Saturday, July 6, 2013

Stage Seven

When I saw a bright yellow course marker at an intersection up ahead and turned onto The Tour route at noon yesterday for the final fifteen miles of Stage Seven into Albi five hours ahead of the peloton, I was instantly welcomed back to that never-never land of Tour bliss with the road lined by fans already well-settled into their little nirvana for the day.  I was back in the midst of people fulfilling their dream and their duty, doing their part to make The Tour the grand event that it is.  I was immediately uplifted by the swelling of  joy and contentment radiated by all.

Even though they might be encamped along a road, it is a day in the country for them and a day that ranks with their happiest days of the year.

Not only were they honoring their great national institution, they were also partaking of their great national  pastime--the "pique-nique."

There are frequent picnic tables along the road, and a variety of signs announcing them.  There is the standard picture of the picnic table.  And also a more creative one of a picnic basket with a bottle of wine poking out.

Among the many allures of The Tour de France, the opportunity for a picnic is high among them.  Not everyone comes equipped with their own portable picnic table.  Some just spread a blanket out along the road and others just find a spot to plop down.

All are in a festive mood. It is so palpable and contagious, it hangs thick in the air. I never have tired legs biking past all the celebrants.  I hardly even feel the bike as my spirit is lofted even higher than the bike usually lofts it by this corridor of joyful camaraderie.  This is the true essence of The Tour, what I have been missing the past few days while I rode a day ahead of the peloton.

I have also missed the many manifestations of Tour Love.  The bright and colorfully decorated round-about just before Albi could be seen from half a mile away.

Just past the round-about, a large franchise store had mounted an eye-catching array of decorations as if it were Christmas, which is how many regard the day The Tour comes to town.

Meeting up with Yvon further heightened the euphoria that swept over me reconnecting with The Tour.  He had driven down from Degagnac, almost 100 miles north, the day before and had thoroughly scouted Albi's Tour layout.  He found a place to park his van so we could make a quick getaway and knew which side of the barriers was the best place to view the giant screen.  We met up as planned at the tourist office at 1:30 and then biked the final three kilometers of the course.  It was already thick with fans.

We found a place of shade for our bikes and a slice of shade to park ourselves for the next three-and-a-half hours of watching all the action on the course just short of the finish line.

Yvon immediately began chatting with a couple of fellow Tour fanatics of our vintage.  They were locals who could have been at home in the comfort of their living rooms waiting a couple hours more until the caravan arrived, but they wished to partake of all the festivities.  I struck up a conversation with a retired South African geologist who was witnessing The Tour for the first time and celebrating the first time a South African was wearing the Yellow Jersey.

The peloton had been at it for nearly two hours and was approaching the toughest climb of the day, a category two.  The green Cannondale team was leading the charge up the climb, trying to shed Sagan's sprinting rivals.  They were succeeding.  Cavendish was soon a minute behind and losing even more time, even though today he was flanked by several teammates unlike yesterday.  The motorcycle cameras only searched out Cavendish among those falling off, but Sagan's other sprint rivals, Greipel and Kittel were among them.  

Sagan's Cannondale teammates maintained the hard pace on the descent and for the final 90 minutes of the stage, putting in a most formidable performance.  The peloton had split in two.  The sprinters' group eventually finished fifteen minutes after Sagan, who finally won a stage, greatly increasing his lead in the Green Jersey Competion.  Cavendish led the also rans across the finish line, riding at such a relaxed pace it was possible to capture a picture of him as he sped by us at course side.

Not among them was the luckless Christian, who suffered his second crash of The Race, this was early in the stage.  He'd been struggling to survive the last two stages from his injuries.  This crash did him in.  With luck he will recover in time to defend his title in the Colorado Pro Challenge in the middle of August and help Garmin win. the Team Time Trial World Championships later in Florence.  When I emailed him my best wishes after learning of his misfortune, he was in good enough spirits to reply almost immediately, which hasn't always been the case over the years when he has been injured out of a race.  He is the second American to abandon. The other was Ben King of Cannondale.  That leaves just four Americans--Talansky and Danielson of Garmin and Bookwalter and Van Gardener of BMC.