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.


Stuart said...

The Bicycle racing drug problem just won't go away. It now looks like Lance Armstrong and his seven wins will be deleted from the TDF records. I guess any reason is a good excuse for a bike ride through the beautiful French countryside, but I just can't take the TDF race seriously anymore.

Andrew said...

It's not just bike racing, it's any sport where there is glory or money at stake. Once the genie is out of the bottle everyone is forced to partake otherwise failure is the only option. It's pretty sad.

But riding your bike in France when the tour is on is quite a buzz. It's a very social event.