Friday, June 29, 2012

Liege, Le Grand Départ

When Andrew and I showed up at the start of the Prologue course at the southern tip of the Parc d'Avoy a couple of hours ago there was a digital clock reading  0 days 23 hours and 15 minutes, the time before the first rider would plunge down the starting ramp marking the start of the 2012 Tour at 2:30 tomorrow afternoon.  There were no riders out previewing the course as it was raining and the course was clogged with traffic through downtown Liege.  The riders will have to wait until tomorrow morning to have a go at it.

The yellow course markers were already in place making it easy for us to follow the six kilometer course along the Le Meuse River and past many sidewalk cafes and a McDonald's and a Decathlon sporting goods store and around two round-abouts and past the City Hall in the grand plaza where last night's presentation of all the riders was held.

It was hot and dry last night.  I received a sweaty hand shake from Christian Vande Velde when I called out to him after he and his teammates passed Andrew and I towards the end of the circuit each team made of the plaza after their introduction.  He shouted out "Georgy," as if he were thrilled to see a familiar face, and then circled back for a quick hello before rejoining his teammates.  I didn't have time to more than congratulate him for contributing to his teammate Ryder Hesjedal's win in the Giro d'Italia last month and wish him luck.

There was a caravan sampler passing out trinkets interspersed between the teams during the 90 minute ceremony.   Andrew made a dash for a Panama hat to shield him from the hot sun.  I'd brought my baseball cap, so wasn't in need.

We'd been in the sun for two-and-a-half hours before the ceremony began, grabbing one of the few available benches.  We were treated to the sound check of the rock and roll band providing music interludes during the introductions.  Andrew is a musician and had a slight longing to be up on stage himself.  He was okay with the lead singer, but complained that his female counterpart wasn't fully on key.

Eddie Merckx was not part of the festivities, but he was featured at a museum exhibit on "The Golden Sixties."  The brochure promoting it had his picture along with John Lennon, JFK, Che Guevara, Bridget Bardo and an astronaut.

We kept scanning the plaza hoping Vincent, my Australian companion from the past three Tours, might surprise us.  We also had out eyes peeled for Skippy and The Devil, two other friends and Tour stalwarts.  The only familiar face I spotted was a Dutch Rabobank fan who always rings his cow bell when I pass him along The Route. 

We were disappointed not see any Tour followers at Liege's lone campground eight miles fro, the town center when we checked in that morning.  The campground wasn't even a quarter full.  Everyone was arriving the next day and had reservations, so we were only able to stay one night.  We were hoping some fan would allow us to share their spot, but none had arrived when we had to check out at ten am.  That just means we get to wild camp tonight.  We have a couple of different possibilities, all closer to the town center than the campgrounds.

There were a couple other race fans at the campgrounds who also had to leave.  One was a Swedish guy who had raced back in the '70s with a fellow countryman who won the Olympic Road Race in Montreal in 1976.  There was also a guy from Philadelphia who'd witnessed the US Pro Championships every year it was held in his home town.  He often joined teams on their training rides.  He filled us in on the latest racing news.  He might end up camping in the same field tonight that is one of our options.  We were sorry not to be spending another night in the campground with other race fanatics.

Both Andrew and I made final adjustments to our bikes last night in preparation for the grueling three weeks ahead of us.  Andrew has fully adjusted to his new synthetic seat so decided to give his leather seat another try after punching a hole in the bottom of it on each side and passing one of his jumbo zip ties through to tighten it.  So far he is happy with the operation.  He also bought some copper tubing and bent it over his rack to keep his mini-panniers out of his spokes.  It was an ingenious solution.

I needed to raise my handlebars as the weight from my handlebar bag had it drooping.  My biggest project though was transferring a jar of peanut butter from a glass jar to a light plastic jar.  Holland had budget-priced peanut butter compared to the extravagant price of France, so I finally finished off the jar  I had been nursing along for two months that I brought from Chicago.  It will be my emergency rations during The Tour along with a couple of packs of Ramon noodles that have accompanied me all this time.  The peanut butter wasn't the only food bargain in Holland.  Another was a kilo of mashed potatoes for a little more than a euro.  I ate a tub a day.

Belgium's great grocery store food bargain is two cheese burgers for 88 centimes, though Andrew wouldn't agree.  He cooks up a quality piece of meat every night.  I warned him that the burgers wouldn't meet his standards but he bought a pack anyway.  He could stomach just one bite.  He surprised me when he managed to swallow it and not spit it out.  But he is tough.  The other night when his seven dollar Irish steak flopped into the dirt from his frying pan, he brushed off what he could and said, "A bit of dirt is good for you.  Its full of micro-organisms you need."

He was more upset by a Starbucks double espresso in a can that he bought at a supermarket.  He was feeling run-down and needed some extra pep.  "That's no double," he complained, "But I should have known.  Starbucks coffee is shit.  We know coffee in Australia.  Starbucks opened 220 stores and had to close half of them.  Anyone who knows coffee who went once would never go back.  We have lots of small coffee shops that sell genuine coffee.  There are six or seven just within a few blocks of where I work."

Tomorrow will be pretty much of a rest day for us.  We'll spend the day previewing and then watching the Prologue and won't begin riding until six after the Yellow Jersey is awarded.  We'll ride 15 or 20 miles of Sunday's stage before finding a place to camp and then will probably stay there until after the peloton passes early that afternoon.  That first stage makes a big loop out from Liege and then back to the suburb of Seraing that we've already previewed.  We'll take a short cut down to the last 15  or 20 miles of the stage.  When we finish it off we won't wait around for the peloton but instead will head for Monday's second stage and start riding that course.  We'll stop and watch the finish of the first stage on TV  and then ride until nearly dark, putting us within 50 or 60 miles of the 2nd stage finish so we can easily arrive before the peloton Monday.

It was exciting to ride the first six kilometers of The Race just a couple of hours ago and is exciting knowing all that awaits us.

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