Friday, July 22, 2011

Day Twenty-One Le Tour

Friends: The first ever summit finish on the Galibier, one of the highest and most spectacular passes in the Alps, was easily the glamour stage of this yearś Tour attracting tens of thousands of racing fans from all over. I saw my first contingents of American tour groups and for the first time ever at The Tour someone walking around with an Israeli flag draped over his shoulders. There were Poles and Czechs and South Africans and loads of Spaniards.

This year is the hundredth anniversary of the Galibierś first appearance in The Tour, also the year that the Alps were first included after successfully passing over the Pyrenees the year before for the first time.

The camper vans were parked for miles leading up to the Galibier as I biked to within five miles of its summit last night camping just beyond a road block at the Col du Lauret where the road turns up to the Galibier. It was lucky I pushed on so far into the evening as the next day no bicyclists were allowed beyond that point. I was the only bicyclist aside from those in the peloton to bike the Galibier on race day. It seemed quite strange when I set out at eight a.m. that there wasnt a steady flow of cyclists as there would be the next day going up L'Alpe d'Huez, just people on foot. I figured everyone was just getting a late start since it was quite cold and they didn't want to be up at the summit longer than necessary.

With the road blocked to motorized traffic the night before I simply pitched my tent on a narrow strip of grass right along the road rather than pushing up over a steep embankment. I was sharply awoken at one a.m. when the stream of Tour trucks arrived from the stage finish that day in Italy with all the buildings they erect and the barriers and broadcast equipment. There are quite a few eighteen-wheelers as well as buses for the crew who would work through the night. If their roar and bright headlights weren't enough to awaken me, a couple of clowns found it necessary to blast their horns at me.

It was back to sleep until five when the sky began to lighten and then some more snoozing until six when the first of the hikers began trudging past my tent, the French in joyous conversation. I could nap some more between groups until 7:30 and then began bundling up in the sub forty degree temperatures. The wind was blowing more cold air from the north so I only shed two of my four layers on the steep hard climb to the summit past the people in campers parked along the road all bundled up trying to get some warmth from the sun out of the wind. There was also a trickle of hikers taking a short cut up a trail.

The race village was still be assembling a kilometer below the summit in patches of snow from two days before. If I wanted a photo of the huge monument to Henri Desgrange I couldn't have gotten it as it was surrounded by trucks. I ducked into the lone souvenir shop to see if they might have a television for watching the race as there wasn't room for the giant screen usually erected at the stage finish on top of an eighteen-wheeler. The only television was in a tent.

It was too cold to linger up there for seven or eight hours, so I descended back to the main highway where there were mobs of people and many frustrated bicyclists being turned away my a row of gendarmes. I could see the giant screen as I made my descent already broadcast a pre-start show. I wandered around among the throngs all in Lycra and on high-end bikes scouting out the best place to sit and watch The Race on the giant screen out of the wind and with some sun to keep warm. I settled on a spot along the road beside a car with guys wearing white and red wigs. I could lean my bike up against the hood of the car and sit on its cross tube if I wished or on the ground in front of it if the mobs didn't block my view.

There were thousands of us at this intersection and quite a few gendarmes trying to keep order. A Tour truck arrived with extra barriers to hold back the mobs. When people with Tour credentials around their necks gathered in front of the barriers at the turn the racers would take up to the Galibier there were howls of protests from those of us behind the barriers. The officers got them to crouch down not to obstruct our view.

The race action was the usual break up the road until Andy Schleck chased after it when it was half way up the second of the three big climbs in the stage, the Col de Izoard, one of the legendary Tour climbs that isn't all that often included in The Race as it is in a corner of the county near Italy. But it is a favorite of cyclists, so much so that there is a bike lane on it and also a plaque honoring Coppi and Bobet.

A grey-bearded guy with a Luxembourg cycling jersey who was standing on a barrier up above the tried to get an Andy Schleck cheer going but no one responded. He tried several times as he closed down the two minute gap between he and two chasers who were another two minutes behind the leaders up the road, but no one responded. And then when Schleck caught the chasers, which included a teammate, and closed in on the leaders still no one was responding, not even this brilliant strategy, even if they weren't Schleck fans.

Part of the brilliance of the strategy is it allowed Schleck to descend the Izoard with the comfort of a teammate leading him and not dozens of other cyclists to contend with as he has a slight fear of descending. He lost a minute two days before on the category two descent in the rain to Briancon. Last year he had his team director call his mother in the middle of a stage assuring her he wasn't going to take any risks on the descent after he dropped his chain.

When Schleck caught the leader up the road he was nearly four minutes up on the peloton. It was left to second placed Evans to lead the charge as no one else would assist, much to his displeasure. There weren't enough Australians in the crowd to boo when Evans chastised those with him for not helping. But he showed his strength by closing the gap on Schleck which had grown to four minutes and was increasing to just two minutes and fifteen seconds.

The biggest reaction from the crowd came when Contador fell off the pace. There were cheers whenever it showed him falling further and further behind. His fellow Spaniard Sanchez was having a bad day as well. His hops for a podium position fading fast.

But for us Garmin fans there was plenty to be happy about with its three climbers, Christian, Hesjedal and Danielson hanging tough. They finished in the top twelve extending their lead in the team category, with Danielson still ninth overall, moving to within a minute and a half of Sanchez and extending his lead on the man in tenth to over two minutes.

Today will be the final brutal stage, climbing the Galibier from the opposite side, a much tougher climb than from the side they climbed it yesterday. It will be thirty miles downhill to the climb to L'Alpe d'Huez where I'm presently sitting in an internet cafe overlooking the ski village's outdoor swimming pool, right next door to an outdoor ice skating rink that is more popular than the pool. It is sunny but cold.

It was another fabulous climb of L'Alpe d'Huez this morning, the fifth time Ive done it, with hundreds of others. There was worry about it being closed dozen like the Galibier as there is a huge ski village up here unlike the Galibier which is just a narrow pass with no room to accommodate the thousands of cyclists and their bicycles. It is noon. Today's short 70-mile stage doesn't start until 2:35.

I will sign off now and hopefully get my usual spot under an overhang looking at the giant screen just two hundred meters from the stage finish. Then it will be an easy ride to Grenoble tonight where I will camp alongside tomorrow's time trial stage. Now the question is did Andy Schleck and Evans expend too much energy yesterday opening the way for Frank Schleck; Voeckler was totally devastated at the race end. Its doubtful he will retain the yellow jersey today, but his valiant effort to keep it by fifteen seconds yesterday over Andy was the big story in France, with his photo on the cover of L'Equipe and all the newspapers, not Andy for his bold attack.

Later, George

1 comment:

Yonder Vittles said...

good to hear that you are in the thick of it. the reporting is excellent.