Friday, July 24, 2015

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.


Bill Burns said...

Heh! Love the pic of the Pseudo-'Gendarme' George! I could swear he looks like he's smiling for your camera, though. Bon voyage!

BFDeal said...

Make it "dammed" rather than "damned" in paragraph one, although many dams are damned.

Again, thanks for the tour through the French countryside.

george christensen said...

Got it. Thanks for the catch.