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.