I pulled into the large city of Rennes at 10:30 Saturday morning, just ten minutes before the caravan set out on its 120-miles of dispensing trinkets. The route through the city was already mobbed from the official departure arch for blocks and blocks. The caravan is as big of a draw as the racers. It brings the masses out early and then keeps them there for two hours until the peloton passes.
I watched the scrambling for free stuff for a few minutes, then went in search of a bike shop. My rear derailleur cable was starting to fray at the lever on the bar end and wasn't responding as promptly as it should. My spare was a few inches short. I could have trimmed the cable housing if it had snapped out along the road to make it fit, but was glad I didn't have to perform the operation out there. I also wanted to pick up a new tube, as all my spares have multiple patches and my last few flats have been due to slow leaks from patches going bad.
The young man who sold me the cable to agreed with me that Froome looks to be the favorite to win The Race once again, though he wasn't rooting for him. He said he didn't look good on the bike, a common criticism with his ungainly, gawky style. Looking good is a prerequisite for the. French.
The racers were off at precisely 12:40.
I wasn't quite ready to capture Christian Prudhomme standing in a car preceding the peloton led out by the Jersey wearers--Froome back in Yellow, Griepel in Green, Sagan in white and Daniel Teklehaimanot in Polka Dots. The latter is this year's feel good story of a rider from a country that has never been represented in The Tour. The pasts few years it has been riders from China and Japan. Neither country has a rider this year.
Daniel is one of two riders from Eritrea, a country of six million in the horn of Africa bordered by Ethiopia and Sudan. There is a UCI development program there that has been paying dividends. They are riding for MTN-Qhuebeka, the first African-sponsored team in Tour. The team is also comprised of three riders from South Africa and one each from Norway, Great Britain, Belgium and the US (Tyler Farrar). Like most of the twenty-two teams they are a polyglot of nationalities. Two teams (Etixx-Quick Step and Cannondale-Garmin) have eight nationalities. The French Europcar team is the only one with all nine riders from the same country. The Russian Katusha team only has one Russian. The Kazakhstan Astana team has only one from Kazakhstan. The Australian Orica-Green Edge team at least has three of the nine Australians in The Race. The other six are sprinkled among six other teams. The British Sky team has five Brits. The other five Brits are riding for three other teams. The ten Brits competing are the most in nearly forty years. The mere three Americans are its least in years.
Rather than tagging along behind the peloton I cut across to Plumelec, the Ville Arrivée for the next day's stage sixty-five miles away. For the first time in a week I wouldn't be looking to ride one hundred miles for the day, a welcome recovery day for the legs. I could even get an extra hour of sleep. And I could stop a little early to watch the final hour of the stage which ended on the Mur de Bretagne, a Category Three climb.
A three man break of two Poles and a Dane were a minute ahead with twenty-five miles to go. They were easily caught as the pace heated up as the climb of a little more than a mile neared. Cannondale-Garmin led the peloton for a while revealing their intentions of setting up Dan Martin for the win. They fell five seconds short, though a second place finish for Martin was the best for the American team so far. The French claimed their first win with Alexis Vuillermoz, a young relative unknown riding for Ag2R, shedding Froome, who had been trying to make another statement and ride away from everyone. Froome didn't quite have it and came in eighth in a small group ten seconds behind the winner and five seconds behind Martin. Quintana and Contador and Van Garderen were among them, but not Nibali who lost another ten seconds to Froome and the others. Almost ss happy as Vuillermoz was Sagan, who finished fourth earning him enough points to take the Green Jersey, which ought to remain on his back for the rest of The Race with no sprints for Greipel for days.
Next up is the team time trial. If Van Garderen's BMC team can gain thirteen seconds on Sky and eleven on Tinkoff-Saxon there will be an American in Yellow for the first time since Lance in 2006. I hope he can get a good night's sleep, not too excited about the prospect of being on the front page of newspapers all across the US and the world on Monday.