Friends: As I was half-way up a five mile climb at 9:15 last night on N122 to Aurillac, the next stage start, a 50-year old French cyclist on a racing bike with a pack on his back caught up to me. He was the rare French cyclist who was fluent in English. I figured he must have been exultant with the French cyclist Tom Voeckler having taken over the yellow jersey just hours before. After eight stages the French hadn't won a stage yet and the sports pages were full of fretting stories about their poor performance, especially compared to last year when the French won six stages.
"All of France must be thrilled with Voeckler in yellow," I commented.
"Not me," he replied. "My favorite rider is Cyril Dessel, and he doesn't get along with Voeckler."
"I've read that Voeckler is the most disliked rider in the peloton."
"But he's the favorite of all the French housewives."
"Yes, that's true too."
Its been seven years since Voeckler had a ten-day stint in yellow and won the favor of all of France. He hasn't been in yellow since, though he's won a few stages of The Tour and won the French national championship and assorted other significant races. And he's made two stabs at winning stages already this year in breakaways, so no one can complain about his aggressiveness and giving attention to the new sponsor of his team, Europcar. He'd been the highest placed rider in the race at 19 going into the stage and the only French rider to do anything of significance in the first week of The Race.
After fifteen minutes of conversation we reached the summit of the climb. Patrick had been telling me that he would also be at the Friday L'Alpe d'Huez stage at the end of The Race, as he does whenever The Tour visits it. Its been three years, when ordinarily it visits it every other year. He intends to spend the weekend after the stage in the vicinity climbing cols (passes) that he hasn't climbed. He hopes to reach 500 cols by the end of this year. One can get a certificate for climbing 100 of France's cols in one's lifetime, so Patrick was a true fanatic. Not as much as someone he knows who has climbed 10,000 of them. France has about 8,000, of which 2,500 are on paved roads, the rest on dirt. He has friends who've been to America to add to their list.
As we neared the summit Patrick warned that we might have to continue on up to a ski resort as he thought bicyclists were prohibited from the tunnel that cuts through the top of the mountain. There wasn't an initial no bicycle sign at the side road, but a little further on just before the entrance to the tunnel was that dreaded sign. He suggested we ignore it as it was nearing dark and there wasn't much traffic. The tunnel was well lit and he had a flashing red light on the back of his bike.
It was a great decision, saving us half an hour and considerable effort as the tunnel went on for two miles and began the long descent. When we parted several minutes later we arranged to try to meet at L'Alpe d'Huez where he will be arriving the night before the peloton staying with a bunch of friends half-way up the mountain just beyond the raucous Dutch corner.
I was on my own as Vincent elected to pull the pin on his efforts earlier in the day at Issoire at the start of Stage Nine. He had never done much climbing in all his years of cycling and the day before, as The Tour entered the Massif Central, there had been a lot. His legs were kaput. He persevered tenaciously though like his gritty compatriot Cadel. Holding on for eight stages continued his progression of doubling the number of stages he's ridden year by year. The first year he did two. Last year four. It will be tough for him to get to sixteen though next year and endure the real mountains, the Alps and the Pyrenees.
We lost David and his kitten the day before shortly after taking a two hour break along The Race Route watching the peloton pass at about the eighty kilometer point in the stage. We weren't as far along as I would have liked as we were greatly delayed the night before. A half hour break at seven p.m. in the town of Aigurande, the start of Stage Eight, turned into two hours what with David needing to appease his twin addictions of coffee and nicotine. It took ten minutes just to find a store that sold the tobacco he prefers for rolling his cigarettes.
And then ten minutes out of town his kitten started meowing with fervor as she had shit in her nest. It took half an hour along the road to clean it up and give the kitten some time out of the bag she is imprisoned in. but along came Skippy while we waited for David to take care of the kitten. He said he would stop about ten miles up the road so we could all camp together. David had used up all his water cleaning his kitten's mess. When we saw a camper with German license plates he stopped to ask for water. It turned out to be an Australian couple with two young children who had rented the camper in Germany. They had water to spare.
All the time lost put us 25 miles short of where we needed to be if we were to reach the finish in St. Fleur on Sunday, our next meeting point with the assorted cyclists we've met along The Route. But that allowed Vincent and I to witness all the hoopla of a Stage start with all the riders coming up on a stage to sign in and get a brief introduction from Tour voice Daniel Mangeas who keeps up a truly awesome breathless non-stop ninety minute monologue. Thousands of people from miles around mob the start village and first couple of kilometers of The Race route through the city.
We should have been one hundred or more kilometers down The Race route at this point, but it was nice to enjoy all these festivities as well. As were were talking, I heard a shout of Pou-Pou in the distance, knowing for once it was not directed at me. And there a little ways away was the man himself, 70 year old Raymond Poulidor walking on the other side of the barricade just before the official starting line with an escort of four guys all in matching yellow shirts.
I was able to get in a brief greeting with Christian Vande Velde after his introduction as he took his place in line among the 185 racers still in The Race just prior to setting out. He was in excellent spirits, sitting in the top 25 poised to move into the top ten and higher once The Race reaches the Pyrenees in several days where his climbing legs can take full effect. His team has held the yellow jersey for a week and has won two stages. Things could hardly be better for Garmin.
Contador and Evans and Hushovd were among the last to take their place in line, trying to limit their time in the public eye as they know they would be mobbed by journalists with huge cameras. Even though they were all just an arm's length from Vincent and I we couldn't get a picture ourselves as there was nothing to see except microphones and bulky cameras on guy's shoulders.
After saying farewell to Vincent I was on my way, now down to a gang of one after a group at one point for two days of four of us. I nabbed the only two course markers that hadn't been appropriated yet. Fortunately The Route wasn't complicated at this point and I didn't need them to stay on course until stopping at three to watch the final two-and-a-half hours of The Stage, the first with quite a few passes to climb, though no category ones or beyond category.
It was a welcome relief not to be under any pressure to find a bar with a television with loads of time before the Stage concluded. The last three days it had been a frantic rush, a hard sprint almost equivalent to that of the peloton closing in on the finish line, to find a bar. The day before Vincent and I reached a television just three kilometers before the end of The Stage as the peloton began its climb up to the ski resort of Super Bessy. We had to peer at a television through a doorway into the personal apartment of the proprietors of a restaurant/hotel.
For some reason the man watching the action didn't care to invite us in to join him for the final few minutes of The Stage. But it made for a most memorable viewing experience for the dramatics of this stage with a Spanish breakaway rider holding off the peloton and Vinokourouv in the middle chasing him down. Vincent's man Cadel finished third and appeared to have gapped Hushovd in the yellow, overcoming his one second deficit to take the yellow jersey himself. We didn't learn until ten minutes later when we went into the local supermarket that also sold televisions, five of which were tuned to the post-Tour coverage, that Hushovd hadn't been gapped, and even though he finished several places down to Cadel he was given his same time and retained yellow.
We also learned that earlier in the stage the rookie American Tejay Van Garderen riding for the HTC-High Road team was the first rider over the first category two climb of The Race and had taken over the red polka-dot jersey for the best climber in The Race. He may be the first American to wear it. It was on cloud nine as he was interviewed after the stage by the French announcer who had to ask him how to pronounce his name and then wanted his life story, wondering also if LeMond and Armstrong had been his heroes.
The two previous stages we had been able to watch the end of the race in actual bars, but both times had cut it real close, eight and six kilometers to the finish. But I kept my record in tact of having missed only one stage finish these past eight years of over 150 stages.
There was considerable carnage in yesterday's stage with Vinokouvov crashing out and the Belgain Van Den Broeck, both team leaders and contenders, joining earlier crash victims Horner and Wiggins and Brajovic, all potential Top Ten finishers. The craziest crash of the day was a Eurosport car sideswiping two riders in the five-man breakaway that Voeckler was a part of. There was no waiting up for them to rejoin.
One of the riders from the Dutch team Vacansoleil struggled to finish the race. I would have felt a lot more sympathy for his tragedy if the driver of his team bus that he was riding in on the way to the stage start hadn't nearly blown Vincent and I off the road. He passed within inches of both of us, holding his line on the narrow road without a shoulder even though there was no oncoming traffic. It was the closest call I've had in all my years of following The Tour. And the three team cars with all the team bikes on their roofs passed us nearly as closely as well. I couldn't blame it on my Garmin jersey as I had on my rain jacket. We actually saw the team bus and the driver pull into the area where all the teams congregate before The Stage start and could have given him a piece of our minds if we wished, but we let it go.