The moment we crossed into France at the small town of Gognies-Chaussée, there was a brightness and lightness in the air. There were smiles and flowers and a stately town hall and joyous, friendly chatter among its citizens as they bustled about putting the final touches on their Tour decorations.
Among the town's attractions was an "Expo Tour de France," an exhibition of Tour memorabilia, no doubt from the personal collection of a local or two. Every town in France is likely to have such a fanatic. They all ought to have a welder, too, who could concoct a bike sculpture when The Tour came town.
Though we were pressed for time to reach the Big Screen at the stage finish before the road was closed, we couldn't resist sticking our heads into the Expo held in a veteran's hall. We could spare a couple of minutes as we had gotten an exceptionally early start, on the road at 6:30, partially thanks to the heavy traffic on the road we had camped beside off in a forest once again.
The two rooms of the space were full of jerseys and books and board games and dozens of small figures of cyclists from over the decades and other memorabilia.
One table was devoted to Eddie Merckx.
I was most interested in a course marker from 1996, back when they were dated.
A few miles further and we came upon a supermarket where we could indulge in our French favorites that had been hard to come by in Belgium and Holland--quiche and madeleines and cassoulet stew sirop de menthe. While we snacked on our second breakfast of the day, we studied the map looking for a way to avoid the six stretches of cobbles coming up. We had ridden the lone one-mile stretch in Belgium the evening before and that was enough for us. We found a direct route into Cambrai that avoided the loop that took in the cobbles and also saved us ten miles. With our seventy miles reduced to sixty we arrived at the Big Screen by one. Though the peloton wasn't due until after five, the finishing straight was already packed. We claimed a spot on the sidewalk up against a shop that gave us a good view of the Screen with the city cathedral in the background.
I left Vincent to go to a nearby Macdonalds I had used a couple of weeks ago to charge my iPad and file a report for the price of a one euro burger. It was packed at lunchtime, including a couple of guys working for the Sky team, and I had to wait for a table to clear that had an electrical outlet. When I returned to Vincent he had been joined by David sporting his vintage yellow Kas jersey.
The finish line was one hundred meters to our right in the city's central plaza. Fans hung out of windows overlooking it.
There were heaps of people hanging out everywhere of every age, from grandmas...
The people-watching can be as entertaining as the racing, even today's exceptional battle on the roads. Nibali asserted himself on the cobbles as he did last year, but wasn't able to shed himself of his prime contenders in the drier conditions as he succeeded in doing last year on his way to winning The Race. Froome showed no trepidations this year and contributed some forceful accelerations wearing the Yellow Jersey, not allowing Nibali to escape or intimidate him. Everyone flew over the the seven stretches of cobbles totaling eight miles without any travesty as has happened the last two times The Tour visited them.
That left a sizable pack containing all the contenders when the cobbles were completed six miles from the finish. There was no small group or string of individuals fighting it out, but rather a pack that seemed destined for a sprint finish. But Tony Martin caught them by surprise and flew out of the group a couple of kilometers from the finish and no one attempted to reel him in. Froome didn't care to protect his Yellow Jersey saving his team the effort of defending it until he regains it in the Pyrenees. There weren't enough members of any of the sprinters' teams to give chase either, allowing Martin to seize the stage and also the Yellow Jersey. No one could be happier than his teammate Cavendish who cost him the Jersey two days ago when he failed to win or even hold off Cancellera from finishing third. Cavendish was much criticized and Martin most crestfallen to have so narrowly missed joining the elite pantheon of those who have worn the Yellow Jersey. Seizing it today makes it all the sweeter. He becomes the fourth rider and second German to wear the Jersey in four days.
We didn't linger for any of the awarding of the Jerseys as we had ninety miles to ride to reach tomorrow's Big Screen in Amiens and hoped to knock off at least thirty of them before dark. We were able to pick up the Stage Five route starting in Arras fifteen miles away well after the stage start. David didn't wish to ride so many miles and took a short cut, while Vincent and I wished to experience as much of the route as possible. And this evening one of our rewards for our efforts was meeting a Dutch fan who has followed The Tour the past seven years putting on a goofy uniform advertising the Carrefour supermarket that sponsors the Red Polka Dot Jersey.
Somehow we had managed to miss him all these years, both along the road and on television. He was camped at the site of the Intermediate Sprint where he has a chance for TV coverage. He also likes to park himself near the feed zone, but he said The Tour is not identifying the spot on its route sheets this year as it had been attracting too many fans hoping for water bottles and musette bags and food the riders didn't want. They were interfering with the soigneurs trying to hand off the food and adding to the congestion of riders slowing to grab their bags. One can still guess where the food zone will be somewhere near the half way point of the stage. It is still posted along the route, including a warning that it is approaching.
We thought we had glimpsed The Devil amongst the cobbles on television, even though he had announced his retirement in December. This Dutch guy confirmed that he was here and had been in Utrecht. His retirement was due to his sponsor withdrawing, but he found another. Vincent and I ended our riding once again at ten p.m. and crawled into our tents between some woods and a cornfield excited over the possibility of renewing our acquaintance with The Devil along the road the next day, knowing he always parks himself somewhere in the last forty kilometers.