Monday, July 23, 2012

Stage Twenty

It was no easy task navigating our way to the Champs Elysees with all the closed off streets and sets of barricades even though we arrived in Paris a little after eleven, more than five hours before the peloton made its appearance.  A French cyclist came to our rescue as we gazed from the Pont de la Concorde looking down upon the vast plaza the peloton would pass through twice on each of its eight circuits around the 3.6 mile loop of the Champs Elysees.

He gave us some advice on a couple of viewing possibilities and then led us to the Tuileries Gardens within the Louvre complex to not only get to the opposite side of the Champs Elysees but also to point out his favorite spot to watch The Race.  Though we were supposed to meet Chris and his family on the Pont de la Concorde, we were most interested in having a view of a large screen so we could watch Cavendish go for his fourth straight win on the Champs.

We had to take a street parallel to the Champs Elysees to get near the one Giant Screen we could see, though we knew there were others along the route.  We were drawing a bead on it when we were waylaid by the heavily guarded Presidential Palace and had to make an even wider circuit.  When we finally did reach the great boulevard it was already two deep in fans, many with English flags draped over the barrier in front of them.  We could spot one of the lesser big screens though not the Giant Screen that travels with The Tour and rises from an 18-wheeler.  To reach it we would have to backtrack and re-enter the Champs from the other side of the Presidential Palace.

President Hollande was in town.  He had at least one public appearance planned for the day.  If we had known about it, I would certainly have made the effort to attend it as it was scheduled well before the peloton was due.  He was observing the 70th anniversary of the two-day round-up of some 13,152 Jews in Paris, who were all taken to the Velodrome d'Hiver and then most sent to Aushwitz.  The Velodrome was long ago destroyed, but there is now a memorial where it once stood acknowledging this tragic event.  Hollande became the second French President to publicly apologize for the French complicity in the round-up.  The first was Jacques Chirac on the 50th anniversary.  The French not only like to say "thank you," but also "I'm sorry."  Hollande acknowledged it was "a crime committed in France by the French."

Despite his hectic schedule, just having been elected president, Hollande maintained the semi-tradition of the president visiting The Tour. Unlike his predecessor, the flamboyant Nicolas Sarkozy, who always chose a glamor mountain stage, Hollande waited until the 18th stage when The Tour visited Brive-la-Gailarde, not far from his home town of Tulle.

As a famous bicycle racing stadium, along with its historic significance, the Velodrome d'Hiver has been on my list of places to visit in Paris.  I was sorry to have missed this opportunity.  Although I have searched out some of the bicycle-related sites in Paris (the place the first stage started in 1903, Fignon's grave, the Tour de France headquarters) there are a few I have yet to get to along with the Velodrome--the cafe where Geo Lefevre proposed the idea of a Tour de France to Henri Desgrange in 1902, a park where one of the first bicycle races ever in the 1850s was held and also the park where The Tour used to finish before moving to the Champs Elysees in the 1970s.

But it wasn't a day without a bicycle monument, as the day's route went over the category four Cote de Chateaufort, 14 miles before reaching Paris, where there is a large marble slab honoring five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil with his portrait on a bike etched into it along with a list of a few of his major wins.  David and I weren't the only ones to stop for a photo.  A Dutch guy biking the route with his pre-teen son told us it was important to teach the young the history of the sport.

People were flocking to the race course in greater numbers than even for the prologue in Liege.  These were a different type of fan though.  They were mostly tourists and of all nationalities, many of whom were wearing a recently bought Tour souvenir. Quite a few  had come on one of the thousands of the rental bikes that are scattered all over Paris.  As the crowds thickened, there was no denying the tremendous popularity of The Tour.

When David and I returned to the Pont de la Concorde it was so mobbed with people my friends might have been there, but I couldn't be sure.  We perched on one of the concrete railings of the bridge so we could easily be spotted in our distinctive jerseys.  We waited for two hours, watching the caravan go by and then until the peloton made its debut before giving up.    Though we didn't encounter Chris, we did see a Dutch guy Andrew and I had met in Liege.  Rather than fighting our way back to a big screen we headed to a bar for all the action.  Our drinks cost twice as much as they had anywhere else in the previous three weeks of The Tour, but we were in a celebratory mood having completing The Tour ourselves and being part of its grand finale.

David would have preferred it if his fellow German Griepel had won the sprint, but he had to admire the panache of Cavendish once again.  He didn't win in a supersonic blast as he had two stages ago, one of the most dramatic sprints ever, but rather launched his sprint 350 meters from the finish, much sooner than usual, proving he could hold off his rivals, daring them to try to grab his wheel and come around him.  Once again, Wiggins in yellow led him out and could be seen in the background with arms aloft in celebration after Cavendish flew past the finish line holding up four fingers.

It was a great day and a great Tour for the Brits.  The first Brit to win a stage in 1958, Brian Robinson, was there, meeting Wiggins for the first time.  Wiggins becomes also the first Tour winner to also have won a gold medal in the Olympics on the track.  He is Britain's most accomplished Olympic athlete ever, having won six medals in three Olympics.  He was 20 when he competed in his first Olympics.   He will be vying for another next week, where he will be the favorite to win the time trial.  It will be his first road medal.

His transformation from a world-class track racer to Tour de France winner is a tremendous testament to his dedication to the sport and the unparalleled support he has received from his team of advisers.  Though he has ridden on the road for over ten years, beginning his Tour career riding for three different French teams,  it wasn't until three years ago when he was riding with Garmin for a single season and finished a surprising fourth, when he was only meant to be Christian's domestique, that he showed the potential to compete for the Yellow Jersey.  He received the best coaching to be found from his Sky team of advisers, who were determined to win The Tour for Great Britain.  Not many expected them to achieve their goal of winning it within five years, though they had a budget almost double that of any other team.   They did it in three.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Stage Nineteen

There was so little at stake in this year's final time trial, unlike in year's past, with the first three spots all locked up and only some minor possible jostling in the top ten, I was almost able to give Florence and Rachid nearly undivided attention as we watched the final four hours of action on the Giant Screen across the race course from us at the 150 meter to go marker.

I was so absorbed in conversation with my long-time friends from Chicago, who moved back to France ten years ago, I didn't notice David in his bright yellow vintage Kas jersey standing on a ladder under the screen waving his arms trying to catch my attention.  It was Florence who saw him first and asked if I knew the guy who seemed to be focusing on me.  We were trapped on opposite sides of the course, too far apart to yell to one another.  One of us would have to walk better than a mile to get around all the barriers.

The Race was nearly over by the time David joined us, so Florence had little time to get to know this fellow bike messenger and bird watcher.  It would have been a fascinating conversation, but Florence and Rachid and I had more than enough to talk about. Florence is pretty much a vegetarian but she sampled wild boar at a Bastille Day party and liked it so much she'd buy it herself if she could find it at the butcher shop.  Andrew will be excited to learn about a new meat he can try if he returns next year.  He left before he could find horse meat, so has that to allure him back as well.

The most exciting news though was that Florence and Rachid will be paying a visit to Chicago next fall, something Rachid has managed a couple times since they left, but not Florence.  And the visit will also be a scouting trip for a possible full-time return.  The streets of Chicago haven't been the same since Florence made her departure.  For seven years she was the Jeannie Longo of Chicago messengers.

She and Rachid guessed right on which side of the barriers to find me.  They didn't arrive in time though to partake of the spoils of the caravan, driving in from Tours 100 miles away.  It was actually their first time in Chartres.  Rachid was particularly happy to get a close look at its celebrated UNESCO cathedral, as he had studied it in architecture school and had often seen it in the distance above the city when he drove or took the train to Paris.

The cathedral didn't have a big enough plaza around it for the stage to finish with it as a backdrop, but the final two kilometers of the course included the city's main boulevard just below it.  The boulevard was lined with a series of huge photographs on vinyl celebrating the bicycle in Chartres from times past and present, each evoking the freedom and joy of being astride the bike.  Many were magnificent pieces from the Les Cycles de l'Amour collection of J. C. Martin.

The exhibit was another example of why I always try to get to as many cities that host a Tour start or finish and with some spare moments to appreciate the tribute they offer either to the bicycle or The Tour.   There is always a bicycle loving faction in every community that wishes to bring attention to the object of their amour.

 When I began scouting out the time trial course at nine Saturday morning, there were already hundreds of people gathered, even though it was three hours before the caravan was due to arrive and the first racer not for another hour after that.  There were a handful of racers out scouting the course, each followed by a team car.  None of them had their numbers pinned to their jerseys or attached to their bikes yet,  just their uniform, so one had to know them to recognize them.

The BMC teammates Evans and Van Garderen were among those to give the 33 mile course a ride, though not together.  It paid off for Van Garderen, as he finished seventh in the stage and moved up one place to fifth overall.  He was strong enough to pass up Evans on the course, who had started three minutes before him.  It was a good day for Americans.  Beside Van Garderen, the Garmin teammates Zabriskie and Christian finished 11th and 17th.  Christian will end The Race in 60th place, his poorest showing by far in quite a few years.  The highest placed Garmin rider is Dan Martin in 35th.  He was the only Garmin rider out previewing the course.  He rode side by side with his cousin Nicholas Roche, the lone Irish riders in The Race.

As I sat and read, whenever I peeked up at the whooshing sound of a solid rear wheel passing, more people had gathered along the route.  I stationed myself at the two kilometer to go marker for these preliminaries of the few riders testing themselves on the course and then the passing of the caravan before returning to the Giant Screen for the true action.  When I returned to the Screen I was able to find a nice spot in the shade against a brick wall with a few fans perched above me. It was cool enough that being in the sun wouldn't have been a disaster, though I preferred not to.

 David and I set out for Rambouillet, the start of the final stage into Paris, at six pm, almost half an hour after Wiggins crossed the line with a time of one minute and sixteen seconds faster than the second-placed rider, his teammate Froome.  It was 25 miles, one of the shorter transfers of The Tour.  Then we rode ten more miles until 9:30 and camped in an open field.

Riding into Paris with David would be a great way to wrap up The Tour, as was getting together with Florence and Rachid.  I was able to meet up with all three sets of my great friends who live in France this year, making it a banner year.  And I had the bonus of two visits with Craig and Onni, one pre-Cannes and the other during The Tour.  My only regret was not getting in a second visit with Yvon during The Tour, as he is a true Tour aficionado.  But it was a delight to be able to visit a Poulidor monument with him on the way to Cannes, the first of quite a few I visited this year.  The final will be a monument to Anquetil on the second of two category four climbs on Sunday's route.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Stages Seventeen and Eighteen

For once I was in no panic to find a bar to watch yesterday's 17th stage when I biked across the wide Loire into Blois mid-afternoon.  I had arrived well before the action in the peloton would be heating up and Blois is a sizable tourist town due to its majestic chateau with bars aplenty.  I could be choosy in the bar I chose. 

My main criteria was that it had a few newspapers laying around, and with "L'Equipe" among them.  I bypassed several of the trendy touristy bar/cafes with glitzy interiors and tables on the sidewalk before spotting a somewhat seedy, local's joint down a side street.  It had just what I wanted, The Tour already on the television and assorted newspapers strewn about including not only the day's "L'Equipe" with Voeckler filling the front page, but also a two-day old issue with Christian on the front page looking a bit disconsolate lagging in behind a triumphant Fedrigo.

I had more than two hours of cycling bliss ahead of me between all the reading material and the peloton just commencing the last two of the five climbs on the day's menu.  The day's breakaway group had only a two-minute advantage on the yellow jersey group.  The last two stages it had been more than ten minutes and had no chance of being caught.  There was a good possibility it would be today, adding to the day's drama and many story lines the cameras were following.

Voeckler once again was in the lead group, solidifying his mountain jersey.  He didn't need to be first over the climbs, just ahead of his nearest adversary, the Astana rider he had unseated yesterday when he tallied a maximum 70 points bringing his total to 107, four more than the second-placed rider, being the first over the day's four big climbs--Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde.  It was a remarkable feat only once before accomplished in Tour history by 1947 Tour winner Jean Robic, whose grave awaits me just south of Paris, though not this year.   "L'Equipe's" front page headline wasn't a "Merci" but rather "Voeckler, the Beautiful Escape."  The caption to his photo acknowledged that Voeckler had entered a "new dimension" with this exploit.

Valverde was among those in the lead group, a genuine threat to stay away when he finally shed everyone he was riding with a few kilometers from the summit of the second to last climb.  He had his work cut out for him to keep his lead, especially with Wiggins and Froome charging after him, not necessarily seeking a stage win, but to drop Nibali, third overall and the only threat to their supremacy.  They did shed him, but didn't quite catch Valverde, finishing 19 seconds behind him and 18 seconds ahead of Nibali.

It appeared as if Froome could have chased down Valverde, as he kept losing Wiggins and had to let up, allowing him latch back on to his wheel.  A stage win would have been a plum, but making sure Wiggins wins the overall is the true crowned jewel of this event and for history's sake.  The Sky team of mostly English personnel truly seems committed to earning the Yellow Jersey, a historic first for Great Britain.  Cavendish especially exemplifies this shelving of personal ambition for this great national achievement.  He's been leading the pack in the final kilometers, rather than sitting in being led out by teammates, as he has the past four years when he amassed twenty stage wins.

And he proved today, on the 18th stage, that he is still the classiest sprinter in the bunch, humiliating all his rivals exploding from behind to win by several bike lengths for his second win this Tour. It was one of the most spectacular sprints ever.  It was as if he was unbottling days and days of bent up energy in one sudden burst.   He's had to let the light shine on the other sprinters Griepel and Sagan with three wins each.  But he is definitely the favorite now to win on the Champs Elysees Sunday and equal there three, but most importantly, he will  be part of a Yellow Jersey winning team.  And Wiggins in Yellow could well be leading him out as he did today.  Their hug at the finish line today was one of the longest in Tour history.  They are truly committed to the goal of winning this Race for their team and for Great Britain, and that goes for Froome and everyone else on the Sky team as well.

I was able to watch Cavendish's spectacular win in a bar not far from the finish line of tomorrow's time trial in Chartres. Wiggins will win that as convincing as Cavendish won today.  The 33-mile course from Bonneval was already lined with hundreds of campers.  There were quite a few cyclists out riding the course as well, including Skippy, though I didn't encounter him until after Cavendish's win just a little while ago outside the Chartres library.  Skippy said he has been riding a day ahead of the peloton this year to avoid all the hassles with gendarmes.  We'll fully catch up tomorrow under the Giant Screen.  He invited me to accompany him to London for the Olympics, but unfortunately I can't.

He had no word on the Devil's absence.  I at least saw a picture of him today at  Bonneval's large exhibition hall devoted to The Tour.  There were dozens of photographs from Bonneval's last two times as a Ville Etape in 1999 and 2004.  There was also a fabulous collection of  dozens of jerseys and bikes and old magazines and posters and other artifacts relating to The Tour.  The maps of previous Tour routes always tear my heart out when I see what minimal transfers there were between stages up until a couple of decades ago.  The hall was swarming with people, a day ahead of The Tour's arrival, when it will truly be overwhelmed with Tour enthusiasts.

A husband and wife on bikes from a neighboring community wanted their picture taken with me when they learned that I had been following The Tour for the past three weeks.  My French was bad enough they asked if I were Belgian.  I am more often taken as German or Dutch, but they knew that Belgians are the most devout of fans, and would do something as fanatical as follow The Tour by bicycle.  Its not the first time I've been taken as a Belgian. Another time was when I was searching out the grave of Geo Levebre, one of the founders of The Tour de France.   Andrew might have taken offense to being considered Belgian, but I welcome it as high respect.  They were stunned to learn that I was American, truly making them want my photo.

Though the top three spots are all assured, tomorrow's biggest suspense will be if the American Van Garderen can move from sixth to fourth.  Its not impossible, as he had a sensational time trial a week ago, actually catching Basso who had started before him.  Chris Horner will also have the motivation to  move from 13th into the Top Ten.  It will be a fine day under the Giant Screen, though it won't have the suspense of last year's final time trial when Evans caught Andy Schleck to assume the Yellow Jersey.  I'm hoping to rendezvous not only with Skippy, but David the German and Florence and Rachid formerly of Chicago but now in Tours not too far away, as well as Chris and family from St. Louis, and who knows who else that I might have encountered along The Tour route.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Stage Sixteen

The bartender in Aigurande was so thrilled with Thomas Voeckler's stage win, his second of this Tour, that she declined payment for my menthe a l'eau, the first time that has happened to me in France.  She was as overcome with glee as the announcer who gushed "extraordinaire, extraordinaire" as he crossed the line over a minute ahead of his nearest competitor with his arms open and outstretched as if he was offering up this victory for all of France. 

After he crossed the line the announcer sighed and then unleashed an even longer series of "Mercis," thanking Voeckler for not only France's fifth win in The Race, but also for his monumental effort, dropping his last breakaway companion a few kilometers before the summit of the day's final climb up the Peyresourde, and then soloing in on the ten-mile descent to the finish.  It was a most heroic ride that thrilled everyone watching it.  Not only did he win the stage, but he recaptured the climber's jersey, just as he did on his previous win a week ago in similar fashion.

And the announcer who interviewed Voeckler moments after his win was equally carried away, also giving him thanks for a performance that reflected grandly on the entire French nation and the great sport of cycle racing that allows such heroics.  One can't imagine even the most homer of American sports announcers responding in such a fashion.  They might offer congratulations to an athlete, but thanks, never.  But so it is with the French and also with cycle racing.  It is an arena where racers can give such an all-out, sacrificial effort that followers of the sport respond with more than applause.  They virtually bow with reverence to honor how hard they have tried.

With this second great effort this year Voeckler establishes himself as a seminal figure in the current era.  He is no longer the racer who wore the yellow jersey for ten days in 2004 by a fluke, and then repeated the effort last year, and over the years has been more of a gadfly, with his periodic attacks and breakaway efforts, than a real threat.  One can now regard him as one of the most daring and gutsy riders of his time.  He comes to race, not to just sit in and watch and maybe occasionally make an attack.  He is a rider who when he makes a plan of attack, goes all-out to achieve it.  He saw that the climber's jersey was there for the taking earlier in The Race and then again on this stage.  Anyone in The Race could have gone for it, but he was the one who accomplished it.  He has truly brought glory to himself and to the sport.

He may have had a little extra motivation in this Tour, as Laurent Jalabert did not select him for France's Olympic team.  Voeckler diplomatically said it did not bother him and that he could understand his reasoning, wishing to give some younger riders a chance.  But he may be named to the team yet, as selectee Sylvain Chavanel bowed out of The Tour before the rest day with an unexplained fever.  He wasn't sure if he would recover in time to be ready for the Games one week after The Tour ends.  More than 40 riders have quit this year's Race, already more than last year and a much higher percentage than usual.

I was happy to be watching the stage in Aigurande, as I had at last descended from the Massif Central after three days of demanding ups and downs.  From there it would be relatively flat into the Loire valley and to the start of the time trial, now less than 200 miles away.  I have a further affection for Aigurande, as it was a Ville Etape last year that went to extremes with its decorations honoring The Tour.  Its City Hall was adorned with yellow bunting and more, placards of racing greats lined a plaza and assorted mannequins relating to The Tour were scattered about the town.  The most original was one of The Devil holding his pitchfork chasing after a mannequin on a bike wearing the polka dot jersey.  I was hoping the town was proud enough of it to have left it standing, but none of the decorations remained.  The Devil seems to be taking a pass on The Tour this year after being  a permanent fixture of it for over twenty years.

Also absent is Skippy, missing his first Tour since 1989.   Could be there is a contract on his head and he needs to lay low.  He has engaged in a vendetta against those thugs who terrorize people along the route forcing mini-vinyl flags for a euro on them.  They are not to be messed with.  They are a mini-mafia.  I've had several encounters this year with them and they always give me the creeps.  The first was on stage two in Belgium.  Andrew and I saw a pair of them pouncing on people in a supermarket parking lot.  The police detained one of them, while the other managed to escape.  I've also come upon them twice commandeering a round-about, holding up traffic and trying to get people to buy their flags.  They are relentless and merciless. 

While Voeckler has greatly enlivened The Race, Wiggins in the Yellow Jersey has been content to sit on the two minute lead he earned by winning the first time trial and will solidify in the final time trial on Saturday before The Race ends the next day in Paris.  He's been riding steady on the wheel of his teammate Froome in the mountains, but steady enough to gain five minutes on Evans on this stage, knocking him all the way down to seventh, eleven seconds behind his young American teammate Van Garderen.  As good a time trialist as Evans is, overtaking Andy Schleck last year in the final time trial to claim the Yellow Jersey, the podium is now out of his reach.  It was pretty much solidified today as Wiggins, Froome and Nibali stuck together and rode away from everyone except those in the breakaway group.  The Race is essentially over, though the beauty of the sport remains.  I will be no less attentive to it without any suspense.  Every stage is an opportunity for what will be now known as Voeckler-type heroics.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Stage Fifteen

For the third time in this year's Tour, Garmin put a man in the day's break, something they had rarely done in previous Tours when they were vying for a spot on the podium, or at least safeguarding a Top Ten position, and didn't wish to squander any energy by sending a rider up the road.

But with their highest placed rider not even in the top fifty and well over an hour behind going into this stage, and their sprinter Farrar, a former stage winner well off his top form not being a factor in the sprints and actually last overall in The Race, the team has been bringing attention to the sponsors on their jersey by doing what all the French teams specialize in, riding off the front and getting air time for those who pay their salaries.

Today it was Christian's turn, after Zabriskie and Millar.  All three are among the best time trialists in the world and led Garmin to their team time trial win in last year's Tour.  Christian said that win was so emotional that he broke into tears in the team bus afterward.  He would have been gushing tears again if he had had a little more oomph in his legs to come around the French rider Fedrigo as the two closed in on the line.  Christian had been tactically brilliant, letting Fedrigo lead him out.  He had also been the only one of the four other riders in the day's 60-mile breakaway group to latch onto Fedrigo's wheel when he sped away four miles from the finish.

The other three couldn't organize a chase among them, perhaps sabotaged by Voeckler, a former teammate of Fedrigo's, who may have made a deal with him not to chase since he had already won a stage this year.   He may have owed him a favor or wished to pocket one.

I will have many questions for Christian the next time I see him, including what his thoughts might be on such an alliance or if he heard the two of them plotting.

When I found a bar to watch the end of the stage there were twenty kilometers to go and at that point there were six riders in the break and they were twelve minutes ahead of the peloton.   Once again none of the sprinters' teams, unlike with Cavendish's team the past few years, were interested in chasing down the break and setting up a sprint win for their rider.  It has made for some rather lackluster sprints for the peloton, this time going for sixth place points.

It was of course a delight to see Christian in prime time at the front, looking cool and comfortable, shouldering the monumental pressure of gaining immortality if he could win the stage.  He would forever after be introduced as a Tour stage winner and remembered as a Pau stage winner whenever The Tour finished in Pau, which it quite often does.  In fact, the last time it did Fedrigo won the stage.  This was his fourth Tour stage win, one more than Voeckler and more than any other active French rider. 

He also becomes the fourth French rider to win a stage this year, quite an improvement over last year when they won only one, though it was the L'Alpe d'Huez stage which counts double or triple.  The French are also delighted to have now tied the Brits with the most stage wins this year.  Like the Brits they have had four different stage winners.  Since Wiggins is sure to win the final time trial and Cavendish may be saving himself to win the final stage on the Champs Elysees, the French better win a couple more if they wish to keep up with their rivals across the Channel.

I'll have a host of questions for Christian: was everyone in the break doing their fair share, was there a point where you were planning to take a flier yourself and leave the break behind, was Vaughters screaming in your ear those final four miles when it was just you and Fedrigo with all the eyes in the cycling world on you, who were you most wary of in the break and whose wheel were you trying to stay on, were you much conscious of the cameraman on the motorcycle riding along beside and in front of you...

When I returned to my bike at 5:30 for several more hours of riding, I began an unexpected eight-mile, 2,000 foot climb from a river valley back up onto the Massif Central.  It was my fourth climb of three miles or more for the day, once again much more than the peloton faced as it rode just north of the Pyrenees before diving back into them for two more stages after a rest day. 

But with the thrill of just having seen Christian's sterling performance, I had a little extra energy in my legs and could ride in one gear higher than I normally would have.  Though both I and the peloton are feeling the fatigue of over two weeks of hard riding and are somewhat looking forward to the end in less than a week, I will also be sorry to see this annual grand epic come to a close, so I am trying to savor my final 400 miles of riding into Paris. 

I have to keep a steady pace to make it, putting in eight hours a day on the bike.  My Mt. Aigoual day those eight hours earned me just over 70 miles, a nine mile per hour average.  Yesterday I averaged just under eleven miles per hour over 92 miles on somewhat less strenuous terrain.  I have another day of the Massif Central and then I can get my average up to over twelve miles per hour and have some one hundred mile days.  I'm still amassing enough miles to rank third nationally among the nearly thirty thousand riders competing in the Endomondo challenge.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Stage Fourteen

While the peloton was off climbing a pair of category one climbs in the Pyrenees, I was doing an equal, if not more, amount of climbing in the Cevannes and on into the Massif Central, as I continued my 500 mile transfer to the final Saturday time trial to Chartres.

Right out Craig and Onni's back door is the Beyond Category climb over Mount Aigoual.  I had 17 miles and 4,000 feet of it remaining when Craig and I parted ways in Valeraugue a few mile from his home in the small village of Notre Dame de Rouviere.  I had been over it once before on my first visit to Craig eight years ago coming up the opposite side.  I was caught in an early May snow storm at the summit and had a hypothermic descent to Craig's.

Once again the weather wasn't so friendly, with Aigoual upholding its reputation for ugly weather. Like Mont Ventoux, its neighbor less than one hundred miles to the east towards Provence, it has a weather station that records some of the strongest winds anywhere. The dark clouds began drizzling  on me half way into my climb.  I was able to test the revived zipper on my Gore Tex jacket, no longer needing to wrap straps around my torso to hold it tight. 

Craig once again was a savior.  He is a true master at fixing the unfixable. I could go on and on listing wrecked items I have brought to him that he has managed to make usable once again--bikes, doors, lights, computers, backpacks and more. The misty rain was unaccompanied by a strong cold wind from the north. At least the grade didn't stray from four to six per cent, rather mild compared to those in the Alps and Pyrenees and Ventoux.  The wind was really gusting at the barren summit.  I couldn't get down fast enough.  Once again I was shivering on my descent of Aigoual.  At least the rain let up.

I had subjected my legs to Aigoual rather than taking an easier way around it largely to pay homage to a bicycling memorial eleven miles beyond its summit.  I had passed it eight years ago but didn't notice it in the inclement weather, nor was I aware of it then.

Knowing it was there, it was easy to spot on the right hand side of the road on the descent just before two hairpin turns before the small village of Fraissinet-de- Fourques.  It marked the spot where Roger Riviere crashed (available at youtube)  in the 1960 Tour de France and never raced again.  He had won two stages in that Tour and was a former world champion in the pursuit (Bradley Wiggins' specialty until he lost 15 pounds and discovered he could climb).  At the top of the monolithic slab of concrete a sculpture was chiseled of a cyclist bent over his bike on a descent, as if about to crash.  Below it was a color photo of Riveire in his world champion's jersey holding a bouquet of flowers.  The monument is located on an isolated road that few travel and that The Tour rarely visits.  It was the third such crash site I have visited this summer, the other's Poulidor and Bruyneel.  If I had gone to the Pyrenees, I could have revisited several more (Casaratelli, Ocana, Win Est).

It was 12 miles further to Florac where  I was eager to plop down in a bar after my exhausting three hour climb and watch the professionals do some climbing of their own.  The peloton was just finishing the first of their two climbs.  A breakaway group was 14 minutes up the road.   The peloton didn't seem interested in catching it.  Wiggins' Sky teammates were riding a steady tempo.  This was a stage that wouldn't have much bearing on The Race.  The next meaningful stage isn't until after Tuesday's rest stage, so it was as if the leaders were just biding their time.  There was some excitement when Evans flatted at the summit of the second climb and then a series of other riders, victims of someone who had spread tacks on the road, but a moratorium was called until all the wheels had been replaced and everyone was back together.

Meanwhile, the breakaway group, surprisingly including the super sprinter Sagan as well as Evans' teammate Gilbert, were jockeying among themselves.  Finally Rabobank's Sanchez broke away.  None of the others was interested in chasing after him towing Sagan with them, as he would easily beat them all.  So Sanchez pulled off a crafty win, celebrating initially in the home stretch by turning to his team car before it had to exit the course waving his fist in glee at his director and then had a most exuberant celebration crossing the line, first crossing himself as many of the Spanish riders do and then pointing to the heavens.  It was a delightful picture of ecstasy, rewarding all the suffering he had endured in the final kilometers holding off his chasers.  It was a relief to be spared one of Sagan's cocky, arrogant celebrations.

I had only 45 miles under my belt when I resumed riding at 5:30.  I was hoping for at least 35 more miles, less than the nearly 100 miles I have been averaging, but a worthy effort with all the climbing.  I had another unexpected seven mile climb ahead of me and a flat tire along with it.  I discovered the wire bead on my front tire had slightly worn through causing a sudden hissing flat, the sound that fans along the road like to imitate.  I used the dollar bill trick as padding, though knowing I'd have to replace it at the first opportunity or resort to my spare fold-up tire if I had another flat.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Stages Twelve and Thirteen

While the peloton was going about its business leaving the Alps on the Stage Twelve route, I was cruising along the Rhone heading to the start of Stage Thirteen, a 90-mile gap in The Tour route. Its a pleasant stretch I have ridden before, as its the fastest way to Cannes.  It took me past a series of nuclear plants, including one with a giant baby painted on one of the cooling towers, and past the alligator sanctuary, created by the warm waters from another nuclear plant, that Werner Herzog found fascinating enough to include in his 3D documentary on a French cave.

 I would have much preferred to be back at the Stage Twelve finish under the Giant Screen awaiting the peloton's arrival and watching their progress, but if I did that I would have to sacrifice riding Stage Thirteen with course markers. 

I've only had one Giant Screen experience this year.  Usually I have that pleasure for at least one-third of the stages.  I've been drowning in menthe a l'eaus, the refreshing mint drink I have at the bars where I've watched the majority of the finishes.  I was spared the bright green drink on Stage Twelve though, as the Internet cafe in Saint Paul Trois Chateaux where I sent out my last report had a television with The Race on.

It finished with the rare event of the breakaway not being caught.  It came down to a sprint between the the veteran Scot David Millar of Garmin and a young French rider.  The announcers warned of Millar's "grand experience" having won Tour prologues and time trials.  The French rider tried to come around Millar but Millar caught him and nipped him at the line.  He was so inexperienced at winning sprints, he didn't feel comfortable taking both hands off the handlebars as most winners do giving full display of their jersey and sponsor.  Rather he thrust out a clenched fist several times while screaming in delight and keeping his other hand firmly gripped on his handlebar.  It was his fourth career Tour stage win and first since 2003.   Two of those wins were time trials

Moments after the finish, the camera caught Millar sprawled on his back, utterly depleted.  It didn't look like he'd ever get up.  At last, Garmin has something to celebrate.  With 22 teams in the race and only 20 stages, plus the prologue, not even half of the teams will win a stage.  A couple of teams already have multiple wins, so Garmin can be very happy.

Stage Thirteen gave the German sprinter Greipel his third win, matching Sagan's three.  Europcar also has more than its quota with two wins so far, just as does Sky.  Even during its struggles I have not forsaken my Garmin jersey, though unlike last year when Garmin won three stages and held the yellow jersey for a week, people along the road regularly greeted me with a 'Garmeen' as I passed.  That has only happened a couple of times this year.

The cold menthe a l'eau never tasted better than this afternoon at a bar in Ganges with the temperature in the 80s, the warmest it has been.  The peloton had earlier threatened a slowdown on Bastille Day to protest dangerous roads, but fortunately they didn't go through with it, so the stage ended right on time at five pm.  I watched the peloton pass twenty miles away a couple of hours earlier and then bid them farewell until next Saturday's climatic time trial in Chartres, just outside of Paris.   I will now start heading north and bypass the Pyrenees to make it there in time.  Then I will have the thrill for the first time of seeing the finish on the Champs Elysees and also riding the course into Paris on Sunday morning via Versailles with the way marked with the yellow course markers.  The route will also go by The Tour headquarters.  It will be worth sacrificing the next five stages.

And I'm able to send out a Bastille Day report thanks to Craig and Onni, who live just ten miles from Ganges.  Not only did they provide me with Internet and a fine dinner and a shower, but Craig also miraculously fixed four broken zippers on my tent and rain coat with a technique he recently learned about of squeezing the sliding mechanism tight with a pair of pliers.

Its my first firework-free Bastille Day in eight years in their quiet isolated village of Notre Dame de Rouviere in the Cevannes.  Tomorrow I hope to track down a memorial about 25 miles from here to the French racer Roger Rivere where he crashed in the 1960 Tour de France ending his career.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Stage Eleven

When David and I intersected the Stage Twelve route in Rives at ten a.m. we were hoping the course markers might already be up for us to follow.  That was asking for a lot, as it was 80 miles into the route.  The guys putting up the markers would have had to have gotten a very early start to be that far down the course, but I have seen them out before eight a.m. trying to get their job done as early as possible.  Stage twelve was this year's longest  at 141 miles and had two category one climbs in the  first 50 miles as it escaped the Alps.

Though there were no course markers up yet, there were no parking signs and barriers at the ready to put in place, so we knew we were on the route.  We went in search of the Internet to stall hoping the markers might be up by the time we were done, but Rives had no Internet outlets and its library was closed as it was being expanded.  If we had gone to Voiron, as we had originally planned, six miles back, a much larger city, we would have found Internet and an open library there.  But as often happens when touring with David plans are altered at the last second.   He's always looking at the map for a short cut or a more scenic route.  It was shorter to Rives, as well as past a lake and on lighter used roads and avoided a climb.

At first David thought he'd continue on with me for 30 miles so we could watch that day's Stage Eleven together on a television somewhere up ahead.  It could be one of the more dramatic stages of The Tour with a pair of beyond category climbs and a final category one uphill finish.  But he wanted to send some gear home at the post office and make the day a full rest day.  It would also allow him to ride the  final 60 miles of the route the next day on race day when it would be lined with fans and fully marked.

We both agreed that the most satisfying part of following The Tour is riding those final 100 kilometers of a stage on race day when anticipation and excitement is at fever pitch.  I couldn't afford that luxury for this stage as I wanted to ride the Bastille Day Stage the next day and it started 90 miles from the Stage Twelve finish, the fourth such long transfer this year.  Usually there's not more than one or two of even fifty miles. 

This has been a bad year for following The Tour by bike.  I've almost spent more time riding between stages than riding the stages themselves.  But this year's route is cursed by doubling back upon itself.  It is one of the rare times in the 110 year history of The Race that it has not set out in one direction and maintained it, either clock-wise or counter-clockwise.  The first four stages set out in a counter-clockwise direction across the top of France and Belgium and then reversed itself, going clockwise the rest of the way.  I have been expecting a wacky race because of this.  Garmin certainly would say it cursed them, as they have lost three of their nine riders, more than any other team, including their team leader, Hesjedal,  and one of their best climbers, Danielson.  Both of them are former top ten finishers in The Race.

After David and I bid farewell, hoping to meet in eight days under the Big Screen in Chartres so we could bike into Paris together the next day, I had to refer to my race guide to stay on course.  I kept waiting for the two vans packed with course markers and  their crew of four to pass me up.  After a couple of hours I had the option of cutting off a few miles and biking directly into Annonay or adding the extra loop the peloton would take.  I decided to save time so I'd be able to watch as much of the stage as I could.

When I found a bar a breakaway group and the yellow jersey group were laboring up the Col de la Croix de Fer that I had ridden last month in search of the Damon Phinney plaque.  There were four riders in the lead and ten in the following group two minutes back.  There was no time wasted on the rest of the peloton so I had no idea how far back Leipheimer or Christian were or where Vockler was in his polka dot jersey, other than he wasn't trying to defend it.  Horner was among those in the yellow jersey group as was Van Gardener, Evans only teammate.  They were calmly sticking together waiting for the final climb before the attacking would commence.

After eight of the 18 kilometers of the final climb the fourth-placed Italian Nibali was the first to attack Wiggins and company.  They brought him back, but then he attacked again and that time he was able to stay away.  Froome decided he better go after him to protect his third place.  Wiggins lagged behind his teammate but then was able to regain him, but Evans couldn't.

At the front the French rider Pierre Roland of Europcar was able to detach himself and gun for the stage victory.  The camera kept busy monitoring his progress and also that of Evans.  Van Gardener dropped back to pace Evans, but he didn't have it in himself to regain Wiggins and Nibali and Froome, losing a minute and falling to fourth while Froome moved into second, cementing Sky's domination of the standings.  Roland held on to win the stage, giving Europcar back-to-back stage wins.   The announcers were besides themselves with elation--"Quelle étape!, Quelle étape!," ("What a stage!") they chanted.  When Roland crossed the line he fumbled to zip up his jersey, then kissed the sweaty medallion that dangled from his neck.

I was able to ride the final ten miles of the next day's course afterwards on my way out of town towards Saint-Paul Trois-Chateaux for the Bastille Day start.  A round about had a red metal sculpture of a giant light bulb with a bicycle in the middle of it, a sterling image.  It is seeing such things that makes it worth riding the route even when there are no fans or racers to be seen, though on race day such decorations are in even greater profusion. 

The fans go to extremes to express their devotion and individuality.  One Sky fan painted his car a bright yellow and wrote "WIGGO" on it in large black letters.  There are also all the race day banners one doesn't see the day before or when riding off course.  My favorite this year has been "Merci Paulo La Science."  Paulo is Jean-Paul Ollivier, an announcer and author who has written many books and is considered the ultimate authority on The Tour.  His nickname is "La Science," the all-knowing.

Once again I rode until dark, the final few miles along the Rhone ending up in a peach forest for the night.  I had 60 miles to go following the river the next day, once again off course, but at least biking the fabulous French countryside.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stage Ten

I was half way up the six mile climb of the Stage Ten category two Cote de Corlier when I heard a huffing and puffing behind me.  I glanced back to see two women, French by their accent and the look of their super-short cycling shorts.  That explained why none of the fans along the road were making eye contact with me as I passed them, but were rather looking past me at a  site more appealing to their eyes and also why I had been receiving more "bravos" and "allezs" and "bon courages" than usual.

I was maintaining a good steady pace, my legs feeling good after a ten-hour sleep the night before, my most in almost a week.  I was pushing it, hoping to get another 25 miles down the course to the sprint point at the 82 mile point in the stage before a beyond category climb.  When I reached the summit, the road leveled off and then continued climbing another 300 feet over the next few miles before I earned my descent.  Motorized vehicles had already stopped passing.  It was now that nervous period when a gendarme could jump out into the road at any point and order me to stop.  When it finally happened I was going too fast to stop and kept going. 

 I managed a few more miles before I came to a small village with a quick set of intersections with a gendarme at each.  I  could not evade them all, so ended by riding five miles short of my objective at 1:30.  It wasn't such a bad place as there was a fountain spouting fresh spring water where I could replenish my  water bottles and do a little wash.  After a short rest I returned to the course.  After several minutes the road presented a sidewalk I could ride on.

I managed another mile before I came to an intersection that I could use to escape the route and continue to a town with a bar to watch the peloton cross the day's big climb.  I had been close to bonking so sat and had a couple of pate sandwiches while the caravan passed.  I nabbed a few items and then headed to Belley, ten miles away.  It was more than 2 and a half hours until the stage ended so I took advantage of the library's Internet and then retreated to a bar.  I hadn't  been there more than half an hour when David the German, my fellow touring and Tour enthusiast,  sauntered in.  It was a shock to see him at this unlikely spot off the course, but he had similar plans to mine to bypass the next two stages into the Alps and pickup the 12th stage in the city of Voiron 40 miles south of us. 

He had lost his three messenger teammates the same day I lost Andrew.  His had to get back to work in Bremen.  I was hoping I might be rejoined by Andrew but he decided to cut his France holiday short by two weeks and spend the rest of his vacation cycling in Thailand with another American friend where the weather would be warmer and he could end his day with three dollar massages.

David was  in great spirits as he had nabbed a  bright green PMU cycling jersey from the caravan, an item it only occasionally disperses.  He was also thrilled to see his  fellow countryman Jens Voigt chasing down a four-man breakaway.  The finish was nearing and he was rooting hard for this veteran hard-man, one of the most respected riders in the peloton, to pull off a victory for Radio Shack.  It was not to be as the wily and ever dangerous Thomas Voeckler was in the break and dug incredibly deep to hold off his breakaway companions for a most heroic victory for the French.  He face was the epitome of agony in the final uphill, almost slow-motion, finish.  He said he had never suffered so much as in those final 500 meters and he looked it. 

The victory was a bonus for him as his objective for the day was to be the first over the Beyond Category climb and steal the polka dot jersey for one day before the Alps the next day.  Craft tactician that he is, he pulled it off and had the bonus of his third career stage victory.  The day made his season.  He may not be the most popular rider in the peloton, but all have to respect his grit and tenacity.  When he was caught in the second stage crash that also derailed Christian, he finished seven minutes down and was in tears, knowing he could not repeat last year's fourth place finish.

David and I were happy to have a riding partner again, though it would only be for a day, as David planned to start heading back to Paris a stage earlier than I.  We biked until nearly dark, at first targeting a lake as our destination for the night until a long climb set us back, so we settled on a freshly cut field of wheat.  We had a fine ride and evening reveling in The Tour and the touring life and also the messengering life. 

David wasn't getting as much work as a professional bird watcher as he had been and had returned to bicycle messengering.  He's not earning much more than ten dollars an hour, but at least he owns a house and has a tenant so he can continue leading life pretty much on his own terms.  He hadn't had any tours since a year ago so was especially ebullient to have six weeks of being off on his bike.   Neither us had any complaints.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rest Day

Macon had the honor and responsibility of being the host for The Tour's first of two rest days.  It was more than up to the task.  The city's entire central district, a car-free walking zone, was given up to Tour celebrations and activities.  There were no less than four stages in various plazas providing day-long entertainment with musical acts and bicycle acrobatics and the broadcast of a TV show.
A Johnny Hallady tribute band belted out raucous rock-and-roll on a stage in front of the city's grand cathedral while free wine was on offer from one of the several tents providing local products.  Young men and women wearing yellow t-shirts circulated about on Segways dispensing a 16-page booklet on all the Rest Day and following Race Day activities.
The statuesque City Hall facing the broad Saone River was adorned with life-sized cut-outs of racers in a sprint with the racer wearing the uniform of the French National Champion holding his arms aloft in victory.  The opposite side of the City Hall facing the main plaza was filled with brightly painted cut-outs of over-sized bikes.  There was a steady procession of fans taking their picture in front of them.
Next to the City Hall was an exhibition on The Tour with photos and relics going back to the first race in 1903.  There was a fine photo of the moustached Maurice Garin, The Tour's first winner, with a tire strung around his neck as the racers carried their spare until the 1950s.  Having just visited his grave and adding to my To Do list for next year in France visiting as many of the graves of Tour winners as I could I was wondering how many there might be.  The exhibition gave me a partial answer.  It revealed there have been 58 winners of The Tour in its first 98 editions, 28 of them multiple winners.  It did not reveal though how many of them are still alive.  Maybe half.
The vast majority of the photos I have seen in books and at similar such exhbitions and museums, but there is always at least one new one that is enough to take my breath away.  The one here was a photo from a French magazine with Anquetil and Poulidor in uniform playing checkers and the headline--"The two enemies learn to like each other."
There were two videos playing--one with the highlights of last year's Tour and the other a history of the caravan showing what a vital attraction it is to the public.  For the 45 minutes it passes by it is a wild festival.  It was introduced to The Tour in 1930 to help subsidize it.  No one complains about the commercialization (some might say "Americanization") of the event with big corporations paying huge dollars to parade before the millions of people who line the road. 
There was a wall of photos of dignitaries who have been drawn to The Tour from French presidents to American royalty--Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Michael Douglas, Will Smith and more.
There was also a signed jersey of each of the four prized jerseys.  The yellow was from Carlos Sastre, green from Oscar Friere, White from Andy Schleck and Polka Dot from Bernard Kohl.  Kohl's was quite an oversight, as he was stripped of his King of the Mountain title for doping.  The French hero Richard Virenque, who won the title more times than anyone, would have been a much better choice, though he too served a suspension for being involved with the 1998 Festina  Affair.
I could have easily hung out in Macon until dark taking advantage of all the activities, including a Moliere play starring the long-time host of a pre- and post-Tour show on every stage, who is a French celebrity, but I needed to get down the road.  Riding The Tour route doesn't allow time for much else.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Stage Nine

When I arrived at the 26-mile time trial course at 8:45 yesterday morning I wanted  to ride at least a few miles of it for a count on the number of Australian versus English flags and Sky jerseys to get a feel of who would get the bigger boost, Evans or Wiggins, in this showdown between the prime protagonists in this year's Race.  But the course was already in lock down and the preliminary procession of vehicles preceding the caravan was chugging along at the 12 kilometer mark before a steep climb past one of the several cemeteries along the course.

I hadn't planned on indulging in the caravan, intending to head immediately to the next stage start, Macon, 100 miles away, a most unwelcome gap in The Race route.  But with the caravan imminent I decided to join the throngs already packing the course in hopes of grabbing some reading material, the newspapers "L'Equipe" and "Aujourd'hui," and some eating material (madeleines, crackers and mini-sausages) and a few more knick-knacks (mostly key-chains) for redistribution.  I also needed a red polka-dot hat, as I'd given away the three I had grabbed, two to Andrew for friends back in Australia, and another to a slightly crazed woman to appease her for filling our water bottles at her tap (photo at the July 6 entry).

The caravan granted all my wishes except the madeleines and the refrigerator magnet with seven cyclists all carrying a baguette, this year's most collectible item that I'd like to give to each of my cycling friends back home.  But I did get a good number of giveaway items that will delight those I surprise riding the course ahead of the real caravan--several bags of candy and a mini-fold-up Frisbee.  Even in its pouch the Frisbee carries well.  When I tossed one to a little girl on a hillside she let out a squeal of surprise at this unexpected object that came flying towards her.  It was soft enough that it could do her no harm, and she was too young to suffer cardiac arrest.

It was 50 miles to Lons-le-Saunier, a Ville Etape I fondly recall from my first Tour eight years ago, as its main plaza was filled with artfully painted and clothed mannequins on bikes that  bore a semblance to all the painted cows that had just been a sensation in Chicago.  It remains one of the best bike art displays of my Tour de France experience.

I knew I'd have my choice of bars to watch the final hour of the time trial and maybe even find an Internet outlet.  I scored on both counts.  I chose a bar where I could leave my bike in the shade; as it had finally turned hot and I had a loaf of bread, a pound of couscous and a half pound of cheese in my larder.

As always it gave me an immediate charge of delight to have a nearly first-hand experience of The Tour experience just fifty miles away.  I marveled at the aerial views of the beautiful countryside, knowing that it was even more beautiful up close.  It was hot enough that there were fans along the course shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas, quite a contrast to the days of umbrella need for all the rain.  There has been no rain since Andrew left The Race three days ago, one of the reasons for his abandonment.

He'd be gobbing on the sun screen if he were still tagging along.  He is so well-conditioned to protecting his skin from the sun that whenever it peeked out, he lathered up.  He explained that the Australian government has long-engaged in a strong anti-skin cancer campaign.  Australia and Brazil, two sun-loving nations, have the highest skin cancer rates in the world.  The sun is particularly intense in the southern hemisphere due to the tilt of the earth, and Australia is particularly vulnerable as its ozone layer has worn thin.

Andrew said his government goes overboard in protecting the health of its citizens.  No country tries to discourage smoking as hard as Australia.  With all the taxes, a pack of cigarettes goes for 14 dollars.  People don't try to bum cigarettes in Australia.  Rather they offer someone a dollar for one.  Soon all cigarettes will come in the same bland packaging, so one can't impress others for being a Marlboro Man or being the type to smoke Camels.

Bicycle helmets are also mandatory in Australia and most people obey.  The police are quick to give out tickets.  It is a 57 dollar fine, as are all bicycle offenses.  Andrew has been stopped twice for going through red lights.  One isn't issued a ticket on the spot but rather is mailed one.  He was lucky that only one of the officers sent him the ticket. 

Now that I'm back to the bicycle, Wiggins lived up to expectations and  handily won the time trial by nearly two minutes over Evans, the same margin that he beat him by a month ago in the Dauphine Libere on the same course.  The biggest surprise was the young American Van Garderen finishing fourth 36 seconds and two places ahead of Evans.  It puts Van Gardener back into the white jersey for the best rider under 23 .  He is one of Evans two American teammates along with Hincapie.  He is the top American overall in 8th with Leipheimer in 19th and Horner in 23rd.  Christian continues to struggle finishing over six minutes behind in 89th place in a discipline he ordinarily excels at.

Radio Shack also had another strong showing with 5 of its riders in the top 16

Monday, July 9, 2012

Stage Eight

I started this Sunday stage out of Belfort into Switzerland just a few minutes before the peloton set out.  I arrived in Belfort as the riders were signing in and just before the publicity caravan made its departure.  The tourist office was just four blocks from the starting line.  I was able to usurp its free computer for a full hour while the caravan passed dispersing all its booty.  I had the tourist office all to myself. 

I was so grateful that the man in the tourist office didn't bump me off after the allotted 15 minutes that I gave him a book I had been carrying since Liege, trying to find someone to give it to.  It was "The Seduction of the French" written in 1994 about the transformation of France into a consumerist society after WWII with the introduction of Coca-Cola despite a great resistance and McDonald's to the Champs Elysees and Euro Disney and also introducing American business techniques and advertising.  The French haven't fully buckled though as most stores and business close for an hour or more lunch break.  It is so rare for a grocery store to remain open through the day those that do adopt the English expression "non-stop" for their hours.

By the time I had finished my Internet duties the peloton was shortly due to set out.  I bicycled along the sidewalk for a couple of miles through town just behind the rows of people lining the route.  Team cars and other official vehicles preceded the riders.  Both Garmin vans, separated by several blocks, tooted their horn at me.

When the sidewalk was interrupted I plopped down right beside a course marker so I could liberate it once the peloton passed.  Although I'd already nabbed a couple, it was becoming a bit more of a challenge this year as an official vehicle hot on the heels of the peloton has been stopping to grab them.   Andrew and I were all set to swoop in and get one at a round-about on Stage Two near where we had been standing when an official white van screeched to a halt and a guy jumped out and ripped it down.  He wasn't interested at all in preserving it by snipping the wire that held it, but more interested in simply removing any evidence that The Tour had been there and not trusting that it would soon be taken as a prized souvenir.  Three stages later when Andrew and I were quicker to pounce on a course marker the same guy stopped just as I was pulling out my pliers to twist off the wire.  He asked in English, "Do you want it?" and was happy that he didn't have to bother with it.

After the peloton passed at parade pace and all the team cars with bikes atop and other official vehicles including the Broom Wagon for riders who abandon the race and last van with "Fin de Course" on it, I was all prepared to start riding.  But unlike out in the middle of the course, a long procession of team buses and other cars followed.  They would soon part from the official course and take a quicker alternate route to the stage finish.  There were several lengthy breaks between vehicles when people could mount their bikes and start riding but we were soon stopped, not by the gendarmes but my another rush of huge buses and cars. 

It was a mile before the official course started and the road was wide enough for bicyclists as well as the other vehicles.  But at a round-about a couple miles further a squadron of gendarmes brought us all to a halt.  A local on a mountain bike told be there was a quicker alternate route along a canal on a bike route just around the bend.  Since I didn't plan on following the route more than ten miles anyway I happily followed him.  He was a retired school-teacher who had been an ardent fan of The Tour for over 50 years.  He was thrilled with having three stages in his immediate vicinity.  He had been at the summit of yesterday's stage, the start of today's stage and would be at the next day's time trial 50 miles away. 

He had a son who had been a top amateur racer in France for ten years, first as a junior, winning many races as a sprinter.  He finally had to decide if he wished to pursue the sport whether to take drugs or not.  He decided not to.  It was revealed last week that Christian made the opposite decision.  It couldn't have been easy to say no and give up a sport that he loved so much and excelled at when he was a 22 year old in 1999 as the youngest member of Lance's first Tour de France winning team.

The day the story broke "L'Equipe" devoted a full page to it with several stories.  When I opened the paper to its second page my heart leaped in delight to see a photo of Christian and Hincapie riding side by side.  Then I read the headline and my heart sank.

It was no great surprise, as Christian did spend a couple of years after he left Lance's team riding for Manalo Saiz as Roberto Heras' chief domestique.  Heras was stripped of a Tour of Spain win for testing positive for EPO and Saiz was caught with a suitcase with thousands of euros and blood bags outside the offices of the Spanish doctor who brought down Ullrich, Basso, Valverde and a host of others.  Saiz was Indurain's director too.  He's been pretty much left alone since he always kept a low profile and didn't offend anyone.  But it was probably his blasting by Lance in a Tour time trial before Lance had cancer that contributed as much as anything to make Lance decide he needed the juice to compete. 

I hope the six month suspension that Christian and Hincapie and Leipheimer and Zabriskie must serve after the season ends doesn't prevent him from his annual appearance at Garmin's Chicago store for a meet and greet with his fans.  In the four years he has had a Chicago Christmas appearance not once has anyone asked about drugs.  When reporters have asked Christian in the past he simply says its a subject he doesn't care to talk about.  Knowing what a wholesome guy he is, I can understand why.

After a twenty minute ride with Alain he invited me to his home for a drink and to watch The Tour.  It was an offer that was hard to refuse,  but I couldn't sacrifice a couple of hours since I needed to get further down the road before stopping to watch the final hour of The Race.  I could have followed canals for 50 miles all the way to Besancon, but I left it after 15 miles so I could more easily find a bar when the time came. 

I found one in time for the climatic category one climb near the finish.  An Astana rider was up the road claiming King of the Mountain points and being chased by a  French rider, Thibaut Pinot, the youngest rider in The Race, known as The Benjamin.  Pinot overtook him and held off the charging peloton with the assistance of his team director Marc Madiot screaming his lungs out at him with his torso half out the window behind the driver's seat.  The camera spent almost as much time on Madiot as Pinot.  It is an image that will make highlight reels for years to come.  At last a French rider won a stage and the French have a possible threat for the future.   The announcers went crazy when he crossed the finish line screaming "Bravo! Bravo!" and "Extraordinaire!"  "L'Equipe's" headline was "A Climber Is Born."

This has become The Tour of Benjamins.  Sagan is the Tour's second youngest rider and he's holding the green jersey with three stage wins.  Not since Lance won a stage in 1993 has a 22-year old won a stage.  Radio Shack was also very impressive taking over the team lead with six of its riders among the first across the line, including its lone American Chris Horner.  They have more climbing power than anyone.

I took full advantage of the remaining four-and-a-half hours of light trying to make it to the time trial course before dark, but fell six miles short.  Still I had a fine campsite in an open field so the sun could dry out my tent in the morning.   Just before the time trial course was a Dumpster at a grocery store that had yielded up quite a bit of yogurt four Sundays ago when I scouted it out.  I was in need of food as I sacrificed stopping at the lone grocery store that I passed that was open on Sunday morning to make it to Belfort in time.  I was hoping to find another in Belfort, but they were all closed.  I had to exhaust all my reserves, including  my last two packs of Ramon.  I still had some corn flakes left in the morning and could have spooned out what little peanut butter I had left if need be.  Its the lowest on food I've eve been.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stages Six and Seven

After a week of hanging tough Andrew joins the list of abandons.  Back-to-back 150 kilometer days did him in.  He was a victim of the metric system.  He starts feeling tired after 80 kilometers (50 miles) while I don't start feeling it until  I do 80 miles.  When he reaches 80 Ks he starts thinking about camping.  When I hit 80 miles I start considering the possibility of 100 miles.

When we met in Laos ten years ago his touring companion Ilias, an able-bodied young man who was on the dole and is still on the dole despite working as a substitute grammar school teacher and earning 200 dollars a weekend as a street musician, asked me what it felt like to live in a Superpower.  It was a question I had never considered but has stuck with me all these years as indication of how others regard the US and Americans.  I could have asked him what it felt like to be on the dole, but I knew he took pride in outwitting the system, though it didn't give him much self-respect.  The US may well be a Superpower because it isn't on the metric system, and I'm better able to keep up with The Tour because of that as well.

Despite bowing out early, Andrew gave a great rookie effort.  I've only known a couple of cyclists who've done better.  If he improves as much as fellow Aussie Vincent and David the German did in their second attempts, he will rip up the course and be hard to keep up with.

There is a chance he'll rejoin me in Maçon on Tuesday if his legs and his will recover.  He's no doubt suffering Tour withdrawal right now.  There's no experience remotely comparable to riding a stage route hours before the peloton along pastoral roads thronged with devotees of this great national event that defines the French.  They energy and passion is most infectious.  They are not rowdy fans, but joyous and respectful and fun-loving, celebrating their national treasure as well as the bicycle itself with countless hung and decorated along the route, as if it were a holy relic, in every manner imaginable.  For anyone who loves the bicycle as much as Andrew, it is a dream-like experience.

The originality of the art never wanes.  The small village of Bussy-le-Repos on stage six won the award for the most striking bike sculpture of the day.  On its outskirts it had erected a tripod of three extension ladders and then rounded up all the bicycles in the village and made a pyramid of them.  It was spectacular, but simple enough that any and every community could have one.

That would have been the photo of the day if we hadn't flown past on a high speed descent and couldn't stop because we were desperate to get to Saint-Mihel before the course was closed as it had the only grocery store in the first 54 miles of our day.  It didn't help that Andrew suffered his second puncture of our tour and didn't have a spare and had to patch it, costing us 20 minutes.

Andrew led us out at nearly 25 miles per hour the final few miles thanks to a bit of a tail wind and gentle descent.  That effort help contribute to his demise.  He had enough left in his legs to make it to Nancy, where we met at the train station 24 days earlier, 40 miles further after a two-and-a-half hour break eating and watching the caravan and the peloton pass.

He had hoped to find a campground in Nancy for his first shower since Liege eight days ago, but his iPhone wouldn't connect thanks probably to all the rain.  The day before we were caught in a deluge leaving Epernay and had to bike through fast flowing rivers in the gutter and a couple of lakes that filled the road.  For the first time his booties failed to keep his feet dry, one of his pet peeves.

Without being able to track down a campground he made a stab at a hotel, a long-shot with The Tour's entourage of thousands taking over the city.  But the small hotel on a side street and one room left, so we didn't have one last night of wild camping together. 

If he had been denied and accompanied me to Tomblaine, a suburb of Nancy where the next day's stage started, he could have camped with a young French backpacker who was following The Tour by hitchhiking like the young English lad we met in Tournai.  He was getting ready to camp in a field where the caravan would be gathering the next day. He was able to tell me who had won the day's stage as once again Andrew and I failed to find a TV pressed for time as we were.  I felt lucky not to have to see Sagan give his third victory celebration, and also was spared the Garmin disaster with the entire team finishing 13 minutes behind thanks to a crash.  Garmin now falls to last place among the teams, a great reversal from last year when they led the team competition for the entire race.

 I found the first yellow course marker thanks to the barricade's leading from the Départ area that was just beginning to be erected and began the stage at 8:45.  Fortunately the peloton's ceremonial promenade lasted only a mile, as that does not count as the official distance of the day's stage, as I wanted to get 20 kilometers into the distance they had to cover.  Sometimes it can go on for three or four or more miles as it did out of Epernay and Liege.

I was eager to see my first camper parked along the road, as each gives a perk to my spirit.  It came after two miles a couple blocks off the course parked by a cemetery I had detoured to for a wash and to fill my water bottles.  I imagined Andrew having a hot shower while a sponged my self off and didn't envy him in the least.

I reached my goal for the day shortly before ten going over 100 miles for the first time in weeks, ate as much as I could until 11, awoke at 7 and was back on the road by 7:30 in full Tour follower mode.  I made it 40 miles further before I was ordered off the course by gendarmes in a car.  I ignored the first warning, but not the second, even though it was still 45 minutes before the caravan was due.  It was in an isolated area with just a few other scattered followers in campers, one a Belgian who had been following the Tour for years.  There were few enough people in this forested stretch that half the peloton stopped and took a nature break along the road when they came past.

I continued 20 miles further down the road after the peloton passed and stopped in a ski resort town to watch the final hour of the stage to the ski resort of La Planche Des Belles Filles up a steep category one climb.  Team Sky put on a formidable performance leading the charge up the climb with Froome crossing the line just ahead of Evans and Wiggins.  Wiggins and Froome gave each other a hearty hug afterwards as Wiggins takes over the yellow jersey.  Both Froome and Sky rider Rogers are in the top ten overall now.

I continued riding until dark once again getting within 25 miles of the next day's start in Belfort.  Thanks to my pre-Tour scouting I knew where the tourist office was and that it had free Internet, something that would be hard to find on a Sunday, so I could get this out.  It was an all round great day despite the loss of my teammate.  I was able to nab another course marker and also a water bottle, though it was one of the lesser ones that I would want from the French Saur team.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Stages four and five

For just the second time in nine years of following The Tour encompassing over 170 stages I failed to witness a stage finish either on the giant screen at the finish line or on a television set in a bar or elsewhere.   Andrew and I gave it a good effort yesterday stopping in five bars in two villages and peering in the windows of four RVs parked along the stage six route.

We didn't give seeing the finish as high priority as normal as it was more important to press an extra hour down the next day's route than lingering in the stage start in Epernay at one of its many bars. It was a flat stage promising a sprint finish that we could visualize without having to see it as much as we'd like to. Having Andrews iPhone with Internet access whenever we wished also meant we wouldn't have to go to sleep in suspense as to the day's results. When we took a rest break at six pm in a bus shelter to protect us from the rain Andrew dug out his palm-sized wonder and commented, "The Ziploc bag sure was a great invention."

He gave his mail a quick glance first and said, " A friend says it was a great finish with the breakaway just getting caught."

Then he went to his Australian tour tracker site to learn the German Greipel won for the second day in a row, just as we seen sitting in a bar at St Quentin 24 hours before, where he won today.

Sitting on the concrete floor of a bus shelter with the rain pouring down outside eating cheese sandwiches wasn't the most glamorous of places to learn who had won that day's stage, but we knew we were in France when an elderly lady walked past with her evening baguette under her arm.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Stages Two and Three

We weren't able to hear "Vande Velde" roll off the tongues of the French TV announcers with the extra fervor they give all Tour riders during the third stage as the Cuban bar where we were watching it had loud tropical music playing in the background.  We had unwisely declined the bartender's offer to turn off the music and turn on the TV volume, not realizing what drama lay ahead during the final hour of the stage. 

Christian was along with a large group of riders caught behind a crash in the final half hour of the stage and was forced to chase back with all his might and that of five of his teammates.  He was the highest placed rider in the large group at a most commendable 15th overall, lurking as a dark house for the podium.  The peloton was charging full speed itself chasing down a four-rider break a minute  up the road.  Voeckler was in Christian's group and as the rider most important to the French audience the TV graphic showing the time between the three sets of riders referred to the crash victims as the "Voeckler group" until Voeckler could no longer keep up and was dropped.  Then the graphics identified it as the "Vande Velde group" with the fourth group behind now the "Voeckler group."  There were several category three and four climbs in that final half hour of racing;  Christian as the strongest rider took charge on the climbs with the motorcycle cameraman in his face and Christian's face filling the screen.

Unfortunately the broadcast was more preoccupied with the peloton chasing down the leaders for the final climb to the finish, so they neglected Christian's chase.  It wasn't until later that night at our campsite in the woods when Andrew made use of his I-Phone that we learned that Christian hadn't been able to fight his way back and lost two minutes.   Now he's back relegated to full domestique duties for Hesjedal.

For the second time in three stages we had to see the 22-year old Czech rider Sagan win the stage celebrating with a clownish arm waving prance.   He is the new phenom of the peloton.  Hopefully his elder Italian teammates on the Liquigas team will reign him in.  The day before Cavendish showed that his reign has not come to an end, tho Sagan threatens it, by winning the sprint into Tournai.  Andrew and I were on a hillside overlooking the finish line and the Giant Screen broadcasting all the action.  We were joined by David the German, who I cycled with the first week of last year's Tour.  He was the leader of a four man posse of Bremen messengers. 

David looked resplendent in a La Vie Claire jersey, the dominant team of the mid-80s with Hinault and LeMond.  As we caught up with one another a fair-haired lad wearing a Sky jersey joined us hearing our English.  He was following The Tour with his thumb, a most ambitious undertaking for a 20-year old from the UK.  He had done the same last year.  He had yet to cross paths with Skippy, who is always looking for someone to drive his car.  They could be a perfect match.  We have yet to cross paths with Skippy.  David hadn't seen him either.  As we discussed our experiences so far we were all bursting with Tour euphoria gazing upon the thousands lining the course in front of us.

We considered joining up with David's group, but they were lingering and we were eager to get down the road.  We'll no doubt see them in the days to come.  We thought we might see them as we rode the first 50 miles of the third Stage the next day but didn't.  After watching the peloton pass at a little after one we headed to Lens 20 miles to the south to watch the finish on TV and also to pay our respects to the grave of Maurice Garin, the first winner of The Tour in 1903.

We waited until after the stage to search his grave out.  The most helpful lady at the tourist office called over to the cemetery to find the exact location of the grave for us.  We also stopped by the city's velodrome named in his honor.  It is closed and soon to be torn down.  I had to climb over a high fence to get a view of a plaque placed in his honor on the 100th anniversary of The Tour.  Andrew has photos of that as well as David and much more at

I've now visited the graves of five Tour winners--Garin, Bobet, Fignon, Coppi and Pantani.  Who is next I know not, but I will track them all down.

Much more to report but not the time.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Stage One

Rather than riding Stage One and feasting on the exuberance of all the fans along the route, Andrew and I had to be content with enjoying each other's company and spent the day riding the Second Stage.  Even though we're approaching three weeks of each other's company we're still thriving  and feeding off each other's sardonic outlook providing each other with no end of amusement.

We found ourselves in the large city of Namur two hours before the end of the first stage, about 40 miles into the next day's stage just before its lone climb up to Namur's prime tour attraction, its Citadel overlooking the river that runs through the town.  Rather than risking pushing on and not being able to find a bar on a Sunday afternoon to watch the end of the stage, we took a prolonged break.

When we found a bar with a television there was a four rider break two minutes up the road that the peloton was quickly closing down.  Cancellera's Radio Shack team led the way fora space but shared duties with Evan's BMC team and the Belgian Lotto team.  We were wondering if the TV helicopters would show the ugly factories that dominated the finishing stretch into Seraing.  They couldn't avoid them.    Andrew was surprised at the even tone of the French announcers, in contrast to the high-decibel enthusiasm of Liggett and Sherwen that he was accustomed to.  The French announcers don't need to hype the action to hold the attention of their viewers, unlike the neophyte fans of Australia and America.  Come the mountain stages though they will let loose when there is truly something to be excited about.  During Saturday's Prologue they uttered one "Uh-la-la," over a particularly surprising time.

The breakaway was well caught before the final climb to the finish and the peloton was strung out with the pace at the highest end of the chart. Cancellera in yellow amazingly led the charge up the 12 per cent climb.  Television can't adequately capture the steepness of the climbs, but having ridden it just 24 hours before I well knew the exertion it required to keep the pedals turning and could well detect the slipping cadence about half way up the climb.  If the  cameras were concentrating on the stragglers, rather than the leaders, one would know then the maximum effort it took to keep the pedals turning.

The young Slovakian sprinter Sagan amazingly clung to Cancellera's wheel.  The explosive climbers, Evans, Wiggins, Gilbert and Valverde had all been left behind.  But they had a chance to catch up while Cancellera and Sagan and Sky's Norwegian jockeyed trying to let each other lead it out.  Sagan nipped Cancellera, but Cancellera kept the yellow jersey.  That was his prime objective for the day,; but still he had to be disappointed not to win a second stage in a row.  Even so, everyone had to be impressed by his effort.  Sagan's performance though had to give Cavendish some alarm.  There is talk that Sagan may be better than Cavendish.  He has a chance to answer on today's flat stage that ends in two hours.

Andrew and I rode 50 miles of it yesterday and the final 55 miles of it today.  There were already a few campers parked along the route yesterday and today plenty more.  We were given extra energy by everyone cheering us along the way.  Even five-year old boys leaned out towards us from their chairs along the road to give us a double pump of a fist like all the older men do encouraging us to go faster;  It actually works.

We fought a strong head win all day yesterday.  Today a slight side wind from the south didn't hinder us at all.  If we'd had another head wind it would have taken us an hour longer to reach the stage finish in Tournai. We'll have plenty left in our legs to ride another 30 or 40 miles after the racers come in, getting a jump on Stage Three.  It will be a challenge to reach Boulange-sur-Mer before the roads are closed, but we can cut off a final 25 mile loop the peloton will be taking to the finish if need be.

Andrew's Garmin GPS device remembered where we camped along the route ten days ago and was able to deliver us to the same nook in the wilderness last night, a place we never expected to see again.  For the first time we needed an early start and broke camp at eight.  What a relief it was to see the wind generators  switched around from the direction they were pointed when we quit cycling last night at 8:30.

 Besides the giant screen at the finish line the grand plaza in Tournai has two screens as well to watch all the action and a stage set up for a concert this evening.  Overlooking the plaza is the city's UNESCO Cathedral.  We were impressed by the city's preparations when we pass through here nearly two weeks ago, and are even more impressed with the great reception it is giving The Tour.

France is just ten miles away.  We're both greatly looking forward to be back.  Despite the strong head wind we had to contend with yesterday we had our fastest average speed for the day in over a week, much of it spent on bicycle paths in Holland.  Andrew was at first surprised at the news but then remembered our laggard pace in Holland.  "It saps your will to live," he said, then added, "We're riding hard now with France so near."

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Prologue

All six kilometers of the Prologue course were lined with barriers quarantining it from entry other than at its starting point when we arrived near its central point at 9:30 Saturday morning, four and-a-half hours before the first rider was scheduled to be launched from the starting ramp, so we had to make our way on side streets back to its beginning for a preview of the route without all the cars and traffic signals that slowed us the afternoon before.  There were a few citizens riding it, but none of the racers yet.  By the time we reached the start the public was barred from the course. 

We weren't the only disappointed ones.  So was a young Japanese couple here to support the lone Japanese rider in the 198 rider peloton. It'd been two years since a Japanese rider had ridden in The Tour.  I was joined for two stages of that Tour by a Japanese cyclist I still keep up with.  With a Japanese rider in the field it drew some of their media as well. Two Japanese photographers stopped to photograph Andrew's Japanese-made frame Thursday  before the team presentations.  Unfortunately Andrew was off using the Wifi at McDonald's so couldn't have a word with them.  He knows a bit of Japanese having had a Japanese girl friend for nine years and visiting Japan six times during those years.

It was still hours before the Prologue was set to start, but half of Liege, if not half of all of Belgium, were flocking to the course in the heart of Liege.  The entire course was soon clogged by a ring of people and a slowly moving thick outer ring of humanity looking for a place to squeeze in.  Luckily Andrew and I were in time to secure a spot under a tree a few feet from the barriers 150 meters from the finish line.  The tree provided shade and something to lean our bikes against and a defense against people crowding behind us.  We could alternately sit and stand as we watched the riders warming up, though once the official riding began we'd be on our feet.

We also had two small TV monitors across the way from us, one in the VIP section and the other for the press in one of their row of two story booths that went all the way to the finish line and beyond.  We needed binoculars to fully make use of them, but they gave us a slight feel for what was being broadcast.  I would have preferred having a vantage of the giant screen, but it was in a plaza at the 350 meter-to-go point without any shade.  I thought I might mosey over to it every so often to check on the standings and perhaps for the final hour of the three-and-a-half hours of racing.

But by 2:30, after just half an hour of the action,  Andrew and I decided we didn't need to see any more of flashes of racers flying past led by a gendarme on a motorcycle and closely followed by a team car with a spare bike on its roof.  We had no sense of how the riders were doing from our vantage.  And since all the riders were riding the course in seven or eight minutes, there wasn't much time differential.  Nothing much was at stake other than who would win the honor of wearing the Yellow Jersey for the first stage.  I had never stuck around for a full Prologue in my previous eight Tours, always wishing to get a start on the first stage.  That wasn't necessary this year at the first stage was essentially a loop from Liege to Luxembourg and back.

But after four hours of being marooned beside the course we decided to go ride to Seraing where the first stage would end and watch the final hour of the Prologue on a TV in a bar there.  As we headed out we heard a shout of "George the Cyclist."  It was "Tony the American" from the campgrounds and his friend from Amsterdam.  He told us the campgrounds never filled up and that we could have spent the night there rather than in a field behind a supermarket two miles from the campgrounds.  They were excited by the goodies they had gotten from the publicity caravan, though they hadn't gotten a yellow Bank Lyonnaise baseball hat.  I traded it for three bags of candy and a seat cover, all small items that I could later toss to fans along the route.  We hadn't gotten much ourselves with so many people to contend with.  But I did get a refrigerator magnet to add to my collection, a dandy with six riders in a circle all carrying baguettes.

We had to try three bars in Seraing before we found one with The Tour on.  The first bar had TVs, but they didn't care to turn them on.  Wimbledon was playing in the second.   The Tour was on in the third.  As always, it was exciting to see close-ups of roads we had just ridden and to know what everyone along the route was experiencing.  As expected, the winner came from the final set of 21 riders to go off, the best rider from each team.  Former Prologue winner Cancellera powered to the victory over Wiggins, the favorite to win The Tour. He gained a few seconds over his chief rival, last year's winner, Evans.  Garmin's Hesjedal gave a good time and remains a solid dark horse.

The bar surprisingly had Wifi so Andrew was able to file a report while we were watching the action including a photo of the TV screen over my shoulder:

Andrew remained in the bar for a second beer while I rode the final five kilometers of stage one up a category four climb with a 12 per cent grade.  It will make for a most exciting finish.  I followed the yellow courses markers to the conclusion. It was the first time in my years of following The Tour that I was a full 24 hours ahead of the peloton in reaching the finish line.  I was curious to see if there was a special marker to designate the end, as the construction of the finish line had yet to begin.  There was none.  I had to ask someone out for a stroll in the residential neighborhood if I had reached the finish.

I rejoined Andrew and we then left town following the final thirty kilometers of the first stage  and then headed up towards the Stage Two route, camping six miles short of it between a farmer's field of peas and a row of trees.