Friday, July 19, 2013

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.

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