Friends: Less than 48 hours now until 198 of the best bicycle racers in the world will be unleashed upon France to contest the 98th Tour de France--the world's most watched annual sporting event beamed into 190 countries. My build-up to this monumental sporting and cultural event seems to have been longer than in years past as for the first time in my eight years of tagging along with the peloton I've confined my five weeks of pre-Tour training to biking exclusively in France.
Previously a good portion of my training has been a long ride starting from Cannes after the film festival to another country and then back to France. One year it was a ride to Scotland. Others have been to Eastern Europe, the length of Italy, the Camino de Santiago across the top of Spain, to Berlin and on up to Denmark.
Even though I remained in France this year, I still put the same number of miles on my legs, about 2,500, while more thoroughly scouting the race route than I ever have. I checked out 23 of the 38 cities hosting a stage start or finish. Of the fifteen I neglected, I know eight of them from previous visits. I've learned it is invaluable to have some familiarity with a city, helping my escape immeasurably after a stage finish when it is clogged with traffic and also making a huge difference when I arrive in a city knowing where the peloton will depart from and where I will find the course markers to guide me for the next one hundred plus miles.
Once The Tour starts, every minute is precious trying to get as far down the route each day as I can, especially in the evening getting a head start on the peloton riding until dark and then pitching my tent along the road. It is not an easy task. It is a most demanding twenty-three days of biking. It is also good to know where I can find grocery stores and Internet and water and toilets and not have to waste time searching for them.
Also scouting out the race route has allowed me time to give more than a glance to the many Tour decorations already mounted by race fanatics. I was happy to have the time to stop and fully appreciate a mural in Le Champ Saint-Pére on the first stage that I otherwise would have had to speed past. It had considerable detail showing fans hanging out of windows and planes and helicopters flying overhead and even a tribute to Laurent Fignon who died earlier this year.
Many hay bail sculptures have already been erected. I saw a husband and wife and young son in front of one of a racer with his arms aloft wearing a red polka jersey that was big enough to have been a table cloth for a village picnic. They were taking turns posing in front of it for a photo. It was so gigantic it had a monster-size milk bucket for a nose, an original touch I had never seen before.
A Tour exhibition in Noirmoutier also had a version of bike art new to me--bike saddles pointed downwards with faces painted upon them. It seemed so obvious, with the tip of the saddle a nose, I was surprised no one had ever done this before. They were stunning, especially one draped with a nun's vestments.
Several towns had displays of drawings by school children of their impression of The Tour hanging in its tourist office. Many Ville Etapes have concerts the night before or the night of The Tour's arrival. Lisiux scheduled a free screening of "The Triplettes of Belleville" in its town park, something that every town along The Tour route should offer.
Of the many things I've learned about France following The Tour is the pride people have in their department. Rather than states, France is divided into departments, over 90 of them. One always knows the department one is in as all the license plates end with the two digits of the department. The tourist office here in Les Herbiers is giving out stickers of "Je heart 85"--I love 85, the number of its department. A huge bike in a roundabout leading to Ville Etape Redon had a number 44 on it, the number of its department.
Even if The Tour de France didn't offer up such spectacular racing and provide for heroics of the highest order, it would still be a supremely exciting experience following The Tour for the many bike tributes and insights it provides into the French culture and character. They truly honor and revere The Tour. There is a plaque on the island side of the Passage de Gois, the five mile long road that is submerged by high tide but drivable during low tide, saying The Tour de France first rode across it July 5, 1993. The Tour honors it once again making it this year's official start.
The Race promises to be another spectacular event. The course offers up some great challenges and great beauty. The two early favorites, Albert Contador and Andy Schleck, both are looking vulnerable, giving extra motivation to a dozen or more contenders. Contador admits to fatigue after a very tough Tour of Italy and Schleck wasn't impressing anybody with his performance at the Tour of Switzerland.
A trio of Americans who have finished in the Top Ten in previous years, Levi Lepheimer, Chris Horner and Christian Vande Velde, can all legitimately motivate themselves for a Top Three or better placing. And Tom Danielson, at one time heralded as the next Lance, is finally making his Tour debut at the age of 32 after strong showings in the Tour of California and the Tour of Switzerland. He is one of three Garmin riders who could finish in the Top Ten along with Vande Velde and Ryder Hesjedal, who finished seventh last year and is known as "Weight of the Nation" for being Canada's great hope. I will be extra proud to be wearing a Garmin jersey this year with those three figuring to be among the leaders of the diminished and strung out pack in the mountains.
Now I just need to meet up with my cycling pals from years past. David the German has arrived at The Tour start in Noirmoutier. We will rendezvous at noon tomorrow. Skippy the Australian, back for his fourteenth Tour, has just reported in from the time trial course ten miles away. He could walk in on this cyber outlet at any moment. No word though from Vincent the Australian. Hopefully he will be there with David tomorrow.
Now I have the team presentations to look forward to in just a few hours, the introduction of all 198 riders, with a brief interview of the team captain of each of the twenty-two teams. It doesn't get better than this.