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. 

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