The first forty-five miles were on undulating, narrow, unlined roads with climbs that could go on for a couple of miles that had me wondering, "How much more of this can I take." If these savage hills had come at the end of the stage, Sagan would have had his team pounding on the front to shed the sprinters. But coming at the start, it will just make it easier for a determined handful of riders to shed the peloton and be the breakaway of the day that the sprinters' teams will reel in, unless they've been done in by their three days in the Pyrenees.
I didn't even go into the Pyrenees and I'm close to being done in by all the hills of the past week. I was actually nodding off as I was watching today's finish on television. Today was the first day in a week that I've had an average speed over eleven miles per hour thanks to the last half of my day being on flat terrain. The headwinds and all the climbing the past week have held by average speed under ten miles per hour nearly every day. They've been taxing and draining. I've felt like those in the peloton who've been saying if they could only survive the Pyrenees, they'd make it to Paris. I just needed to have a good mileage day today, then I could have two relatively easy, recovery days before my final 350-mile push to Paris after Saturday's time trial.
Last year there were two groups riding the course a day ahead of the peloton--Czechs on kick-bikes and a group of French riders sponsored by one of the teams, both with support vehicles so they didn't need to carry any gear. I have yet to encounter or hear of anyone doing it this year. Today would have been the day I would have seen any who might be doing it, but I didn't. There were a few camping vans with course markers in their windows already encamped along the route, skipping the final stage in the Pyrenees. Otherwise it was a quiet, tranquil day on the usual minor secondary roads of The Tour route passing through small villages, not even taking the main road around one ancient walled town, but barging right through its arched entry, subjecting the peloton to a couple of brief patches of cobbles.
The peloton will also pass by a wonderfully painted tower. It might have been done by the same artist who painted a baby on a cooling tower at a nuclear plant along the Rhone. If I were writing a book on Discovering France, I would devote a chapter to the circumstances of this tower being painted. As with all the round-about art, it is another example of the French beautifying their environment putting something along the road to please the eye and the soul whether it be flowers or art of some sort.
And it being The Tour route, there were the usual decorated bikes and homages to The Bike and The Tour.
And the usual homage to Raymond Poulidor as well.
I had no problem finding a bar with a television today. I could actually hear the broadcast of The Race half a block from a bar so its patrons sitting out front could hear what was going on. If they were French, they were thrilled with the day's result. Valverde finally faded and the French riders Pinot and Peraud finished just enough ahead of him to take over the bottom two steps of the podium. If they can hold off Valverde in Saturday's time trial, it will be the first podium photograph since 1985 that will be worthy of hanging in French homes. The three of them are all within fifteen seconds of one another, so it will be a tense day.
And if Van Garderen hadn't lost over three minutes on the first stage in the Pyrenees, he would have been right there with them. He looked strong and was riding smoothly today, as if at any moment he would power away from the French riders clinging to him, but they held firm. They won't have that luxury though in Saturday's time trial. It will be every man for himself. For the first time in years there are French riders who can stick with the leaders on the climbs. Its a remarkable sight. The French riders are no longer battling to be the top French rider in The Race, but actually contesting for a significant finish higher than a mere Top Ten. There are no post-stage excuses to French television why the leading French riders couldn't keep up, but rather congratulations for doing so well.
Its fortunate there is such an exciting duel for second and third as there has been no suspense over the top spot. Nibali further displayed his dominance just casually riding away from the small group of contenders six miles from the finish at the top of Hautacam after first jumping on the wheel of Horner who decided to be aggressive jumping away from the Yellow Jersey group. It took Nibali just a couple of minutes to blow by the lead rider, and easily win his fourth stage and extend his lead to seven minutes.