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.

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