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.