´s cemetery adjoined the church. They abounded with tombstones with "Christensen" on them. This is the land of my roots. My father´s father immigrated to the USA from Denmark just before World War I. He was conscripted into the army and sent back to Europe. He survived the war and returned to the US, settling in Iowa where he was a farmer all his life.

Surprisingly, this is my first visit to Denmark. I have biked all the other countries in Scandinavia and Western Europe, even Andorra and Lichtenstein and San Marino. It has been an unfortunate oversight. If I had known how fabulous the cycling is here, I would have visited long ago and assured myself more than a couple days this time.

One of the many great features of Denmark is its abundance of libraries, all with free Internet. I have yet to wait for a computer or be ordered off one. It is a genuine luxury knowing that when a thought pops into my mind I´d like to share with a friend, I´ll have a computer within an hour or two to communicate it.

Another feature that makes the cycling here so agreeable is the highly detailed maps at many of the rest areas, not only of the immediate surroundings, but also the town ahead. I can locate the town´s library on the map and head straight to it. There are also campgrounds aplenty. If I weren't so adapt at cemetery bathing, I could stop in for a shower as often as I have a library to stop at.

Others know of Denmark´s allure for cycle touring, as I've passed quite a few touring cyclists amongst the many locals out on their bicycles. As in Germany, the vast majority of cyclists ride heavy-duty, upright, commuter-type bikes. Cyclists on racing bikes come out in the evening, getting in a good hard ride, taking advantage of the decent weather and long days. Jogging is also a popular activity. It may be only 60 degrees, but when the sun is out, to the locals it is like an 90-degree day. It gives them the rare opportunity to wear their shorts and the women to display their sleeveless blouses.

It doesn't get fully dark at night this far north during the summer months, but its a different story in the winter, with just a few hours of daylight. The harsh winter weather limits people´s outdoor activities. Thus libraries are a great attraction in all of Scandinavia, as well as Iceland.

Despite the Danish Viking heritage, it doesn't seem as if they leave their country much. Not even one in a hundred cars has a DK on their license plate for those leaving the country. They may have national pride, but I have not seen a single car with a car window flag as were all over Germany. A few residences and business do have small flags on a stick posted in a window box or on their lawns. I did find one small flag similar to the car window flags along the road. I may strap that to the top of my gear while riding The Tour.

I´m less than five miles back to the Land of Car Flags, then it is 400 miles to Rotterdam, if I don´t have to make too many detours, where The Tour commences in nine days. Tonight I could be amongst a throng of Germans watching their do-or-die game against Ghana.

When The Tour crosses into France in two weeks I will be curious to see if the Carrefour supermarkets still have the life size cutouts of all the French World Cup players stationed around their stores. They were a startling site I never fully grew accustomed to seeing, standing at the end of aisles and in corners. France´s team has been a disaster and a national disgrace with intra-team feuding that has caused some of the team´s sponsors to withdraw their support and stirred a scolding from the country´s president, Sarkosy, and the team´s former superstar, Zidane. Its not likely France will be among the sixteen survivors of the first round of The Cup.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Aabenraa, Denmark

Friends: With it just nine days until the grand presentation of the Tour teams in Rotterdam I only have two days to gain an acquaintance with Denmark before I need to head south back through Germany and on to The Netherlands. What I have experienced so far makes me not want to leave.

The cycling is fabulously uncomplicated, with a nice wide shoulder to ride on and not an intricate labyrinth of bike paths to negotiate as in Germany. I went astray a half dozen times my last 90 miles of Germany up through the northern neck of the country. I bicycled with a 40-year old Italian for about an hour. He was two weeks into his first tour. He started in Milan and is heading to the northernmost point in Europe, the Nordkapp in Norway, 300 miles beyond the Arctic Circle. I was there exactly nine years ago on the solstice after attending the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankyla, Finland.

Mario too was fully exasperated by the lousy bicycle signage and infuriating restrictions Germany inflicts upon bicyclists. Still, he was having a great time. I was hoping to camp with him, but he was staying in hotels. We parted ways in Flensburg, the last city in Germany, a large port on the Baltic Sea, so we could not share in the exhilaration of the ease of Denmark's bicycling.

Not only are the roads welcoming, there is an abundance of rest areas with first class picnic tables, the benches even having backs to them. Picnic tables are almost unknown in Germany. I had to make enclosed bus shelters my picnic and rest stops along the road. The rest areas of Denmark are so nice in wooded areas with secluded nooks for each picnic table they have signs limiting the amount of time people can stay there, as the temptation is not to leave.

Another great attraction of Denmark is first-class libraries with free Internet, just as in the rest of Scandinavia and Iceland. There are signs to the libraries as well, so they are easy to find. I haven´t had to spend any money yet, as I stocked up on food just before leaving Germany fearing higher prices and also the possibility that today might be a holiday, it being the solstice. Tomorrow is the day though that the Danes celebrate the longest day with huge bonfires. But it is not an official holiday and stores will be open.

Still I may be able to go these two days without spending money. If I need to I may have to change money as the Danes have stuck to the kroner. I am told though that the euro is accepted by many.

I could have sat at a picnic table last night for my dinner, but it was warmer in my tent. I celebrated my arrival into Denmark with herring salad. If it had been warmer I could have taken a swim at a nice long beach on the Baltic just before I crossed into Germany. There were a few people walking the shoreline, but no one dared to enter the water. The signs were all in German and Danish. The beach chairs were upright enclosed thrones to protect people from the cold wind.

English is more common and fluent here than in Germany or France. Whenever I cross into another country my ears are startled by a whole different set of sounds that people communicate with. They seem at first to be little more than experimental grunts and groans of savages attempting to devise a language, but the fluidity of the language quickly becomes evident. People seem to perfectly understand one another and don´t need to pantomime or gesture to make themselves understood.

I´d certainly appreciate it though if the world didn't have so many different languages. In the last six months I've been in eight countries on three continents with their own quite distinct languages. It is always much easier and enlightening when I´m amongst people I can fully communicate with. Denmark is a country with English so widespread and fluent that the challenges will be minimal.

Now it´s another fifty miles or so up along the Baltic and then west to the North Sea and back to Germany. If the winds continue from the north I´ll have no difficulty in making it to Amsterdam by Sunday where I plan to meet up with Eelco, the cyclist I met in Japan three-and-a-half years ago. He just returned from a marathon one day ride to Paris from Amsterdam--320 miles.

My legs seem to be Tour ready. The last 900 miles through Germany on mostly flat terrain have been great for them. I've been doing 90 to 100 miles a day without feeling any after effects. Lance too is coming into shape. He just finished second in the ten-day Tour de Suisse, behind Frank Schleck, who finished fifth to Lance´s third at last year´s Tour.

Later, George

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lübeck, Germany

Friends: Just a few miles before the northern German city Lübeck I passed a large sign in the middle of a dense forest with a map of Europe with 1989 on it, the year the Berlin Wall fell, and a jagged line bisecting East from West running from the far north near where I am to the Black Sea.

This was the Green Zone I had missed when I passed it a week ago a couple of hundred miles to the south. There was a rough dirt road down the corridor, but no indication that this had been a well-fortified and feared barrier for over four decades. I had camped just three miles from it. If I had known it was imminent, I would have made it my campsite.

The forests of Germany go on and on. I´m appreciating them not only as an easy place to camp, but also as a wind and sun break. The wind has become more ferocious as I head north towards Denmark. The countryside is well-populated with towering jet-propeller windmills. I can precisely gauge the wind direction by how they are pointed, all too often the way I´m going.

The air has taken on that crystal clear clarity of Scandinavia and Iceland with the diminishing industry and the strong winds whisking away all the particulates. It is also becoming colder, not even 60 degrees. I dug out my sweater for the first time since leaving Cannes and moved my tights to the top of my pannier in case it gets much colder.

I've at last reached a region of Germany where bicyclists aren't persecuted and can freely share the roads with motorists. There are still occasional bike paths alongside the roads, some that I have taken advantage of, as they can have a fresher and smoother pavement than the highway, but bike paths are not as universal as elsewhere in the country.

Without having to worry about suddenly being forced off a road and sent on a wild goose chase trying to get to where I want to go, the cycling becomes as fine as can be. Germany in general gets top grades with its ease of camping thanks to all the forests and also ease of finding inexpensive and varied food. Germany is much like Japan with few large grocery stores but lots and lots of small chain grocery stores--Aldi, Lidl, Penny Market, Netto--every ten or fifteen miles, with bargain-priced food.

The grocery stores are all open until eight p.m. and don´t close for lunch for 90 minutes as in France, Spain and Italy. Travel is considerably easier without that large black hole in the middle of each day when everything closes down and I can´t use the Internet or get food other than at a restaurant or seek information from a tourist office. And in Germany when a business says it will open at a certain hour I can be certain it will be open at that hour and often earlier.

Germany also shares with Japan the distinction of being one of the few places in the world to have cigarette vending machines along the road, not that I need them. They are not as ubiquitous as in Japan, the land of the vending machine, but as in Japan, their presence implies a trust that the underaged will not taken advantage of the machines.

I´m down to harvesting just five or six flags a day along the road. There is less traffic but also with Germany having lost its second game to Serbia, maybe a little less enthusiasm. As I toddled around Neuthropin early Friday afternoon as game time neared, dodging people with a six-pack under their arm hurrying to their viewing party, many draped in a flag or wearing a funny gold, black and red hat or bedecked with a similarly colored lei or adorned with some other object of the German colors, I was on the alert for a bar with a large screen, preferably outdoors. I was also looking for the library or an Internet cafe.

When it got to five minutes before game time I decided it was time to ask. I've developed a sense for who might speak English. I was right about a 40-year old respectable looking guy. I asked if he could recommend a place to watch the game. "Join us," he said. We were just short of where he was turning in. "Come on in," he invited.

Just inside the doorway was a conference room with a large table and chairs all around. At the far end of the room was a screen that the game was being projected on. There was a wall of books and a cabinet full of religious icons. Several older men were seated around the table. They were the ministers and the staff for a religious group.

The national anthems were just finishing up and the game about to start. We were shortly joined by several women and children. Only one in the crowd was wearing anything to denote himself as a fan, but that didn't lessen anyone´s enthusiasm. Several times the man who invited me in apologized for an outburst, once slamming the table so hard it knocked over a bottle of water. Ten minutes into the game a woman brought out coffee. When I declined, one of the ministers was so taken aback he said, "There´s only two things I like more than coffee, my wife and the Bible." We were no doubt one of the few gatherings around that wasn't drinking beer.

Serbia scored near the end of the first half on a brilliant shot near the goal after a corner kick that was headed to the scorer. There was little conversation as everyone was so intent on watching the game. I did learn though that much of the Serbia team plays on German teams and that the German team is young, but good. That was the only goal for the game.

During the 15 minute half time I could have a little conversation. I mentioned that I had visited The Devil´s Museum and shared a brochure from it. They all knew him well. One of the ministers shook his head and said, "Why couldn't he have chosen to be an angel. Its not good to be promoting the devil." When I explained that The Devil took his name from the German expression for the final kilometer marker in a race, he said he knew that, but not everyone did.

There was no more scoring in the second half. The gathering grew increasingly frustrated as the game went on, some even leaving before the game ended. Germany´s next game is Wednesday at 20:30 against Ghana, which played Serbia to a 1-1 tie in its first game. If Germany loses, the tournament will be over for them. I hope to be back in Germany from Denmark to watch it with another crowd.

Later, George

Friday, June 18, 2010

Neurthropin, Germany

Friends: I was drawn to Didi Senf´s Bicycle Museum in Storkow not so much to see the collection of eccentric bikes he has made over the years, but with hopes there might be a scrapbook or two laying around with some of his many newspaper and magazine clippings. I have been collecting them myself over the years. Each shot of him in Devil costume gallivanting alongside the peloton gives me a charge.

I need not have worried. The walls of his warehouse of a museum, fifteen feet high, were crammed from top to bottom with hundreds of articles written about him and photographs of him action, some including just his pitchfork seeming to be floating in mid-air, that he had been cropped out of when they had been published. Not all his print appearances were there though, as I didn't spot the one of he and I in "The Reader," but there was one of him from "USA Today" and papers from all over the world including China. There were quite a few cover shots, with at least three from "L'Equipe."

There were many of him running alongside Lance, but his favorite racer seemed to be Pantani. There was a whole section of a wall devoted to photos of him and Pantani, including one of Pantani, Ullrich and Riis, all Tour winners, on a podium with Didi standing in front of them and Pantani grabbing at his pitchfork.

Also hanging on the walls were various certificates from the Guinness Book of World Records giving him credit for having built the world's largest and smallest and longest bikes and the world's largest rickshaw and a few other records. The man running the museum, who looked like he might have been Didi's brother and had a bit of Didi in him, as he strolled about the museum with a pitchfork, didn't speak English, so I couldn't find out how many Guinness records he holds and which was his first.

The few articles in English were largely devoted to his career as The Devil, only marginally mentioning his accomplishments as an inventor. He made his first appearance as The Devil in 1993, when he was 41-years old, at a mountain stage of The Tour de France in Andorra. One of the leading riders of the time was Claudio Chiappucci, an Italian whose nickname was "The Devil." Didi was initially taken to be a fan of his.

His actual inspiration of dressing as The Devil was the German expression for the last kilometer of a race. In The Tour there is a red inflated arch to mark the final killer kilometer when each racer must summon his last ounce of energy to get to the line before those surging all around him. The German nickname for that red arch is "The Red Devil." Didi dresses in red tights and red skull cap with horns and a red cape. He usually stations himself towards the end of a stage reminding the racers that "The Red Devil" is nigh.

Before perusing the walls I watched an eighteen-minute video of some of his TV appearances, some just quick snippets of him from races, but mostly longer clips from appearances on TV talk shows in Japan, Italy, Holland and elsewhere where he gave a demonstration of his bikes. Some were in studio and others were at his museum. Many of the clips showed him riding a bicycle he'd built with a lawn mover as the front wheel so one could pedal and cut one´s lawn. There were also a couple of odd-ball two-person bikes, one with two people in the prone position, one on top and one below facing each other. As they pedaled they bobbed up and down making it appear as if they were procreating.

He had several sport-themed bikes. One with eight-foot high wheels had soccer balls embedded all around the rim. It was dedicated to the 1996 World Cup. Another bicycle was embedded with a couple hundred hockey pucks. And there was a bike with skis on it.

Amongst all the clips and bikes were also souvenirs collected from The Tour de France, many of which I have in my own collection--course markers and water bottles and caravan giveaways. The museum had me smiling broadly from the moment I stepped inside. I was surprised there were no signs to it in Stockrow, a town of 6,000 people. There was no real need for signs, though, as anyone I asked knew where it was. All I had to say was "Didi Senf," and I was pointed in the direction to his museum on the outskirts of town. There was no missing it, as his world's largest bike is outside along with a few of his other creations, including a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa he'd welded. On the wall facing the main highway was a giant poster of him.

All through Storkow were posters advertising the appearance of a country western band Truck Stop. Storkow sits beside one of some 37 lakes in the vicinity, some with therapeutic thermal muds that draw even more people to the town than Didi. Up until 1993 the Russian Army had an R&R base on one of the lakes. Storkow is one of eight European towns with the stork in its coat of arms. I picked up a few tourist brochures that I will toss to The Devil when I ride past him in the coming weeks to let him know I paid it a visit.

Later, George

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Storkow, Germany

Friends: I now have a legitimate reason to stop for all the stray German flags fallen off cars littering the road side. An anarchist organization in Berlin has placed a bounty on them--bring in thirty and they'll give you a "I Hate Germany" t-shirt.

If I'd only known I wouldn't have been giving away all that I've found and I would have been more conscientious about stopping for the many I've seen. I could have earned a dozen or more of the t-shirts by now, and that without plundering and pillaging, breaking them off cars and snagging them from homes and businesses, as the anarchists are trying to inspire. Mall parking lots would be a gold mine. Some cars have as many as four of them, one mounted on each of their windows, along with the latest in car wear--flag booties that can be stretched over the bodies of the driver's and passenger's rear view mirrors.

If this redemption plan was more widely known, I might have learned about it from a cop or an extreme nationalist suspicious of the pile of pelts lashed to the top of my gear on the back of my bicycle, but it was a young Berliner, a tattooed film-student with quite a few rings adorning his face, just setting out on his first bicycle tour, who was my informant.

Jan stopped to ask me for directions as I was picnicking along  the road. He was traveling with a highly detailed set of bike route maps, but the road he had been riding, an approved bike route according to his maps, unexpectedly presented him with that dreaded "No Bicycle" sign. I thought I could help him, as I had suffered the same ill-luck twenty miles back, and had acquired a highly detailed map of the area. It showed every road but didn't indicate bike routes, though one could fairly safely guess which roads were amenable to bicycles.

We plotted a route on tiny roads to his destination, but it wasn't as direct as he would have liked. As we pored over the map, a woman pulled into an adjoining parking lot. Jan asked her if she knew what alternative there was for bicyclists to route 2. She knew without even pausing to think. I had a similar reaction when I had my latest heart-plummeting confrontation with a no bikes sign. The young woman at the gas station I had to double back to for directions knew the alternative, but it was too complicated to explain, so she dug out a map for me. It involved a detour of five miles or so.

It has been my dream since entering Germany a week ago, to have a day without encountering a bicycles forbidden sign. I thought this was to be the day, as I was going to be on 246 for the next 100 miles heading due east. I had already been on it for thirty miles the previous day. It was a minor road through small towns without much traffic. It didn't even need an adjoining bike path. It was exceptionally fine cycling through forests and pastures.

But I hadn't gone even ten miles on what was to be my hassle-free day when I was thwarted by a short stretch where two highways merged for a couple of miles and someone decided it wasn't safe for bicyclists. It wouldn't have been so frustrating if there had been signs for the bicycle detour, as there sometimes are. If I had only known it was such a short no-bike stretch I would have made a run for it, as I would have in any other country.

When I told Jan what a headache bicycle touring can be in Germany with so many roads denied cyclists he said he strictly obeyed no bike signs as a friend of his had been killed when he continued on a road prohibited to bikes. He doesn't trust drivers on such roads, as they seem entitled to run down cyclists when they are riding a road prohibited to them.

Jan was riding a fixed gear bicycle and had no panniers, just a hefty messenger bag slung across his back with a sleeping bag and a change of clothes. He was just biking 250 miles back to his home, planning to do it in three days. He was willing to risk sleeping out without a tent. He figured the terrain was flat enough to manage on his one-speed bike. At least he had a front brake. He said fixed gear bikes without a brake were illegal in Berlin and that cops were always on the alert for them. If they caught someone on such a bike they'd confiscate it and destroy it, he said.

He looked like a messenger, and has aspirations of giving it a try, but hadn't yet. I heartily encouraged him. We talked for nearly an hour. There was a cemetery down the road where I had just filled my water bottles and washed my clothes. That was one of many recommendations I gave Jan.

He asked what I did for bathing. I told him cemeteries were always a possibility, but yesterday I was lucky enough to take a plunge in a lake. It was on the outskirts of a small town and had a couple of nice beaches with a sand dune plummeting to the shoreline that kids ran down into the water. I was surprised to see one nudist among all the kids--a 40-year old guy with a pot belly. I told Jan that in the U.S. he would have been arrested. He understood, as he said when he was three-years old he had visited the U.S. with his parents and went swimming in the ocean in North Carolina. His mother was reprimanded for letting her two young children swim without bathing suits. But he added that men swimming naked was more of a tradition in former East Germany, where I am now, than the West.

I had crossed into the former Eastern sector a couple of days ago. I had forgotten that a green zone of thousands of miles had been established along the former line between the east and west, nor was it evident when I crossed it. Still, there was no mistaking when I made that transition from West to East. There was no difference in the quality of the roads or the quality of the cars. The same franchise stores dotted the towns and the richly cultivated fields were no different. But for the first-time I saw old pre-WW II buildings, some abandoned with windows broken out and many others just run-down and unmaintained. They lent a sense of personality to the towns. I also saw more older folk getting around on bicycles, and then there was the lone nudist parading around among kids.

It was also impossible to find a town with an Internet cafe. At last here in Storkow I found a library with Internet. Storkow had been my prime destination in Germany as it is the home of Didi Senf, the Tour de France Devil, and his museum. He is a noted bicycle inventor. The Guinness Book of Records recognizes him for having built the world's smallest and largest and longest bikes. His museum doesn't open until one o'clock.

I was hoping to see him, as he knows me from our many meetings along The Tour de France route, but I'm told he isn't in town. He's probably off at the Tour of Switzerland waving his pitch fork at Lance and everyone else in the peloton. I had planned on giving him my stash of flags to see if he wanted to make something of them. I was able to give the two I had that still had the window attachment in tact to the helpful woman at the tourist office. She said she wasn't much interested in the World Cup, but she had friends who would be delighted to have the flags.

It is less than fifty miles to Poland to the east, but I will head north, then angle north-westward to Denmark. Tomorrow I hope to join a mob watching Germany´s second World Cup match at 1:30 in the afternoon. It will be a short work week for Germans.

It's over an hour until the museum opens, more than enough time for a dip in the town lake.

Later, George

Monday, June 14, 2010

Einbeck, Germany

Friends: Germany played its first World Cup match last night at 8:30 and demolished Australia 4-0. I may have been the only person in the country not watching. I was pressing to make it to the large city of Höxter by game time in hopes of there being a large screen in its central plaza for all to watch as I had seen in a few towns already. I watched most of the first half of the Argentina-Nigeria game the previous afternoon as I munched my lunch of potato salad and cheeseburgers.

But twenty miles before Höxter the road I was breezing along on turned into cars only even though it remained two lanes wide. Maybe if it were game time and the road empty of traffic I would have risked continuing on, but I know well enough that what is verboten in Germany is strictly enforced by all and sundry.

Earlier in the day, as I approached Arnsberg on route 222, the road suddenly turned into an autobahn without even an entry ramp, just one of those blue signs with a white-etched car meaning cars only. I was so caught by surprise I went a bit beyond the cars only sign and instantly a car pulled over. A nice young man told me bicycles weren't allowed. I thanked him, but before I turned around I noticed an exit ramp ahead that appeared as if it might lead to the road I wanted to be on, so I pushed on.

Instantly the next car pulled over, more citizen enforcers, to tell me no bicycles. No other place I have biked have people been so forthright and concerned about people being obedient to the rules. Both people who stopped to set me straight seemed more concerned about my safety than to reprimand me, but some Germans can be quite angry and can give a stinging tongue-lashing. I frequently manage to go for stretches on bicycle-prohibited roads elsewhere, but only in Germany does it spark an uprising.

Encroaching upon the autobahn wasn't an entirely bad event, as I was able to scavenge five of those mini-German car flags that had whipped off cars when they suddenly accelerated hitting the autobahn. I had been seeing the flags left and right all day along the road and was gathering them all unless I were on a steep fast descent.

I was redistributing them whenever I stopped for a break--at cemeteries, enclosed bus stops with seating, park benches, in bike baskets of bikes parked at grocery stories and elsewhere I was sure the flag would be found. I hadn't had such scavenging delight since Japan when I found so many pornographic magazines discarded along the road. I stopped for them too, then deposited them in roadside boxes of sand bags for motorists to use in the winter if they got stuck on an incline. I was finding way more flags though than porno and ended my day with a surplus of more than a dozen, including one Dutch flag.

My early evening detour took me off on winding side roads that added to my mileage and slowed my speed and sapped my energy. If I had gone directly to Höxter, it would have been my first 100-mile day. My legs were ready for it, and they did reach 100 miles, but well before Höxter and well after the game had started, so I had to wait until the next morning to learn how Germany had fared. I thought I might know from celebrating motorists blasting their horns, but this was´an early game that didn't send the locals into paroxysms of delight.

As game time neared I thought someone might invite me in to watch the game. I had been saving my hunger just in case I was able to share in some communal feast. But the last few cars on the road, as game time approached, were in too much of rush to get to their party, that I received no offers.

The diminishing traffic hearkened me back to Morocco during Ramadan. As sunset approached and everyone could end their day long fast and eat and drink, the roads suddenly went empty. It was an eerie sight and something I looked forward to every day. Even if I hadn't known that Germany was about to play, I would have been very suspicious of some strange event transpiring clearing the road of traffic.

An owl with the German law-abiding spirit two nights ago didn't approve of my wild-camping in his domain and hooted at me for half an hour or more, but not until well after dark and well after I´d gone to sleep. I knew I was the target of his fury as he varied his location, circling about me and even perching in the tree above me for a spell. No dive-bombing fortunately, unlike the wild boar who crashed into my tent last summer in France.

His hoots came at intervals of 20 to 30 seconds, sometimes letting the pause go long enough for me to nearly fall back to sleep and think he´d finally hooted himself out.
If I were one who paid credence to horror movies, I could have had a wonderful night of nightmares if my fears ever allowed me to get back to sleep. I was tempted to shout at the owl to get lost, but he left me in peace before it came to that, and it was back to my usual solid slumber.

I've been sleeping so well, at least ten hours a night, I've begun setting my alarm for eight, thinking I ought to be conditioned well enough by now that ten hours ought to be enough and not wanting to get too late of a start. Once I begin chasing The Tour, I´ll be trying to get by on eight hours of sleep, riding until dark at ten as often as I can and getting back on the road not much later than seven the next morning.

The owl isn't the only critter that has paid me attention. One night back in France over a week ago as I set up camp at dusk near a lagoon I was unknowingly besieged by a squadron of stealth mosquitoes that neither buzzed nor bit with sensation. It wasn't until nearly 24 hours later that the bites began to erupt and to itch. I counted over thirty of them. If this had happened in Africa I would have immediately begun making funeral arrangements.

I wouldn't have been the first cyclist to have ridden The Tour de France to have succumbed to malaria. Fausto Coppi, the Italian Champion of Champions, contracted malaria when he lent his presence to an off-season exhibition race in Africa and died shortly after he returned to Italy before his racing career had ended. He was much on my mind as I bicycled around Lake Victoria, the most malaria-ridden area in the world, this past winter, especially after having visited Coppi's grave less than a year before. I was bitten a few times while in Africa, which had me slightly nervous, but nothing like this barrage. It´s taken over a week for all the bites to heal.

No mosquitoes so far in Germany though. Its been too cold, getting down into the 40s at night.

Later, George

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Cologne, Germany

Friends: There was no "Welcome to Deutshland" or any other such indication that I had crossed into Germany from Belgium yesterday afternoon except the sudden profusion of cars flying mini-German flags from their front windows. It is World Cup time and Germany is acting as if it is hosting it again as it did four years ago, with flags dangling everywhere.

I wasn't overly excited about biking in Germany, knowing that German motorists expect cyclists to stick to bike paths when they are available, but I've only received one horn toot so far in sixty miles from an upset motorist. Having biked across India, horn toots don´t bother me, but I don´t appreciate it when a motorist cuts close to me to emphasize their dissatisfaction, as this one did.

Germans can get upset when someone isn't abiding by the rules, though there are no signs saying that bicyclists must ride on the sidewalk of a bike path out in rural terrain. Twice when I did, I was led astray at complicated intersections, so I stick to the road as much as I can. There are lots of cyclists here in Cologne. I can follow them when they leave the sidewalk bikeway and take to the road without fearing the wrath of a motorist.

I did greatly welcome the leveling of the terrain upon entry to Germany after a day-and-a-half of repeated steep one and two miles climbs in the Ardennes of Belgium. It took me six hours to ride 57 miles my last day in Belgium, climbing for twenty minutes in my lowest gear, followed by a six minute descent and then another twenty minute climb. But that´s what makes the Belgians such tough, formidable cyclists.

I have completed my scouting of The Tour route for now. I will continue my training by zipping across Germany to Berlin, 500 miles away, then 350 miles up to Denmark for a few days before heading to Rotterdam, another 300 miles, where The Tour starts three weeks from today.

I have visited fourteen of The Tour´s 32 Ville Etapes in the past two weeks, the best preparation I've ever had for a Tour. Of the other 18 Ville Etapes, I know several of them from previous years--Bordeaux, Gap, Pau, the Tourmalet and Paris, though I won´t be making it to Paris this year.

It is always such a pleasure biking France, maybe next year I will bike the entire Tour route before The Tour starts. It would be interesting to make a count of how many war memorials and Jesus's on a cross the route goes by and other such oddities. I´m unable to keep track during the actual race, especially since I'm not totally faithful to The Tour route during The Race, taking shortcuts here and there trying to keep up.

As sure as the peloton will pass through fields of radiant sun flowers and climb past snow-streaked peaks, it will also pass a nuclear power plant or two and its tall, foreboding towers. Nuclear power plants may not be as common as bakeries or war memorials or Jesus's on a cross, but they do qualify as being ubiquitous in France, providing over three-fourths of the country's energy. They are scattered all over the country beside its many rivers. During its 2,200 mile circuit of France, it would be hard for the peloton not to pass a few.

There were a couple on the Loire not far from Montargis, though not on the actual Tour route, nor near enough for a photograph of the towers looming over the passing peloton. That does not seem to be a favored shot of Tour photographers. They´ll wade deep into a field of sun flowers or clamor up a mountainside for a scenic shot, but neglect the stirring image of bicyclists and nuclear towers and all the positive and negative connotations associated with them.

Photographers will have a chance at such a shot shortly after the peloton sets out from Wanze in Belgium on stage three, as the riders cross the Meuse River through the city of Huy. The towers are a bit obstructed by buildings along the river, but they still offer a powerful image looming in the background.

Wanze was finely decked out with Tour posters all over town and banners across roads and on its City Hall in front of the plaza where the stage will start. I had read that there was a bicycle museum in Wanze, but as I meandered about town I saw no signs to it. I finally asked a cyclist where it was. He said it was only open on Sunday afternoons, but that he knew the owner and he could give him a call to see if he´d open it up for me. He pulled out his cell phone, but received no answer. He was an ardent cyclist and gave my bike a close examination. He said he saw The Tour whenever it passed through Belgium, and was greatly excited about his town being a Ville Etape.

It was forty miles of hard riding to Spa, where The Tour would end the previous day´s stage before recommencing the next day in Wanze. Spa was a much large town than Wanze and a legitimate tourist city with grand hotels offering treatments and a casino and a nearby world-class motorcycle circuit. Once before it had been a Ville Etape in 1962, and on seven other occasions beginning in 1948 the peloton had passed through.

As I entered Spa and meandered about, I didn't notice a single banner or poster touting The Tour. The tourist office had several posters in its lobby, but nothing outside. I asked if I had missed any around town. The older man behind the desk sputtered that the city wouldn't give him any money to promote The Tour. "I was lucky to get the money to make those two posters, one in French and one in Dutch. I wish I could do more, but I can´t," he said. He did make a photocopy, though, of a story in that day´s paper about the many times The Tour has passed through Spa. It included a picture of Rudi Alding, the German who won the 1962 stage into Spa.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Namur, Belgium

Friends: Over the years The Tour has had some truly jaw-dropping and breath-taking backdrops to its stage starts and finishes--at mountaintops, on grand boulevards, in front of stunningly beautiful chateaus, magnificent cathedrals, majestic castles, stately town halls, along side serene rivers, beside historic plazas and monuments and other places that define France and make the French proud.

The finish to this year's Stage Three in the small mining town of Arenberg will rank among the more memorable and moving in the 106-year history of The Tour. The huge tower of the closed down coal mine where cycling legend Jean Stablinski worked will overlook the finish. And not more than two hundred meters beyond the finish line is the entry to the Arenberg Forest and the mile-and-a-half stretch of cobbles that define Paris-Roubaix, a race older than and almost as storied as The Tour de France. It may be the most dreaded and most renowned mile-and-a-half in the world of bicycle racing.

At the entry to the forest is a monument to Stablinski. It was at his urging that it was added to the Paris-Roubaix course. He may be as feted for that as for his many racing exploits.

A huge yellow vinyl banner welcoming The Tour de France to Arenberg hangs from the tallest structure in the complex of buildings that once comprised the mine. A mobile home, such as those that serve as offices on construction work sites, is parked below it and is adorned with Tour jerseys. It is the local headquarters for The Tour. The cluster of 39 small mining towns in the area have been appointed hosts for The Tour, similar to the four ski villages in the Jura Mountains. Hosting The Tour is a monumental event for these somewhat depressed communities.

It is a most appropriate site, as for many decades bicycle racing was the domain of the hardened working class, providing young men who would otherwise be destined to the mine or factory or farm an opportunity to escape their destiny. It might not have been any easier of a life for the journeyman racer, but it afforded them some glory and the chance to see the world beyond their environs.

The three women in The Tour headquarters couldn't have been more friendly or helpful or excited about their month ahead. They had a detailed map of the stretches of cobbles that will be included in The Tour route. They also had a large brochure with a couple of dozen events in the next month relating to The Tour. Under glass was a water bottle and hat that current world champion Cadel Evans had given them. He had recently scouted out the route and stopped in at their office.

There was a smooth paved path alongside the Arenberg cobbles. It may be denied to the racers, but knowing I had other cobbles to ride, I gave my bike and my vertebrae a break by taking the unjarring route. I had seen so many photos and filmed highlights of this stretch and could recall countless battles waged along it, that it was as thrilling to be riding it as riding up Mont Ventoux or L'Alpe d'Huez.

Once again I followed this stage route in the reverse direction that the peloton will ride it, from finish to start. The final stretch of cobbles for the racers comes six miles from the finish. It is a mile-and-a-half long through a wide open field. There is no alternative to the cobbles there. I stuttered along at not even five miles per hour hoping I wasn't jeopardizing the health of my spokes too much. I haven't had a broken spoke in over 4,000 miles, since early in my travels in Uganda in February.

I discovered that though I might be going in the opposite direction that The Tour would follow, I was going in the direction that the Paris-Roubaix race follows. There were yellow "PR"s stenciled on the road with arrows at the intersections pointing which direction to go and even a few course markers left over from Sunday's recreational recreation of the ride. Those left over markers were all posted high on wooden telephone poles beyond my reach and nailed in rather than strapped with wire, as they are on the lower metal posts, so I was unable to add one to my collection of Tour markers.

The markings were a huge help as the roads wound all over the place through the many small towns. Whoever is in a breakaway will have a huge advantage the last 25 miles of this stage, as it will not be so easy for the peloton to chase them down. It will be a dilemma for me where Vincent and I should stop to watch the action. I doubt I will go all the way to the finish, as it takes me out of the way to get to the next stage start in Cambrai, twenty miles to the south.

The first 110 miles of the stage are in Belgium, starting in Wanze. I'd be there already if I hadn't been slowed today by two detours for road construction and rain and wind. It is twenty miles away. Though I haven't noticed any bicycle decorations erected along the route yet, there is a frequent billboard featuring Sven Nys, champion Belgian cyclo-cross racer, promoting the Credit Agricole bank. None yet of Merckx or Boonen.

Most of the roads in Belgium I have been on have a very ample shoulder/bike lane, unlike in France. Not many are out biking in this weather, but the Belgians are much more fanatical about the bicycle than the French. I have received more friendly toots and thumbs up in 24 hours here than in the past two weeks in France. This is the fourth time in the seven years I have followed The Tour that it has visited Belgium. There are always more Belgians out along the road, partying and cheering, than even in France. It will be a gala three stages in Belgium.

Later, George

Monday, June 7, 2010

Cambrai, Ville Départ

Friends: Once before in Tour history Cambrai has served as a Ville Etape. It will forever be remembered in Tour lore as the starting point for the team trial in 2004 won by Lance's US Postal Service team in the rain. I was there at the finish line at my first Tour watching all the action on the giant screen after having ridden the sixty kilometer course that morning.

I have many, many fond memories associated with that stage, including the large bed sheet hung along the course with a heart around Lance and Sheryl. The next day I rode 75 miles of that day's stage with a former American racer who'd shared a pizza during the time trial with Sheryl, not knowing who she was until the end of the meal. I could go on and on recalling my day with this racer who competed against LeMond and Phinney.

As I biked into Cambrai this afternoon a gardening crew was busy installing some topiary in a round-about shaped to spell out Le Tour in the shape of a bicycle. On the backside of the round-about was a billboard announcing it as the "Jean Stablinski round-about." The billboard had his picture and accomplishments--winner of the 1958 Tour of Spain, Champion of the World in 1962 and four time Champion of France in 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1964. Across from the round-about was a nice marble plaque with his image and the years 1932-2007. He grew up in a nearby mining town.

I was a day late to see an exhibition in the town hall devoted to him. But when I return in less than a month along with the peloton for The Tour's fourth stage and first stage to start in France after four days in the Netherlands and Belgium there will be two other bicycle exhibitions to check out if I have the time.

I have the great news to report that I will be accompanied during the first week of The Tour by Vincent, the enthusiastic Australian I met in Monaco last year and bicycled with for two days. He has Tour Fever and just booked a flight to Paris to give it another go. He promises to train harder this year. Vincent has raced as a master for years, but like the American racer I rode with in 2004, he had never toured before or ridden a bicycle with a load. It was much more demanding than either of them realized.

Vincent was wiped out after our two days together and wasn't sure if he ever wanted to do such a thing again. The same thing happened to the American. He was accustomed to riding all out for three or four hours, but wasn't conditioned to rationing his energy out over a twelve hour period at a slower, steadier pace.

I was able to put my two weeks of conditioning to a test a couple days ago as I rode into Montargis, a double Ville Etape, arrivée and départ. I had a thirty mile flat stretch through the Loire Valley, some of it forested, making it a virtual wind tunnel. I was able to hold it steady at eighteen miles per hour, great news.

The forest scenery was enhanced every mile or so at the occasional pull-off or dirt road into the forest by a curvaceous woman in high heels and mini-skirt and provocative pose. No prices were posted. I was feeling so triumphant, flying along well ahead of the peloton, I pondered stopping to ask how much for a kiss on both cheeks as each day's stage winner is awarded from a pair of podium girls. But the fear of a whiff of cheap cologne prevented me from even passing too near.

Rather than a Ventoux-sized yellow jersey adorning one of its civic structures to proclaim itself a Ville Etape, Montargis chose a billboard featuring the caricatures of the three most beloved and high profile French racers of the past half century, each of whom maintains a close association with The Tour--Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of The Tour, who is there on the podium to give a hand shake rather than a kiss to each stage winner, Laurent Jalabert, former polka-dot jersey winner and multiple stage winner who now announces the race from a motorcycle in the thick of the action, and Raymond Poulidor, the man who was the great rival of Jacques Anguetil in the '60s without ever winning The Race.

I was unable to follow the first few miles of The Tour route out of Montargis to its starting point in Epernay as it was being repaved. Eperney had much more Tour adornments to offer at this pint that Montargis. Long vertical Tour banners hung from many of its light poles. It was fully in the spirit of being a Ville Etape.

Reims, though, twenty miles north of Epernay, was too big of a city with over 200,000inhabitants and previous ten-time host of The Tour to begin getting excited about The Tour coming to town. Reims is one of three Ville Etapes this year to have a World Heritage Cathedral. Paris and Bordeaux are the others. It would be hard to say which of the three cathedrals is the most impressive. The one in Reims may be the largest and gaudiest with carved sculptures inside and out, top to bottom and all around. It could take a guide a week to explain its many features.

Despite its size, there was not an Internet outlet open in Reims yesterday, a Sunday. Many cities of that size in France have a large immigrant population. I can generally count on finding a business or two offering cheap Internet service along with cheap international phone service. But Reims is far enough north, it doesn't have much of an African or Algerian population and thus no Internet-phone outlets. Finding Internet in France is a much greater challenge than in China or Africa, especially with the scarcity of libraries and their very limited hours.

But I can't complain about the wild-camping. Its almost as easy to come by as Lewis and Clark had it. The French are amazingly conscientious about leaving patches of forest every few miles. After tonight the camping could be a challenge though when I head off into Belgium. Tomorrow I will begin riding The Tour's much-anticipated third stage, highlighted by seven stretches of cobble stones, or pavé as the French call them. The stretches only total eight miles, but they could have bone-jarring consequences on The Race.

The Spanish threat Iban Mayo lost two minutes to Lance in 2005, the last time The Tour included cobbles. Those this year are just a few of those included in the Paris-Roubaix race. There is a chance that I could see some of The Tour contenders scouting them out. Just yesterday a couple thousand recreational cyclists rode the Paris-Roubaix course, including the brother of my friend Yvon. The week before Davis Phinney's nineteen-year old son Taylor, riding for the Livestrong team, won the junior edition of Paris-Roubaix for the second time, the first time the junior's have had a repeat winner. He seems destined to be the next great American champion.

With it just 25 days now until the start of The Tour, I can feel an increased sense of anticipation as I ride along The Tour route, knowing that in a month these quiet rural roads will be thronged with thousands of picnicking, cheering fans. It thrills my heart to know what awaits me.

Later, George

Thursday, June 3, 2010

St. Honoré, France

Friends: Along with the lack of course markers and only a few preliminary decorations, road construction and detours make riding The Tour route a month early a much diluted and dramatically different experience from riding it on race day. Its great that many portions of the race route are being resurfaced, but dealing with it first-hand can get aggravating. Some of the resurfacing doesn't require a detour, but I've had several detours of more than a few miles, including two today that will make the 143-mile Montargis-Guegnon at least 160 miles for me.

Its the longest stage of this year's Race, a couple miles longer than Stage One from Rotterdam to Brussels. I'll be bypassing this stage during The Race, taking a short cut so I am sure to get a head start on the peloton for the Tournus stage into the Jura Mountains. One of the reasons I'll be bypassing it is it would require me to ride an extra 53 miles after the stage to the next day's start in Tournus. It is one of the two or three longest transfers.

This year, for the first time in the seven years I've been following The Tour, there is no monster transfer of hundreds of miles on the first rest day after Stage Eight. Everyone must be delighted. The rest day will be a genuine rest day for the racers and the race entourage, as they'll all spend Monday, July 12 in Morzine-Avoriaz in the Alps where Stage Eight ends on Sunday and Stage Nine begins on Tuesday.

I was torn between heading due north from Tournus rather than going out of my way 53 miles west over to Guegnon yesterday since I didn't need to scout it out. Still, I was curious to check out a Ville Etape and see how its preparations were going and also to plant in my mind its atmosphere. I was very glad I did.

Guegnon is fully in the spirit of being a Ville Etape, almost as much as Sisteron. Like Sisteron it had mounted a huge yellow jersey on a central civic structure. Sisteron hung its yellow jersey on a tower across from its city hall. Guegnon hung its yellow jersey on its city hall, covering one-and-a-half stories of the three storied building. When I spotted it as I began a descent down a hill before crossing a river I uttered a spontaneous wow.

All down Guegnon's main street were hung mini-versions of the four leader jerseys dangling from lines strung two stories high from one side of the narrow street to the other, almost close enough together for a cat to leap across. A considerable effort went to making the hundreds of jerseys and and dozens of lines and stringing them up. A silken yellow sheet wrapped like a skirt stood in the entry to the tourist office. It couldn't be prouder to have The Tour coming to town. Like Sisteron, it will be a grand place to be on race day.

I passed through Cormatin on my way from Tournus to Guegnon. I was disappointed to see that its superb bicycle museum that I had visited a few years ago had been replaced by the Musée du Poila, devoted to the first World War.

Last night for the first time since Cannes I camped in an open field. It was nice to have the warmth of the sun shining on me as it made its descent to the horizon, finally disappearing at close to 9:30. The wind continues blowing from the north keeping it cool and increasing the effort it takes for me to push the pedals.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tournus, Ville Départ

Friends: The most eye-catching of a patchwork of posters and announcements in the window of the Les Rousses tourist office window was one of the Tour de France uber-fan, The Devil, in mid-leap, teeth snarled, legs spread and his trident thrust forward. Alongside his poster was the Les Rousses Ville Etape poster with the four Tour leader jerseys (yellow, green, red polka-dot and white) hanging from a clothes line with a mountainside of trees in the background.

Although The Devil will most assuredly be in Les Rousses when the Tour passes through, his poster wasn't related to The Tour, but rather to a cycling event next week in a nearby Swiss town where he would be a featured attraction. He is indeed a celebrity. No word if he'll be on a leash or in a cage.

Les Rousses is one of four small ski villages clustered together in the Jura Mountains along the Swiss border that will be hosting The Tour de France its second weekend and first foray into the mountains. Saturday's Stage Seven will conclude in Lamoura after a nine-mile, 2,500 foot climb from St. Claude, and Sunday's Stage Eight will set out from Bois d'Amont.

It is the first time that the Les Rousses area has been a Ville Etape, and as a tourist area they are making the most of it. There is already a yellow banner over the finish line out in the middle of nowhere a kilometer beyond Lamoura stating "Ligne d'Arrivée Samedi 10 Juillet." Lamoura also had a life-sized wooden cutout of a bicyclist wearing a jersey featuring yellow, green and red polka-dots.  Les Rousses is the largest of the four towns. Its tourist office had a brochure listing twelve days of events culminating with "The Extraordinary Tour de France Weekend." It is also the weekend of the World Cup final.

I biked about half of Stage Eight along the mountainous Swiss-French border, though going opposite the direction the peloton will ride next month. I had to contend with a cold rain.  It was a Sunday and the only place open to escape the wet was a McDonald's. I was receiving an extra amount of friendly toots from drivers. I thought it might have been people who had seen my just published photo on the Tour de France Facebook page, or had seen the cover story "Streetwise" had done on me in April, as it had just been posted on the web-page of the international association of papers sold by the homeless, of which there are many, and made available for any of them to publish. Its a rather minor publication in Chicago, but the London version has a circulation of 300,000, more than the "Chicago Sun-Times.".

I've just completed cycling the length of the Tournus-Les Rousses stage, also finish-to-start, rather than start-to-finish.  It had five categorized climbs, climaxing with a category two out of St. Claude. I descended it yesterday, but will have to climb it when I return next month.  It is nine miles long at the end of the stage.  It will be the first serious climb of The Race and will shake up the standings after a week of flat terrain.

In the heart of St. Claude is a giant twenty-foot high pipe and a three-foot high diamond, formerly the cities two dominant industries. One hundred years ago over 6,000 residents worked making pipes in the area. Now there are barely one hundred. And the diamond mine has closed. St. Claude may have the only pipe/diamond museum in the world.

I wasn't the only one scouting the route. A Radio Shack team car of Lance's new team passed me from the opposite direction, but there were no bikes on top of the car nor any riders following in its wake. It was probably team officials giving it a quick preview. Yesterday "L'Equipe," the French daily sports newspaper, had a picture of Albert Contador and the Schleck brothers atop the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees. They just happened to be training on the climb on the same day and coincidentally arrived at the summit at the same time coming from opposite directions.

The Tour will twice climb the Tourmalet this year, once from each direction, concluding one stage at its summit to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its first inclusion in The Race. The three of them were all wearing long sleeve jerseys. It must have been as cold there as it is here. They were all smiles. Contador and Schleck the younger finished one-two in The Tour last year and are the favorites again this year.

Not being in a rush I was able to stop and read the several information signs above one of the largest dams in France, the Barrge de Vouglans, on the Ain River. It is over 300-feet high and a quarter-mile long and forms the third largest man-made lake in France. I came down from one climb into the town of Arinthod just after its supermarket closed for its lunch break. Most close for ninety minutes. This one closed for 105 minutes.

I noticed beyond the empty parking lot at the back of the supermarket six garbage cans. I had an empty can of ravioli and other garbage left over from my dinner the night before. When I opened a garbage can to deposit them, there on top were a bunch of bananas and strawberries and croissants and bags of chocolate covered almonds and honey covered peanuts, more than enough food for a meal or two.

As I made my final descent from the Juras, it was a most welcome sight to look out over a flat expanse of terrain, the first I've seen after nine days of leg-straining, mostly mountainous terrain. Its been good for my training, though it might have been better to start out a little more gradually. Just thirty days now now until The Race commences.

Later, George