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.

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