Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stage One

Skippi and I were stationed at the 25-meters marker from the finish line of Stage One across from a screen broadcasting all the action out on the course when all of a sudden the most dramatic action of the day was happening just to our left when the late-arriving team bus for the Australian Orica GreenEdge  team became lodged under the finish line.  The peloton was less than fifteen minutes away riding furiously.  Gendarmes and Tour officials were sprinting frantically in front of us to the bus and then back towards us.

After several minutes a couple of gendarmes came to where we were standing and told everyone to back away so they could remove the barriers in front of us and evacuate the bus from the course there.  Still the bus hadn't budged.  I was in a panic fearing an imminent catastrophe.  If the bus weren't moved, at what point would the racers barreling pell-mell towards it notice the road was blocked and start braking causing everyone behind them to crash into them, or would it be possible to communicate to the racers that the road was blocked and the finish line moved up.  This was a tension-packed Hollywood production, except it was real and being played out in real time before my very eyes.  It was a bomb about to explode that could wipe out the peloton if it weren't defused post haste. 

Skippi took off to tell somebody to let the air out of the tires of the bus to lower it enough to pass under the barrier.  There may not have been time for that, but there was so much at stake here it wouldn't have been out of order for gendarmes to take out their guns and fill the tires with bullet holes to deflate them.  At last the bus began moving backwards towards us.  The driver had a stricken, nervous expression as he passed us, as he still had a tricky maneuver to extricate the huge bus through the narrow passage opened to him with the seconds ticking all too fast.  The gendarmes guiding him wore similar expressions.  But they succeeded with only moments to spare.

Meanwhile out of the course the peloton had suffered several crashes in the final three kilometers as the road narrowed and it had to negotiate several sharp turns.  Three of the top sprinters, Mark Cavendish, André Griepel and Peter Sagan, had all been taken out.  That left only Marcel Kittel of the heavy-hitters in the field, and he came through to win his first Tour stage ever, calling it the greatest day of his life.  He also said he knew nothing about the drama being played out at the finish line with the bus.

The riders of the peloton weren't the only ones nursing injuries from all the crashes.  Skippi was too as a car had side-swiped him earlier in the day, cracking his helmet and leaving his left shoulder and elbow bruised.  He knew who did it and had witnesses to the accident.  After the finish he headed to the local police department in the village where it happened.  We were able to ride together for half an hour down the route the peloton would follow the next day, not yet open to traffic and guarded by gendarmes, some of whom didn't want us riding the course, forcing us up on the sidewalk, the one bane of following The Tour.

Still it had been a great day.  There weren't a great many fans out early along the race course as there will be back on the main land, but there were huge numbers at the finish line.  There were also some fine decorations out along the course, some with a distinct Corsican flavor.


Others too incorporated the Corsican emblem in their tributes to The Tour.


When I stopped at this house, the owner was out and about.


A pizza restaurant also incorporated the national emblem in its banner.


I was able to watch the entire broadcast of the stage, including the crash of Chris Froome at the very start in the neutralized zone, as I arrived at the finish line before the peloton set out from Porto Vecchio.  I had ridden all but the final thirty miles of the stage the day before, a leisurely ride along the flat east coast of the island through an agricultural belt and series of beaches.  I couldn't go swimming as it was a rainy day.  

On my way out of Porto Vecchio before the rain I was passed by Christian finishing up his day's training ride.  "The team hotel is just ahead," he said. "Follow me.  You need a new jersey."  The one I was wearing was three years old, but still had plenty of wear in it.  I rather liked wearing an old team jersey, showing I was a long-time fan of the team, though I did much prefer the bright blue of the current jersey, compared to the mostly white of the one I had been wearing.


I had a couple of books I'd finished that I was waiting to give to someone who did me a favor.  I was delighted to contribute them to the Garmin team library. They both bore the title "French Lessons," and were books on French culture, one the memoir of an American professor of  French and the other a collection of essays on French food.  Christian at first was worried they were books about learning to speak French, and was relieved that they weren't.

Christian modeling my new jersey standing in front of the team bus holding the books I'd given him.


He confirmed that this was his last Tour, his eleventh, one more than me.  That is a noteworthy achievement.  Not even one in a hundred of those who have ridden the one hundred editions of The Tour have ridden that many.  Christian didn't realize that Eddie Merckx only rode seven, Bernard Hinault and Jaques Anquetil eight.  He said though that he is most proud to have ridden twenty-one of the three-week Grand Tours.  

He's looking forward to defending his title at the week-long Colorado race in August.  He won't be battling the retired Levi Leipheimer, who he finished second to two years ago and just beat last year, but he was excited to say that his former teammate Bradley Wiggins may compete in it this year.



Friday, June 28, 2013

The Presentation of the Teams

The twenty-two teams gathered in Porto Vecchio for the start of The Tour have the option of four roads to ride to keep their legs tuned up in the two days they are here before the start of The Race--either up or down the coast or two inland routes.  I made my approach to Porto Vecchio yesterday morning on one of the inland routes and unsurprisingly was passed by several of the teams out for a morning spin.

The first was the  Lampre team in their bright pink jerseys, chattering away in Italian.  The nine riders were riding  double file and were followed by a long stream of backed-up traffic and a couple of random cyclists riding all-out trying to keep up.

The next group to pass me was a couple dozen citizen cyclists riding in the same direction I was.   They were riding the first segment of Stage One, a forty-mile loop down to Bonifacio at the bottom of the island and back to Porto Vecchio.  I was taking a break having already ridden twenty miles,  sitting along the road finishing off my breakfast of eggs and lentils and couscous when they came by. Among them was Skippi.  He spotted me and stopped for a chat and to fidget with his rear derailleur.  

He's friends with many of the team mechanics, but wouldn't impose on them during their final Tour preparations.  This was his first time to Corsica and was enjoying it.  I asked about the wild-camping possibilities nearer Porto Vecchio. Sometimes The Tour provides a place for Tour followers.  He'd camped on someone's property who he'd gotten permission from, but thought he'd look for something better.  He didn't have any information on the team presentations later in the evening, but we planned to meet up then if not before.

Less than five miles down the road I came upon a cemetery, just what I needed to replenish my water bottles and do a little wash. 


The water faucet was just inside the lower wall along the road.  Before I had finished, I glanced up just as the Garmin team was climbing past.  I popped up, displaying my Garmin jersey, and shouted out "Allez."  Christian recognized me, thanks in part to the jersey that had been a gift form him, and peeled off from his teammates for a quick hello, dodging all the cars that were in the team's wake.  "I wish I had a camera," he said.  "That would make a great shot of you."

I wished him luck, especially in the team time trial that Garmin had won the last time it was included in The Tour two years ago.  One of the team's time trial stalwarts, Dave Zabriskie, wouldn't be riding this year, still recovering from injuries, but Christian said they could still win it.

It wasn't much further into Porto Vecchio, a modest-sized resort and port, that had a most relaxed feel to it, an ideal setting for The Tour start.  A round-about the peloton would pass on the way out of town featured an over-sized bike with imitation palm fronds for spokes and pineapples for hubs.  Just beyond the round-about I spotted my first course marker for the year, always a joyous site.


Maintaining the tropical theme, the town's billboards and posters promoting The Tour featured a yellow bikini and yellow solid bicycle wheels completing the female form.


Shops throughout the town had variations on the poster.


Even if a shop didn't have a bicycle in its window, it paid tribute to yellow.


A water sports shop mounted a cyclist on water skis.


A sporting goods store paid tribute to green and red polka dots as well as yellow.


Planters blocking off a street in the port making it a pedestrian mall were wrapped in the trademark colors.


The town cathedral also joined in the spirit with a pair of bicycles mounted by its entrance.  The Friday night mass will be devoted to The Tour and the priest will give the peloton a benediction before it sets out Saturday morning.


The tourist office featured some fine original bike art, some paintings and some sculpture.


The plaza where the riders would gather for a slow promenade to the team presentations along the port was overlooked by a mosaic.


In the plaza was a giant yellow mushroom structure.


During my meanderings about town taking it all in, I encountered Skippi once again by the harbor.  He had just discovered one could have a free shower at a nearby facility.  That was great news.  

Unlike in previous years where the riders took a slow ride team by team through a small loop of the city hosting the Grand Départ after they were introduced, this year the ride preceded their introduction about a mile away.  Skippi and I spent a while at their departure point before going over to the large stage where they were being introduced after being transported with their bikes by boat.  The ceremony lasted about two hours.  Teams went off every few minutes, some of them walking right past us to get to their bikes.  Many of them know Skippi and stopped by for a handshake.  Here's the Belgian World Champion Philipe Gilbert with his BMC teammate Cadel Evans just behind him.  


There were a few representatives of the caravan of sponsors amongst the riders dispensing free stuff.  My first score of the year was a three-pack of madeleines, 214 calories of eggs and butter and flour, something I always welcome.  Daniel Mangeas, the long-time official voice of The Tour, introduced each of the 198 riders with a brief biographical sketch. The teams rode on stage through the portal in the tower, a symbol of Corsica.  This is the Garmin team.


The last team to be introduced was the defending champion Sky team, even though their winner from last year, Bradley Wiggins, won't be riding this year, recovering from a knee injury he suffered at the Giro.  His teammate Chris Froome, who finished second last year, is this year's favorite and was the last rider introduced.

As I cycled away from the event I heard Skippi shout out my name.  He had gone over to the stage area to try to connect with riders as they cycled back to their team buses or hotels if they were nearby.  I slowed to let Skippi catch up without looking to see how far away he was.  Moments later he was beside me on my fully loaded bike accompanied by Froome himself.  "This is my friend George," he said.  "He rides the whole route with a full sack." 

"Wow, that's impressive," Froome said.

All I had time for was a "good luck," as he sped on his way through the crowd.












Thursday, June 27, 2013

Corsica

Despite the miles and miles of great cycling Corsica has to offer along its spectacular coastline and through its rugged mountains on roads with minimal traffic, I was the lone touring cyclist rolling a bike aboard the ferry out of Nice to this 150-mile long Mediterranean island.  Nor did there appear to be any other early-arriving Tour de France followers or officials, even though it was just five days until the start of The Race.

There were no camping vans with course markers or other Tour symbols on their dashboards nor were there any cars plastered with team or sponsor decals, as I had hoped to see.  A few vehicles had bikes hanging on racks, about as many people who had brought along their dogs, who didn't have to remain confined to their vehicles below deck but could join their owners on their ferry proper.  

After I secured my bike in a row with a dozen or so motorcycles making the six-hour voyage, I climbed up three flights of stairs to the deck with seating for the passengers who didn't pay for a cabin, and went in search of a seat beside an electrical outlet.  It took a while to find one in the cafeteria dining area.  It wasn't clear if one needed to be a diner to sit there, though food wasn't available just yet.  The tables quickly filled, but few people actually went for food once the cafeteria opened shortly after departure.

After we were half an hour out to sea, I began to feel the sway of the ferry and felt the need to lay down. It was only a mild case of motion sickness compared to what I experienced driving with Yvon, but I was most definitely uncomfortable.  My iPad was a couple hours away from being fully recharged, but I had to give up on it.  I found a place to stretch out, joining quite a few others.  My legs welcomed the lay-down.  They outrank the iPad in importance, so I didn't feel as upset as I might.  A racing axiom states, "Never stand when you can sit, and never sit when you can lay down." Since I could lay down it was almost the responsible thing to do.  I could actually feel my legs regenerating.

I had been riding extra hard the past two weeks topping off my training since Andrew's departure.  I was tired enough to nap for a couple of hours.  When I awoke, I looked back through the rear deck to see if the sea had calmed at all, but the ferry was still rocking enough for the sea to disappear for a couple of seconds leaving only sky to be seen.  I took a little stroll anyway to stretch my legs.  I spotted an outlet I hadn't seen before in an out-of-the-way corner where I could also lay down, just what I needed.  And there I spent the last two hours before our arrival on Corsica, nearly fully recharging the iPad and my legs as well.

The rough seas delayed our arrival by half an hour, leaving me less than an hour of light to get out of Calvi and find a place to camp.  Calvi will be the Ville Arrivé for the third and final stage on Corsica.  It's modest City Hall had Tour banners mounted on its front.


Just a mile beyond Calvi's airport, less than ten miles out of town, I was out into the countryside and found a perfect meadow to pitch my tent. I was awoken in the morning by bells around the necks of a herd of goats.


I began the day with the first of four climbs of 1,400 feet or more.  


The next two were along the coast on the route that the peloton will be following on its way to Calvi from Ajaccio. The coastal scenery was as dazzling as any in the world--Big Sur, Italy's Amalfi Drive, the fjords of Norway, Iceland.  The road clung high to cliff sides with only a rare beach in an isolated bay.


One of the climbs was through a World Heritage pine forest.  It was thronged with tourists.  The traffic was reduced to a gridlock when giant tour buses coming from opposite directions couldn't get by each other.


The motorcyclists and I were the only ones who could get through.


On a couple of occasions tourists along the road of the summit stretch gave me a round of applause.  It gave me practice for nodding my head and raising a hand off the handlebar and responding with a "merci," as I'll have to do on occasion during The Tour climbs that will be packed with fans.

In keeping with the primal scenery, some stretches of the road used natural rock for road barriers.


Along this one hundred mile stretch the peloton will ride,  so far only one business had decorated itself with a Tour theme.  This is The Tour's first visit to Corsica.  It's residents aren't aware of the tradition of mounting bikes and banners and creating bike sculptures along the route.


The road signs gave both the French and Corsican spelling of the towns, with the French on top.  When I biked Corsica five years ago many of the French names had been painted over.  There was not a single instance of that this year.  A few signs had bullet holes as one sees in the Western US, though never elsewhere in Europe.  There were also shot gun shell casings here and there along the road.  

The Corsicans do have a strong self-identity. Their national emblem of a Moor's head wearing a white bandana dating to the 1700s is a frequent site.


A local alcohol uses a variation of it as its emblem.


It also adorns the départemental license plate in the upper right hand corner.


The only overt evidence of separatist sentiments I've noticed is one motorist who had pasted the emblem over the "F" on the license plate.  

Ajaccio is a much larger city than Calvi.  It is the birthplace of Napoleon.  His name is everywhere--on the airport, on the Main Street through the city, a plaza, a museum, businesses.  The peloton will pass through the city on stage two and continue nine miles out of town to a land's end cape for its finish line.  Then it will start stage three at a park in the city along the Mediterranean.  Banners were everywhere promoting The Tour and also bright yellow "no parking, tow zone" signs along the Tour route.  The main boulevard through the city, Cours Napoleon, featured quite well done paintings by local artists celebrating The Tour, one with Napoleon on a bike.  If I were the acquisitions director of a Bike Art Museum there were a few I'd gladly add to our collections.



From Ajaccio it was another one hundred miles to Porto Vecchio, further south and then east across the island, where The Tour will make its Grand Départ on Saturday.  It took me over the highest pass yet, the Col Saint-Georges, a ten-mile climb from the coast to nearly 2,500 feet.  Though the sun beat down hard, a refreshing coastal breeze kept me from over heating.  I also had the benefit of a few springs along the way to cool down, including one just short of the summit.
















 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Nice, France

France may be best known for its chateaus and its cathedrals and The Tour de France and a certain tower, but it is also a country with an abundance of quite magnificent canyons and gorges.  Some are well known, such as that of the Tarn, but there are innumerable others of striking grandeur carved out by the country's many rivers through its wide range of rugged mountainous terrain.

The final fifty-five miles of my ride to Nice offered a fabulous downhill through one of those canyons, as I followed the Vars River to the Mediterranean.  Like most, it came as a complete surprise. And it was only by happenstance that I choose that route.  I had been intending on following N85, the Route de Napolean, as it appeared to be a more direct and scenic route and had been clinging to the l'Asse River and its canyon.  But when I came to the town of Barrême and the intersection with N202, a sign gave a shortage distance to Nice swinging a little further inland. It didn't have as many larger towns along that route, which was a concern for getting food on Sunday.  But I decided to give it a try for something different, as I had biked N85 a few years ago.  It was a great choice.


My long descent began after cresting the 3,600 foot Col de Toutes Aures.  The first few miles were good and steep, but then the road leveled off for a non-stop gentle descent such as cyclists dream of, leisurely pedaling surrounded by the most sublime of scenery.



By the time I reached Nice the river was as wide as the pair of four-lane highways flanking it, one an autoroute, and the other with a shoulder accommodating cyclists.  And I had the choice of a gravel bike path the last few miles down below the highway alongside the river through forested terrain.  I didn't even notice it until the following morning after a night of camping on the other side of the highway in a clump of bushes behind a factory.

The road up the Vars is a popular weekend escape for those living in Nice.  Small convertible sports cars zipped by, some in packs of similar vintage.  An old-time steam locomotive chugged along the railroad tracks on one stretch between tourist towns.  Someone was leaning out of every open window holding a camera, many videoing their journey.  The small town of Entrevaux was a popular stopping point.  A citadel high on a peak above the town was part of a 17th century fortification system built along the borders of France.  It is one of twelve French towns part of the Vauban defense that have been designated a World Heritage site.


Other small towns on the route also did their best to make motorists stop and spend money.


I didn't reach Nice until after five p.m.   I was initially blocked from riding the bike path along the Mediterranean by a continual procession of runners all wearing numbers.



It seemed as if I had arrived on the day of the Nice marathon.  It was strange though that there would still be runners out chugging along at such a goodly pace so late in the day. These were definitely not stragglers trying to make it to the finish line.  Since most marathons start early in the day before the day heats up  something didn't seem right.  Equally mystifying was that there was hardly a woman among the competitors.  I wondered if it was possible that the French would stage an all-male event, or actually have two separate marathons.  But then I noticed what appeared to be a woman or two.  Finally I saw a banner that revealed what it was--the Nice Ironman, one of the few true Ironman competitions with a lengthy swim, a 100-mile bike ride and then a full marathon. These competitors were all finishing up the marathon along the same coastal route that The Tour de France will be using in ten days for its fourth stage time trial.  There were yellow banners all along the route promoting The Tour.

Nice abounded with so many Tour posters and billboards and signs it almost seemed as if it were the Grand Départ for The Tour rather than Corsica.  But then anyone going to Corsica for The Tour start had to pass through Nice, so in a way it was.  As I entered Nice, I was greeted by a triangular sided sign in the middle of the road.



A little further was a giant billboard.


An office building along the Mediterranean joined in the spirit.


The city's rental bikes also advertised The Event on their handlebar baskets.



I plopped down near the finish line of the Ironman and had some dinner.  The gravel beaches behind me were packed with sun-bathers. If someone had befriended me, I would have let them guard my bike and taken a dip.  I was hoping the tourist office would be open until six, but it had closed at five, so I had to wait until the next morning to confirm the ferry schedule and locate a bicycle shop.  I always like to put new tires on my bike for The Tour.  I wasn't in desperate need.  I had tried to find a 700X28 touring tire in Gap as well as Digne-les-Baines, but hadn't had any luck.  I could have settled for a 32 or a lighter tire, but elected to wait until Nice. But even in the large city of Nice, the bike shops were closed on Monday after being open on the weekend.  I'll just have to try on my return from Corsica.  I'll have an easy go of it as three of the shops are clustered together just above  the ferry terminal.










Friday, June 21, 2013

Into the Alps


There is hardly a stretch of road in France where one isn't surrounded by pleasantly sublime scenery, pleasing both the eye and the soul, engendering a sense of gentle contentment and affirming that one could not better be occupying one's self than pedaling amongst such splendor.  All of France is so remarkably pleasing, there is no saying one region is more agreeable to cycling than another, nor more beautiful than another, that is until one comes upon the Alps.  Then the scenery raises several octaves.    

Unlike the Rocky Mountains that one gradually approaches, one is suddenly upon the Alps and swallowed up by all their magnificence.  One doesn't have to endure hours and hours of impatience through monotonous plains or desert. Though one may begin to take the rich and varied scenery of France for granted,  one never grows tired of it, wanting something different.  

Though I'll only have a three-day dose of the Alps before I return next month during The Tour, I'll feel no let-down when I leave them behind, as I will have a different variety of rich and uplifting scenery to fill my gaze.  But in the mean time I am greatly enjoying my little dip into the Alps.

One of the side benefits of being in the Alps is the abundance of free-flowing, ice-cold spring water, some right along the road, and in French style, fancied-up and made an object of beauty.


The water has such a pure clarity, locals stop by to fill bottles for their own use. Craig has such a spring near his village in the Cevannes.  Even though the water out of his tap is perfectly fine, he prefers the spring water for drinking.   The French are always happy to treat their taste buds to a little extra pleasure.


I ducked into the Alps to scout out the preparations of two Ville Ètapes, Gap and Chorges.  Gap is a frequent Ville Ètape that I have passed through many times.  It is one of the larger cities in the Alps, down in a valley.


It is one of six cities in this year's Tour that will serve as both a Ville Arrivè and Ville Départ, though separated by a day while the peloton contests a time trial just down the road between Embrun and Chorges.  It will be the same distance as the Mont-Saint-Michel time trial, twenty miles, but will include two category two climbs.  Banners across quite a few streets in Gap announced the coming of the Tour.


I was familiar enough with Gap I just made a quick pass through to reach Chorges, eleven miles away, before its tourist office closed.  It didn't have much information about The Tour other than this was the first time it would be hosting it and that the time trial would be finishing in front of the train station out on the main highway.  A giant wicker bike had been erected at the site in a flower bed that spelled out the town's name.


The narrow streets in the small village were festively decorated with strings across them bearing miniature versions of the yellow, green, red polka dot and white jerseys.


The village had a 12th century cathedral.  Whenever I see a sign advertising a town's cathedral, trying to attract visitors, I accept it as an invitation to come and give its interior a look and to recharge my iPad.  The sign ought to include an electrical socket emblem as campgrounds sometimes do to attract customers or as cafes and pubs do advertising WIFI.  But those in the know, such as me, don't need to be told there is electricity to be had.



These old cathedrals may have added electricity, but not toilets.  The W.C. Publiques were in the same direction.  French towns so consistently offer public toilets, it is hardly necessary for men to so unabashedly stop along the road for a "pipi rustique."  I've even seen men take a pee right beside a public toilet if it is occupied, rather than waiting. As it is with the French nature to not withhold whatever might be on their mind, as if their opinion is paramount, so it is with their need to relieve themselves.  It is hard for them to wait.

There was no plaza around the church, tightly surrounded by centuries old homes each built right up against one another in the old walled-in portion of the city, but there was a bench facing the front door where I could sit and eat a couple of cheese sandwiches and monitor those entering the church while I read a Peter Mayle novel and my iPad was being nourished.  Rarely does anyone enter during my half hour or so of charging.  An older woman though stopped in shortly before six.  My iPad was well hidden in a corner up front snuggled in the dark cloth protective case that Janina had sewn, perfect camouflage in these dark cathedrals, lit only by what little light penetrates their stained glass windows.  She went in for a long prayer or else I missed her slip out while I was reading.  At 6:20 I was ready to resume my riding.  When I slipped into the church, I discovered my iPad was being given the added benefit of a Friday mass.  There were just five old women standing beside each other in the front row.  I sat in back and soaked in the last few minutes.

All the time I have been spending in cathedrals must be benefiting me.  I was rewarded with the most perfect of camp sights an hour later after climbing over the Col Laubret.  Not only did it come with a spectacular view, but also a thick mattress of freshly cut hay.  Even though I had better than two hours 
of light remaining of the solstice, I knew better than to pass up such a spectacular place to camp.



I could go to sleep knowing a long descent down to the man-made lake awaited me, and then no doubt another long climb out of the canyon.  The climbs may be longer and steeper in the Alps than the rest of France, other than the Pyrenees, but the views take away the worst of their sting.