Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Les Essarts, Ville de Contre le Montre, Stage Two

Friends: The Tour's second stage team time trial, a loop of fourteen miles starting and finishing in the town of Les Essarts, is conveniently located just twelve miles from the first stage finish in Les Herbiers. The press center for the more than 2,000 journalists covering The Race as well as the hub for fan activities for the Grand Départ is based in Les Herbiers, one of the few stage cities large enough to support a McDonald's.

Les Herbiers would be the place to hang out these few days before The Tour start on Saturday, but I was drawn back to Les Essarts to peruse a display of over twenty books at the local library on The Tour. I'd only been able to give them a cursory look when I passed through town a few days ago, checking out the town's preparations and also to ride the time trial loop.

I also knew there would be a chance that I might see teams previewing the time trial course. With the possibility of encountering Christian Vande Velde and his Garmin team I put on for the first time his hand-me-down jersey from last year's kit that I'd promised him I'd wear at this year's Tour. It had warmed up just enough into the 70s that I didn't need a t-shirt under it.

And lo and behold when I arrived in Les Essarts yesterday afternoon, there sitting in the parking lot a block from the library and at the start of the time trial course were the team buses for Radio Shack and Garmin. There was no one around the Radio Shack bus, but the Garmin team was gathered in front of theirs preparing to set out.

Twenty or so camera-toting fans stood at a respectful distance watching the proceedings. As I joined them, my jersey caught the eye of Jonathan Vaughters, former Tour de France rider and team founder and director. Delighted to see someone sporting his team jersey, his face brightened with a smile and he gave me a wave. Before I had a chance to put my foot down, Christian noticed me and pushed away from his teammates and glided over to me on his bike.

"Fancy meeting you here," I said. "Have you had a chance to check out the time trial course yet?"

"We drove it yesterday, but this will be the first time we've ridden it."

"What do you think of the down hill finish? Will you guys stay in formation or will it be every man for himself at that point?"

"I just hope David Millar doesn't rip my legs off."

Millar is his Scottish teammate and former world time trial champion that Christian was implying would be hard to keep up with. Christian was clearly much more relaxed and at ease than he'd been at Monaco two years ago and Rotterdam last year when I'd had chats with him before the Tour starts, as both years he was recovering from broken ribs suffered at the Tour of Italy. This year he's in fine health and is coming off excellent performances at the Tour of California and the Tour of Switzerland. He has a good chance to improve on his fourth place finish at The Tour three years ago.

But as always he deferred attention from himself and wondered how I was. I told him I'd ridden 2,500 miles in the past month checking out the course and was mildly concerned that I might be overtrained, not giving my legs enough rest. I was looking forward to taking it easy the next two days.

"Is there anything you need?" he asked. I was mildly tempted to ask if I could avail myself of the shower in his team's bus while they were off riding, if only to have a look inside, but didn't have the nerve. "No, I'm jut fine," I said.

"Are you sure?" he persisted.

"Well, I could always use an energy bar or two," I admitted, remembering the box full he had once given me. He unhesistantly reached into the rear pocket of his jersey and handed me two packets of Clif shot blocks energy chews, both margarita flavoured and uncaffeinated. "Have these," he said. "If you'd like more just ask Andre, the bald-headed guy over there, our bus driver, and he'll give you some more." He glanced over his shoulder and said, "I better get back to the team. We're about to go. See you back in Chicago." I wished him luck and told him I expected to see him on the podium in Paris.

A young man, who had sidled over during our conversation, as had several others, asked if I was a friend of Christian's. "Yes, we're both from Chicago," I said. He asked if I was following The Tour and if I'd ever done it before. After I gave him my story I asked him, "How about you?"

"I'm covering it for L'Equipe," he said.

"That's my favorite paper," I said. "You guys are sensational. We don't have anything like it in America. For a short spell about twenty years ago we had a national daily sports newspaper but it didn't even last a year."

He asked my age and then quickly said, "I've got to go," as he was accompanying Vaughters in the his car for the team ride. As the nine riders pedaled past on their time trial bikes, wearing their time trial helmets, team character David Zabriskie, wearing his US National Champion Time Trial jersey gave me a thumbs up.

Then I got to spend the next two hours until the library closed continuing my Tour de France immersion paging through the collection of books on The Tour it had mounted on a rack overlooking a bicycle draped in yellow. Many were coffee table-sized books largely of photos, several by Jean Paul Olliver, the premier authority on The Tour and commentator for the Eurosport television station that covers The Tour. He gives lectures on the history of The Tour at many of the Ville Etapes in the weeks before The Tour visits them. I missed his appearance in Dinan by one day a couple of weeks ago. I would gladly attend even if I wouldn't be able to understand much, just to hear the holy names of Tour legends and iconic mountains roll off his tongue.

The books were like a mini-museum visit reliving its many storied moments. Though I knew well many of the photos, I never tire of seeing them, just as one is always happy to see paintings or works of art by a favorite artist. They are akin to masterpieces that never fail to evoke emotions or lift the spirit and often give a glimpse of something I hadn't noticed or felt before. It would not be easy to rank the Top Ten photos of Tour lore as there are many contenders--Poulidor and Anquetil battling it out on the Puy de Dome in 1967, Italian rivals Coppi and Bartoli sharing a water bottle on the col d'Izoard in 1949, a medic trying to revive Tom Simpson on Mount Venoux in 1967, René Vietto looking as forlorn as a young girl who has lost her kitten sitting beside his bike minus the front wheel he has had to give to his team leader Antonin Magne in 1934, the Swiss matinee idol Hugo Koblet combing his hair, one-time Spanish winner Federico Bahamontes sitting on his suitcase at a train station after abandoning the 1960 Tour, the diminutive climber Jean Robic the lone rider wearing a leather helmet fearful of crashing in the 1940s, Albert Londres interviewing the three Pelissier brothers in a cafe after quitting the 1924 Tour in protest of Henri Desgrange's draconian measures confessing that it required cocaine and other forms of "dynamite" to survive The Tour.

Every exhibition on The Tour and every Tour book also has photos of Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond at the finish of the 1989 Tour that LeMond won by eight seconds, overcoming a near minute disadvantage on the last stage, a time trial from Versailles to Paris. They wear the ultimate expressions of sheer delight and supreme agony. The most touching and revealing of the many photos is LeMond consoling Fignon on the podium, his smile gone, feeling some of Fignon's devastation.

Looking at hundreds of photos in one go also reveals the great aging process the racers undergo, as dramatic as a US President, from fresh-faced boys to hardened veterans, not only from the strain, but the great pressure to maintain their success.

When I left the library the Radio Shack bus was gone, but the Garmin bus remained. I headed out on the time trial course going in the opposite direction that the racers will follow hoping to catch the Gamin team in action. Evidently they had gone off on another route after riding the course once or twice, something they could do in less than half an hour. I did encounter team cars from Sky and HTC-Highroad driving the course. They weren't the first team cars I had seen.

Even before I came upon the Garmin and Radio Shack buses I encountered a couple of Liquigas team cars of Ivan Basso's Italian team in the large city of La Roche-sur-Yon where a few of the teams are staying ten miles before Les Essarts. But that wasn't my biggest thrill of La Roche-sur-Yon. Rather it was seeing a sign Henri Desgrange Stade, as the city's large football stadium had been named in honor of the founder of The Tour de France. There was no statue or bust of him on the outside and it was locked up so I couldn't check to see if he had been further honored in its interior.

One never knows when one might come upon a Tour memorial in France. I passed through the small village of Calorguen just south of Dinan where Bernard Hinault's wife is the mayor. There was a penny farthing bicycle at an intersection near the town center, but otherwise no indication that the five-time winner of The Tour now lived there. The only business in town was the bakery and it was closed the afternoon I was there and no one was about to ask about the Hinaults. I had inquired in Dinan if there were any monuments to Hinualt in the area. I was told, "Not yet, as he is still alive." That's not a defining criteria, as the town he grew up in less than 100 miles away has a large mural of him on a wall and a display honoring him at its City Hall.

Later, George

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