But it didn't take much to dispel the notion that this was France. A glance upwards or around at all the futuristic, designer skyscrapers, including the world's tallest, quickly assured me that this wasn't France, nor anywhere else I'd ever been. For miles and miles the desert has been plastered with concrete. There is hardly a patch of green or tree of any sort to be seen. Construction is going on everywhere erecting more high-rises.
Instead of thousands, there were just a couple hundred fans at the start and finish lines of the first of the four stages of this race and just a scattered few along the race route. There were no course markers nor sponsors dispensing swag. Rather than yellow Credit Lyonnaise hats on the heads of everyone on the finishing straight, many fans were wearing white robes, which also covered their heads.
There were no kisses on the podium at the end of the stage. There were still a pair of sexy podium girls with bright red lipstick ornamenting the stage, but they were just peripheral participants in the ceremony. Though one came on stage with a bouquet of flowers for several of those honored for their day's efforts, she didn't actually give it to a racer, but rather handed it to a male representative to present to the winner. Only when one of those men had trouble zipping up the backside of the race leader jersey presented to stage winner Mark Cavendish, did one of the women come into close proximity with a racer, taking over the zipping duties.
This race also distinguished itself from the Tour de France for a delay in the podium ceremonies for prayers. When the announcer made that announcement, an English guy beside me asked, "Was there a crash? Was someone injured?"
"No," I replied. "Evidently some of the officials were caught in their afternoon prayers at the mosque over there."
"That's right. I forgot that was an issue here."
All four stages of this tour are starting at the Dubai Marina with a phalanx of otherworldly skyscrapers overlooking it, but ending up at different places. Today's ended just twelve miles from the start after the peloton meandered for three-and-a-half hours over ninety miles through the sprawling metropolis of two million.
At the start was a stage where each of the eight-man sixteen teams was introduced, allowing the assembled fans a close look.
Those who stood off to the side where the racers entered and exited could have an even closer look. Nibali's Astana uniform was adorned with the stripes of the Italian championship across his chest.
He paused to give an autograph while still perched on his bike.
Mark Cavendish was nabbed by a couple of journos.
I inadvertently caught Cavendish again on camera later in the racer when I was more concerned about a shot of a quartet of young woman taking shots of the peloton with their phones.
With a minimum of fans I staked out a premium spot right at the finish line, an impossibility in France, and caught Cavendish once again in the foreground just holding off Nibali's fast-charging Astana teammate Andrea Guardini, who thought he had crossed the white line before Cavendish. The photo-finish was a less than convincing win, despite yeoman work by Cavendish's teammates, particularly Tony Martin and Bernie Eisel.
Then it was an extended wait for Cavendish to take the stage three separate times. First to accept a trophy for the stage win, held by the woman in the foreground who gave it to the guy, the only one during the presentations who wasn't cloaked in white like those in the background.
Cavendish left the stage and then returned for the leader's blue jersey presented by another official.
On his third visit he was awarded the red points jersey.
And the press, including a couple of photographers from South Korea who earlier in the day wanted my photograph, shot away.
Only on rare occasions during The Tour do I have time for such pre-race and post-race festivities, as I am too busy riding the day's stage and trying to get to the start of the next day's stage. That's not a possibility here with the stages not marked and clogged with traffic up until less than an hour before the peloton passes and through largely similar and rather lackluster scenery.
I had a surprising amount of energy today despite arriving in Dubai at three a.m., just nine hours before the stage start. I was at least able to stretch out and sleep for six of the ten hours of my flight from Chicago to Istanbul with two empty seats beside me, and then catnapped on the final four-hour leg after a four hour lay-over.
I wouldn't have had so much energy though if I hadn't been met at the airport by the most generous of Warmshower hosts, Scott, a thirty-year old Australian who has been teaching sixth-graders here for the past two years. He lives just six miles from the airport and was happy to interrupt his sleep to pick me up. I was too jacked up to go to bed, as Scott did, when we got back to his deluxe two-bedroom apartment in a high rise that comes with his job. I was eager to assemble my bike and begin orienting myself. When Scott arose at seven to go to school, I was ready to head out myself. And good thing that I did, as it was thirty miles to the race start and not a particularly easy route. I needed to check my GPS device all too often, though I had that splinter of the world's tallest building to help guide me, through the haze of dust and pollution. It doesn't rain often here to clear the air.
Scott is perpetually hosting touring cyclists, often more than one at a time. He presently had a young Chinese cyclist from Hong Kong who had lost his passport. The Chinese embassy here won't replace it. He has to return to Hong Kong, but has the complication of getting a temporary passport and arranging with an airline to accept it. His embassy isn't being helpful at all. His lone solace to all this was the opportunity of visiting friends and relatives after being on the road for seven months.
His Chinese nationality may be a liability in this situation, but it was an advantage in gaining him entry into Tibet. He had come to Dubai via Oman, unlike most of Scott's guests, who ferry over from Iran. I'm headed to Oman so was glad to learn that it is much more amenable than Dubai, which is a beehive of traffic. One of the highways I rode today was fourteen lanes wide. As thick as the traffic was, it wasn't particularly menacing. The UAE has one of the top three accidents rates in the world. Large signs warning of fines of $7,500 for speeding and running red lights may be having an effect.
I'm very much looking forward to getting out into the desert and into my tent. Stage three heads out to the Omani border, the only stage that ends with a climb and that finishes outside of the city. I may just head on into Oman from there and skip what will be a largely inconsequential final stage.