Friday, February 20, 2015

Tour of Oman, Stage Four

I was a little concerned when after sixty miles the Stage Four route left the main arteries it had been following and ventured off on a network of smaller roads in mountainous terrain.  It was sensational cycling, but I feared getting lost if any of the course markers had gone missing.  I was in desolate countryside with no one to ask the way.  This was the first of the four stages that I was able to ride from start to finish, and easily the most scenic, despite the first twenty miles through Muscat's sprawl.

I couldn't afford to go astray, as I had no time to spare to reach the finish line before the peloton. Plus I wanted to allow ample time for the super-steep four mile climb to the finish.  Christian Vande Velde, who finished fifth in this tour one year, had just written, "Wait until you see the climb. That thing is nasty."  The heat and the preceding 115 miles would make it all the nastier.  

Though there weren't as many course markers as I would have liked to assure me I was on course, partially because there weren't many objects to attach them to, I need not have worried.  There were markers at all the crucial points and then an occasional one on a straightaway as well. As always there was mosques here and there and an oasis of date palms.

Starting around noon every intersection on the route was monitored by a police officer, just as at The Tour de France, though none of these officers had a satchel of supplies with them.  They were left all alone in the burning heat with no shade for up to four hours until the peloton passed and there duties were done for the day.  None were wearing a hat and all were in short sleeves.  But these ninety degree temperatures are mild compared to the 120 they'll be facing come summer.

When I finally reached the climb at one p.m., Christian was right, it began with a wallop, steeper, and  more intimidating than the initial ramp of L'Alpe d'Huez. One could see its sudden rise from a mile away. The stark, rocky terrain made one want to turn around and head the other way.  I paused after a couple hundred meters to take advantage of what I feared might be the only patch of shade up this brute.  It had been over an hour since my last rest.  I knew it would take an all-out effort to keep the pedals going on the series of steep switch-backs I could see in the far distance.  During the fifteen minutes I sat and ate and drank against a cliff wall only two cyclists passed, a couple of guys on mountain bikes who were just barely staying in motion.  Hardly a car had gone by when I returned to my bike.  Just as I mounted a car stopped and the driver shouted out, "Hello Chicago."  It was an Omani cyclist I had met at the first stage.  He asked if there was anything he could do for me.  I was tempted to give him my gear, but much as I trusted him, I didn't  care to risk us getting separated.  

A quarter mile up the road around a bend the two mountain bikers were perched on a guard rail by the five-kilometer to go sign taking a rest in the shade.  One was an Australian geologist working for a copper mining company and the other a South Africa working at the large port of Sohar.  They don't get to bike much and weren't sure if they had the energy to push on.  After several minutes of conversation they didn't care to be shown up by the American on a loaded bike and continued on with me.  The road flattened as we came upon a parking area and also a check-point.  Two guards were administrating to cars ahead of us, holding clipboards and taking notes.  

If I didn't welcome another rest, I would have just kept riding around the cars, assuming we'd be waved right through. But when it came our turn, we were told we couldn't continue.  Their English wasn't good enough for us to plead our case.  Stephen, the Polish cyclist, had told me cyclists weren't ordinarily allowed up this steep, narrow road, but an exception was made on race day.  Evidently not this year.  We could have left our bikes and hiked the three miles to the summit or tried to get a ride, but there was no shade to be seen.  We knew we had a nice shady vantage back where we had met, nearly a mile into the climb, where the peloton would begin to start thinning out, so we didn't feel too let down, especially the others guys, who weren't sure if they wanted to keep climbing anyway.  

It was 2:30.  The estimated finishing time for the peloton at its fastest pace was 3:17.  That meant they could be upon us in half an hour. As we chatted, we kept our ears perked for the sound of the helicopter coming up through the canyon, announcing the arrival of the peloton.  Another indicator would be the roar of a bevy of officers on motorcycles clearing the way.  Three o'clock came and went.  So did 3:30.  Evidently the peloton was being held back by the headwinds that had besieged me the day before. I didn't mind the wait, as it allowed me to learn about expat life in Oman.  Both guys had wives and children.  The blistering summer months were known as bachelor time, as most of the wives and children returned to their home countries.  The guys would be truly lonely, as they both hung up their bikes in the extreme heat, and spent as little time as possible outdoors.

I was in no rush to be anywhere after this stage, so I need not fret over the peloton's delay.  The expats though had a two plus hour drive home and they hoped to be back before dark.  But the next day was the second half of their weekend, so they didn't have to feel much stress.  Finally at four the helicopter peeked around the bend and the peloton shortly followed.  Van Garderen's BMC team was on the front.  Van Garderen had finished second last year to Froome, and if he could win this stage, that could put him in good shape to win the overall.

The pace was steady with no attacks.  After the initial bunch, the field was strung out, taking a couple minutes to pass.  Many of the riders still had two water bottles on their bikes, though most had already discarded theirs.  If we'd been greedy for a bottle we could have jogged along side them and asked them to lighten their load.  I stood beside my loaded bike.  One racer may have recognized I was a man in need of fuel, as he dropped two energy bars beside me.  They were soft and mushy, but would harden up over night.

The team cars were parked three miles back up the course.  After the racers reached the finish, they would turn around and bike back down.  The awards ceremony would be held nearby by an old fort in the small town.  After the last cyclist passed, holding on to a car, the three of us headed back to the town, where the expats had parked their car.  Immediately around the bend the road was strewn with water bottles.  We each picked up a bunch, though none that I was looking for--BMC, Astana, Sky, Orica.  I hardly needed another, but couldn't let them go ignored, figuring I might be able to trade for ones I wanted or else to redistribute them to kids in the village.  The South African got an Orica bottle, but he wouldn't trade it even for five of my bottles.  When I saw a kid in town with a Sky bottle, I doubted it would have any significance to him.  He gladly traded it for three of my bottles and I gave a bunch more to kids who came running when they saw me giving out bottles.

It wasn't long before the riders came swooping into town.  Their soigneurs were awaiting them directing them to their team cars.  I had to ask four of them before I could find one who knew where the podium had been set up, and none knew who had won the race.  Valverde passed with a smile on his face, so it might have been him.  It wasn't until the awards ceremony that I learned Rafeal Valls of the Italian Lampre team was the surprise winner over Van Garderen and Valverde.  Valls is now first overall with Van Garderen second nine seconds back and Valverde third with two stages to go.  Sorry I'll miss them.

I had the best vantage of anyone at the awards ceremony, right over the shoulder of Tour de France director Christian Pruhomme and Eddie Merckx.

This was the first time I had seen Prudhomme in Oman. I was hoping to meet him, to tell him how much I loved The Tour, and also to ask him if there would be a Fête du Tour again this year, that he had introduced two years ago to celebrate the 100th Tour.  A month before The Tour every Ville Étape has a Fête du Tour to celebrate their stage with a ride of a portion of the route, and giving out t-shirts and food. I regretted I hadn't brought along my t-shirt to catch his eye and authenticate my devotion. That initial Fête du Tour was such a success, Prudhomme repeated it last year.  I hadn't gotten word of it and missed it.  So I was exciting to learn from the very man that I could experience it again this year.  While I was talking to Christian, the official photographer I met on stage two came over to say hello and shoot a few photos of us.  He asked where I was from.  I told him, "Chicago, home of Christian Vande Velde."  

"Ah yes, he's an announcer now for The Tour."

He wasn't the only Frenchman I spoke with today.  While waiting for the awards ceremony to begin I asked a guy, who looked like he might be an official, if he knew who won the stage.  He didn't, but called over his wife, who was circulating with a big-leansed camera, to ask if she had heard.  She hadn't.  They were a couple of fifty-year old tourists who had stumbled upon the race. They didn't care about racing and knew little about The Tour de France, but found this fascinating.  They were an intrepid pair,  driving around Oman in a rental car camping off in the desert every night, just like me.  They were stranded here until the road was reopened, so were simply giving this event a look, something they wouldn't necessarily do back home.  They had no race heritage, as their grandparents had never taken them out to see a stage when they were little, as is customary with many French.  

They didn't know this race was put on by The Tour de France nor that it had such a world-class collection of teams and riders.  When I rattled off a few teams, including the French teams Cofidis and FDJ, none registered with them.  But when I pointed out Merckx, they both were impressed and the woman dashed off to get his photo.  When she returned to show what she had got she was giddy with glee and so was her husband.  When I noticed Prudhomme, I asked if they knew who he was.  They did.  I tested them further and asked if they knew Henri Desgrange, the founder and first director of The Tour.  They passed that test too.  "Don't tell me you don't know anything about The Tour," I scolded.  

"Ah, but everyone in France knows those things," they said.  But they couldn't kid me. They do care a little about cycling and have a respect for the sport.  They will certainly be sending their photo of Merckx to everyone they know.  When they return home, their encounter with Merckx could well be the first thing they tell everyone of their time away.

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