Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Hell On Wheels"

The Tour ended just as a heat wave with temperatures in the mid-90s descended upon France, turning it into an inferno.  If the racers had had to contend with this escalated heat, The Tour would have become a true "Hell on Wheels," as a German documentary from 2004 termed it for the suffering it inflicts upon those riding it.  It was a fine portrayal of The Race, other than inexplicably neglecting to include that Tour fixture, the German Didi Senf, who dresses as The Devil.

The Race is undeniably an ordeal for the racers from the pressure and stress and all-out effort demanded of them.  It is unrelenting for three weeks.  Andrew Talansky told a reporter just after he had beaten Contador on Stage Twenty and clinched a tenth place overall position that The Tour was not fun.  He couldn't forget all the suffering he had endured even at that moment and exhilarate in his great achievement of jumping from twelfth to tenth.  His quote was, "This is what I love to do, but there is nothing fun about the Tour de France.  The Tour of Colorado, now that will be fun."

Being selected to ride in The Tour is the pinnacle in racing, the dream of every racer, but it isn't necessarily something that riders welcome.  They certainly deserve the non-stop applause they receive every day from all along the race course.

It is not hell by any means to tag along with The Race, but it is certainly demanding.  And scorching temperatures make it all the more so.  Fortunately there was only a limited amount of that during The Race, as it saps me more than anything.  It made for a long six-day ride back to Paris.  I was hoping to do it in five days to have a day in Paris, but I could only average 75 miles a day, arriving at my airport wild-camping spot less than twelve hours before I was due at the airport the next morning for my least quiet of camp spots.  I was slowed not only by needing more time off the bike, but by roads turned soft by the heat.  Tar bubbled up through the asphalt on some of the lesser quality secondary roads and provided a symphony of popping as I passed over them.

I was using cathedrals not only to inject electricity into my iPad, but also as cooling centers.  For the three weeks of The Tour most of my iPad recharging was done in bars, as may have been reflected in the tone of the writing.  Now its back to cathedrals and the occasional railroad station and rare supermarket that has an outlet just inside or outside its entrance.  I always leave a centime for every per cent increase in my battery in the cathedral's donation box where it sells condles for a euro.  I generally gain between ten and twenty per cent.  And lately I've been tossing in an extra five centimes for the cool air.

With the hot temperatures I have switched from yogurt drinks to liters of chocolate milk.  I never drink them all at once, but rather ration them out over an hour or so to enable my system to more easily absorb them.  If I put the chocolate milk in one of my darker water bottles on my bike, before long it has turned into hot chocolate and is still quite palatable.  It almost seems to provide more energy warmed up.

Yesterday evening I passed through Montereau-Fault-Yonne, the final Départ Ville Étape in the 2009 Tour. It had finely decorated its round-abouts then and no less so now.  At its entry was a huge global sculpture.

In the middle of the town was a topiary of a monster squirrel similar to some of this year's bike sculptures.

The next morning along D471 after Melun I passed a string of white van bordellos scattered along a ten-mile stretch through a forest.  Prostitution is legal in France, but solicitation is not.  In year's past there would be a scantily clad, beckoning woman or two outside each van.  Now one most slow and peer in through a window to survey the merchandise.  But otherwise these anonymous white vans are accepted and understood.  It had been a while since I had seen any, as they are only found near large metropolitan areas.

And thus ends my summer of yo-yoing down and up France, six times in all.  The first was in May from  Paris to Cannes and the Mediterranean.  Then it was up to Mont-Saint-Michel and the English Channel scouting out The Tour route with Andrew.  After Andrew made his return to Australia it was back down to the Mediterranean and Corsica for the start of The Tour.  I followed The Tour north back to the top of the country and then down to the Alps, not quite to the bottom.  The final yo-yo brought me back to Paris.  It totaled five thousand miles.  I had only one flat and that was a fluke when I pushed my bike over a barbed wire one morning from my campsite in a farmer's field.

My final ride from O'Hare will be highlighted by meeting up with Janina on her bike, the best welcome home I could ask for. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Stage Twenty-One

Its official.  Cavendish is no longer the King of Sprinters.  That title now goes to Kittel who won as fair a fight as all the contenders could ask for on the Champs Elysees to conclude a most magnificent 100th Tour de France.   Kittel, Cavendish and Greipel were all wheel to wheel right up to the finish line and the man with just a smidgen more power and desire than the others was Kittel with Greipel coming in second.  The three were all so close, the also-rans will be eager for a rematch.  But Kittel with four wins in this year's Tour compared to Cavendish's two and Greipel's one, has strutting rights for the time being.  And thus perhaps ends the era of Cavendish.  His two wins this year is his fewest in six years.  But his twenty-six sprint wins are the most in Tour history and will be difficult to surpass.

As has been the case throughout this year's Race, I once again reached a goal within minutes of when I wanted to.  I found a television at 8:30 pm, an hour before the final sprint and an hour before sunset, in the remote village of St. Lever-sous-Beuvray after a five-mile climb into a national park.  It was in a small four-stool, two-table bar attached to a hotel/restaurant.  A dozen tables out front were filled with diners enjoying the warm evening.  

The television was tuned to a cable news station.  The owner of the hotel was at the bar cash register totaling the bill of a diner.  When I asked if he could put on The Tour, he said it was over, not realizing for the first time ever the final stage was an evening affair.  Still, he didn't want to put to on.  He said the kitchen was closed.  I told him all I wanted was a menthe á l'eau.  He could have easily picked up the remote control beside him and hit a button, but he said wait five minutes.  He was that French stereotypical proprietor, who I rarely encounter avoiding establishments that cater to tourists, who prefers to be testy rather than accommodating. He wasn't going to unnerve me.  I plopped down and patiently waited for him to put on The Tour.  

When it finally flashed on the screen, my eyes immediately went to the upper left hand corner to see how many kilometers remained to the finish--forty-five, about an hour's worth of racing.  My first worry was that the owner might want to close down before the finish and would take delight in turning off the television and kicking me out.  I was also concerned that it could be dark by the finish, making it not so easy to find a place to camp.  But a full moon was rising and I was also in a thickly forested national park with easy camping wherever I looked.  Within minutes of putting on The Tour I was joined by others interested in the outcome and also the beauty of Paris at dusk as the peloton circled the Arc de Triomphe and sped past the Louvre and the Tulieres Garden and the Seine.  Even the hotel owner had to watch.  I was confident now that I would get to see the outcome and not have to wait to the next day to find out, as there was no Internet reception here.

When Hinault, LeMond and Indurain were shown in the back of a convertible, one of the patrons excitedly identified them all for his wife.  It was another classic spot to be experiencing The Tour.  Little did those watching it with me know they had an American to thank for this opportunity nor that this American had biked a good portion of those miles that the peloton had.  I felt almost as exhilarated as did Froome when he crossed the finish line with his six teammates who had survived The Race.  He was positively luminous.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Stage Twenty

When I talked with Christian at L'Alpe d'Huez, I asked him if he thought his young teammate Talanksy could move up into the top ten.  He was thirteenth at the time.  Christian didn't think his climbing skills were quite up to it yet, so his strong three days in the Alps, surprising even his veteran teammate, culminating with a sixth place finish on today's stage, surging into tenth overall, makes Talansky one of the stars of this year's Tour.  Clawing his way back on the final Beyond Category climb after being dropped by the leaders to overtake the Contador group with just three kilometers to go and then beating Contador to the line was the most impressive performance of the day.

All the headlines will go to Quintana for winning the stage and claiming the climber's competition and jumping ahead of Contador to finish second overall, but none of that was unexpected, plus his efforts were given extra juice by riding with the Yellow Jersey and having television cameras on motorcycles pointed at him and a whole country rooting for him, which he will return to as a great national hero, while Talansky toiled in obscurity just a couple minutes down the road finding all the will and energy from within.  Even the announcers were shocked when Talansky joined the three-rider Contador group, with a tone of, "Where did he come from?"   It was one monumental effort.  Quintana had regularly been outclimbing Contador,  but for Talansky to do it was a genuine shocker.  Contador falling from second to fourth will not endear him to his teammates, as they all lose out on the six-figure bonus they would have shared for either second or third place winnings.  At least his team still prevailed in the team competition.

By finishing tenth Talansky joins an elite handful of Americans to accomplish the feat--LeMond, Hampsten, Julich, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Hamilton, Landis, Vande Velde, Horner, Danielson and Van Garderen.   Accomplishing it in his first attempt makes it even more noteworthy. Talansky finished second to Quintana in the young rider's competition.  They will have some great battles in the years to come.  With the confidence and experience he has gained this year, there is no telling what he can accomplish.  He has the essential quality for greatness as a cyclist--the heart of a lion.

The other young American in The Race, Van Garderen, another one with great heart, was once again out front attacking, trying to chase down the 41-year old German Voight, who had been out in the lead on his own for much of the race.   The Yellow Jersey group was paying them no heed, anticipating reeling them in on the final climb.  It made for lackluster viewing until the final half hour when the climb they'd all been saving themselves for began.  I was sweltering in a hot bar without any air circulating, feeling my energy seeping away.  I was glad I was under no pressure to accumulate a certain number of miles for the day, but I was eager to get back on the bike and out of this sweat box.  

Rather than continuing west, as I had been, into the now low and seering sun, I turned north even though it was on a busy highway.  I could only take an hour of the traffic and turned off on a secondary road that angled northwest, hoping there might be plane trees or forests blocking the sun.  But I was in wine-growing country, so the sun could still beat on me.  I could only take an hour more of it and might have quit even earlier if I had been able to fill up my water bottles sooner.  I settled for a less than ideal campsite between a high speed railroad and an Autoroute, but I was too done in to push on, feeling as if I were Cadel Evans.

I'd have no afternoon Tour-viewing break to look forward to, as for the first time the final stage will have an evening finish on the Champs Elysses.  The peloton will depart Versailles at 5:45 for its final eighty miles.  It will hit the Champs Elysses two hours later for the first of its ten circuits that will take about ninety minutes.  I may have to be content with the iPad in my tent for the final sprint.  It ought to be a good one.  Cavendish has won the last four times in Paris.  It will be a question of who has the most left in their legs after three punishing days in the Alps.  I'm certainly feeling it. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Stage Nineteen

Adding to the array of international followers of The Tour I've met this year, I  watched today's stage with a Berliner of Russian heritage, who was more Russian than German, as attested to by the Russian lettering on his jersey, his resemblance to Putin and his intense demeanor.

He had plenty to be happy about.  The lead rider for the Russian Katusha team, the Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez, was fifth overall and had been an animator in the climbing stages. A good final stage in the mountains and he could make the podium.  And he was delighted too with the three Germans who had won four stages.  He was the same age as Greipel and had closely followed his career since his junior days.  But he wasn't so happy with Kloden, who once again today was in a chase group trying to catch Costa of Portugal, just as he was on the Gap stage that Costa won.  And as on that stage, he was failing and Costa won his second stage of The Tour, making the Berliner scornful of Kloden's efforts.

Both of Costa's wins have come on stages with significant climbs the day before a climactic stage that all the favorites would be saving themselves for, so Costa wouldn't have to worry about a concerted effort from them to overtake him.  It was the crafty strategy that the French hero Voeckler is known for, but evidently didn't have the wherewithal this year to execute, even with the extra inspiration of his wife and two young children following The Tour in a camper van.  But that could have been more of a distraction.  Team directors usually discourage anything that will diminish a rider's focus.  Lance's director used to forbid Lance from using the Internet during The Tour, as he knew how obsessive he could be about it and it would keep him up late cutting into his sleep.

As with the Finnish cyclist I biked with a couple of days ago, the Berliner has ridden a few stages of The Tour a half dozen times over the years and was sensible enough to never attempt to follow it from start to finish.  He didn't say it was impossible, as he was cocky enough to think he could do it if he really wanted to, but didn't care to put the effort into it.  Like the Finn, he expressed no interest in pursuing my relationship with The Tour.  He was more interested in my thick French atlas to find a less heavily-trafficked road to ride than the one we were on.  He was heading to Lyon, where he was catching a flight home.  His Garmin GPS device couldn't give as full of a picture as a real map.

As with many others he was only here this year for the glamour L'Alpe d'Huez stage and the start of the next day's stage.  He didn't climb all the way to the top of L'Alpe d'Huez, but rather watched the stage from the ninth switchback, but couldn't tell me who it was named for, even though there is a sign at each switchback honoring a winner of the stage.

We had both biked the first few miles of the day's stage starting in Bourg d'Ossians at the base of L'Alpe d'Huez, but rather than tackling the beyond category Col de Glandon, we had headed into Grenoble and then northwest away from the Alps and ended up in the same bar in la Frette.  It wasn't my first choice of bars.  I had started looking for a bar nearly two hours earlier to devote three hours to this stage with two Beyond Category climbs early on and the a pair of Category Ones later.  But the only bars in the first two towns I tried, Moirans and  Rives, were the dreaded PMU bars with their televisions restricted to horse racing.

The Berliner arrived shortly after I did and somewhat proved that he was German by ordering a beer.  When rain suddenly hit the racers we both took a quick look outside to see if there were dark clouds headed our way.  It had been a warm sunny day so far, but we could see in the distance over the mountains the threat of more rain.

I at least had no concerns of it slowing me down.  For the first time in over a month I was no longer under any pressure to be somewhere within the next twenty-four hours.  Rather than heading deeper into the Alps for Saturday's stage in Annency, I had elected to start heading back to Paris so it could be a somewhat leisurely six-day ride to make my flight home, rather than a final four-day hard push.  L'Alpe d'Huez was a fine final stage for me.  I could start my post-Tour wind-down a little early after a better than three week full immersion.

Two stages to go, one in the mountains and the ceremonial ride into Paris that will be the final showdown for the sprinters.  Stage Twenty ends with a Beyond Category climb that all the key figures were saving themselves for on today's stage, the fourth mountain top finish of The Race. Froome has won two of the first three.  He has no need to win the stage, but no doubt will if he can.  I will want to be in front of a television for a couple hours before that to see how it all plays out, if Contador tries something brash to overcome his five minute deficit and perhaps sacrifice his spot on the podium and if Quintana or someone else goes on the attack to usurp the climber's title from Froome.

Talansky is just sixteen seconds from cracking the Top Ten.  He is still twelfth but hung with the Yellow Jersey group and gained time on the two ahead of him he needs to jump over.  He is definitely one of the revelations of The Tour.  Riblon after his effort winning L'Alpe d'Huez finished third from the last in today's final group, "the laughing group," thirty-five minutes after Costa.  Evans too, claiming to be physically  exhausted, just hoping to finish The Race, was in this group of thirty-three along with Cavendish and Kittel.

Stage Eighteen

Even at eight in the morning with the dew not even evaporated, the road leading to the climb up L'Alpe d'Huez was thronged with bikers and hikers taking up both lanes, as it was already closed to motorized traffic other than the occasional official vehicle

Just before the bend that would lead to that forbidding initial steep incline I came upon a cluster of riders wearing Garmin jerseys straddling their bikes.  I gave them a nod of solidarity as I passed.  One in the group called out, "Nice jersey!"  I recognized the voice.  It was Christian.  I nearly fell off my bike.  It was my turn to abort my ride and circle back to greet him.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"I flew in to ride with some supporters.  We're staying up on the mountain and biked down.  We're going to ride around a bit and then ride back up."

"So you're recovering fast."

"Yes, I'll be ready for Colorado."

Christian introduced me to the person alongside him.  He was the owner of the Garmin store in Chicago on Michigan Avenue.  He was happy to learn I was a regular to his store for Christian's annual Christmas  appearance.  

Christian asked if I was riding all the way to the top with my load.  I told him it would be my fifth time.  He said, "Let's hope the rain holds off."  Then it was time for him to be off with his group.  About twenty minutes later, less than two miles into the eight mile climb, the first of the Garmin group passed me.  Christian wasn't in the lead.  They had broken up into mostly pairs.  The Garmin store owner came by a little later and commented, "Keep at it George."  

When Christian finally came along I was hoping he might push me along for a bit, but all he offered was his wheel to draft, which I could hang on to for about ten seconds.  It was then that I noticed he was wearing tights, perhaps the only cyclist of the thousands on the mountain doing so.  It was a cool morning and he was abiding by the racer's credo of keeping the muscles warm.  It is this attention to detail that has kept him at the top of his profession for nearly two decades.  I have noticed many small examples of it over the years, such as the time I visited him at his home in the Chicago suburb of LeMont.  As we chatted in his kitchen, he hopped up on the counter to take the weight off his legs, fully programmed to the racer's axiom to always sit rather than stand and better yet lay down.

The last of the Garmin contingent was followed by team van.  It stopped while the rider paused to talk to someone.  I pulled up alongside the van and asked if I could trade a Sojasun team bottle for one of theirs--a classy blue bottle with a bit of the team's trademark argyle pattern.   The driver at first said he didn't have any extras, but then offered me one that he had been drinking out of.  "You should probably wash it before you use it," he advised.  It was empty so he poured the contents of my bottle into it.

Then I resumed my place in the double-line of wheel-to-wheel cyclists making the ascent of the climb, slower riders on the right and less slow on the left.  No one was really riding fast, just slogging along.  It was no small feat to make the climb, but there were thousands of us doing it.  Most were serious cyclists on quite high quality bikes, but there were a few less experienced riders making a valiant effort of it.  There were a few others on loaded touring bikes, but not much more than one could count on one hand.   I didn't have the biggest load.  That honor went to a guy pulling a trailer with two small boys.  He was one strong dude, even occasionally giving his wife a push on her mountain bike.  He was one of the few I could pass.  I took a few breaks along the way to fill my water bottles and gaze upon the view of the twenty-one switchbacks, each named for a victor of the climb.

Four kilometers from the summit we were diverted off on to an auxiliary road to the summit, the first time that had been the policy.  That made it a little complicated finding the Giant Screen at the finish line in the maze of condos and chalets and hotels in this ski village.  I was early enough that there were still a few prime spots under an overhang to sit and view the screen.  In all previous years I had sought  the overhang for shelter from the sun.  This year it provided shelter from the rain.  I rode the last couple of miles in a misty drizzle.  It wasn't hard enough to force me to put on my rain jacket.  The rain was almost welcome, keeping me from overheating.  But once I stopped I cooled down fast and had to shed my wet jersey for a long sleeve shirt.  I cooled down further and had to dig out my sweater from the bottom of my pannier.

For the next seven hours my legs got a good rest as I sat and watched all the day's proceedings.  I didn't even bother to get up for the passing of the caravan, but was perfectly content to remain seated and watch everyone else scramble for its scattered offerings.

I sat beside a couple of Dutch cyclists who were making their second appearance on the mountain.  The last time they watched The Race from the raucous Dutch Corner, five miles into the climb.  They'd been on Mont Ventoux several days ago and were halted three miles from the summit as it was so packed.  That was the spot where the Giant Screen had been placed, not a bad place to be stuck, that is until the transmission went dead half an hour before the racers passed and never resumed.

Today's action was so riveting almost from the start there was no turning away from the screen to even give their copy of L'Equipe with eight pages of race coverage more than a glance.  Two Americans were in the breakaway group--BMC's Van Garderen and Garmin's Danielson.  Van Garderen was able to hold on to nearly the end, finally shedding his last breakaway companion, the French rider Christophe Riblon, on the final ascent of the Alpe.  But Van Garderen ran out of gas and Riblon, inspired by his life-long awareness of the legacy of the mountain going back to when he was a ten-year old, found the energy to overtake the American just before the two kilometer banner, surging past and triumphantly winning the stage, not only for himself and his team, but for all of France, becoming just the third French rider to win the stage and to be forever immortalized.  And finally a French rider had won a stage this year.  

Van Garderen would have joined Andy Hampsten as the only America victors of L'Alpe d'Huez,  though Greg LeMond should be considered a co-victor with Bernard Hinault when the two crossed the line arm-in-arm in 1986.  That is considered one of the great moments in Tour history.  "L'Equipe" had a feature in today's paper about enlisting the two of them to re-enact the climb this past June, including a photo of the two now quite husky guys clasping hands once again as they reached the finish.

Behind the heroics of Riblon a minor battle was being waged among the GC contenders.  Froome ran out of energy himself and was so desperate for food was willing to incur a twenty second penalty for accepting food from his team car within the last six kilometers, despite sending his teammate Porte back for it.  The Colombian Quintana took advantage of his weakness and gained a minute on him, moving up to third and the podium.  Froome still maintained a comfortable five minute margin on Contador, who lost time himself.

The other young upcoming American in The Race along with Van Garderen, Garmin's Talansky, turned in a most commendable performance finishing 14th, just under five minutes behind Riblon, moving up to 12th overall.  His teammate Martin though suffered the dreaded "jour sans" (a day short of energy).  He lost 25 minutes and dropped from tenth to nineteenth, just behind Schleck and one spot ahead of Porte, and ten places ahead of Evans, who also lagged in with the 25-minute behind group.

All in all it was another great exciting day of racing.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Stage Seventeen

While the peloton flung itself into a twenty-mile time trial with two demanding Category Two climbs just outside of Gap, I jumped ahead and set out on the next day's stage to L'Alpe d'Huez.  I had the still intact, just-placed, course markers to guide and cheer me on.  They weren't all that necessary though to stay on route, as I only had to make two turns in sixty miles.

I began the day on the busy National Highway 85, also known as La Route de Napoleon.  After thirty miles of steep ups and downs, including one segment referred to as Le Ramp du Motte with a 12 per cent grade, I followed the arrows on to the lightly-traveled secondary road D526 over the Category Two Col d'Ornon.

My dilemma for the day was whether to bypass the col and ride an extra ten miles around it, and somewhat save my legs for the next day's climb of L'Alpe d'Huez.  It would also guarantee that I would come upon a town large enough to have a bar to watch the end of the time trial.  There were three small villages on the climbing route.  I had last made the climb eight years ago and couldn't remember if I'd find a bar.  Going the longer route would also bring me within range of Grenoble and Internet access, which I hadn't been able to pick up on my iPad all day.

But I couldn't resist those arrows pointing the way and stayed on course.  Even though I was riding a day ahead of the peloton, it almost felt as if it were Race Day, as there were so many campers already parked along the route and quite a few cyclists riding the route, the most I'd seen this year, many wearing jerseys of a tour group.  It was five miles to the first of the villages.  Finding a bar didn't look promising after I'd passed the church and the town hall in its center and there were no eating or drinking establishments nearby, as is usually the case.  But around the next bend I came upon a cluster of racing bikes out in front of a small restaurant/bar.  

Evans was just about to head down the starting ramp, which meant there were seventeen more riders to go.  There was a spot of rain on one of the motorcycle cameras following another rider on the course, so the rain wasn't just in my corner of the mountains.  But it had pretty much let up there too and wasn't a factor, as it could have been.  The TV graphics showed that the young American, last year's white jersey winner, Van Garderen, presently had the best time.  The winner of the first time trial, the German Martin was way down, evidence that he is not much of a climber.  

Van Garderen's teammate Evans was having a horrible ride, his times way down at the two intermediary checkpoints, eventually finishing 150th, eight minutes down.  He admitted he was taking it easy saving his energy for the three upcoming stages in the Alps.  Froome implied he might do the same thing, or at least not give it his all as he did in the first time trial knowing he had flat stages ahead that he could recover on if he expended too much energy.  But Froome still gave it enough to win his fourth stage of The Tour, somewhat surprising himself and disappointing Contador, who had the second best time and sure would have liked to have a win, something that had been a given in year's past, but not since his return from his year's suspension for doping.  

I had a good ninety minute rest of race-watching before tackling the upcoming ten-mile climb.  About two miles into it I was joined by a Finnish touring cyclist who had just celebrated his fiftieth birthday on Mont Ventoux on Sunday.  He too was a Tour devotee, having first biked a few stages of The Tour in 1999, the year of Lance's first win.  He had returned several times since when he could get away from his job as a reindeer guide.  He works at a reindeer preserve that is a tourist attraction.

He was one of those touring cyclists most interested in talking about himself.  He only asked where I was from and how long I had been on the road.  When I told him I had been biking around France for two months he said, "Oh, so you're not one of those Americans here for The Tour de France.  That's all that I've been meeting."  Knowing the Finnish droll sense of humor, I played dumb with him and asked what those arrows along the road were for.  He said they were for The Tour de France.  He had ridden five stages of this year's Tour, including two stages in Corsica.  

"Wasn't The Tour in Corsica over two weeks  ago," I asked.  "Haven't you been following it since?"

"That would have been impossible, especially the long transfer from the Pyrenees to Brittany."  

He never gave me the chance to tell him that it was possible.  He asked me where I planned to camp that night.  I told him I would continue on to Bourg d'Ossians at the base of L'Alpe d'Huez.  He asked if I had a reservation for a campground, as otherwise it would be impossible to find a place to camp.  Once again, he didn't give me a chance to tell him I'd been there the last four times The Tour had tackled the climb and I knew I could find a place.  He said he would camp near the summit of the col we were climbing and head in the next morning.  If he'd been a more personable fellow, I would have been tempted to join him, but I was eager to see how overwhelmed with Tour followers Bourg d'Ossians would be and I was also hoping to hit the grocery store that evening rather than fighting the mobs the next morning and I also needed an Internet connection to file my latest report.

The final two miles into Bourg d'Osians the road was lined with campers and fields were packed with them as well.  It was the biggest hoard I had seen since my first Tour in 2004 when a time trial was held on L'Alpe d'Huez for the first and only time when Lance was going for his record sixth Tour win.  This year's double ascent of the climb was also a huge draw.  I could immediately see there were camping spots I could slip into if need be.  But first I had to go into town and the supermarket.  It was past eight.  Supermarkets generally close at 7:30, but I was confident that this one would be making an exception.  I even took the time to stop to take a photo of a fairly artistic over-sized bike in the round-about preceding the town and also make my Internet connection at the same time.

The supermarket was indeed still open, the aisles clogged with cyclists in Lycra clattering along in their cycling cleats.  The aisles were jammed too with pallets of food to be restocked.  I had to dodge mini-fork lift trucks transporting more pallets of food.  The several hundred thousand cyclists gathered here would be consuming tons of the store's food.  The couscous were all sold out and the madeleines too, but I was able to get ravioli and bread and eggs and cheese and a yogurt drink for the morning.

I then biked a mile out of town past tents and RVs lining the road until I came to a field of rolled hay I had camped in before.  It wasn't even nine pm, the earliest I had camped in days.  And just as I finished setting up my tent the rain resumed, lulling me to sleep after eating for an hour or so, most content after another great day on the bike and knowing that another awaited me.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Stage Sixteen

 Heat and hills prevented me from getting as far down the Stage Sixteen route the evening before the peloton was unleashed upon it as I would have liked.  I only managed twenty miles, when I was hoping for at least thirty, which would have gotten me over the first of the stage's two Category Two climbs and given me a fighting chance to make it to the stage finish in Gap before the route was closed down.

I had plans to meet up with David the German under the Giant Screen, but he emailed me that he wasn't going to make it either, as his legs had given out on him on a steep climb not long after he set out from Grenoble after arriving by train.  He hadn't done much biking the past three months while he was on sabbatical from his bicycle messenger job in Bremen for a whale watching assignment in the North Sea.  He turned around and took the train home, another abandon.  It was sad news, as David is a great Tour enthusiast who enlivens the experience for all along the route, resplendent in his vintage Kas and La Vie Claire jerseys, shouting out "Bon Tour" and redistributing caravan booty as I like to do.  This would have been his fourth Tour, albeit an abbreviated one, after previously always being at the Grand Départ.

The Stage Sixteen Ville Départ, Vaison-la-Romain, was a hive of activity when I arrived after a relatively easy 76 miles, much of it along the Rhone and a series of nuclear plants.  The French even make the cooling towers a palette for art.

I didn't arrive until after five pm, as I had been taking regular breaks to escape the fierce sun. I began to feel faint after an hour or so under its beating rays.  I'd find a town's cool water spigot and drink and drink and soak my head and shirt.  I'd immediately soak my neckerchief and put it on my back.  After thirty seconds I'd resoak it as it would almost be scalding hot.

I cooled down in the air-conditioned comfort of the tourist office in Vaison and charged the iPad for half  an hour, then tracked down the local Orange telephone office to renew my SIM card.  No town I had passed through earlier in the day had an Orange outlet.  Then I could set out on the route.  Near its start a jungle of bike parts had been welded into a sculpture with enough coherence and purpose that a certified art critic such as Janina might deem it a genuine work of art worthy of a museum, unlike many such conglomerations that just seem to be thrown together.

I had to rely on my course directions as there were no course markers.  I thought maybe they hadn't been put in place as the peloton had passed through Vaison on its way to Mont Ventoux two days before and fans may have mistaken them as left over from that day's stage and available for the taking, though they would have been pointed in the opposite direction.  I anticipated they would resume once I was out of town, but there were none to be seen, only one in the twenty miles I covered that evening and hardly any the next day either.  This was the most extreme case of course marker piracy I had ever encountered.  Occasionally there will be gaps where someone has committed the great taboo of taking one before the peloton has passed, but nothing remotely comparing to this.  It was an extreme act of sacrilege against The Race, as heinous as throwing tacks on the road, as someone did two years ago in the Pyrenees causing a rash of flats.  Maybe it was the same saboteur who threw urine on Cavendish.

The day's route wasn't so complicated that the course markers were a necessity, but it deprived me of that small thrill whenever I come upon one that I was indeed riding THE TOUR DE FRANCE.  Instead I only had the pleasure of the beautiful pre-Alp countryside.  The route passed the backside of Mont Ventoux, a presence that is always a pleasure, with its bald summit and weather station poking above.

Among the climbs in those first twenty miles was a Category Three with a few Tour followers encamped. I biked until dark at 9:30 and camped in a field I had all to myself.  It was so inviting I didn't push on for an extra mile to hit one hundred for the day, as I have done nearly every day since Corsica.

Nearby church chimes awoke me at seven and I was back pedaling half an hour later eating left over lentils and eggs and sausages while I broke camp.  The Category Two climb began four miles later just beyond the village of Montbrun-les-Bains.  The road through the village was lined with pairs of yellow wooden yellow jersey replicas, slightly larger than life-size, each with the name of a Tour winner, of which there are slightly more than fifty.  Lance was among them.

Less than a mile into the climb I was joined by a 58-year old Dutch cyclist in the orange kit of his Dutch cycling club and a small Dutch flag on the back of his bike.  He had joined up with The Tour for a few days with his camper and his bike, as he has done the last ten years.  He was another true devotee of The Tour, following it from his youth.  He grew up in the town where Hennie Kuiper lives, one of several Dutch riders who has won the L'Alpe d'Huez stage and was Lance's team director early in his career.   Henk was a friendly, talkative sort who was happy to ride at my pace.  His camper was parked half-way up the climb, a perfect spot for a break and a cold drink.  He pointed it out to me one hair-pin turn above, also flying the Dutch flag.  

He called his camper Holland House.  Despite all this Dutch pride he made the startling confession,  "I don't like Holland.  The people there aren't good to each other.  I want to live in a country where the people are good to each other and they like the bike.  You've traveled all over.  Do you know such a country."  I told him that the Colombians most certainly love the bike, and people are exceptionally friendly to someone traveling by bike, though I don't know if they'd fully meet his criteria of goodness, if any people could.  "You could try Japan," I also suggested.  "The people there are very polite and the do have an appreciation for the utility of the bike."

Henk had twice biked in the US with his cycling club, once in Colorado and another time in Arizona.  He liked the cycling there very much and would like to return, but isn't sure if he'd want to live there.  I had to explain to him what a bicycle messenger was.  "You are a lucky man," he said.  "Your job is your hobby and your hobby is your job."

We continued on together to the summit, fully firming what we both hope will be a life-long Tour and beyond friendship.  We'll most definitely arrange to meet up along the route in years to come and maybe in a couple of  days on L'Alpe d'Huez.  The summit of the climb was already packed with people six hours before the peloton was due.  Just beyond the summit were some Brits with a  sheet draped over the front of their camper cheering on Froome with a future headline in bicycling publications all over the world--Va Va Froome.

The descent went on for twenty miles through a gorgeous canyon with a fast rushing creek and numerous pools for bathing, blissful spots all for awaiting the peloton.  There were many bathers already taking advantage of them.  I was able to keep riding until 12:45 when I was ordered off the course just 25 miles from Gap, much closer than I thought I would get.  But it was in a perfect spot, the town of Serres, where I had shade and ample water and a tourist office that let me charge the iPad for three hours.  I was happy to share some of my caravan booty with the most generous woman in the tourist office--an inflatable pillow, a newspaper, key chain and refrigerator magnets.  I kept all the food for myself and the packets of fruity syrup.  I  cooked up some eggs for lunch.  I usually buy a half dozen at a time, but a ten-pack was cheaper at the local grocery store, so I scrambled up half of them and saved the rest for breakfast tomorrow.  I still haven't used up the canister of fuel that Andrew left me despite cooking three or four evenings a week.  I want to finish it to lighten my load, but it looks like I'll have to lug it up L'Alpe d'Huez.

After the peloton passed shortly before four I had the option of slipping into a bar and watching the rest of the stage or biking ten miles to the next town and hope to find a bar there.  That was a slight risk, but I knew the following stretch had the potential of a good water bottle harvest as I didn't expect too many fans would be willing to brave the heat along this barren stretch.  I was rewarded with four bottles, my best single-day harvest ever--RadioShack, Euskatel, AGR2 and Sojasun.

I found a bar full of Tour followers as the breakaway group was half-way up the day's second Category Two climb.  Rui Costa of Portugal had a 40 second advantage but he was being chased by three French riders and the German Kloden, a former podium finisher and Olympic medalist.  With national pride at stake it seemed a certainty the French riders would find it within themselves to catch Costa and finally win a stage for the homeland.  But Costa not only held them off but maintained his margin.  He was ecstatic as he approached the finish repeatedly turning around to his director in the team car and shaking his fist in celebration.  Froome and Contador and six other of the strongest riders managed to gain a minute on the climb and descent over the other contenders, including the two Garmin riders high in the standings.  They were in a lead group of ten themselves that also gained time on the rest, allowing Martin to move from 11th to 10th.  Froome and Contador added some excitement when they both took minor spills on the descent, Contador first taking a turn too fast and then Froome trying to avoid him.  Froome accused Contador of riding recklessly fast, but didn't have the sense to let up.

My day continued to go well when one of The Tour followers in the bar with credentials around his neck and also drinking a menthe á l'eau paid for my drink.  And more good fortune followed when the bike shop in town had the exact tire I was looking for.  My front tire was wearing thin.  White below the tread was showing through in spots.  I didn't want to have a suspect front tire on my high-speed descent of L'Alpe d'Huez.  And while I replaced it at the bike shop I could add a few more per cent of power to the iPad.

As my day began with a Category Two climb, so it ended, out of Gap.  I camped just beyond the summit at 4,000 feet beside a rolled bale of hay with high spectacular peaks on all sides, hardly able to go to sleep exhilarated from another great day at The Tour.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Stage Fifteen

I was only five minutes behind the peloton after the Stage Fourteen start, but my deficit had  increased to over three hours when I reached the Stage Fifteen start in Givors.  It could have been considerably less if my day hadn't begun with an hour-long climb surmounting a high ridge before I plunged into the Rhone Valley.  I also lost time trying to navigate my way around the sprawl of Lyon.  It is always a headache and only marginally less so on a Sunday morning contending with minimal traffic and also aided for the first time with a GPS device.

When I arrived at Givors, a somewhat squalid industrial town just south of Lyon, at 1:30, three hours after the peloton had set out on its marathon 150-mile race to Mont Ventoux, the sprawling Tour departure village of tents and other structures and miles of barricades had nearly been dismantled.  About the only evidence that thousands of people had been gathered there just hours before was six large, nearly-loaded 18-wheelers blocking the road.  There were more workers wrapping up the job than lingering fans.  The debris too had all been swept up.  I had to check several garbage cans to forage for a copy of the daily Tour newspaper full of interesting features given away in abundance each day. Ordinarily its easy to find a few laying about.   But not here.  Being forced to peruse garbage cans though yielded a bonus--a copy of "L'Equipe," the one item I always put some effort in trying to snag from the caravan.  

The tourist office was right there at the starting line.  I stopped in to see if it offered WIFI, as the monthly Internet service for my iPad had expired and there was no way to renew it on Bastille Day with everything closed.  It had no WIFI but I was directed to a bar several blocks away near the town center where I was told a large screen had been erected for viewing The Tour.  That would have been a fun and memorable place to spend the next three-and-a-half hours, but once again I did not have such time to spare.  I had to keep biking to keep up with the peloton.  I didn't even have time to spare to go out of my way for WIFI.  I was counting on a McDonalds or a KFC or the French fast food restaurant Quick along the route for a quick mail check and blog posting.  I now have to keep tabs with David the German birder I've ridden portions of the past three Tours with.  He has decided he can't stay away and is taking a break from his latest bird-watching assignment on a Danish ship to meet up with The Tour in the Alps.

The peloton followed the Rhone south out of Givors past a few tributes along the way.

I had the road pretty much to myself on this hot Sunday holiday afternoon. Cemeteries were frequent for a soaking and refilling my water bottles with cold water.  My thought was preoccupied with how glad I was that I could ride at my own pace and didn't have to end my ride going up Mont Ventoux in this baking heat.  I had been on Ventoux the last time The Tour made the climb in Lance's comeback Tour.  It was the penultimate stage and Lance was clinging to a thirteen second advantage over Wiggins to remain on the third rung of the podium behind Cantador and Schleck.  It was a cold windy day with fans besieging the vans of two French teams that were giving out replica jerseys as an extra layer   against the cold. It was never in the plan this year for me to make it to Ventoux. I knew that was virtually impossible unless I decided to skip the Brittany portion of The Tour.  Watching it in a bar would be just fine.  I knew this could be the stage that could decide The Race and I was greatly looking forward to escaping the sun and watching others riding bikes.

Two hours down the road I found a touristy bar with tables out front and three televisions inside all tuned to The Tour with a handful of watchers. Once the peloton began the climb many of those sitting outside flocked in for all the dramatics--Sky pushing the pace and riders dropping behind and then the attacks.  There were two breakaway riders less than a minute up the road that had no chance of holding off the fast-charging Froome and company. There were two Garmin jerseys among them--Martin and Talansky.  Now is the time that Christian is truly missed.  Martin hung tough and moved up to eleventh overall while Talansky tailed off finishing 25th six minutes back, but still thirteenth overall, most commendable for a rookie.  Both are a threat to finish Top Ten.  The only other time Garmin managed that was the year Wiggins finished fourth and Christian seventh, a year after he had finished fourth himself.  

The Colombian climbing sensation Nairo Quintana, who ranked fifth overall, down five-and-a-half minutes to Froome, took off after the two up the road.   Froome let him go, waiting until seven kilometers from the summit to blast off from behind Porte's wheel, leaving Contador and all else behind. He caught Quintana within half a kilometer.  After repeated accelerations, Froome was finally able to shed him 1.3 kilometers from the barren summit, riding in alone twenty-nine seconds ahead, putting his full stamp of authority on The Race.  He also deservedly claimed the polka-dot jersey as the best climber in The Race, having won both summit finishes.  Six stages to go.  Two demanding stages in the Alps remain. Only a disastrous day will prevent Froome from prevailing.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Stage Fourteen

For two weeks and thirteen stages I have managed to stay ahead of the peloton, better than most years, but that came to an end on Stage Fourteen when the peloton sped out of Saint-Poircain-sur-Sioule at 12:30 as I stood at the roadside watching them head off in the distance at double the speed I could manage when I began my chase after them five minutes later once all the support vehicles had passed.

There was no short cut I could take this time as on Stage Ten to get back ahead of them.  I will simply have to take advantage of the Monday Rest Day to catch up, hopefully reaching the Stage Finish in Gap before they arrive on Tuesday.

I made it to Saint-Pourcain by ten am, not early enough to head down the course, as it was already closed down with the caravan set to head out at 10:30.  I was fortunate to complete the hilly 65-mile transfer between the 13th and 14th stages and make it to Saint-Pourcain by the time I did, as the gendarmes were itching to close down the road I was riding in on.  There was a sign saying it would be closed at ten and there were gendarmes at side roads all along it even though it wasn't part of the race course, just a main road leading into town.  It was the third morning in a row that I had to ride hard with a cut-off time hanging over my head, just as the riders have a time limit they have to ride under or they will be eliminated, as happened to the American Ted King on the fourth stage.  

Saint-Poucain was jammed with people coming from all over on this Saturday morning. Cars were parked on both sides of the road for over a mile leading into town.  I stopped at a supermarket on the outskirts, at first fearing it was closed as there were only a handful of cars in its parking lot.  But it was just that everyone was heading to The Race and not shopping.  I had its many aisles all to myself.  I had to buy two day's worth of food with tomorrow Bastille Day. 

I needed to add some juice to my iPad with it down to near empty, but it was more important to recharge my legs.  I was hoping I would be as lucky as I was in Albi where a bakery right beside the Giant  Screen was open and had a spare outlet that the iPad sucked for three hours nearly getting back to capacity.  I had no such luck in Saint-Pourcain and felt no urge to go look for one after I found a spot nearly a mile from the starting line where I could sit in the shade and eat and feel my legs reviving.  The iPad charging would just have to wait until the bar where I would watch the finish.

Thirty miles down the road, when I was ready to call a halt to the riding, I found a rare open library.  I charged and sent off the Stage Thirteen report, then went in search of a television. I had been able to keep abreast of The Race at cyclingnews.com and knew that a group of more than a dozen riders, much more than the usual four or five, had a better than six minute advantage and was working well together and would most likely hold off the peloton and the sprinters, who were conserving their energy for the next day's 150-mile stage, the longest of The Tour, with a finish atop Mont Ventoux, making it seem even longer.

I had seen several bars in the town and had no worries about finding a television, but the only one that had a television was a PMU bar and its bartender would not consider turning either of its TVs from the horse racing they were broadcasting.  It was too late to head to another town so it was back to the library and cyclingnews.com.  I simply had to visualize the French rider Julien Simon breaking away from the breakaway group attempting to become the first French rider to win a stage this year.  He held on until a kilometer to go, overtaken by an Italian, Matteo Trentin, who claimed the first win for Italy in three years.  It was the fourth win for Cavendish's Belgium Omega Pharma-Quick Step team.  The team may be Belgian, but it has only one Belgian rider and riders from eight different countries, the most diverse of any team, perhaps explaining its lack of cohesion when it comes to supporting Cavendish.

Returning to the library had its advantages, as it had a display of bicycle racing books, some I hadn't seen, that I was happy to peruse.  One was a history of bicycle racing entitled "Le Velo de Papa," a French expression.  It had an introduction by Raymond Poulidour, whose autobiography was among those on offer.

Another of the day's bonuses following in the wake of the peloton was scavenging a course marker, my third of the year after two on Stage Ten.  I also picked up a couple of refrigerator magnets and several packets of fruit syrup to flavor my water.  But no water bottles, something I'm actually in need of with this hot weather and something I'd gladly trade a course marker for if I saw someone walking along clutching a bottle they'd scavenged.

I pushed on until nearly dark at ten, camping on the fringe of a corn field after a long climb.  I still lagged fifty miles behind the peloton's start the next day in Givors, south of Lyon.  No way I'll arrive in time to see them off, as they have an early 10:30 am start.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stage Thirteen

If it hadn't been necessary once again to keep riding when I reached the Stage Thirteen finish in Saint-Armond shortly after two to start in on the sixty-five mile jump to the start of Stage Fourteen, I would have had three hours of Giant Screen viewing pleasure and the camaraderie of hundreds of others.  Instead I ended up in a bar down the road and was treated to the animated commentary of the two French announcers.  They were besides themselves with glee at what an "exceptional" day of racing it was, especially since it was so unexpected on such on flat stage with only one ripple of a Category Four climb. 

But a strong cross wind made drafting tricky and separation of aggressive mini-pelotons possible.  And so to played out.  Riders who weren't attentive and lost contact could be in trouble, or big, big trouble as former second-placed Valverde can attest.  He suffered a flat and then couldn't regain contact with the lead group despite assistance from several teammates.  He lost a staggering nine minutes to Froome, falling to 16th, eliminated from any hopes for a podium placing.

Contador masterfully launched an attack with four of his teammates about twenty miles from the finish.   Nine others were strong and alert enough to join their move, but not Froome.  He lost a minute to Contador, but still retains a nearly three-minute lead.  He has two or three minutes in the bank with the final time trial in a week that includes two category two climbs, so he need not feel too worried, other than his team is not as strong as last year's nor as strong as everyone thought.

Cavendish was on full alert, not sulking over his spate of misfortune over the past three stages, including having a bottle of urine splashed on him during the time trial.  He attached himself to Contador's group.  Sagan was the only sprinter among them.  He is the strongest of the Big Four sprinters, but not the fastest.  Cavendish may have had the easiest of his 25 Tour wins in this "sprint," easily riding away from Sagan.  He was no less happy crossing the line than any of his wins.  He is a colorful personality who gives good, insightful interviews.  It was good to see him win, though it has to make Eddie Merckx wince, as Cavendish closes in on his career record of Tour stage wins.

It was a hot day again, after a couple of cooler days that helped me put in all the time I needed to on the bike to keep up.  I was glad to sit in the shade for half an hour in front of the Giant Screen before resuming my ride.  Just beyond the finish line was an Abominable Bicyclist.

One of the towns I passed had wooden cut-outs of bicyclists from one end to another.

Another town had hung similarly decorated bikes.

Someone in another town paid tribute to a local racer riding in The Tour.

I passed through another small town just as a parade of dressed-up locals was setting out.

For the first time ever I watched the stage finish at a PMU bar.  Ordinarily all its TVs broadcast horse racing and even though PMU is the sponsor for the green jersey, never has a PMU bar been willing to put on The Tour.  I presume it could be written in the bar's contract.  I have learned not to waste my time going into a PMU bar,  but it was the only bar in the town I was at and I didn't care to press on to the next town in the heat so gave it an attempt.  No one was in the bar except two older ladies playing cards.  One was the bar tender.  Horse racing was on, but she was willing to switch to The Tour, though she had to ask me what station it was on.  Eurosport Two of course.  The ladies couldn't help but pay attention to The Race with the announcers going so crazy.

The only bummer for the day is that the socket I had plugged my iPad into for recharging wasn't dispensing electricity, which I didn't discover until later that night in my tent when I discovered my battery was at only eight percent, when I had been expecting forty.  That meant no photos the next day, a great loss as the Ville Départ was exceptionally well-decorated with bright yellow bikes everywhere, even attached to the railing of the bridge the peloton would pass over.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Stage Twelve

It was another great day on the bike.  It began with the final sixty-six miles of Stage Twelve into Tours past all the early arrivals to the course, many of whom had camped along the road side as I had. And it ended with forty miles of evening riding on the Stage Thirteen route to within sixty miles of its finish, past many encampments of RV Tour followers.  In between were a dozen miles to the bar where I watched Cavendish lose another sprint, this time with only himself to blame, starting it a tad early and being passed at the line by a surging Kittel, claiming his third win.

My first segment was a virtual non-stop ride other than for a few photo ops, as I needed to make it to the finish line by two when the gendarmes would start evicting unofficial personnel from the course. I tried to limit myself to just one photo per ten miles and only when I was on an incline or braking into a turn, not wishing to give up more than a bare amount of momentum. I reluctantly passed up many a classic shot, such as the middle-aged couple sitting on a blanket, leaning back-to-back, each reading a book.  It is the rare sporting event that people bring books as their pre-event reading material.

I had hoped for a short supermarket break along the way, but as is typical, the route wound its way through small-town rural  France, la France profonde, and there wasn't a supermarket to be found.  I just had to wait until I reached Tours for my daily yogurt drink and the purchase of my food for the day.  I knew the supermarket I would go to.  It was just four blocks from Florence and Rachid.

After picking up my supplies I buzzed Florence and Rachid at 2:06, just six minutes later than had been my aim.  I was hoping they'd come scampering out of their building with their bikes and  accompany me down the road for an hour or two.  Unfortunately, Florence was under the weather and Rachid was somewhat sleep deprived having just finished an art project for a major annual festival in Orleans.  He had been one of one hundred artists selected to decorate a fish, another spin-off on the Cows of Chicago.

I made my visit a thirty minute pit stop, plopped on the floor of the lobby of their building, resting my legs and drinking yogurt and eating a pâté sandwich and having a pleasant chat with Florence and Rachid.  I didn't even care to dash up to their apartment for a shower, even though I hadn't had one since Corsica over a week ago.  I'm plenty adept at bathing with cemetery faucets, and during the recent heat wave had been semi-bathing several times a day.  Hot water is no necessity, though I did let Florence take one of my water bottles up to their apartment to run hot water through its nozzle to unclog it of its grime.  Once cleaned, I had forgotten how strongly the water could squirt out of it.  Bringing it back to normal was so great, it was hard not to think that was the highlight of my visit, though I could never say such a thing, as any visit with Florence and Rachid is a noteworthy event and always one of the highlights of my time in France. I was lucky to see them twice this year.

It would have been nice to stick around and join them as I have before for the arrival of the caravan and the peloton,  but I had no time to spare if I wanted to reach the next stage finish 108 miles away in less than 24 hours.  I only had to go one block from their apartment to pick up the next day's route, though the first couple of miles were still the neutralized zone.  A couple miles further the route ventured on to a road that prohibited bicycles.  I knew that every gendarme within miles would be on Tour duty, so I could safely ride it for five miles rather than making a painful and time-consuming detour.

Today's bike art included mannequins realistic enough for me to nearly ask if I could take their photo.

Another was from an era past.

And I added to my random sampling of the common folk making a day of The Tour.

I was a moment late in catching all five of this clan.

Today's route also included several popular Tour tributes that I hadn't seen yet this year.  One was a giant yellow jersey just outside of Tours.

The Tour has finally ventured into a region of giant rolls of hay that make for building blocks.  On the team time trial stage a farmer had spelled out Vive Le Tour with the huge rolls for the helicopters.

As sunset approached I was delighted to have good reason to still be on my bike, nearly ten hours for the day between 7:45 am and 9:45 pm. My legs were surprising me at their eagerness.  The day before I had woken with a calf so stiff I couldn't put any weight on it.  But after half an hour of pedaling it had loosened up and was pain free.  The slanting evening light gave a sharp definition to the countryside making it all the more fetching.  And around nearly every bend were Tour followers in their campers.  It was a forest for me this evening.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Stage Eleven

It was back again to the unhappy task of riding a stage a day ahead of the peloton, a day of no crowd electricity.  And to further disengage me from all the uplifting sensations of The Tour, I had to complete an eighty mile transfer from the point where I left Stage Ten to where I picked up Stage Twelve.  It was a transfer I hadn't scouted out, as I wasn't sure where I would have to make it.  There was no easy, direct route from Renne to Laval.  I pieced together a hodgepodge of roads and had to resort to my GPS device for the first time in a while all too many times.  I probably added ten miles to my riding and squandered a good hour.

It made finally coming upon the course markers in Laval, knowing I had the way fully marked for the next one hundred miles, all that more joyous.  I had been hoping to regain the course early enough to encounter the aliens on their kick bikes, to see if they were still at it and if they were still six strong.  I wondered the same thing about the FDJ group.  But I was hours late for any hope of crossing paths with either of them.  

I continued along the course until four before stopping to allow myself the final ninety minutes of the time trial that had already been contested for four hours up along the English Channel to Mont-Saint-Michel.  I found a perfect bar with a wall-sized screen I had all to myself.  Tony Martin, the German Martin in the peloton along with Garmin's Irish Martin, held the best time by over a minute.  As the reigning world time trial champion that was somewhat expected, though there were concerns that he might still be suffering from an early crash that required quite a bit of bandaging.  As usual, all focus was on the Yellow Jersey, the last rider to ride the course that would take a little over half an hour of all-out effort.  Froome is a strong time trialist.  The question not only was whether he would win the time trial, but by how much he would extend his lead over his rivals, whether from one to three minutes.

Each of the riders was shown leaving the starting ramp with a final countdown of five to one fingers on the hand of an official beside them, at two, then three minute intervals for the final ten riders.  The camera occasionally showed Froome warming up on his bike up on rollers, head bowed wearing ear plugs and nose plugs.  What he was listening to and the purpose of the nose plugs I know not.  He was the only rider shown warming up.  

Cadel Evans, a strong time trialist, went off half an hour before Froome and had a chance to reassert himself.  He clearly wasn't focused when a mile into his ride he reached for his water bottle and swerved. Riders try not to drink at all during the ride, not wanting to lose their aerodynamic tuck.  Evidently he forgot to drink before starting.  And he had a bad time, though not as bad as Andy Schleck, who finished over 100 places down. 

Froome rode hard from the start bettering Martin's time checks by one second and then two seconds at the two time checks, but he faltered and Martin won by a little over ten seconds, becoming the third German to win a stage this year, more than any other nationality. But Froome added two minutes to his one minute overall lead on Valverde.  Froome's teammate Porte had the fourth best time, recovering from his horrendous second stage in the Pyrenees, indicating he still has plenty of power In his legs to assist Froome.

I then rode until nearly ten getting to within 65 miles of the finish of this 137-mile stage. There were many camped vans already parked along the route.  In one town the locals were up late putting the final touches on the decorations in their round-about.  I took an eating break to watch them debating how to do it, always fine entertainment, one of the bonuses of day-before stage riding.

The same town holds the record so far this year of having mounted the largest bike along the route.

It made another bike yet to be mounted look puny.

But nothing is more majestic than the simple beauty of a slightly decorated yellow bike with a round-about all to its own.

Another round-about was inhabited by a large furry creature on a bike.

Bikes and flowers always go well together.

Or simply bicycle wheels and flowers.  Behind the wall was my final source of water for the evening in a cemetery.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Stage Ten

The scorching heat extended all the way to Brittany, but it couldn't prevent me from completing my killer 430-mile transfer from Albi to Saint-Gildas-des-Bois in three days, thanks in no small part  to the ninety mile lift I received from Yvon at the very start of it.  The seven hours of rest I received, being able to watch the Albi stage finish rather than keep riding, was as beneficial as the miles I was saved.  I would have still managed to make the transfer, but I would have arrived in Saint-Gildas around the time the peloton was setting out on Stage Ten Tuesday, rather than the evening before.  And I would have been forced to guzzle coke to keep going and would have been bicycling into the night.  

When I arrived in Saint-Gildas Monday evening still with plenty of energy, it seemed as if everyone in the town of 3,400 people, this year's smallest Ville Étape, was flocking to a large field on the outskirts of the village, where a band was giving a free concert and the field was surrounded by tents of vendors selling food and drink.  It was a most festive atmosphere.  The main street leaving the village was thronged with pedestrians and bicyclists.  Barricades prevented any motorized vehicles.  It was the same road the peloton would be leaving on the next day.  The course markers were in place, just what I was looking for.

It was nearly nine pm and I'd had another long, hot one hundred mile day, so I just biked five miles into the route to the first turn where a banner would greet the peloton honoring the Tour's first multiple winner Petit Breton in 1907 and 1908, whose birth place was just down the road.

It wasn't the first large scale banner on the stage route.  A business had  mounted a large banner on its roof for the helicopters, even though it was so early in the stage it would not make the broadcast.

Even before I reached Saint-Gildas, towns that race followers would have to pass through on their way from Nantes, forty miles away, had put out displays of bikes.

I camped close enough to the road that I awoke to passing bicyclists before seven getting an early start down the route.  I started the day strong, my legs energized by the fans along the route, some in camping vans who had spent the night there.  I caught myself remaining in my middle chain ring pushing hard on a climb, when I should have eased off and dropped to my small chain ring.  I realized I hadn't used my small chain ring yet, I was so caught up in Race Day euphoria emanating from all. The bike art continued all down the route.  There were more of the over-sized bikes.

And there were simple displays featuring The Tour jerseys.

An always popular sign is "Vive Le Tour."  The locals don't necessarily have a favorite team or rider, but they are fully committed to The Tour.

The Tour is an inextricable strand of the national psyche.  It showcases and honors the country.  The young are indoctrinated at an early age.  There are babies in strollers and children of all ages out for the day at roadside.  There is no mistaking the look of enthrallment on their faces, the pre-teens in particular, their faces shining with delight, sitting on the edges of their lawns chairs, eyes wide open with excited expectation, eagerly attentive to everything going by.   They haven't been dragged along by dads who like bike racing, but are equal partners in this joyful family outing. 

It is come one, come all. Those without children bring their childhood memories. They line the road shoulder to shoulder, standing or sitting, for hours. And when the racers pass everyone applauds.  There is hardly a better way to spend a few hours than biking past legions and legions of young and old who are enjoying a day of such pleasure.

The race route is closed down for three hours to all but official Tour traffic.  I was able to bike until noon, getting fifty miles down the road before I was ordered off my bike.  I managed to get a little further down the road past the cut-off time, as many of the intersections were monitored by volunteer locals, rather than the tyrannical gendarmes who are quick and eager to exert their authority.   I was stopped in the cool of the forest so I didn't need to drink more than one of my five bottles of water in the three hours I was marooned there.  After the peloton passed I biked an hour and then stopped to watch the final hour of the race, which ended up being two hours, as the heat reduced the pace of the peloton.  That was five hours off the bike for me in six hours, much more than I wanted, but it made the day somewhat of a recovery day for me, if ninety miles can be considered a recovery day.

The race boiled down to the standard sprint and once again it was contested by the top four sprinters. It was Germans one and two, Kittel  and Griepel with Cavendish a frustrated third and Sagan fourth.  Kittel becomes the first of the sprinters to gain a second win.  Cavendish crossed the line looking sheepishly and somewhat guiltily over his shoulder to see what carnage he had left behind after bumping into one of Kittel's lead-out men causing him to crash.  Miraculously he didn't bring down anyone else.  It wasn't clear if Cavendish might have been guilty of a misdeed.  He could have been disqualified or even kicked out of The Race, but the commissaries ruled him innocent.

I wasn't back on the bike until six.  Rennes was thirty miles away.  It took me a while to clear its sprawl before I found a place to camp shortly before dark near an illegal dump site.  While I was still eating dinner a pick-up truck pulled up dump some refuse, but turned away upon spotting me, the watch man.