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.