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.

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