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.

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