Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day Eighteen Le Tour

Friends: While the peloton enjoyed its second and final rest day of its three week race around France, I had a stress-free day of riding my bike, unconcerned about being ordered off my bike as the peloton closed in on me or having to push hard to get to the Big Screen or of having to find a bar with a TV if I didn't have the Big Screen to watch.

Nor did I have to try to find a cyber cafe having filed a report the previous day. I could simply ride at whatever pace I desired, having no pressure of pushing as far down the road as I could as I'd gotten further along the day before than I anticipated. I could just joyously ride my bike, luxuriating in the pre-Alp scenery, letting the miles take care of themselves.

The day before I had ridden one hundred miles without even trying, arriving at the Big Screen in Montpellier before noon and deciding to continue on rather than linger to watch The Race since it was a flat stage that would most likely end in a sprint. I only needed to see the last half hour. A bar would do. Cavendish won for the fourth time. There is just one more flat stage, the final one in Paris, for him to win, giving him five victories, the same as last year and what he has been averaging the previous three years. He is living up to his potential of the greatest sprinter of all time. He will most likely break Merckx's career record of 34 Tour stage wins.

Even though yesterday's ride was a gradual climb towards the Alps past Mont Ventoux, the miles came so easily I had another one hundred mile day, leaving me just twelve miles from the stage finish in Gap. I have had more one hundred mile days this year than in any year's past thanks to the moderate temperatures and generally friendly winds and hard-riding companions.

I've ridden all or part of thirteen of the sixteen stages so far and will ride some of the final five, though the last one into Paris will be several days beyond the peloton after a three hundred mile transfer from the time trial in Grenoble. Two of the three stages I missed were stages five and six in the far north that I rode in June as I scouted The Route. Its been an excellent year.

It was well that I made it so far last night as soon after I began riding this morning it began to rain, cold and hard, the worst rain of The Tour. I was forced to put on my sweater and vest and booties. Just before the rain started Skippy drove by and reported that David the German was thirty kilometers behind me and that he had also seen Dave the Australian for the first time the evening before. If the rain doesn't let up, which it doesn't look like it will, we won't want to linger long by the Big Screen, our meeting point. The best thing is to keep moving and start on tomorrow's stage.

I had a Skippy encounter the day before as well at the tourist office in St. Paul Trois Chateaux, the Ville Départ for today's stage. He was just getting ready to preview the start of the stage as was I. But first we went across the street to join a mob of fans in front of the hotel where the Radio Shack team was staying. There was no hiding their presence what with the huge team bus and even larger team truck parked out in front along with the three team cars, all emblazoned with the bright red team logo. Just as we arrived a couple of team officials began tossing red t-shirts with the team's four leaders (Horner, Leipheimer, Kloden and Brajkovic) on the front and Allez Radio Shack on the back. Leipheimer is the only one still in The Race, and he just barely, having suffered several crashes. He had been a podium possibility, but is now over twenty minutes behind and won't even finish in the Top Ten.

The team is truly cursed this year. They greatly miss Lance. He no doubt is regretting he isn't in this year's Race with Contador and the Schlecks not on top form. That Voeckler can keep up with them is akin to Sastre winning The Race three years ago, part of what inspired Lance to come out of retirement. He told John Wilcockson of "VeloNews" that if Sastre could win The Race and Christian could finish fourth, he was fully confident he could have won it that year. But that was the year that Contador was kept out of The Race despite winning it the year before. He had switched teams to Astana and Astana was banned from The Race for a year because of Vinokourov's doping.

Skippy managed to grab a t-shirt and had me put it on for a photo in front of the team truck and crowd. He will be posting it at http://tourdafrance.blogspot.com

Skippy and I rode together for half an hour and then he doubled back to get his car. He needed some muffler work. He was going to drive it to the foot of Mont Ventoux, leave it with a mechanic and ride up the Giant of Provence.

It was a nice sunny day. The route was already lined with Tour followers in their campers sitting in lawn chairs enjoying the sun, many of them telling me I was the first. As on just about every stage there was a banner remembering Laurent Fignon, two-time Tour winner in the early '80s who succumbed to cancer earlier this year. He more than anyone would be thrilled by Voeckler in yellow vying for the overall win. He had been an outspoken critic of the French riders lack of success for the past two-and-a-half decades, accusing them of merely being content with stage victories.

He would be congratulating Voeckler for his aggressiveness, but also asking, why didn't you do this before. Voeckler acknowledges that his legs are stronger than in the past, but also that even these legs wouldn't have been strong enough to keep up with Lance and Basso in 2004 when he held the yellow jersey for ten days. Lance has tweeted that he greatly respects Voeckler's tenacity and thinks he can hang on to win The Tour. Back in 2004 in dangled at the back of the lead pack trying to keep up. This year he's at the front in the thick of the action on the climbs.

Even his team director says his performance has left him speechless. Not only how well he is doing, but several of his teammates as well, who have managed to assist him when the climbing gets steep. It will be a great story if he can pull this off, especially since his team didn't official qualify for The Tour, but was an extra selection.

It is a team with a new sponsor, Europcar, that stepped in at the last moment last year to rescue the Bouygues Telecom team that lost its sponsor and looked like it would be disbanded. It took a great effort from the team director Jean-Rene Bernaudeau to save the team. It is a French team based in the Vendée region where this year's Tour started. All along the first three stages in the Vendée were signs saying "Merci Jean-Rene."

Later, George

No comments: