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.

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