Monday, July 27, 2015

Stage Twenty-One

For twenty-three days straight, starting with riding the time trial course in Utrecht the day before the official start of The Tour, not a day has passed that I haven't  ridden at least a few miles of The Tour route, my most days ever by far in a single Tour.  That was largely thanks to taking a train for the first time during The Tour for the 450-mile transfer from Vannes to Pau on the first rest day.  But it greatly helped too that the route was very serpentine, allowing me to shave off quite a few miles by taking a more direct route than the peloton was taking.

And today I was hoping for one more day of riding the route by taking the train from Grenoble to Paris for the final stage.  I had a ticket in hand, but it was for Monday.  When I booked it a month ago there were no tickets left for the three-hour trip on Sunday.  With luck there might have been a cancellation, so I headed directly to the train station from my campsite seventeen miles away.  There were two other touring cyclists in line for tickets.  They too were trying to get to Paris.  

I had passed them the evening before outside Bourg d'Osians holding up a "Paris" sign soliciting a ride.  Not even any of the team vans and trucks making the drive cared to oblige them.  They were Americans and had ridden the past five stages and wanted one more.  They got their tickets, as there were some first class tickets available.  They were twice the price of my second class seat, more than I was prepared to pay.  I'd be content to watch this final stage in a bar, something I've done every year but once.

I availed myself of the train's waiting room to charge my iPad and was entertained by a young woman with her backpack to the side playing a piano provided for anyone waiting in the station.  It wasn't the first French train station where I'd seen this remarkable amenity, but it was the first time I'd seen someone taking advantage of it.  What more could epitomize the French more than this?

Today's seventy-mile stage into Paris didn't start until after four, continuing the tradition started on the anniversary of the hundredth Tour two years ago of an evening finale on the Champs Élysées.  That gave me the opportunity to meander around Grenoble and hang out in a couple of its parks.  At the site of its Olympics there was an outdoor rink where guys were playing hockey on roller blades.  Nearby were a couple of small climbing rocks with artificial hand and foot holds.  Both had pre-teenaged girls spread-eagled trying to reach their summits.  A mother was livid, screaming with bulging veins  at her daughter to come down.

Grenoble's downtown was virtually deserted, making it easy to spot the plaque on the building on a narrow street where Stendhal was born in 1783.   

Even the tourist office was closed with just nine to noon hours on Sundays.  I did find a couple of outdoor café-bars across from the cathedral that had televisions.  When I first went by at five the peloton hadn't reached the Champs for its ten laps of seven kilometers each, which would take about ninety minutes.  The racers were riding leisurely as if on a Sunday ride with hands on their brake hoods rather than the drops and not drafting, spread out and chatting.  And they were also wearing rain jackets.  

There was a danger that their circuits on the Champs might just be ceremonial as well if the cobbled roadway was deemed too treacherous.  Fortunately the rain let up and the sun came out and the sprinters could have one last go at it and the French fighter jets could scorch across the sky before the final lap spewing out red, white and blue smoke of the tricolor over the Arc de Triomphe.  It was quite an impressive site.  There was even a helicopter high above the jets to give an overview of the spectacle.

The pressure was on Cavendish to win, since he'd once owned this stage winning it four times straight up to 2012.  Plus his contract is up.  His 2.2 million euro salary, which he earned when he was winning five or six Tour stages a year and was considered the greatest sprinter of all time, would be cut drastically if he didn't improve upon his lone stage win so far this year.  He's facing some tough negotiations, as he finished a miserable sixth while his former lackey Griepel won his fourth stage this year.  It was reported that he was in tears when he met his family after the stage.

It was a great year for Germany.  Three Germans won six stages.  The French were also gloating over their three stage wins, having gone some years lately with none, especially since they were all done in dramatic fashion on significant stages, none more so than L'Alpe d'Huez yesterday. Though the highest placed French riders were just ninth and tenth after a second and third last year,  there is a crop of young French riders that had the French press already looking forward to next year.  The French also claimed the Lanterne Rouge, once a big deal, but now largely ignored.  Still, finishing last of the 154 racers from the 198 that started gives Sebastian Chavanel some distinction. He finished just under five hours behind Froome and eight minutes behind his closest competitor, Svein Tuft, one of two Canadians in The Race.

There were no surprises at the top of the standings, unlike most years.  The "Fab Four" finished in the top five, with Valverde, the impostor, sandwiched right in the middle of them.  But he, like the other four, has won a Grand Tour and was the number one ranked rider last year, so he was no revelation, as Thomas would have been if he hadn't tumbled from fourth to fifteenth. 

Not only the French can start anticipating next year.  So can Quintana and Froome and all the rest of us who love this grand event.  Froome becomes the twentieth multiple winner of The Tour.  Next year he can join LeMond and Bobet and Thys as three-time winners and then shoot for the five-time club of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain.  He might be thinking he'd already have three if he hadn't been held back the year he finished second to Wiggins, and he could well be right.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Stage Twenty

My usual spot in front of the Big Screen under an overhang was still available when I arrived at 10:30, though it was about the last available place to sit in the shade.  The lawn in front was packed as well with those not adverse to being in the sun for seven hours.  It wasn't going to be insufferably hot up at 6,000 feet, but the sun was certainly going to be intense in the cloudless sky.  

Even at this early hour I had to take a circuitous route to reach the Big Screen two hundred meters from the finish line, as the course was fully-barricaded the last two-and-a-half miles winding through the ski town, and the gendarmes were out in full force preventing anyone from trespassing upon it.  There were several openings where one could go from one side to another, but each was guarded by a full phalanx of gendarmes.  At the 500-meter to go mark two rows of gendarmes were performing vigilance, daring anyone to get by them, while a squadron of reinforcements lingered to the side.  Those stationed in such high profile positions were all legitimate, well-seasoned gendarmes to betaken seriously.

I sat and read a book on the French Revolution and peeked up from time-to-time to watch all the nationalities parade by.  The Norwegians and Colombians were easy to identify as they were the ones with flags or dressed in their national colors.

The Italians were the most animated and best dressed.  A group of Americans with Trek Travel  lingered searching for the best place to sit. A couple wearing jerseys with South Africa on them walked by.  I left it to my ear to identify the patter of the Germans and Dutch and French. The French teenagers were the ones wearing t-shirts with an English expression--"Slick for Life," "Pleeease, Not on Monday," "Too Fancy for New York, Too Crazy for Paris."  A cluster of German MAMILS with cell phones and shaved legs were drawn to the shade of my overhang to cool down from their ride up even though it was at a sharp angle from the Big Screen.

The Big Screen didn't begin broadcasting The Race coverage until one with a mere fifteen minute pre-Race show.  The host interviewed a handful of French riders standing at the start line.  Froome and Quintana were right alongside them, but their French must not have been adequate for any comments.  A clock in the background counted down to 1:15 and then they were off at a parade pace for about five minutes led by Christian Prudhomme with his head sticking out of the top of the lead car.

When he peeled off one rider rocketed away, Alexandre Géniez, the young French rider whose home town The Tour passed through outside of Rodez. He kept looking over his shoulder to see who might join him and if the peloton was letting him go.  Only three others sped up to him.  One was from Cannondale-Garmin, but it wasn't Talansky, nor were any of them a threat to the top twenty placings.  They were allowed to gain a seven minute advantage within fifteen miles and the start of the long climb up the Col de la Croix de Fer.

About two-thirds the way up the climb Valverde made the first strike by Moviestar against Froome speeding away from the Sky-led peloton.  Froome let him go as he has every attack other than those of Quintana.  Valverde quickly gained time and then Quintana charged away to join his teammate. This could be a move of tactical genius if the two of them had the strength to ride the next fifty miles together to the finish and erase Quintana's two-and-a-half minute deficit.  It would go down as one of the most audacious attacks in Tour history and be thrilling to watch for the next two hours.  A monument would be placed at the point where it happened. But Froome knew it was way too early for such a move and that they weren't that much stronger than he and his forces.  He calmly let his teammates keep their pace up the mountain and by the summit they were all together again.  The fireworks would have to wait until L'Alpe d'Huez, as everyone anticipated.

Quintana didn't immediately attack at the steepest part of the climb in its first mile, as some expected, but waited for a couple of miles.  Once again Valverde made the first strike and it was ignored.  When Quintana attacked, Froome brought him back, not once but twice.  Finally Quintana made an attack that stuck.  He didn't seem to be going fast enough to gain enough time to take the Yellow Jersey, but he was increasing the gap on Froome.  He linked up with Valverde for a short spell and then sped away.  Then he followed in the wake of another teammate who had been up the road for a short breather and then accelerated.  

He had gained a minute on Froome, but there clearly wasn't enough distance to go to get it to the two minutes and more he needed.  The suspense became if he could catch Thibaut Pinot and win the stage.  To the delight of all of France, he fell short, and once again a Frenchman had the honor of winning The Tour's most iconic climb.  Quintana only bested Froome by one minute and twenty seconds.  Froome was smiling when he crossed the line, knowing he had won The Tour, but he had to have been feeling slightly defeated that he couldn't have done it with the panache of two years ago when he rode away from Quintana on Mont Ventoux to end The Race.  

All in all, he had ridden a very measured and calculated race, while Quintana had been very conservative too, waiting until the last two stages to extend himself.  Maybe his director didn't wish him to vie for the Yellow Jersey in the Pyrenees, preferring to let Froome bear the pressure and responsibility.  Though Quintana is considered more of a pure climber, Froome ended The Race with the Polka Dot Jersey, becoming the the first since Merckx to win both the Yellow and the Polka Dot in the same Race. This year's Race with minimal time trailing greatly favored Quintana. Sky's tactics, especially gaining valuable seconds in the early per-mountain stages, overcame this disadvantage.  

Nibali was unable to challenge Valverde for third when he suffered a flat just before the climb began up L'Alpe d'Huez.  But Valverde had been strong all day, so he wasn't about to be displaced from the podium.  The only change in the top fifteen was Bauke Mollema moving up to seventh, knocking Mathias Frank down to eighth, pleasing the Dutch and fans of Trek, while displeasing the Swiss and the I Am supporters.

For the first time after a stage on L' Alpe d'Huez I was in no great hurry, so didn't have to fret wondering how long it would be until the gendarmes let us ride down the mountain.  I let the main hoard of cyclists go first, then had a worry-free, unclogged ride down.  The gendarmes weren't allowing any but team vehicles and cyclists on the road and only those going down.  The road was lined with gendarmes standing on the white line in the middle, gesturing cyclists to the right and motor vehicles to the left.  This was a first and something for the better.  Down in the valley the road was backed up for miles with the motorized vehicles just inching along.  It was more glorious than ever to be gliding along on the bike.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Stage Nineteen

Just as the organizers had hoped, there will be a showdown on L'Alpe d'Huez on the penultimate stage tomorrow that will decide The Race after Quintana made an attack today that Froome for the first time this year couldn't take back. Quintana only gained thirty seconds, but it gave him and his fans some hope that he can do it again and with greater gusto, as he still has two-and-a-half minutes to overcome, a daunting task.

Just about everyone in the packed outdoor patio where I was watching the stage in Bourg d'Osians at the base of Alpe d'Huez cheered when Quintana took off with less than four miles left on the climb to the finish at the ski resort of La Toissuire. They weren't necessarily Quintana fans,  but rather racing fans who wanted tomorrow's stage to be a battle royale. A lone Englishman shouted out "Come on Froomey" every couple of minutes, as the gap hovered at fifteen seconds and it looked as if he could regain Quintana.  

The two of them once again proved they are the strongest climbers of this year's race, as no one else could keep up with them, and they narrowed the lead of Nibali, who had been a minute up the road, having boldly attacked forty miles from the finish.  It was a day of glory for Nibali, jumping to fourth with the possibility of overtaking Valverde, who is a little over a minute ahead of him.  That is more likely to happen than Quintana dethroning Froome.  

Also at stake tomorrow is tenth place.  Talansky is one minute behind Rolland, who may have expended too much energy today being in a long solo breakaway until Nibali caught him.  Talansky moved up to eleventh after Geraint Thomas exploded, finishing twenty-two minutes back, and dropping from fourth to fifteenth.  Talansky would be in tenth, but once again he failed to stay with the Yellow Jersey group, falling off on the final climb and losing a crucial two minutes.  He really wants tenth, as for the third stage in a row he was in an early breakaway that failed to stick.  But his fighting spirit is to be commended.  Two years ago in his first Tour on the final mountain stage he put out a supreme effort, even passing Contador, and jumped to tenth, so he is a good get to do it again.

I made it to Bourg d'Osians with hours to spare, even before the peloton had set out on its third day in the Alps repeating some of its miles from yesterday, climbing up the Col du Glandon from the opposite side and then descending the Col de la Croix de Fer, which they will be climbing tomorrow and which I finished off this morning by nine a.m., taking no chances on premature road closures.  Today's early closure came off the race course on my descent of the Glandon at the town where I had camped the night before.  

Gendarmes weren't allowing motorized traffic any further up the mountain starting at ten.  It was a very poor place to close the road, as there was hardly space for cars and especially camping fans and buses to turn around and no where to park.  It was ten miles to the summit and the race course, so no one would be walking that.  The road should have been closed eight miles further down the mountain. It was a travesty that the steady stream of cars I passed as I descended would all be turned back.  Generally, I'm greatly impressed about how well the French manage the two grand events that I've attended the last twelve years, Cannes and The Tour, but the past two days have been shameful.

I saw a lot of people who had spent the night along the road on the mountain out brushing their teeth with my early start.  Many of their encampments were quite ornate.

Most impressive though were the hundreds of cyclists tackling these monster climbs, and more women than I've ever seen. It takes considerable fortitude and strength.  Most were maintaining a steady, smooth cadence, and looked as if they were enjoying themselves.  All certainly had to be thrilled by the stunning scenery.  There were only a few who looked iffy, heads bowed, forcing the pedals, wondering what they'd gotten themselves into.  And there were a couple who had been reduced to walking their bikes, at least for a spell, determined to make it to the summit, always a triumphal moment.

I had one final triumphal moment for the day.  After watching the day's stage and managing to connect with Janina on an Internet phone call I took on L'Alpe d'Huez.  In the previous six times it has been included in The Tour these past twelve years I've ridden up in first thing in the morning with thousands of others.  It is a great communal event with the entire route wheel-to-wheel cyclists two or three abreast.  The last time I did it two years ago we were all detoured two miles from the summit.  That was a pain I didn't want to experience again.  Plus I wondered how much of a party it would be on the mountain the night before the stage, knowing the nine mile climb would already be packed with fans.

It was indeed a party with German drinking songs and Dutch techno music blaring and fans with bottles in hand.  There were only a few other cyclists so I was feted all the way.  Every so often someone would give me a push for a few seconds.  At Dutch corner half-way up the climb a guy MCing the festivities thrust a microphone in my face and asked how it was going.  "One pedal stroke at a time," I responded.  The Dutch guy Vincent and I met two weeks ago who puts on a Carrefour costume was there and ran along side me saying, "We meet again."  It had been the third or fourth time.

The pedaling was much easier than it had ever been.  Taking the train on the first rest day has made a considerable difference.  Two years ago I pedaled that five hundred mile transfer and my legs suffered for it.  It was two months before I was fully recovered. Pedaling up L'Alpe d'Huez that year at the end of The Race was a real ordeal.  I could enjoy it this time, especially knowing it was my final big effort of this year's Tour, as I will be taking the train back to Paris so I can get back to Chicago in time to drive up to Michael Moore's exceptional Traverse City Film Festival with Janina, our fourth time. And my legs won't be sighing with relief.  I can understand Contador's lack of pep, being the only one of the contenders who rode the Giro, where he won convincingly.  He took more out of him than he realized it would.

The detour sign two miles from the summit was already in place, but not being enforced, so I had the pleasure of following the route all the way to the summit.  Camping vans were parked everywhere in the sprawling ski town with fans standing about with beer in hand.  I took a side road out of town and found a patch of land just beyond two high rise condo buildings.  Germans were loudly singing on one balcony, but they quit before I had finished my dinner of ravioli and couscous.

I awoke to a more spectacular view than I could appreciate in the dark the evening before.

Stage Eighteen

I woke up to a mist left over from the night's rain one-third the way up the Beyond Category Col du Glandon blunting the rays of the sun.  Though the climb only averages 5.1 per cent thanks to a couple of minor descents over its fourteen miles, there are stretches of over ten per cent that make it a bully of a climb.  One of the descents comes after climbing up to a dammed lake just a couple of miles from its summit.  

The road was alive with cyclists and packed with fans.  When I stopped for a rest a guy wearing a Livestrong wrist band came over and said he had seen me every day and wondered where I was from.  He said he worked as a guide at the Tour of Flanders Museum in Belgium and asked if he could take my picture to add to the museum's collection of ardent fans.

The first couple of miles of the descent were so steep I stopped to rest my wrists from having to brake so hard.  I was in no rush as it wasn't much after ten and I had less than twenty-five miles to the Blg Screen.  I took time to put some food into my stomach to digest on the long descent--a couple of slices of bread with a chestnut spread I had recently discovered when looking for peanut butter.  I'll add it to my dote as it is high caloric and sweet.

Three miles after I resumed my descent with a steady stream of cyclists from both directions the unthinkable happened, worse than the snapped rear brake cable I had suffered at the start of the day.  A gendarme stepped out into the road and motioned me to the side.  He said the road was too dangerous to cycle and it was closed.  Indeed, the road was quite narrow, so much so that I was wondering how some of the large, float-like vehicles in the caravan were going to manage it, but it was only 10:30, five hours before the caravan would make its appearance.  They couldn't possibly be closing down the road this early.

I couldn't imagine spending the next seven hours in an open meadow without food or water other than the bit I had. He was ordering the cyclists coming up the road into the meadow as well.  There was no point in protesting, so I pushed into the meadow and then down to the curving road lined with camper vans.  The road was still thronged with climbing cyclists, so it wasn't all that closed.  It was easy enough to resume my descent.  I made it as far as the first town before I was halted again.  This officer at least was allowing cyclists to continue walking and there were lots of them, most clattering along like hobbled ostriches in an off-canter gait in their cleated cycling shoes, a most incongruous and comical sight.

It was a resort town with a tourist office.  I asked if there was an alternate route to get to the large city less than twenty miles away where the stage would finish.  There was a side road for three miles that would put me within four miles of the end of this canyon road that had been closed down.  It might be possible to walk those final four miles out.  First I had to walk another half mile.  At least the town was well-decorated, mostly in the Red Polka Dot theme.  A white jersey was dotted with red flowers and framed by several bikes.

A flower bed of red and white flowers featured a figure in Red Polka Dots.

An over-sized bike constructed of random pieces of metal lay on a hillside.

The side road re-entered the main road where the 25-Kilometer banner had just been erected.  The worst kind of gendarme was stationed there--a young military man conscripted for the day to masquerade as a gendarme, a guy who was used to taking orders not giving them and was thrilled to have the opportunity to exert some authority.  He immediately pounced on me.  I asked if I could continue on foot.  "No, no, no.  The road is closed,"  he seemed delighted to say.  Unlike a real gendarme who would express some sympathy and give me a Gallic shrug of "what can I say, those are the orders and there's nothing I can do," this young punk acted as if it was all his decision and seemed eager to thrust his hands into my chest if I dared to move an inch closer to the road.

Half an hour later he sprang to duty when a cyclist appeared on the road.  After a couple minutes conversation, he was allowed to continue on foot.  I lept to my feet and asked if I follow.  Absolutely not.  I retreated to my sliver of shade against an embankment and continued eating and reading.  Fifteen minutes later a group of cyclists flew by on this steep descent.  There were too many for him to do anything about.  And then a stream more followed, a hodgepodge of different uniforms and ages and portliness.  They weren't pseudo-racers as predominate.  

I thought maybe there had been a reversal of decision up the road and cyclists were now allowed on this traffic-free venue.  I pushed my bike back down to the road and the "gendarme" came towards me to bar my way.  He said they were an official group who had paid to be able to ride the course.  How he could tell I don't know.  If he had had any decency he would have let me slip in with them and do those final four miles out of this canyon, but he wasn't about to do any such thing.  That's when I took out my camera, knowing that always infuriates them.  "You're only doing your job," I said.  "You should be proud of doing it so well.  You'll be an officer in no time."

After two hours at this isolated intersection with just four locals besides the two of us, I biked three miles back to town for a television.  The only bars with a television were further into town and there were no sidewalks or side roads to reach them with the gendarmes barring any walking at the road's edge despite no traffic to speak of and still two hours until the caravan was due.  I was beginning to lose my affection for France.  Suddenly the French are no longer so concerned about their fellow man and making the world a sensible and better place.  Here's their tyrannical, insensitive and idiotic side.  This was really ruining my day.  I had been greatly looking forward to the Big Screen and enough time to visit the Opinal Museum in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.  Now I'd be pressed to get enough of a start up the Col de la Croix de Fer this evening not to have to worry about being detained there tomorrow.

I had to turn to the trusty iPad to follow the action on the road.  There was the usual break with Rodriquez gobbling up all the King of the Mountain points in the early climbs on this seven-climb stage, the most of this year.  By the time the racers crossed the Glandon and flew past us the French hope Romain Bardet had a forty second lead, which he was able to hold.  And as usual no change at the top of the standings.  Quintana is now down to two stages to do something.  For twenty minutes riders flew by us, in groups and on their own all with contorted faces focusing on the road ahead showing no reaction to our cheers.

It wasn't until 5:45 that the road was opened and I could resume riding.  Cyclists had the road to themselves at this point.  I kept my speed in check with my long stopping distance thanks to my load and was continually passed.  When we completed the descent and reached the city at the base of the climb down in the flats, traffic was backed up and we were brought to a halt.  We could take a side road around the bottleneck.  

I stopped at the first supermarket to pick up food for dinner and breakfast.  It was six miles to Saint-Jean.  People with bags of caravan goodies were still streaming out and the city was clogged with traffic.  I went to the cathedral to charge for half an hour and eat and then began my second Beyond Category climb of the day.  I was about the only one on the road.  My legs were most willingly after their prolonged rest.  We biked until dark closing to within ten miles and 2,500 feet of the summit.  I found a flat spot for my tent just beyond the last of the several tunnels and felt like I was camping in a huge outdoor cathedral.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Stage Seventeen

All was going precisely as I'd hoped.  I'd made it over two Category Three and one Category Two climbs in time to find a bar with a television in the small town of Allemont at the base of the Col du Glandon, a monster fifteen-mile climb that I would be very happy to rest up for while spending a couple hours watching men on bikes.  I ordered my menthe á l'eau and took a seat at a table.  The lone person watching, a white-haired lady, turned and asked, "Did you hear, Van Garderen is out of The Race."

She didn't know I was American, just that this was big news to anyone who was interested in The Tour.  "No, what happened?" I replied, hoping it wasn't a drug positive.

"He wasn't feeling well.  He was dropped on the first short climb twenty-five miles into the stage.  He regained the peloton, and held on until the third climb and was dropped again.  He just didn't have it, so he got in his team car.  You may remember he had a bad day too after a rest day last year in the Pyrenees."

This woman knew cycling.  She was English and had been coming to France for the past seven years for The Tour.  She was of course a Sky fan and was particularly happy with the performance of Geraint Thomas, a Welshman, as she has been living in Wales.  He's been the revelation of The Tour, shepherding Froome up the climbs and having enough energy left to finish each stage strong.  He entered today's stage sixth overall and with Van Garderen out was in fifth.  By the end of the day he had moved up to fourth, six seconds ahead of Contador, who suffered a crash losing two minutes to Froome.  

The stage concluded with a three-and-a-half mile climb to the ski resort of Pra Loup.  Simon Geschke of Germany rode away from the day's large breakaway group on a Category One climb fifteen miles from the finish and held everyone off on the descent and climb.  Talansky was the number one chaser, closing to within 32 seconds of him.  He now becomes the American hope, though not for the podium as were his initial aspirations, but rather the Top Ten.  The six-and-a-half minutes he gained on the leaders moved him up five slots to twelfth, three minutes out of tenth. He's been trying to make things happen.  He was in a break two stages ago that had gained seven minutes. But he had a flat and fell back to the peloton.  He had a teammate in the break, but for some reason he did not offer Talanksy a wheel.  

Quintana spurted ahead of Froome on the final climb several times, but unlike Pantani's attacks of yore that came like rocket launches, they were all short-lived and Froome was soon back on his wheel.  Valverde now moves up to third with Van Garderen gone, and is looking legitimate despite being somewhat long in the tooth and secondary to Quintana on the Moviestar team.  He was able to drop Nibali after the two of them had been dropped by Froome and Quintana.

Just as the results were all in and I was preparing to tackle the Glandon, a hard thunderstorm struck.  The same thing happened yesterday, though a little earlier in the afternoon. I was approaching a town when the rain came yesterday and took shelter in its cathedral for near an hour until the storm fizzled to a drizzle.  Ask rode I kept waiting for it to stop, but it had no such intentions.  The terrain was up and down.  I welcomed the climbs.  They kept me warm and were safe.  The descents were perilously steep.  My brakes were just barely working.  I knew I was wearing them out, so after an hour I made camp in a freshly mown hay field with the hay laying in bunches that I gathered for a mattress.  I had hoped to bike at least another hour, but it was well that I hadn't, as I would have made a wrong turn in the town of La Mure, where the stage left the Route de Napoleon and headed over a high ridge.  The course markers weren't up yet as this was a rest day and the crew was marking the next day's stage that would begin Digne-les-Baines.

I reached La Mure at nine a.m. just as its tourist office was opening.  I asked if there was a supermarket on The Tour route out of town.  There wasn't, so I had to settle for a small grocery store around the corner.  As we were talking the crew that marks the course came rolling by in their two distinctive yellow vans.  And just like that there were markers ahead.  They had gotten an early start to beat the heat as this was forty miles into the stage.  They must have been in a good mood as they were very generous and creative with their markers today, even adorning an antique vehicle in a roundabout with markers.

The heat was moderate until I plunged over 3,000 feet down to the valley that leads to L'Alpe d'Huez and also to the Glandon.  Then I was back in the oven.  I stopped at a rare rest area that offered water.  While I rested in the shade a cyclist stopped and asked if I had any oil, as after yesterday's rain his chain was creaking.  He was from Scotland and was staying up at L'Alpe d'Huez with six cycling buddies.  The valley was full of MAMILS (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) testing their legs on the legendary Tour climbs and hanging out to watch the pros, which they all were trying to emulate as they flew by me with nary a word.

A handful joined me and the English woman at the bar.  As each entered she asked if they had heard about Van Garderen.  None had.  The first was a Dutch guy with shaved legs, like many of the MAMILS.  He said he used to race but was now a physiologist and coach.  A German with unshaved legs said he had won his group's race up the nine-mile L'Alpe d'Huez with a time of one hour and three minutes, thirty minutes slower than Pantani's record.  The English woman told them I had been following The Tour since its start.  Neither said anything.

I wasn't particularly happy about more rain.  I had gained over a thousand feet of elevation since descending into this valley and it was after five, so the heat was no longer so oppressive.  But at least I didn't have to worry about my brakes, as what awaited me was nothing but climbing, the longest and hardest so far. I  was hoping to get half-way up and camp.  It was just twenty-five miles from the summit to the stage finish in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.  I could be there by noon, exactly forty-eight hours after I had started the 116-mile stage in Gap.  I hadn't had to overextend my legs so would be good for two more Beyond Category climbs in the next two days.  And I could hang out at the stage finish and enjoy the Big Screen for the first time since the team time trial.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Stage Sixteen

For the first time in over ten days since Vincent made his departure, I had a riding partner.  A guy from Salt Lake City joined me for the last mile to the summit of the Category Two Col de Cabre.  He said he had seen me riding the course the last few days and wondered where I was from and if I was riding The Race from start to finish. He had chased after me from his camper van, as he was only riding a few miles of the stage. 

He was here with his wife and two children.  They'd rented a deluxe camper van complete with a shower for three thousand euros.  This was the last of five stages they'd see.  Tomorrow he was off to bike up Mont Ventoux and then home.  This was his first Tour, as he'd only taken up cycling three years  ago.  He had an independent spirit to be following The Tour on his own, rather than signing up with any of the many companies that provide the service.  I used to meet such people all the time back in the Lance era.  It was always a pleasure to meet up with fellow Americans who were having the time of their life's. 

Now that rarely happens without a dominant American.  The Tour does appeal to nationalistic urges.  When Lance was an international celebrity Americans flocked to The Race in their Postal Service, then Discovery, jerseys and American flags.  When Jan Ullrich was a factor, Germans were in abundance.  Cadel Evans brought legions of Aussies.   When Bjarne Riis took control of the 1996 Race, Danes descended upon Paris.  The Norwegians have been a steady and strong presence since Thor Hushvold was winning sprints and the Green Jersey a decade ago and now with Kristoff doing the country proud.

Anyone who attends The Tour can't help but return to their homeland and gush such unabashed glowing accolades over the time they've had that their fellow countrymen ought to keep the flow going.  But it doesn't work that way.  People want to support a winner, not just a seminal event, except maybe the Norwegians.  Their numbers still remain strong without a truly strong rider to support, fully aware that July in France is the experience of a lifetime.  The Brits have been making their presence felt lately, but not as flagrantly as when Wiggins won The Tour, perhaps not fully embracing Kenyan-raised Froome as one of their own.

It was thirty miles from the summit of the Col de Cabre to Gap and then a loop that included another Category Two before descending to the finish in Gap.  I only made it halfway there before I was halted in the pleasant town of Veynes with all the amenities I needed--a large supermarket, a tourist office, several bars and free-flowing ice-cold spring-water in spigots around town.  I settled in for the next four hours of watching the caravan pass, then the racers, then retreating to a bar for the final hour of action.

I wasn't disappointed not to make it to Gap as I've seen a stage finish there several times and knew there was no shade around the Big Screen mounted along the finishing straightaway lined with shops. I wouldn't want to be standing in the sun for any period of time with temperatures still in the 90s.  I even cut short my time scavenging from the caravan as twenty minutes was all I could take. Tomorrow was the second rest day, a day later than usual on a Tuesday, rather than the final Monday. It would be a rest day of a sort for me as well, though I'd still be spending five or six hours on my bike getting a head start on the peloton.  And rather than riding a stage ahead, I'd be jumping two stages ahead, as the Wednesday stage was out of the way starting in Digne-les-Baines, the city with all the Goldsworthy sculptures. I'd already ridden that stage right after Cannes.  I'd start in on Thursday's stage that sets out from Gap and includes a a Category One and a Beyond Category and several lesser climbs.  It'd be nice to make a leisurely ride of it with no pressure to even find a bar on the rest day.

More than twenty riders had separated themselves from the main bunch including Sagan who has once again been putting on a super-human performance vying for Green Jersey points.  He won the intermediate sprint and finished second on the day for the sixth time, this time unsuccessfully trying to chase down the Spaniard Luben Plaza riding for the Italian Lampre team.  Since he's not vying for Yellow he's not besieged by accusations of doping as has Froome and anyone else who has led The Race since Lance.  If he lost a few pounds and took over the lead of The Race then his life would be made miserable by the hounding of the press, as happened to Rasmussen when he couldn't be simply content with being the Polka Dot Jersey winner and went for Yellow a few years ago and then had to leave the sport in disgrace.  

There were no threats to the general classification in today's break, so the Sky-led peloton let them have a fifteen-minute advantage while the main contenders awaited a possible showdown on the final climb.  

None of the lead protagonists could likely gain even a minute on the climb and descent and by this point in The Race no one really needed to make a statement as all that had been done already.  Everyone pretty much knows their status.  Two weeks into The Race all had shown their strength.  This is especially represented by Talansky.  Every stage now where there is some separation among the riders he has lost time to the leaders, never being able to stay with them this year.  And today again he lost another minute, though he's still in a semi-commendable seventeenth place, twenty-three minutes back, and twelve from tenth.  With four days in the Alps he has to be hoping he's not as worn down as  some of those ahead of him and he can equal his tenth of two years ago.  

Though Nibali spurted ahead towards the end of the climb and used his pre-eminent descending skills to gain twenty-eight seconds on Froome and the seven others ahead of him, he remains in a distant eighth and did nothing more than show that he still has some will left.  The biggest question remaining is if Quintana is possibly holding something in reserve and will fly away from Froome on one of the summit finishes in the Alps and overcome his three-minute deficit.  But that is not the cyclist's mentality.  They all want to crush their opponents and ride away from them whenever they can.  He has been unable to do that so far and it would be a risk to hope he can since he can't be sure if Froome might have something in reserve himself.  The top two places on the podium seem set, the same as two years ago.  Third place though is up for grabs.  It will be a challenge for Van Garderen to hold on to his thirty second advantage.  It will be an exciting four days in the Alps.

Stage Fifteen

Today's Category Two climb didn't have the sting that some Twos do--just five miles long, an average gradient of 5.8% and a gentle mid-climb stretch for recovery.  The sprinters had a chance of surviving the climb and being able to raise their arms at the end of the stage. I could settle in and enjoy it.  

It being a Sunday the road was packed top to bottom.  I was taking mental snapshots of all the people at leisure and at play, enjoying and being themselves.  It was another hot one.  Many of the men were bare-chested with prominent bellies on proud display.  Many were slouched in chairs with as much flesh exposed as possible in a family environment roasting themselves.  I was dripping sweat.  One guy acknowledged it by feigning to wipe his brow as I passed by.  There's always somebody who makes the sound of air rushing out of a tire, a cyclist's great dread.  I've learned to smile at this sound of camaraderie.  My ears were attuned to the many sounds of the roadside--the cutting of sausage, the pounding of stakes, the clink of boules balls. 

Most were gazing upon the road watching the trickle of traffic, mostly official vehicles at this point--team cars, press, sponsors and such.  There was hardly anyone on a bike, so I attracted the usual bit of attention from simple thumbs up to the vociferous  double shot of "Allez" sometimes in a traditional singsong.  As I passed just a couple feet from those in their chairs and at their picnic tables, I would catch the preoccupied in an unguarded moment--the sudden smile of a woman reading a book, a look of bliss of someone dragging on a cigarette, a look of great satisfaction of someone sipping a glass of wine.  Some were intently working on a crossword puzzle.  A dog had its tongue out laying on the lap of a teenaged girl.  A woman was knitting.  And I was riding my bike.

And I was also for the first time this year having fun redistributing duplicate items I'd scavenged from the caravan--candy, key chains, hats, the inflatable pillow from a hotel chain and such.  I've learned to be selective and to be in no hurry to whom I give to, just as I notice the caravan does.  One doesn't want to stand near a pretty woman or kids.  I try to make my target a local based on their license plates and not a Tour follower who has reaped plenty already and to make my recipient a pre-teen.  I am partial to those who cheer me, but sometimes I see someone so cute and deserving I'll surprise them with a goodie.  And invariably they react with a shriek of delight and a "Merci," sometimes after I'm a ways up the road after they realize I've gifted them.  It makes the climb go a little faster.  If I had enough items, I almost wouldn't want the climb to end.

It is said, "Better to give than to receive," and also, "Give and he shall receive."  Those "mercis" are music to my ears, and as fine a gift as I could want.  But today, towards the end of the climb, I was given something a little extra special.   A Trek team car stopped in the middle of the road after it passed me at its moderate pace up the thronged road.  People converged on it, but the guy in the passenger seat looked back at me and motioned me over for an official team cycling hat, the real deal, not the flimsy imitations that the caravan gives out.  I doubt he saw I was riding a Trek and I didn't have a chance to say anything more than a quick, "Thanks."  Now I'm representing four teams.  I have Moviestar and Etixx-Quickstep waters bottles on my bike from Oman, a Garmin jersey on my back thanks to Christian  and now a Trek hat to wear when I want to keep the sun out of my eyes.

I knew I had no chance of making it to the stage finish in Valence, but that was okay as the next day's stage headed back south from Bourg-de-Pèage, twenty-five miles northwest of Valence and I could head due east and pick it up at Crest, thirty miles into the stage.  I would ride today's stage until a gendarme stopped me.  I had a glorious descent that went on for half an hour of over three thousand feet from the Massif Central to the large city of Aubenas.  It had placed some rotund figures on bikes through the city.

Next up was the slightly smaller city of Privas, where on its outskirts a gendarme stepped out on the road in front of me, a little sooner than I wanted. I had hoped to at least to get to the city center and a possible road connecting to the next day's stage.  As I was asking the gendarme if there was a parallel road I could follow, Oleg Tinkov flew by the distracted gendarme, way too fast for him to react.  The sidewalks only had a scattered few people,  so I continued on them.  There was one lone bit of bike art creatively made of scrap items.

After a few blocks a bike lane appeared.  I continued on through the city and another five miles with every gendarme turning away as I approached letting me know they weren't going to stop me.  

When I was next stopped in the village of Saint-Julien-en-Saint-Alban I was ready to get out of the sun and eat and drink.  I was lucky to spot a flowing water spigot across the street that was cold and drinkable and had some shade nearby.  I didn't mind being marooned there for the next two-and-a-half hours.  I got a good haul of caravan goodies to redistribute tomorrow on the first of its two Category Twos and also was able to do some wash and also give my sleeping bag an airing. I had so many housekeeping chores, including replacing another slow leak, that I didn't have any time to sit and relax or prowl around with my camera.

Before I knew it the first of several waves of gendarmes on motorcycles came speeding by preceding a two many breakaway that was less than a minute up.  Then the peloton came flying through the confined Main Street of the town string out in single file, the Yellow Jersey a little ways back preceded by his Sky teammates.

A couple of individual stragglers followed a few minutes later and then the laughing group with Cavendish ten minutes after the lead group.  He hadn't stuck with the bunch as had his sprint rival Griepel, who claimed his third stage of The Race not much more than half an hour after he passed me.  I was halted three miles before the Rhone and where I diverged to Crest.  After two days on the Massif Central it was back on to the flats for just a couple of hours and then a gradual climb to the Alps, already within reach in all their majesty.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Stage Fourteen

For back-to-back stages on the Massif Central The Tour entourage has been transfer-free with a stage starting in the town the previous stage ended in. That pleases all, but no one is happier than me, as rather than miles of extra pedaling to get to the next stage, I've been able to immediately dive into the next stage as soon as I've arrived at the stage finish, and I've needed to if I cared to keep up with the peloton.  These have been the only non-transfers so far, though there are two more coming up in the Alps.  The Tour organizers like to maximize the Ville Ètapes, as they each pay for the privilege.  But the Massif Central is so lightly settled and has so few large towns, that The Tour organizers had little choice in having to consolidate Ville Arrivées with Ville Départs.

I've had to forego the Big Screen though for my stage viewing.  I've only had three such experiences so far, watching most of the finishes in a bar.  It doesn't have near the atmosphere of sharing the experience with hundreds of others, but watching The Race in a bar with often a handful of grizzled bar habitués, also authenticates the experience of being in France for The Tour.  It is nice to be spared the mobs of people at the Big Screen, and being able to immediately begin riding and not having to push one's bike for an interminable amount of time through the hoards.

I managed to arrive at today's stage finish in Mende by one,  after loping off a couple of loops on the course, one in the first part and one at the end  Rather than ducking south to Millau in the first third of the stage, I saved myself twenty miles by heading directly east to the Gorges du Tarn after riding fifteen miles of the route, including a Category Three climb.  The first town on the route from Rodez passed through Flavin, home town of the young FDJ rider Alexander Géniez, one of forty-one French riders in The Race.  There were signs and banners all through the town acknowledging him.  The most popular was a poster that said "Merci Alexander," typically French to be thanking, rather than encouraging him with "Bravo" or "Bon Courage" or "Allez" or "Chapeau" as I'm accorded as I ride.  "Merci" is the highest accolade acknowledging his efforts and sacrifices and the honor he has brought his town.  When people start saying "Merci" to me, I'll know I've reached the pinnacle.

On the previous stage that ended in Rodez he managed to get in the breakaway, but faded in the last few kilometers.  But being out front all day in The Tour on roads he had spent his entire life riding was something that had to have been in his dreams for years.  Of course he would have liked to have won the stage, but so did everyone else in the break, and such things are not gifted.  I'm sure he ended his day fulfilled, not disappointed.

It wasn't until nine that I finally reached the spectacular Gorges du Tarn, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  I had cycled through it several years ago on my way to Cannes, but in the opposite direction.  I knew I wouldn't have a problem finding a place to camp, as the thirty-mile long gorge is scattered with wide spots with camp grounds and places renting kayaks and a few small villages.  Camping vans were parked along the road, foregoing the campgrounds, just as I did settling on a corner of a soccer field.

I was heading up River, but at a very gentle grade.  The road only climbed four hundred feet in those thirty miles, but then it was a six-mile Category Two climb out of the gorge from the village of Ste.-Enimie, on the roster of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.

This being a Saturday the climb was packed and there were a good many cyclists on the road, including some tour groups in matching jerseys.  I tagged along with a couple from the UK on a tandem.  They had parked their van at the summit of the climb and and biked down, then back up.  They had been doing that the past few stages.  The heat was once again oppressive.

After the climb it was a twenty-five miles to the finish in Mende.  I saved myself ten miles by sticking to the main road rather than taking the minor road the peloton followed.  I stopped at a shopping center on the outskirts of the city.  It was in a mall that had no customers as everyone was at The Tour.  I sat in the relative cool of what passes for air conditioning in France for an hour and ate couscous and drank a liter of a strawberry yogurt drink.

I sacrificed the Big Screen and a steep Category Two climb of just two miles to the finish and began riding the next day's stage.  It started in the town center, which was decorated with banners of all Tour  winners draped across the narrow streets of the old city.

The neutralized zone was just three miles.  The second town I came to had a bar with a television.  The breakaway group was approaching the Category Two climb, so I was able to enjoy a few aerial views of the Gorge as the peloton sped through six minutes behind.  A mile into the climb at a sharp hairpin where I had ducked in under the couple on the tandem as they swung wide, Françoise Hollande, the president of France was standing with Christian Prudhomme clapping as the riders passed.  They didn't wait for the peloton, but hopped in their car and sped off behind the breakaway.

The peloton had only closed to within two minutes of the breakaway when they reached the climactic climb.  The two French riders who joined Nibali on the podium last year, Pinot and Bardet, spurted ahead of the rest.  They were both having a disastrous Tour, well out of contention, so this wss their chance to salvage some glory.  After they crested the climb they had a one kilometer slight descent to the finish.  They began looking at one another to see who was going to lead it out.  During their hesitation the British rider Steven Cummings, riding for the African team, MTN-Qhubeka, charged by them and stole the victory.  It was this first year team's first victory and on Mandela Day, for which they were wearing a special helmet.  So as unfortunate it was for France and Pinot and Bardet, it was a win to celebrate.

The much-anticipated battle behind between the contenders was another victory for Froome.  Quintana attacked and put some distance between himself and Froome, but Froome regained him and then sped past on the run-in to the finish, gaining another second on him.  Contador was nineteen seconds behind Froome and Nibali twenty, with Van Garderen the biggest loser, thirty seconds behind, dropping to third overall behind Quintana.  He's just thirty seconds ahead of Valverde and will be battling to retain his spot on the podium during three days in the Alps beginning on Thursday.  Two transitional stages and a Rest Day precede it.

As I cycled until near dark at 9:45 a steady stream of Tour followers in their campers passed me, with only a few giving a toot, as that is not the European style.  The Devil gave me a blast as he went by.  If I didn't recognize his van, I wouldn't have been sure if it was friendly or not.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Stage Thirteen

There were several strong contenders for the day's most original bike sculpture. In the category of most inventive use of material specific to the business that displayed the work was an elongated bike with rubber tubing to form the bike's wheels in front of a hardware store.

A bike pyramid with a Siamese yellow bike at its apex with two bikes sharing a front wheel in a round-about was something I'd never seen before.

But the most startlingly original bike art was a trio of wiry figures emulating the skeletal cyclists on wiry bikes hung on a cliff wall.  This was art that should have had a placard identifying the artist.  But perhaps that wasn't necessary for the people in the region, who might instantly recognize the person responsible for these visionary pieces.

These emaciated figures were particularly fitting on another scorchingly hot day.  I arrived at the Big Screen by 1:30, well in advance of any road closures, letting me ride at a reasonable pace and appreciate all the road had to offer. Yesterday featured a gigantic polka dot jersey.  Today included one of yellow.

Three categorized climbs tested the peloton in the last forty miles, the final one coming twenty miles from the finish.  I expected to see The Devil along the climb as he generally stations himself as close to the finish as he can on a climb when there is one.  He must have been familiar with this route as he had set up shop on a final two-mile climb out of a gorge that wasn't identified on the route sheet.  He was sitting in the shade of a camper's awning, but lept to his feet with an "Allez, Allez," as I passed.

The route plunged back down along side a river on the outskirts of Rodez making several sharps turns on roads that narrowed.  It looked very perilous, something a rider's union might have protested, but they are such incredible bike handlers they flew with not an ounce of hesitation.  Almost as astounding is the skill of the gendarmes on motorcycles leading the race and their ability to stay ahead of the racers when they plunge down deep descents.  I marveled at their dexterity on roads that had me most cautious and restrained as I watched the action in a bar ten miles down the next day's course.  The peloton was chasing the last two members of the day's breakaway.  I didn't think they had a chance of catching them when they were still nine seconds behind with a kilometer to go, figuring the duo would be able to much better negotiate the tricky turns than the hoard behind them.  

But there is no underestimating how voracious and merciless the chasers are when the riders ahead are in sight.  They are like sharks who have smelled blood.  They gobbled up the two just a couple hundred meters from the finish.  It was all thrills as Sagan in the Green Jersey battled Greg Van Avermaet of BMC throwing everything they had into their pedals.  It was a nail-biter to the last centimeter and that's all that separated them. Sagan is on his way to a record number of second places at The Tour and he added another to his bagful, the fourth this year and fifteenth overall.  As they mount, he becomes more and more frustrated. BMC notched its third stage victory of this Tour.  They are having almost as impressive of a Tour as Sky.

I was watching the action in the comfort of a hotel sitting room.  I was drawn to the hotel by the sign for a bar.  The bar was small and without a television.  I savored my menthe á l'eau as never before sitting in a comfortable padded chair.  It touched taste buds on the back of my throat I didn't even know I had, perhaps made more sensitive by how dry and dehydrated my mouth was.  And I supplemented it with my water bottle filled with the frigid water that comes out of every bar tap in France, another of the ultimate pleasures of this country.  I only had to be careful not to guzzle and drink too much.  There have been some legendary such cases of Tour riders doing that in the early years of The Race.  I was just disappointed when I left that the socket I had plugged my iPad into for charging wasn't operative.  I was still over fifty percent but I would have liked the cushion of being close to one hundred.