Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Stage Five

This was the first of this year's stages I did not ride any part of, or at least this year.  When The Tour ventured onto some of the cobbled stretches of this stage in 2010 and finished just before the Arenberg Forest then too, I was there on the final stretches of cobbles with Vincent.  It would have been a thrill to watch the racers ride by inches away again, but considering what the weather was today, I was lucky not to be standing in a cold rain waiting for the strung out riders to pass.

Instead I was riding the first half of the next day's stage in a day-long cold rain that was still coming down when I made camp at ten p.m.  Earlier in the day I had received an email from Christian, on the scene covering the race for NBC, that the conditions were "brutal" with an attached photo of puddles alongside the cobbles, implying I would be missing an epic stage, at least in person.

I began the day thirty-five miles north of Arras, the start of Stage Six.  When I reached the outskirts of the large city I was greeted by the welcome and familiar collection of Tour signs directing the various Tour contingencies to their starting or gathering points, almost as good as a course marker.  These would at least lead me to them.

Just outside the departure area was a digital countdown of the days until The Tour would come to town.

The neutralized zone of this 122-mile stage continued for three miles.  Then it headed out towards the Somme and all its military cemeteries, each with meticulously manicured green lawns and rows and rows of graves.  There were large memorials as well.  Each cemetery was devoted to a particular nationality--Czech, South African, Polish, American, British, and French.  Elsewhere other nationalities are represented as well.  With the drizzle I only felt compelled to stop and photograph Tour tributes.  There are always a few of the  "Vive Le Tour" variety, something the English weren't conditioned to put along the road.

Through the city of Pèronne were dozens of masterfully painted bikes.  Rather than just spraying on a gob of yellow paint on all parts of the bike, including the tires, as is usually the case, these bikes were distinctively brushed with various colors of paint and scattered about the town.  Some individually,

and others in formation.

There were also a few oddball bikes.  It was a magnificent tribute to The Tour.  They all would make for a superb bike calendar.

Down the road before another town was an equally striking tribute to The Tour filling a roundabout.  It could well make the cover of a calendar of bike topiary.

Since I needed to ride one hundred miles today to get within sixty miles of the stage finish in Reims to insure I could reach it before the roads were closed down on race day, I had to deny myself from stopping to watch the day's stage until four.  That still allowed me the climactic final ninety minutes of racing.  It was as fierce and frenzied as possible, with grim-faced, teeth-clenching riders pedaling with a fury as if their lives depended on it.  The Race could be at stake, time gained here making a crucial difference.  

After three attempts I found a bar with a television already tuned to The Tour, but no one was watching it and there was loud music playing.  With no frantic commentary to listen to I resorted to the cyclingnews website for its minute-by-minute live reports.  The first thing I saw was the headline "Froome Crashes Out."  This was stunning news that knocked my breath out.  He went down twice today on the slick roads even before the cobbles.  He's known as a flighty rider, even crashing in the neutral zone on Stage One last year in Corsica.  Sky had been hesitant a couple years ago to turn team leadership over to him in the 2012 Tour even though he was clearly a much stronger climber than Wiggins and almost as good a time trialist, because they feared his spaciness.  In the prologue at Liege that year he forgot to take the eucalyptus-saturated cotton balls out of his nostrils that Sky riders insert as they warm up to enhance their breathing as they race and finished the short time trial gasping for air.

It is devastating news that he won't be able to contest the mountain stages here with Contador, an even bigger loss to The Race than losing Cavendish.  No one can be more devastated though than Sky director David Brailsford who chose not to include Wiggins on the team.  If he weren't considered such a genius, winning a knighthood himself along with Wiggins for winning The Tour for Great Britain, his job could be in jeopardy for such a decision.  He's got to really hope that his Australian Richie Porte is as good as he thinks he is. Froome called him the second strongest rider in The Tour last year.  He's not going as well this year.  He was back in the Talansky group on this stage.

Up on the screen I had ninety minutes of the ultimate in racing.  The main contenders were split into three groups pumping their legs with the fury of the condemned trying to catch and distance themselves from each other.  Nibali in Yellow was in the lead group.  The Talansky group was a minute and a half and thirty seconds further was the Contador group.  And so it pretty much remained.  Nibali is demonstrating he is the strongest rider in The Race after riding away from everyone on the second stage and now again today, just as Cadel Evans did in the early stages in the year he won.  As with Evans that year, there are doubts about Nibali losing time in the mountains and time trials, but it looks as if he is determined to add The Tour victory to the ones he has won in the other two Grand Tours. Its still shaping up to be a great Race.

Nibali expended too much energy keeping his group ahead of the others so he finished third on the stage a few second behind the uber-ecstatic Dutchman Lars Bloom.  He had enough time to start pumping one fist then another as he approached the finish.  There was nothing contrived about his victory celebration pointing to his jersey or pulling out a prop.  This was pure, unadulterated glee such as is rarely seen. As he crossed the line he had both hands off the handlebars repeatedly punching the air with lefts and rights so joyously there was danger he could dislocate a shoulder.  I couldn't have been happier for him. Surprisingly it was the first Dutch stage win in nine years.  It could be a good sign for the Dutch, as his football counterparts are playing Argentina tonight for the privilege of playing Germany for the World Cup championship.  That would be fantastic, if only to see arch rivals Brazil and Argentina have to play in the consolation game. 

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