Friday, July 15, 2011

Day Fourteen Le Tour

Friends: The French did not get a Bastille Day winner but almost as good they kept the yellow jersey and also gained the white jersey for the best young rider on the spellbinding twelfth stage, the peloton's first foray into the mountains.

Voeckler had vowed to defend his yellow jersey, though no one expected him to keep it with two beyond category climbs and one category one as he isn't much of a climber. When he was still among the leaders when they passed under the ten kilometers to go arch on the final climb he actually gave a smile in contrast to his usual look of torture when he is giving an all out effort on one of his breakaways. Though he faltered in the final three kilometers he limited his losses to less than a minute and retained the jersey by nearly two minutes. It was a heroic effort that will go into Tour lore. He may be able to keep the jersey on today's stage with only one significant climb if he didn't totally deplete himself. He could barely stand when he dismounted from his bike.

He was the story of the day. When he took the yellow jersey three stages ago the headline on "L'Equipe" was "Voeckler Our Hero." Today's front page was "Voeckler the Lion," with a full page photo of him rather than a photo of the stage winner Samuel Sanchez or of Frank Schleck riding away from the pack of leaders with three kilometers to go or of Contador falling off and finishing eighth just seven seconds ahead of Voeckler. Ordinarily he would finish eight minutes or more ahead of Voeckler.

The French were also thrilled with 25 year old Arnold Jeannesson finishing twelfth and taking the white jersey for the best young rider. Maybe at last they have someone who can contend for the overall, something they have not won since Hinault in 1985. On the rest day "L'Equipe" had a two page spread addressing the issue of why the French can't contend for their national race.

This first mountain stage gave answers to several questions. Contador may not be bluffing when he says his legs are fatigued from the 200 kilometers of climbing in May's very strenuous Tour of Italy that he won. Italians Basso and Cunego passed on their national tour to save them legs for The Tour de France and both finished ahead of Contador yesterday, something they have rarely accomplished. Another question answered was that Frank may be the strongest of the two Schlecks, as he was the one to escape from the leaders on his third attempt gaining another 20 seconds on his younger brother. Evans was the one to finally lead the chase after him, showing he does have the legs to keep up in the high mountains this year. He's a superior time trialist than the Schlecks, so if he can remain within a couple minutes of them until the second to last day time trial, the title may be his after two second place finishes.

And the question of who is the strongest of the three Garmin climbers was also answered. It is Danielson, who hung with the best until the end and moved up to ninth overall. Christian began faltering half way up the Tourmalet, the second of the day's three big climbs. The motorcyclist cameraman hanging behind the lead group pounced on Christian, which immediately invigorated him to spurt back to the group, but then later he fell off, while the camera lingered on him longer than he probably would have liked. He finished ten minutes down and fell to 34th. Ryder Hesjedal, who finished 7th last year and was the surprise of The Tour as Christian had been two years earlier when he finished fourth, only lost four minutes, but he is 38th overall. They will be relegated to domestique duties for Danielson. If he can hang on, he will be the fourth different Garmin rider in four years to finish in the top ten, perhaps something no team has ever accomplished.

Garmin continues to make its mark on The Tour and gain attention. One of the several gendarmes on motorcycles leading the peloton casually commented "Garmin" as he passed me as I stood along the road. Both the Garmin team cars just behind the peloton tooted at me as they passed and director Jonathon Vaughters gave me another wave.

I was stationed two miles before the feed zone half-way through the stage. I had been ordered off the course by a gendarme on a motorcycle fifteen minutes before the caravan was due to pass. I could have walked on to the feed zone, but I knew it was through a decent-sized city and there were mobs of people ahead. I didn't care to contend with that mayhem, so contented myself to have a quiet stretch of road to myself. The only drawback was there was a canal just behind me, so I could possibly lose items tossed from the caravan if they were thrown too hard. As it was I only lost a bottle of Vittel water, though I saw quite a few Credit Lyonnaise yellow hats go streaming by. At my spot I was able to nab almost one of everything--hats, key chains, refrigerator magnets, various snacks and a newspaper. "L'Equipe" is once again one of the 34 sponsors in the caravan, but they aren't giving away papers this year.

There are no real prize items this year, so just about everything I receive I redistribute on the next stage. For me that will be Sunday. I'm skipping today's stage altogether and most of tomorrow's. I rode a short stretch of it last night from its starting point in Saint Gaudens, a frequent enough Ville Départ that the street where it starts from is named Rue des Campagnons du Tour de France, as I head to Sunday's stage departing from Limoux. I ought to arrive there tomorrow afternoon and easily make it to Montpellier for its finish Sunday. Then its a 75 mile transfer on the peloton's rest day to Saint Pauo Trois Chateaux where I have the possibility of meeting up with Yvon, my French friend I manage to connect with most years. It won't be easy, but we'll try.

I sought a bar as soon as the peloton passed, watching the final three hours of the stage sitting in a comfortable wicker chair with a crowd of French. The sprinters Cavendish, Greipel and Farrar, who had finished one-two-three the day before, all got a little air time as they plodded along at the back of the pack before the action at the front heated up and there was no time for the stragglers.

As soon as the stage was completed it was back on the bike for four hours of glorious evening cycling along the fringe of the Pyrenees. There was hardly any traffic until half an hour before dark when people hopped in their cars to head to the nearest town's fireworks. I left the rain fly off my tent to watch them as I ate dinner, but none were in sight though I could hear the blasts.

Later, George

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