Sunday, July 27, 2014

Stage Twenty

My first order of business for the day was to find the Big Screen and determine where I wished to sit and watch it for the last couple of hours of the time trial that would be going on for nearly six hours.  It wasn't even noon, but the race course was mobbed and the first riders were on their way.

The caravan had already done its business and a good many people were wearing the yellow and the red polka hats that it distributes.  I had slept in, prizing a few extra hours of much needed sleep over the spectacle of grown men and children of all ages scrambling for the caravan goodies.

It was hard to tell where the shade would be in front of the Big Screen.  If there wasn't any to be found, I had the possibility of three smaller screens all between the 50 meter and the 150 meter signs to the finish, with the Big Screen at the 200 meter to go mark.  No grassy field to plop down in here, just concrete sidewalks and side streets.  At least I would have a quick getaway less than a block from the road I wanted north out of the city to Limoges.

With several hours of free time I went in search of a supermarket and then a place to do some charging.  The library was two blocks from the finish line, so was closed for the day.  Second choice was a cathedral.  That was easy enough to find, just a couple of blocks from the vast fenced-in complex catering to the media and sponsors and VIPs.  As I was circling around it, I noticed someone through the fence in a grey t-shirt and jeans holding a sheaf of papers who bore a resemblance to Christian.  Before I could get closer to see, his face lit up, recognizing me before I could confirm that was what he looked like in his new profession as an NBC commentator without his make-up.

"I was hoping I'd see you before The Tour ended," he said.

"Me too.  Usually we've had an encounter long before now.  I thought I might see you out on the course.  I heard you were riding some."

"That was early on.  I had to give it up.  You know how hard it is."

"Your credentials didn't help with the gendarmes?"

"Not much."

"Its a shame Van Garderen had that jour sans the first day in the Pyrenees.  If he'd been in contention for the podium today, that would have been good for your ratings."

"He can still do it.  I was talking to him this morning and told him in '08 I took four minutes out of someone who was ahead of me."

"Its not impossible.  Two years ago he caught his three-minute man, Basso, in the final time trial."

We talked a bit more about Talansky and Garmin's great win yesterday before Christian gestured to the giant fold-out truck behind him and said, "That's my office.  I've got to get back to work.  Good to see you."


When I returned to the Big Screen a few hours later I was able to find a patch of shade by slipping in between two bikes that were leaning against a railing.  The owner of one of them snapped at me for touching his bike.  He was an English dude with tattoos on his arms and a tight Lycra jersey accentuating his protruding belly.  He and his two friends were showing no consideration for others by placing their bikes where they did, blocking a ledge where people could sit.

"You could move your bikes over there with those others so people could sit here," I said.  

"I've been here for hours.  This is our spot," was his nasty response.  

That he preferred to stand for hours in his cycling shoes when he could be sitting said all one needed to know about his sense.  It was a somewhat welcome hot, sunny day and shade was at a premium.  People sought it wherever they could find it.

Many were wilting from their long day at The Tour.

But they were still persevering until the end when the French trio of rides vying for the podium would be among the last five riders to leave the starting gate thirty-four miles away.

The riders passed one by one at intervals of a minute or two or three depending on how well they were doing with the fans cheering and  pounding the boards lining the course.

It took the riders a little over an hour to complete the course.  There would be fifteen or so on the course at any given time, each preceded by a gendarme on a motorcycle and followed by a cameraman on a motorcycle and a team car.  The action on the screen was continually switching from rider to rider, while trying to show each rider leave the starting gate and cross the finish line.  When the Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin of Germany, and favorite to win the stage, was on the course, he was on the screen for nearly his entire ride, allowing the fans to get the full flavor of the course.  It was packed the whole way with cheering fans.  

The vast majority of riders had nothing at stake, nor had more than a glimmer of a chance of a high placing.  Their only concern was riding hard enough to make the time cut.  I was hoping they didn't have to suffer too much pushing themselves and could enjoy their Saturday ride through the beautiful rolling and wooded countryside and small towns, and appreciate how well it had been decorated by  everyone along the route and also have their hearts warmed by the thousands of people who had come out to cheer them.

Other than Martin's ride about an hour before the six main contenders took to the course there really wasn't much at stake.   The only reason to be paying the screen any attention was simply to glory in the beauty and grandeur of this event so deeply ingrained in French culture.  It was a joy to gaze upon the thousands of people on the screen and all around me each playing their part.

For fifteen minutes from 4:12 to 4:27 when the six main contenders (Van  Garderen, Bardot, Valverde, Peraud, Pinot and Nibali) took to the course in three minute intervals, the screen focused primarily on each rider as he entered the starting ramp with a look of intensity on his face and was given the countdown before being released.  Each began with grim determination.  Much was at stake for all of them, though Nibali with a seven minute lead shouldered the least amount of pressure.  He just needed not to embarrass himself with a half-hearted effort unworthy of a champion, or lose concentration and take a spill.  There were four significant climbs on the course, each followed by high-speed descents that could spell disaster if one's attention wavered.

Nibali fully honored the Yellow Jersey, or skin suit that clung to his body.  He only had the fourth fastest time, beaten by three time trial specialists, including Martin, who won the stage, but he had the best time of the six main contenders.  Second best time of the contenders was turned in by Van Garderen, good enough to move from sixth to fifth overall by just two seconds, thanks in part to a flat tire by Bardot, who began the day two minutes and eleven seconds ahead of Van Garderen.  The second and third place riders also swapped positions, but they were both French, who rode better than Valverde, who had the worst time of the six, but remained in fourth.  

It would have been a different race of Moviestar had brought back their young Colombian climbing sensation, Quintana, who finished second last year, preferring to give their Spanish veteran Valverde a chance and not put Quintana under pressure with heavy expectations, which he did not have last year.  But he proved by winning the Giro this year, he can handle pressure.  Wait 'til next year.  It will be a doozy if Froome, Contador, Nibali and Quintana are in top form. 

There was no superhighway near Perigueux heading north, so the entire Tour entourage had to take the two-lane highway that was my route for sixty miles to Limoges, where it could pick up the Autoroute for the final three hundred miles to Paris for the next day's stage.  It gave me a continual jolt of pleasure to be part of this mass migration, though I wouldn't complete it until Wednesday, while everyone else would be done by midnight.  We were quite a grand parade of Tour-decaled trucks, vans and cars.  People along the way sat out in lawn chairs to watch us go by, some waving and eliciting horn toots.

As I climbed a hill a car slowed alongside me and I heard a voice I recognized ask if I'd like some water.  It was Christian sitting in the back seat of a car with Bob Roll at the wheel and two others filling the car, leaving no room for me.  It was seven p.m., ninety minutes after the stage had been completed.  They had done a quick wrap to be on their way already, but they had a long drive ahead of them.

"You're not flying up with the riders?" I asked in surprise.

"No, we get to make the drive.  Do you need anything?"

"You don't happen to have a spare water bottle.  Look at this.  Its got a crack in it rubbing against the water bottle cage."

"All I have is this," he said, showing me a large plastic Vittel bottle.  "Come by the house when you get back.  I'll fix you up."

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