Saturday, July 30, 2011

Paris

Friends: I am no stranger to cemeteries. Hardly a day has gone by in my last two months of bicycling around France that I haven't slipped into one or two or three to replenish my water bottles. If it had been warmer, it would have been even more, to give my self a dousing as well.

So I felt right at home as I went strolling through the sprawling Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris. But rather than in search of a water spigot, I was in search of an actual grave, that of Laurent Fignon. Since he was a recent burial, he wasn't listed on the glass encased directory at the cemetery entrance of the one hundred or so most significant residents-- Baudelaire, Balzac, Chopin, Hugo, Moliere, Morrison, Ophuls, Wilde...

A security guard said I would find his burial site by the crematorium, though she couldn't be more specific than that. It was a good ten minute hike past hundreds of tombstones with hardly any breathing space between to the far side of the cemetery over a bit of an incline following the signs to the crematorium. When I got within site of it, I asked another security guard. He gestured toward an extensive wall two stories high of mini-vaults containing ashes. He said that since it was a relatively new one it would be easy to spot, but not because they were placed in chronological order, but because the stone would be fresh and shiny.

I wished he could have been more specific than that as I began scanning the hundreds of slots with just a name and a pair of dates. I began just focusing on dates. There were few since 2000. I began hoping I would spot a fellow cyclist come to pay his respects as well who might have a better track on Fignon than I, but unlike the steady stream of obvious Doors fans making a pilgrimage to the Jim Morrison grave, no one stood out as a cyclists as I did with my helmet dangling from my backpack and the cleats of my cycling shoes clattering on the cobbled walkways.

But alas, after several minutes I spotted a slot in the bottom row in the corner of one section with three photos of Fignon, one from his prime racing on his bike with his long blond hair flowing, another of him with a set of head phones working as a commentator and the third towards his end with a bald head during his period of chemotherapy. In each his face was lit up with a smile and his characteristic liveliness. There was no room for an epithet, just his name and dates Aug. 12, 1960- Aug. 30, 2010. Below was a pile of flowers, the only ones around. As I was swallowing my emotions, a tour guide came along with twenty people in tow and stopped in front of it for a few words.

I then headed teary-eyed in the general direction of the Morrison grave, not caring how long it took as I recalled the many moments of great pleasure Fignon had given me over the years seeing him race and reading about his exploits and seeing the highlights of his career recounted in books and museums and also reading his commentaries in L'Equipe during The Tour. He was a great who gave his all and truly cared about the sport.

I can never avoid a visit to Jim Morrison's grave when I am in Paris if only to confirm his continued popularity as the most visited grave in the cemetery and the only one with barriers around it identical to the waist-high barriers used at The Tour de France that are no challenge to hop over if one wishes. Morrison's grave was piled with flowers, indicating that many do. There were also notes and photos of him as well as a turquoise alligator.

It was mostly young fans crowding around the grave, but others of all ages too. There was no longer a security guard stationed at the grave as there has been in the past. That has allowed people to graffiti the tree in front of it, mostly with messages rather than names, as well as lyrics from his songs--"Can you show me the way to the next whiskey bar," "This is the end, my only friend," "Welcome to the other side," "The lizard king lives," "Thank you Jimmy," "No haircuts."

I also made a pilgrimage to the headquarters of The Tour de France in Issy-les-Moulineaux, the first suburb beyond Paris along the Seine about three miles south of the Eiffel Tower on Quai Stalingrad. The Asaury Sports Organization takes up an entire modern glass high rise. The lobby has large photos of all the events ASO sponsors along with The Tour--the Paris Marathon, the Dakar car race, some golf tournaments and more. Though there was a large map of this year's Tour route on the wall, there was only one bike racing photo of the peloton in the mountains. It wasn't the full-fledged museum-like tribute to The Race I was anticipating. The two coffee tables in the lobby were cluttered with L'Equipes and a stash more were in slots underneath the map of The Tour, as L'Equipe is also under the ASO umbrella, though its offices are in another building just across the river, as there isn't enough space for it here.

I told the receptionist I had just visited the Fignon memorial put up by The Tour in Créteil and wondered if they had a list of all the memorials they had placed around the country. She didn't know, but called someone who might. She said his line was busy, but if Ralph and I could wait she would try him again. We were happy to take a seat and glace at L'Equpie. Ralph was disappointed that soccer was featured on the cover and not cycling. We had to leaf through to page eleven for a cycling story on the Schlecks being honored in Luxembourg for being the first brothers to share the podium.

Several minutes later the woman came over and said they had no list, but that most of them were in the mountains. I said I had seen a Tour plaque at the start of this year's Race at the Passage de Gois and over the years had seen a handful of others such as one at the small restaurant on the outskirts of Paris where the first Tour departed from and one at the blacksmith shop where Christophe repaired his broken fork, as well as many of those in the mountains, and had been curious if they had all been placed by The Tour or if locals had done it, and how many might be scattered all over the country.

She said they were so busy putting on events that they had never taken the time to compile such a list, but that she would encourage someone to do it. When she realized what a devotee I was, she said that if I returned to The Tour next year I cold stop by and she would give me the official Tour loose-leaf booklet with all the information on the stages that all the teams and press use. We chatted for several minutes. She couldn't have been nicer and was in no hurry whatsoever to get back to her desk. She said on occasion The Tour passes by the headquarters on its final stage into Paris.

With film as a common passion Ralph and I attended a screening at the magnificent outdoor theater at the Parc de la Vilette on the outskirts of Paris along one of its canals. For five weeks it screens a movie every night of the week except for Mondays, a truly eclectic mix of films from all over the world and from all eras--Bonnie and Clyde, West Side Story, La Haine, Happy Together, Paranoid Park, Gomorra, Babel, A Day in New York with Gene Kelly, The Triplettes of Belleville. If I lived in Paris I would be there every night.

With the rainy weather quite a few of the screenings have been cancelled. It was threatening our night, somewhat reducing the crowd, so we didn't have to worry about craning over people's heads for the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma by James Mangold starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. The screening didn't start until 10:30. It was a three mile bike ride from Ralph's apartment near the Plaza du Republic. Ralph wasn't sure at first if he wanted to leave his deluxe carbon fiber bike at the valet parking, but after seeing how secure it was and how responsible the attendants seemed, he did not object at all.

We skipped a Nanni Moretti film the next night as Ralph needed to pack up for his return to Telluride the next day and I opted for the Paris version of Critical Mass departing from its Hotel de Ville, just across the Seine from Notre Dame. Unlike other Critical Masses around the world, Paris holds it every Friday night, rather than just the last Friday of the month and it also delays its ride until ten p.m., well after the rush hour ride of most others that contend with all the commuters. It makes for a most serene ride in the late evening through many districts of Paris. As we passed by the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and the Moulin Rouge and so many other familiar sites it was almost as if we were in a Woody Allen movie.

The Paris ride is also highly organized with fifteen or so leaders all wearing orange reflective vests saying Staff and Paris Rando Velos. Five of them lead the way and the rest serve as marshals riding alongside the group standing guard at each intersection it passes with a whistle in their mouths and a hand stretched forward halting traffic. When their duty is done they speed alongside the group shouting out "Pass a droite" or "Pass a gauche", whether on the left or right side, along with an "attencion" and then a "merci" or "s'il vous plait." They are as focused and conscientious as eager boy scouts striving to earn a merit badge. They are well-practiced and quite a spectacle. They could handle a cattle drive with ease. They did an amazing job halting all traffic corking the huge round-about of the Arc de Triomph as we entered and exited. It was another great example of the French ability to organize and manage along with the Cannes Film Festival and The Tour de France.

There were about 198 of us, the same as The Tour de France peloton. Most everyone was on a cross bike of some sort. There were no single-speeds, such as are so common now in Chicago Critical Masses. Only about a quarter of the participants wore helmets. There were just a handful on the popular rental bikes that are scattered all over Paris. When the rental bikes were first introduced to Paris three years ago most of the cyclists I saw in Paris were on the rental bikes. There were still many this year, but the rental bikes have reintroduced people to the bike, making them want their own. Its not quite up to Amsterdam levels, but one now sees parked bikes all over the city and many many more people riding their own bikes rather than the rental bikes, despite their cheapness and easy availability. Their lone disadvantage is one can't keep them for very long without it becoming expensive.

With Ralph's departure, I am now back in my tent for the next four nights before my return. It will allow me to explore some surrounding sites of Paris I have never gotten to--Van Gogh's grave, Monet's gardens, Fountainbleau and more.

Later, George

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Créteil, Ville Départ Stage 21

Friends: It took some doing to find the just unveiled Laurent Fignon monument in Créteil, an ugly industrial suburb south of Paris, but it was well worth the effort. There was no tourist office in this city to go to for help. I searched out the City Hall instead. On the way there I passed the police department and gave it a try. There was too long of a line for the lone officer in the lobby handling complaints, so it was back in search of City Hall.

The receptionist pulled out a map and showed me about where it was, near the Prefecture about a mile away. I had to ask a couple more people as I closed in on it, but they too were well aware of it, as its unveiling Sunday before the start of the final stage of The Tour must have been widely reported.

The monument was a magnificent three foot oval sculpture with Fignon's profile featuring his trademark headband and long hair. It rested on a base with a plaque stating it was erected by L'Equipe and The Tour de France and the mayor of Créteil. It was on the edge of a flower garden. Creteil chose to honor Fignon, as he raced with its local cycling club as an amateur.

Though I never saw Fignon race in France, I did have the opportunity to see him race in a criterium in Chicago in Grant Park back in the '80s. It was a thrill to see a Tour de France champ in my back yard. His autobiography, "When We Were Young and Carefree," recently translated into English, awaits me upon my return thanks to Amazon.

With my visit to Créteil, I have now ridden all or part of twenty of this year's twenty-one stages, missing only the Pau to Lourdes stage, though I have passed through both of those cities several times in years past. Only once before have I managed to ride so many of the stages. I can thank the organizers for making a route with several loops in it that allowed me to take short cuts, and also not having a huge rest day transfer of several hundred miles, as happens on occasion.

I have been reveling in the memories on my four-day ride back to Paris. One of the reasons I was able to keep pace with the peloton this year is that it has been a remarkably cool summer. There was only one day with temperatures in the 90s, and otherwise not much more than 70. It was a relief not to have to worry about running out of water as I sat watching the Big Screen.

It was a shock to get snow one day in the Alps. Not only did the cool temperatures not sap as much energy, it allowed great refrigeration for my food. I could buy a yogurt drink or chocolate milk in the evening and have it as my energy drink the next morning as I took down my tent. It spared me from having to worry about getting food for several hours at the start of the day.

I was hoping those cool northerly "Glacial Winds," as the French call them, would abate with the end of The Race and switch to the more seasonal southerly breezes for my 400 mile ride back to Paris, but no, I've had slight headwinds to contend with all the way. They were gentle enough that I couldn't object to their air-conditioning effect.

Even though The Tour 2011 is now history, riding through rural small town La France Profonde I could not escape reminders of The Grand Race. A few camper vans passed with course markers in their rear window and the small town of St. Leger-sous-Bevray had a sign on its outskirts announcing The Tour had passed through it on July 12, 2007. I rode that Tour but couldn't remember the town.

For any town, The Tour passing through is a monumental event. It will be a life long memory for all its residents. It is not something I take for granted at all. Riding the course seeing all the anticipation and jubilation, there is no ignoring what huge event it is in the lives of the French. It is a privilege to be a part of it. With its early June 30 start next year, it is little more than eleven months until the Opening Ceremony introducing all the riders. I can feel the excitement all ready.

Later, George

Monday, July 25, 2011

Post Tour, Day One

Friends: The Aussie fans ought to be back in great abundance next year after Cadel's dominance of this year's Tour. There were great throngs of them and their flag after his back-to-back second place finishes three years ago, greatly enlivening the roadside, but after he finished 30th and 26th the past two Tours their numbers have diminished to not much more than the Americans, also now hardly seen after being everywhere during Lance's string of seven straight wins.

Young Dave vowed to be back after standing alongside the time trial course for seven hours Saturday awaiting Cadel's arrival. I was there too gazing up at the Big Screen with hundreds of others as the suspense built all day. The suspense didn't last long, though, as soon after Cadel and Andy Schleck took to the course four minutes apart, Cadel immediately began gaining on Schleck's times. The screen regularly posted their time difference, starting at 57 seconds. When it was down to less than thirty seconds, not even a quarter of the way to the finish, all of us Cadel-rooters could start celebrating. He gave the ride of his life, as he did day after day during the entire Tour. He truly earned this victory.

And it was an American victory of a sort too, as he rides for the American-sponsored BMC team with two Americans on the squad, Hincapie and Bookwalter, and an American chief, Jim Ochiewz, who directed the first American team to ride in The Tour, 7-Eleven, back in 1986. Hincapie rode with Lance on every one of his seven victories. This is his 16th Tour. Next year he will set the record for the most ridden. He also holds the record for riding on the most winning teams.

We had a final gathering at the Big Screen of the handful of us touring cyclists who have followed more than a stage or two of this year's Tour. Besides Dave the Australian, David the German was there as well as Shane, a Scottish rider who began following The Tour on stage seven and managed to see eight stages in all. I saw him just two other times at stage finishes, though we had been in email contact along the way trying to reconnect.

I was hoping I might reconnect with David for a final ride together along the time trial route. I had a few trinkets left over for him to toss to bystanders along the route. He did it with great flair and panache, causing quite a spectacle.  He'd respond to the cheers from the crowds by doffing his cap and bowing like a grand showman, arousing even more cheers. He was the only among us not wearing a helmet, allowing for this extravagant gesture. He would get so revved up from the cheers that he would occasionally open a gap on me. One fan along the road chided him, calling out "piano," an Italian expression for riding a little slower with a higher cadence. David wasn't familiar with the expression, but he understood its meaning. All part of the good fun that everyone enjoys along The Tour route.

We were also joined at the Big Screen by a cyclist from New Zealand who had spent the past two months cycling around Europe. He had seen the last two stages and would love to return next year for a full dose. He spent his first month in Europe riding with a tour group of forty that tackled many of the famous climbs in France and Italy. He didn't have to carry any gear with the group. It was mostly Australian and men, with only three women, a slightly higher percentage than were among the mobs riding up L'Alpe d'Huez the day before. There the percentage was 99 per cent male. Women know better than to exert themselves for such flimsy glory.

All four of us had been on L'Alpe d'Huez the day before and traded our experiences. The Kiwi had discovered a bar with an English transmission of the broadcast, allowing him to hear the commentary of Liggett and Sherwen. The Scot had biked half-way back down the mountain to just beyond the rowdy and rambunctious Dutch corner. He said when the "laughing group" of the eighty laggards passed by, many of the riders smiled and acknowledged the crowd's cheers. He said they had discussed beforehand whether to boo Contador or not. They were not among those who did.

I watched the proceedings on the Big Screen sitting on a slight hill among a Woodstock crowd of patrons along the finishing stretch just beyond the last turn. David had biked just three kilometers up the road to the first village the night before. The crowds were too much for him and his kitten, so he left the next morning and headed towards Grenoble watching the day's event in a bar sipping coffee.

The Devil came prancing by before the top riders took to the time trial course. He was besieged all along the way by people who wanted their picture taken with him. He always gladly and kindly obliges everyone. This devil is a true goodwill ambassador, bringing cheer and delight to all. When he noticed me, he charged over and gave me a hearty pat on the back and the "Musée, Musée" chant. Then he startled me by taking out his camera and giving it to someone who had just taken his picture and asked her to take his picture with me, truly a signal honor.

Back in the '50s Eartha Kitt sang a song with the lyrics "Ike likes me" and "A camel would walk a mile for me," spins on popular jingles of the day, "I like Ike" for the Eisenhower presidential campaign, and "I'd walk a mile for a Camel (cigarette)." If The Devil had been around back then, she would have ended the song with the lyric, "And The Tour de France Devil wants a picture with me."

I showed The Devil the Chicago "Reader" article on me that included a photo of the two of us in the Pyrenees. He didn't know I was from Chicago. He said he was there for the World Cup. Then he took a photo of the photo in the "Reader." I don't know why, as his museum in his home town of Storkow, fifty miles southeast of Berlin, of his many bicycle inventions, also includes hundreds of newspaper and magazines stories and photos of him.  He hardly needed another. But he truly appreciates that I bicycled the length of Germany to visit his museum, and also that I have made my mark on The Tour myself, the most veteran of the many touring cyclists who have attempted to follow The Tour.

Lest I think though that doing so made me a person of any significance, later that evening, as I sat on the ground under a slight overhang at a gas station eating ravioli out of a can, a car that had just gotten some gas pulled up in front of me and a teen-aged girl hopped out and timidly handed me a hunk of bread torn off a loaf, not as a reward for having just followed The Tour for three weeks, but because she and her mother in the front seat mistook me for someone in need. I appreciated their good-heartedness as much as The Devil's respect. I could only revel in Another Great Day on the Bike.

Now its 250 miles back to Paris where I'll get to spend a couple days with my Telluride friend Ralph who I spent two weeks with at Cannes. Then its on to Telluride for the both of us for the Labor Day weekend film festival that is a grand event almost on a par with The Tour and Cannes. I'll pass through the town of Créteil, just outside of Paris, where the peloton began its 21st and final stage yesterday. Fignon raced as an amateur on the Créteil team. A memorial to him was unveiled before the stage start. I will also pay respects to his grave at the Pere Lachais cemetery in Paris, its largest and most famous.

Later, George

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Day Twenty-Two Le Tour

Friends: And it comes down to the time trial just like last year. Instead of having to overcome a deficit, Andy Schleck has to preserve his advantage. It will only be a slightly easier task than last year as he gets to ride last, and will know the time of Evans that he has to beat. Evans is superior at this discipline, but Schleck surprised everyone last year with his great effort to nearly overcome Contador, so he can not be discounted.

Evans has proven himself the stronger rider on stage after stage this year and has had to do a considerable amount of time trialing chasing breakaways and also breaking away himself. It will be an injustice if he does not win The Tour. This could be his last chance. Schleck is much younger and will have many opportunities in the future, so I'll be rooting for Evans as will the Aussies David and Rowan over at the Big Screen as soon as I send this off.

I was able to ride a good portion of the 26 mile time trial route in and out of Grenoble this morning after camping at just beyond the 25 kilometer to go mark. But I also had to walk a few miles of it, as some over zealous gendarmes wouldn't even let me ride on the sidewalk or the bike path along the route. They said the route was closed from eight a.m. to five p.m. and no ifs and or buts about it. I had managed six miles by 8:30 when I was first ordered off my bike, ten miles from the finish.

This wasn't the most idiotic of orders though from the gendarmes this year. That came in Gap when Dave, David, Rowan and I tried to slip through a gap in the barriers to go to a supermarket. The cop said we couldn't move the fencing. When we said we would put it back he refused. So we had to bike 100 meters further and then hoist our bikes over the barriers. Mine was too heavy and I was not in need of food anyway, so I just biked a little ways up the road and waited for the others to rejoin me.

As infuriating as this latest order was not being able to ride on the bike path or sidewalk even though they were empty of people and the road was a dead zone, I have suffered such mindlessness over the years I stoically accepted it. After fifteen minutes of walking along a stretch where there were gendarmes all too frequently I came to a long stretch through the woods with no intersections requiring officers. I was able to ride a couple of miles and then walked for another mile until I finally entered the urban sprawl of Grenoble and could ride a parallel street for a bit and then a bike path that was amply separated from the roadway that I could bike with impunity the last four miles.

I was the only one attempting to ride the course. There were already fans gathered along the route even though the first rider wouldn't be coming along for nearly three hours. The Devil was stalking the course at the three kilometer to go mark. I received a pat on the back as I passed and another exuberant chorus of "Musée, musée," now my own personal chant rather than his usual "allez, allez."

The Big Screen was at the 250-meter to go mark and had yet to be turned on at this early hour of 9:30. I hadn't passed any supermarkets so I continued on past the finish line towards another outskirts of Grenoble and found what I needed.

Yesterday was a rare stage where the entire stage was telecast since it was so short, only 70 miles, so short there wasn't even a feed zone. We were able to see the initial breakaway form. That is often the most exciting racing of the day, but today's was short-lived and hardly mattered as the first nine miles of the stage were a slight down hill and then the climb to the Galibier began, first over the Col de Telegraph. Contador did as Schleck did yesterday attacking early.

These stages in the Alps were a sharp contrast to the racing in the Pyrenees which was very safe and conservative with no attacks until the last few kilometers of the final climbs as the leaders felt each other out and didn't wish to over extend themselves. Andy Schleck had no problem going with Contador and stuck on his wheel just as Contador did to him on the Tourmalet last year. Evans had some bike trouble and fell off and was once again forced to chase down a minute gap that endured all the way to the top of the Galibier. They came together on the rocking 30 mile descent from the top of the Galibier to the start of the nine mile climb to the finish at L'Alpe d'Huez.

Contador once again attacked and everyone let him go. If he received the same reaction from the legions of fans packed along the climb as he did on the finishing stretch where I was stationed, he would have been assaulted by boos the entire way. The biggest reaction from the thousands in a rock concert atmosphere watching the Big Screen was a loud cheer when he was caught by two chasers a mile-and-a-half from the finish. This was the first crowd I was a part of that cheered Voeckler, though he fell off the pace on the climb to the Galibier and fell off even further on L'Alpe d'Huez. He was lucky to only lose three minutes. It could have been ten or more and might have fallen behind Danielson and out of the Top Ten.

The Garmin boys once again gave the best team effort. Hesjedal for awhile led the chase after Contador on L'Alpe d'Huez. Danielson was in the main group behind and Christian hung with Voeckler, just nipping him at the line. But the French could go crazy when Voeckler's young teammate, Pierre Rolland, was allowed to race on his own and overcome the 33 second deficit he had for the best young rider category. Not only did he take over the White Jersey but he won the stage, a rare unknown to join the pantheon of all the greats who have won this stage the 27 times it has been included in The Race since 1952 when Coppi won it. Lance won it twice and Pantani and Hinault and Zootemelk and Sastre and the older Schleck brother. And finally the French have won a stage in this race. Last year was an exceptional year when they won six stages. All six stages winners were invited to a visit with President Sarkozy. This year he has invited all 45 French riders who rode in The Race.

Later, George

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Day Nineteen Le Tour

Friends: All the Norwegians at The Tour, seemingly more than any other nationality other than the French and the Belgians based upon the flags along the route, are continuing to inspire their countrymen to herculean efforts. The top three finishers yesterday at Gap, well ahead of everyone else, were all of Norwegian heritage, Hushovd winning his second stage of The Tour followed by Edvald Boasson Hagen, who earlier won a stage, and Ryder Hesjedal, a Canadian with Norwegian roots. They didn't wilt in the atrocious conditions, a hard cold rain that left snow on the surrounding peaks. Not only was it a great day for Norway, but anther great day for Garmin, winning their fourth stage of The Tour, tying them with HTC-High Road and having Hesjedal as a lone breakaway brandishing the Garmin jersey.

Whenever I watch a stage in a bar with Dave the Australian, Hushovd wins the stage after chasing down the breakaway. This time he just sat on the wheel of Boasson Hagen as he chased after Hesjedal, as he wouldn't dream of chasing down his teammate, leaving him with the freshest of legs for the final sprint.

While I exalted at this great display of power by the Garmin team, Dave the Aussie and his fellow Aussie Rowan, who had joined him two days ago, were nearly out of their seats as well when their man Cadel was able to hang with Contador when he finally unleashed an attack that everyone has been waiting for since The Tour started on the category two climb near the stage finish. Sanchez was the only other rider to stick with him as they left the Schlecks and Voeckler behind. The twenty seconds they gained moved Evans up to second and was another indicator that his legs are as good as any one's in the peloton. Its into the Alps now for three of the last five stages. Its is turning into a sensational race. The suspense thickens. Any of half a dozen riders could win this thing.

We were a merry band of four leaving Gap three hours before the peloton was due to arrive, preferring to seek out a bar down the road to watch the proceedings rather than lingering at the Big Screen with the weather so abominable. It had actually cleared momentarily when Dave and Rowan and I first connected at the Big Screen and then David the German joined us. We all had been drenched by the ride into Gap.

Rowan had just trained over from Germany to follow the last week of The Tour. He had ridden it in its entirety in 2009, the year with the Ventoux finish, but was riding far enough ahead of the peloton that he and I never connected nor did Skippy spot him either. He's been working in the solar industry in Germany the past two years and was the one who inspired Dave to ride The Tour. He's a strong one too, racing full-fledged Ironman competitions. His next is in Wales next month, the first one ever to be held there. He met Dave at the Tour of Timor, a ultra-endurance mountain bike race, shortly after he had ridden The Tour and was all revved up from the experience.

He and Dave are very knowledgeable bike racing fans. We had a grand time analyzing the final hour of racing. One of the biggest surprises was seeing Cavendish finish just after the leaders, meaning that he is truly serious about winning the green jersey. There was no need for him to push himself over that category two climb, but he did it. He came in on his own without the support of any teammates with his arms resting on his handlebars looking totally spent. It is such efforts that make bike racing so appealing. There have been quite a few to be inspired by this year. Voeckler epitomizes giving one's all. Cadel too never gives up and Hushovd has shown great hunger to excel.

We were all ramped up to get back on our bikes and ride. We lost David in less than a mile when he needed to tend to his kitten. I hung with the Aussie speedsters for an hour until they decided they might want to make an attempt on going into Italy for the next day's stage finish, while I was content to just make it to the feed zone in Briançon before heading over to the Galibier. I had a harder time keeping up with them on the descents than on the climbs, as I have so much more drag from my front panniers. Aerodynamics has more bearing than than weight.

Shortly after I let them speed on ahead more storm clouds appeared from over a mountain ridge with thunder and wind. I didn't care to set up my tent soaking wet from more rain, so when I shortly came upon a cozy pine forest I made that my campgrounds for the night, just 25 miles from Briançon. It was a relief to be sheltered from the wind. About an hour later David showed up, spotting my tent through the trees.

He set out a little earlier than I in the morning so he could enjoy a coffee break, but we linked up and then a while later we were joined by Dave. He elected not to push on to Italy, though Rowan with fresh legs was attempting it. So now David, Dave and I will catch the feed zone action in three hours, watch the rest of the mountainous stage in a bar and then head over to the Galibier for tomorrow's summit finish. Hopefully today's sun will melt the fresh snow on its slopes.

Later, George

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

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Day Sixteen Le Tour

Friends: Looks like Voeckler is for real. He stuck with the leaders yesterday for the third and final day in the Pyrenees all the way to the finish line. He is now the story of The Tour, not the Schlecks vs Contador nor if Evans can finally win The Tour. And he provided all the drama in yesterday's stage as I watched it in a bar half-way along the next day's stage.

Unlike his ten-days in the yellow jersey seven years ago, this time the jersey has given him the strength to keep up in the mountains. It is a remarkable transformation, almost as amazing a performance as the eight minutes Floyd Landis put on the race leaders several years ago.

Today will be Voeckler's sixth day in yellow. He will surely keep it for the next two transitional stages before three days in the Alps. If he can hang tough there, all he has to do is endure next Saturday's time trial and he will be in yellow on the Champs Elysee one week from today when The Race concludes.

The only one showing any aggression yesterday was Schleck the Younger, with several surges from the bunch of ten contenders as they made the final ten mile climb to Pleateau de Beille. None dropped off nor could he sustain his charge. Unlike the previous mountain top finish two days before there was no finishing salvo from Schleck the Elder, as Andy seemed to be setting up for his brother Frank. It seemed everyone in the bunch had the same tired legs. Voeckler almost looked the strongest, easily responding to each surge.

Less than half-way up the climb the Garmin riders Christian and Danielson could no longer keep up. Christian rode at the front for a couple of kilometers early in the climb with Danielson on his wheel. When Basso forced the pace Christian immediately dropped off and Danielson not long afterwards. Danielson finished 13th and lost just a little more than a minute to Voeckler. He presently stands 9th overall 5:46 back. Christian is 29th overall, twenty-one minutes back.

It was easy to spot the Garmin riders as they were wearing yellow numbers on their jerseys for being the leading team thanks to Hushovd's heroic effort the day before chasing down two guys five minutes up the road to take the stage victory, the third for the Garmin team, tying them with HTC-High Road's three Cavendish sprint wins. Evidently seven days in yellow wasn't enough glory for Hushovd. He could have easily been content to take it easy for the rest of The Tour, but he showed the drive and determination of the World Champion that he is and put in a gallant effort.

I was watching Hushovd's charge in a bar in a town off The Tour route as I closed in on Limoux, today's Ville Départ, when in walked Dave the ultra-endurance Aussie mountain-biker, last seen over a week ago at the Stage Four finish in Mur de Bretagne. He was still going gangbusters, having already ridden 110 miles that day trying to get to Carcassone, 50 miles away by eight that evening for a hotel he had booked two months before and couldn't change. He made the same mistake David the German made last year, booking hotels ahead of time, not realizing it is much preferable to camp. It wasn't the first time a hotel greatly comprised his freedom and flexibility.

He couldn't blame a hotel though for not connecting with Vincent and I in Le Mans. He arrived in time but struggled to find our meeting point at The Stage start. He missed us by fifteen minutes. He could have easily chased us down, but he was so spent, he just collapsed. Plus he took advantage of a Decathlon sporting goods store near The Stage start to buy a sleeping pad and a rain coat. He arrived in Chateauroux, where the Le Mans stage finished, an hour after we did and rather than going to the Big Screen where we were, went and had a meal.

He was still charged with delight at being at The Tour and had had more good fortune than bad. He'd blown out a rear tire the evening of July 13th and miraculously found a bike shop open the next day on The Race route on Bastille Day to replace it, otherwise he would have had no hope of making his Carcasonne hotel.

He had yet to nab a course marker, unlike Vincent, David and I. When Vincent acquired his and was trying to figure out the best way to carry it, it struck him that he might be able to fit in in his spokes. It is just a little too large for that, but with some improvising it might work. That would be a brilliant way to display it, upstaging all the campers following The Tour with their course markers in their windows.

Figuring out how to fashion it to fit in a bicycle wheel will be a project for Vincent when he returns home. Last year it was figuring out how to make a light, practical kickstand. He came up with the ingenious idea of just wedging a metal rod about 18 inches long in the slot behind the bottom bracket whenever he wished to prop up his bike rather than to lay its on its side as he had to do when we camped the previous two years.

One night when the wind was whipping up I asked Vincent if he was sure it would hold. "She'll be all right," he replied. Young Dave laughed and said,"That's a typical Aussie. That means I don't really care or I haven't thought much about it." Vincent didn't dispute him. I was sorry to have had only two days with these two Aussies and their repartee.

As a chef, Vincent also was good at making food discoveries in the supermarket. Our last night together he experimented with cold water in a pack of mashed potato mix. It worked. That will make for good, light-weight emergency rations.

Nestles in the caravan was tossing out small tubes of chocolate powder good for a 200 milliliter class of milk. We'd both been buying one liter containers of chocolate milk as our energy drink. The Nestles powder made for a much tastier drink and also a cheaper one, converting us to its product. The caravan was also tossing out small tubes of a juice mix. They were so small they often went unnoticed, a rare item we could scavenge when biking the race course after the caravan had passed.

Monday is the second and final rest day before the final six stages. I'll be finishing off the 75 mile transfer between Montpellier, today's stage finish, and St. Paul Trois Chateux, Tuesday's stage start and beginning on the stage to Gap where I hope to meet up with David and his kitten and Dave the Aussie Tuesday. Then it will be on to the Galibier and L'Alpe d'Huez for some more high dramatics..

Later, George

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Day Twelve Le Tour

Friends: Just what I didn't need, I thought, a flat tire with night descending and thunder and lightening lacing the ominously blackening sky, though that flat might have been a stroke of good fortune. I had paused in the small village of Vaour 24 miles into the next day's stage to fill my third water bottle at the public toilet before making camp. Someone had scrawled "Eau Non Potable" over the sink. I filled my bottle anyway not sure if I would need it and also knowing that such warnings are not always to be heeded.

I gave my self a quick wash with my level of grime not as thick as the day before as the temperatures had moderated and then hurried back to my bike as nature's pre-Bastille day pyrotechnics in the sky intensified and discovered a front flat. At least I had the shelter of the toilet as a refuge if the rain came pelting down. If it could hold off just 15 minutes I could quickly slip out of this village and find a field to pitch my tent.

After a quick tire change I was on my bike and back on the road when as the drops starting falling. And just at that instant who comes along? Non other than Skippy with his radar trying to track me down knowing I'd be riding until dark on this road. We both ducked into the open toilet facility hoping the storm would be a quick one. Even if it wasn't, if the clouds went with it we'd have a near full moon to help us find a place to camp.

Almost instantly we noticed across the street in the church parking lot a tent erected for some Tour gathering the next day. We put on our rain jackets to scout it out as a potential campsite. It was 15 feet by 15 feet and inside were about twenty benches and one table. The rain had already formed puddles inside it, so we couldn't put our sleeping pads down on the pavement. Putting three benches together for each of us formed a good enough bed frame. I wheeled my bike over and Skippy collected his bedding from his car. It was past ten o'clock. Skippy was tired enough to conk right out. I needed to do some eating. It took me half an hour to finish off my couscous and cassoulet stew and turned in myself. It wasn't a very restful night though with the storm not relenting and a trio of long-haired teen-aged boys out for an evening of mischief taking a peek in at one a.m., quite surprised to see us seeming vagrants, but then noticing my bike with the panniers still attached recognized we were followers of The Tour, then wishing us a "Bon Nuit." I was glad it wasn't Turkey, though I wasn't sure where I was when they startled me awake.

After one boisterous series of thunderclaps before Skippy had gone to sleep he said, "I know who's going to win tomorrow's stage, Thor," referring to Garmin's Hushovd, as Thor is the god of thunder. Its not an impossibility. He's a very capable sprinter and the next stage would most likely end in a sprint. But Cavendish and his ex-teammate Greipel, who aren't the best of friends, would most likely be going at it with an extreme vengeance, as Greipel beat Cavendish for the first time in the Tour that day. In the previous sprint finish at Chateauroux Cavendish just narrowly beat Greipel. Greipel had been left off The Tour team when he and Cavendish were teammates, so this is the first year they've been able to test each other and not defer to one another. Today's sprint could be epic. It will be the last one for three stages while the peloton spends three days in the Pyrenees.

I won't be watching it on the big screen in Lavaur at the finish as I pushed on to Toulouse, 22 miles away after arriving in Lavaur at noon. I didn't care to linger for five hours in drizzly weather, especially since there was no Internet to be found in Lavaur with its library closed on Tour day. And there will be no Internet tomorrow with it being Bastille Day. I didn't object at all to getting a head start on tomorrow's sage. It is another ten miles to the start. This will allow me to get 30 miles down the stage tonight and then at least to the feed zone tomorrow morning before I'm pulled from the route. The road will be mobbed with spectators if the weather clears since everyone will be on holiday. I'll have to watch the Tourmalet climb and the finishing climb on television. That's okay as three years ago I was on the Tourmalet on Bastille Day. I remember it well as Cavendish brought up the rear, about twenty minutes behind the leader, following the wheel of a teammate. He's gotten stronger in the mountains, but he still won't be pushing it.

I was hoping to see David and his kitten at the end of yesterday's stage as he could now be happy that a German, Greipel, had won a stage. I encountered him near the big screen a couple hours before the peloton was due. He was on his hands and knees peering under a car trying to coax his kitten out. The day before had been an especially trying day with the kitten in the heat. He's about to head back to Germany at any minute, but wanted to get a little more cycling in together.

He prefers to watch The Race in a bar sipping coffee rather than at the big screen amongst all the fans, so we arranged to meet at the public toilet that I had already visited in the town's main square half an hour after the stage finished. He didn't make it so perhaps decided to turn back. If he were on the course he would have caught up to me unless he lost his way, a possibility, as for the first time someone had pilfered a series of key course markers that made following the route guesswork unless one had the route details. I was in a stream of camper vans and just followed them.

Skippy was livid about the stealing of the course markers and promised to send off an email to Tour officials about it. It is an extreme taboo to take down a course marker until after the peloton has passed and remarkably it is largely observed. Earlier in the day Skippy had emailed President Sarkozy about the thugs who force flags on unsuspecting Tour fans and then demand money out of them. Some even include a box of candy with the flag and want ten euros for the combination. There are enough retirees along the route who can be intimidated that it keeps these guys at it.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Day Eleven Le Tour

Friends: For the third time in the first ten stages I was able to get a full 24-hour head start on the peloton with yesterday being a rest day relieving me of any pressure to beat the peloton to the finish line in Carmaux. It helped too that the stage was only 99 miles, considerably shorter than the average of 125 miles.

Now that The Tour has crossed into the southern half of France the temperatures have warmed up. For the first time I overheated enough early in the evening last night on a category three climb that I shed my shirt. I was not alone as just about every male sitting in a camp chair besides his camper van along the route was also shirtless. I though was the exception in not having an over sized gut hanging over my belt.

As seems to be the theme this year, there was more exceptional hay-bale art along the way, perhaps inspired by this year's poster which is "Tous Fous Le Tour" spelled out in a field of hay. Rather than just piling up rectangular and circular bales of hay into some bicycle figure, many farmers have been sculpting hay into figures with arms and legs and facial features. Three deer on bikes whose wheels were giant rolls of hay were today's standout. They could well end up on television as there was also a huge sign written out facing skyward for the helicopters. It was 25 miles from the finish, so has a good chance of making the broadcast unlike art in the first half of the course before the telecast begins.

French producers don't go out of their way though to show such human-interest angles of The Race. Evidently they know their audience craves non-stop bicycle action and steams up when they divert their cameras to show the beautiful and exceptional sites along the route as do the American producers.

Vying for the most original piece of art of this year's Tour is a mannequin of The Devil complete with pitchfork chasing a mannequin on a bicycle wearing the red polka dot jersey. I didn't have my German translator with me today when I passed The Devil to ask him if he had seen it. I saw him on a bicycle for the first time, as it was mid-morning and there wasn't much going on. He had his pitchfork in one hand and was delighting a handful of villagers.

Even those off The Tour route on the roads linking a stage finish to the next day's start get in on the act of celebrating The Tour with bike art. On the way to Aurillac yesterday on N122 I passed a bicycle on a ridge above the road with twelve empty tin cans evenly spaced attached to its rear wheel. The rear wheel was slightly elevated and was slowly spinning as a hose filled a can with the weight of the water moving it downward.

Two miles from today's finish a cyclist in the US Postal Service uniform of ten years ago flew by me. He shouted out "Garmin" as he passed. We had spoken briefly several days ago at the Chataueroux finish line as we watched the big screen. He was a Norwegian of about my vintage following The Tour for the first time. We reconnected in the town plaza here in Carmaux before heading over to the town's cyberbase. He had ridden all of today's route as well and hadn't seen any of the other touring cyclists who I've had contact with earlier in The Race. Evidently they've all dropped out as usually happens.

The Norwegian is riding a carbon fiber Trek without any racks, just wearing a small pack on his back and staying at hotels. As we talked a woman wearing a shirt of the Norwegian flag and carrying two Norwegian flags walked by. She is part of a bus tour of Norwegians. Interest in bicycle racing is exploding in popularity in Norway with the Garmin rider Thor Hushovd having won the world championship last year and the green jersey in The Tour in previous years.

Now its over to the Giant Screen to watch the final two hour's of today's stage. It being so short the peloton set out at 1:30 this afternoon and are expected here by five. There were four categorized climbs, but just threes and fours, so it ought to end up with a sprint finish. Then it's just a ten mile transfer to Blaye-les-Mines for the start of tomorrow's stage, the shortest transfer of this year's Tour.

Tomorrow's stage has only one small climb, so Voeckler will be able to keep the yellow jersey until Thursday, Bastille day, when The Tour heads to the Pyrenees and its first of four mountain top finishes. Then we will see who is for real, if Evans has truly improved his form to be able to ride with Schleck and Contador and if the Schleck brothers have it in them to keep up with Contador and if Christian and his teammate Danielson can be factors as well. Its been a great Tour and it will only get better.

Later, George

Monday, July 11, 2011

Day Ten Le Tour

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."

"That's true."

"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.

Later, George

Friday, July 8, 2011

Day Seven Le Tour

Friends: It was just Vincent and I enjoying all the day-before preparations along the Stage Seven route from Le Mans to Chateauroux yesterday as we rode the first eighty miles of the course, as Dave the Australian did not make our noon rendezvous point at the start of the course, nor did he come charging up from behind us we expected at any moment.

But David the German did meet up with us less than fifteen miles from the finish just a couple hours ago. He had a mighty surprise for us, something he had hidden in his front basket that he wanted both of us to see at the same time, the most incredible thing imaginable, he said. He being a professional bird watcher I figured it might be some feathered creature. It was indeed a creature, but rather a meowing one, a young kitten. He found her at a rest area two days ago and has been traveling with her since.

She was loving it, nestled up in David's travel bag he carries in his wire mesh handlebar basket. David carried on about how smart and affectionate she was as if he were a proud father. She could well be the first kitten to travel The Tour by bicycle. David said he had become so preoccupied by her that he nearly went a whole day without smoking a cigarette. He thought at last he would be able to quit. But he had another this morning, and he said it was absolutely divine.

We reached the finish of today's route just after two, having to ride the last mile along the sidewalk rather than on the course. No Dave at the big screen but we encountered a young Scottish touring cyclist who had just joined up with The Tour and plans to bike as much of the route from here as he can. So we might have a new recruit. Its his first Tour and had lots of questions, wondering if he'd be able to ride the mountain passes on the day of the race and where the best place to watch the stages was and on and on.

Its great to be reunited with David as besides being a very energetic and frolicsome traveling companion shouting out "Bon Tour" and "Bon Appetite" to the throngs along the road as they greet us, he buys "L'Equipe" every day. He and the nation were deprived on Monday and Tuesday though, as the drivers who deliver "L'Equipe" went on strike. It was a near national catastrophe, timed of course when people most crave this national sporting newspaper that devotes up to eight pages each issue to The Tour.

David had been so preoccupied with his kitten that he hadn't been able to find a bar to watch the last two stage finishes. Vincent and I were lucky yesterday to find a television in the first bar we tried about an hour before the stage finish, unlike the previous two days when we had to try at least six or seven and were getting quite desperate. Two days ago a woman helped us out and led us as she drove her car to a bar. But yesterday, since we were on The Tour route it was a snap. When we came to the town center of Montoire-sur-le-Loir there was a bar right at the corner with a "Vive Le Tour" banner. We didn't even have to ask to turn the television to The Tour as we had to to the day before. The bar was plastered with all the team rosters and the route and the course profile of the mountain stages. And as with all but the first stage, the winner came from an English speaking team, Team Sky, joining Garmin and HTC-Highroad.

Earlier in the day we had stopped for lunch in one of those typical small quiet French towns. Vincent asked," How long would it take before you were bored shitless living here. It might be nice for a month, but I don't think I could last much longer." Vincent once owned a bakery back in Australia. He would like to introduce meat pies to France. He may miss them more than Vegemite. He drives a taxi one day a week back in Melbourne and it is easy for him to stop and grab a meat pie from any number of outlets that have them in a warming box on a counter.

While we were keeping our eyes peeled for Dave, a car pulled up and two young men hoped out with boxes of small flags and began ringing doorbells. I'd seen such an operation along the Tour route before, but they had always preyed upon fans along the course or people in cars. This year they are much more aggressive.

They have always been the scourge of The Tour, racing at people, thrusting the small cellophane French flags into someone's hands who think this is something affiliated with the Tour caravan and is free. But they want a euro for their flags. And they are surprising successful, especially when a small child already has one and starts waving it.

This year there are several bands of these entrepreneurs/con artists. Some are wearing reflective vests and stand in the road stopping traffic. The two Vincent and I were watching had cards dangling around their neck as if they were official credentials and bright yellow Tour wrist bands.

Many people know the scam and immediately send them on their way. But these guys aren't deterred. They are hustlers of the highest order, literally and figuratively. They just sprint on to the next prospect. I've nearly been knocked off my bike as they swerve in front of me to park and then fling open the car doors, sometimes with three or four guys flying out and then sprinting to fans along the route. It is always a delight to see the flag handed back to them. Occasionally the gendarmes will run them off, but they are always back the next day in the next region where there is a fresh crops of gendarmes and potential victims.

Skippy too is more infuriated than ever by how blatant they are this year. When he's driving his car he just blasts his horn and charges them. Skippy is campaigning to have something down about this blight on The Tour. You can read about his strong feelings at http://tourdafrance.blogspot.com He came along in his car after we'd been on the road for two hours this morning and said he'd pull over up ahead for a chat, as we'd missed each other the past few days. When we arrived he had his cooker out and was boiling water for coffee or tea. He said he had spoken to a three star general in the police force about the flag sellers and hoped he might take some action. Its a good thing there is no market value for the course markers otherwise these characters would strip the course of them in the night, such is their character.

Now its back to the Giant Screen for today's most likely sprint finish. Hopefully Dave will have joined us and we'll be up to five in our touring cyclist entourage.

Later, George

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Day Six Le Tour

Friends: Day six of The Tour and Vincent and I are right on schedule, in fact a bit ahead, allowing me time for the Internet. We've arrived in Le Mans, the start of tomorrow's Stage Seven, awaiting Dave the Australian. We had arranged to meet at the start of the stage at noon today and then set out, trying to get at least 75 miles down the course, leaving us 60 miles to get to the finish by two tomorrow.

Dave left us at the end of stage four in Mur de Bretagne, as he'd reserved a hotel ahead of time nearby and he wanted to ride some of stage five to Cape Frehel. He's got the legs for the extra miles, as he modestly left slip the other day that he finished ninth at the latest 24 hour mountain bike world championships. He is an elite endurance athlete who can gobble up the miles and ride for hours and hours. He might have finished even higher at the world championships but he had to curtail his riding with 45 minutes to go when he started hallucinating.

David the German accompanied Vincent and I until noon yesterday when he decided to take a more direct route to tomorrow's stage finish and give his legs a rest, though he too has strong legs despite riding in sandals and taking regular cigarette breaks. After the bicycle, his two favorite things are coffee and cigarettes, the title of a most entertaining Jim Jarmusch movie. He knew the movie and very much likes Jarmusch, but generally doesn't like movies, so hasn't seen it. David can't remember the last movie he saw and says that he walks out on at least half that the does go to see. Such behaviour does not sit well with girl friends, but he is a very strong-minded individual with very strong opinions who is fairly set in his ways. He makes for a very entertaining travel companion. Dogs particularly irk him, as he says they have a Hitler-complex, all wanting a leader. He prefers cats and their independent ways. We hope to be rendezvousing with David at two tomorrow under the jumbo screen at the finish line in Chateauroux.

Vincent and I were disappointed not to see the finish of stage four, even though we arrived at it four hours ahead of the peloton. It was drizzling, so instead of finding cover and lingering, we pushed on and had to watch Cadel Evans, Vincent's fellow Australian, just barely nip Contador at the line in a bar. It was a steep one mile climb to the finish that was as dramatic as could be with all the strongmen up there fighting it out. Vincent is even more of an Evans fan after meeting him last Thursday at the team introductions thanks to Skippy. Vincent heard from friends back home that their handshake was caught on Australian television, making Vincent even more of a celebrity among his mates.

Vincent and I might have opted for the short cut that David is taking along the Loire River, but a strong westerly wind picked up with Tuesday's rain, blowing directly towards Le Mans. Back to back days of 105 and 112 days didn't take much effort. Now we're about to head due south for the next 250 miles. It is cloudy and cool and we've had to put on our rain jackets a couple times already today.

I was particularly disappointed to have to wear my rain jacket hiding my Garmin jersey riding the final ten miles of stage four past the hundreds of fans, as the day before Garmin's sprinter Tyler Farrar took his first career Tour de France win in Redon. I was there at the finish line and was immediately getting many hand claps and bravos as I rode past all the fans after the race. I've only seen a couple of other fans wearing the Garmin jersey, and those seem to be Thor Hushovd fans wearing this year's jersey, which is distinctly different. I get extra respect for being a veteran fan wearing last year's team jersey. I always get some response from fans riding my loaded bike, so now I don't know if the cheers are for me as a touring cyclist or me representing the Garmin team.

The Le Mans start is right along side the famed car racing track where the 24 Hour race is held. Vincent is presently there awaiting Dave. The course markers are already in place and some barriers are up, but otherwise none of the construction of the many many buildings of the Tour Départ Village have gone up. They are still in place over 100 miles away in Dinan where today's stage is about to start.

Later, George

Monday, July 4, 2011

Stage Two

Friends: And now we are four. A couple hours after the scintillating team trial which Vincent, David and I watched on the jumbo screen just 200 meters from the finish line won by Garmin putting the Garmin rider Thor Hushovd from Norway into the yellow jersey, as the three of us were riding the Stage Three route we were passed by a hard-riding young cyclist with rear panniers. We latched onto his wheel and quickly learned he was an Australian also intending to ride the entire route.

Two years ago I met Vincent trying to do the same and then David last year, so I was wondering who it might be this year. In year's past I usually happen upon some rookie trying to ride the course before stage one or on stage one. I was concerned there would be no one new this year, so we were all delighted to have a new recruit for our touring team.

He is another David, though we'll distinguish him from David the German by calling him Dave. He is a quite gung-ho 21-year old thrilled to be at The Tour. He races back in Australia so is plenty fit. He has shaved legs and a few bruises from crashes that haven't entirely healed. He immediately won our favor when he said he sold his car so he could afford this trip. David was just slightly disappoint that instead of selling his car he hadn't put a torch to it. David has never owned a car in his 42 years and is easily irritated by the exhaust they spew and the noise they make and the hurry they are in and the toots they give us. He was particularly appalled when a camper in The Tour entourage passed us pulling a car. Vincent commented, "You know how it is David, most people can't have enough cars."

Dave is riding a carbon fiber bike and carrying four water bottles, two behind his saddle and two on his frame. Like David he only has rear panniers, while Vincent and I have our gear spread out over front and rear bags. Dave is still learning the in the ways of France. He inadvertently ended up on an expressway his first day out of Paris and was pulled over by the police with a few minutes. Rather than a warning, they put him and his bike in the car and took him to the police station to collect a 22 euro fine. He didn't know that most grocery stores are closed on Sundays in France so had to leave the time trial before it ended to go to a larger city twelve miles away to get food. If he hadn't had to make that detour we might not have met.

We galloped along at nearly twenty miles per hour alternating between being a four man pace line and riding two abreast to chat until ten p.m. camping in a freshly cut field of hay, perfect for Dave as he didn't bring along a sleeping pad. "Anybody have a rake?" he asked. I offered one of the PMU green hands I had picked up from the caravan to help gather the hay for a mattress; He easily had his best sleep of his ten days so far in France. But he hadn't bought enough food for dinner.

Us three vets had food to spare, Vincent a pack of potato soup, David some noodles that he just cooked up and me some corn flakes and three packs of candy from the caravan that I had planned on tossing out to people along the route the next day. , But I had plenty of other stuff, even after a gave Vincent five of the red polka dots hats I nabbed and one to Dave, his first. David likewise had a good haul of caravan goodies. Initially he scorned all the useless junk they give away, but when I told him how much satisfaction we give to people along the route ahead of the caravan dispersing goodies ahead of time, he became as exuberant as anyone in trying to grab stuff. He has a perfect set up with a wire basket on the front of his classic Bianchi racing bike. He says these baskets have become popular among messengers in his home down of Bremen. He worked as a messenger himself for a couple of year before he became a professional bird-watcher in 2003.

Twenty miles into our sixty mile ride to today's Stage Three finish in Redon we managed to lose Dave. We waited for 20 minutes on the huge bridge over the Loire waiting for him, but to no avail. The bridge rose high enough over the river to qualify as a category four climb for the riders. But we met up at the stage finish under the giant screen, as was our backup. The biggest loss in getting separated was that Dave missed out on meeting The Devil. David got the opportunity for the first time and was able to do some translating, as The Devil only speaks German. He warmly greeted me saying "musée, musée" as he identifies me as one of the rare people following The Tour to have visited his museum of bikes he has built and all his memorabilia in a small town south of Berlin.

Now we have a couple hours of enjoyment of watching Garmin on the front of the pack defending the yellow jersey. With luck they ought to keep it for five or six stages. People today along the route were responding to my Garmin jersey shouting out "Garmeen." Once today's stage is done we will try to match last night's 50 post-race miles heading to the Stage Four finish in Mur de Bretange. If its as nice as last night we'll feel as if we could go all the way to the finish.

Later, George