Friday, July 24, 2015

Stage Nineteen

Just as the organizers had hoped, there will be a showdown on L'Alpe d'Huez on the penultimate stage tomorrow that will decide The Race after Quintana made an attack today that Froome for the first time this year couldn't take back. Quintana only gained thirty seconds, but it gave him and his fans some hope that he can do it again and with greater gusto, as he still has two-and-a-half minutes to overcome, a daunting task.

Just about everyone in the packed outdoor patio where I was watching the stage in Bourg d'Osians at the base of Alpe d'Huez cheered when Quintana took off with less than four miles left on the climb to the finish at the ski resort of La Toissuire. They weren't necessarily Quintana fans,  but rather racing fans who wanted tomorrow's stage to be a battle royale. A lone Englishman shouted out "Come on Froomey" every couple of minutes, as the gap hovered at fifteen seconds and it looked as if he could regain Quintana.  

The two of them once again proved they are the strongest climbers of this year's race, as no one else could keep up with them, and they narrowed the lead of Nibali, who had been a minute up the road, having boldly attacked forty miles from the finish.  It was a day of glory for Nibali, jumping to fourth with the possibility of overtaking Valverde, who is a little over a minute ahead of him.  That is more likely to happen than Quintana dethroning Froome.  

Also at stake tomorrow is tenth place.  Talansky is one minute behind Rolland, who may have expended too much energy today being in a long solo breakaway until Nibali caught him.  Talansky moved up to eleventh after Geraint Thomas exploded, finishing twenty-two minutes back, and dropping from fourth to fifteenth.  Talansky would be in tenth, but once again he failed to stay with the Yellow Jersey group, falling off on the final climb and losing a crucial two minutes.  He really wants tenth, as for the third stage in a row he was in an early breakaway that failed to stick.  But his fighting spirit is to be commended.  Two years ago in his first Tour on the final mountain stage he put out a supreme effort, even passing Contador, and jumped to tenth, so he is a good get to do it again.

I made it to Bourg d'Osians with hours to spare, even before the peloton had set out on its third day in the Alps repeating some of its miles from yesterday, climbing up the Col du Glandon from the opposite side and then descending the Col de la Croix de Fer, which they will be climbing tomorrow and which I finished off this morning by nine a.m., taking no chances on premature road closures.  Today's early closure came off the race course on my descent of the Glandon at the town where I had camped the night before.  

Gendarmes weren't allowing motorized traffic any further up the mountain starting at ten.  It was a very poor place to close the road, as there was hardly space for cars and especially camping fans and buses to turn around and no where to park.  It was ten miles to the summit and the race course, so no one would be walking that.  The road should have been closed eight miles further down the mountain. It was a travesty that the steady stream of cars I passed as I descended would all be turned back.  Generally, I'm greatly impressed about how well the French manage the two grand events that I've attended the last twelve years, Cannes and The Tour, but the past two days have been shameful.

I saw a lot of people who had spent the night along the road on the mountain out brushing their teeth with my early start.  Many of their encampments were quite ornate.

Most impressive though were the hundreds of cyclists tackling these monster climbs, and more women than I've ever seen. It takes considerable fortitude and strength.  Most were maintaining a steady, smooth cadence, and looked as if they were enjoying themselves.  All certainly had to be thrilled by the stunning scenery.  There were only a few who looked iffy, heads bowed, forcing the pedals, wondering what they'd gotten themselves into.  And there were a couple who had been reduced to walking their bikes, at least for a spell, determined to make it to the summit, always a triumphal moment.

I had one final triumphal moment for the day.  After watching the day's stage and managing to connect with Janina on an Internet phone call I took on L'Alpe d'Huez.  In the previous six times it has been included in The Tour these past twelve years I've ridden up in first thing in the morning with thousands of others.  It is a great communal event with the entire route wheel-to-wheel cyclists two or three abreast.  The last time I did it two years ago we were all detoured two miles from the summit.  That was a pain I didn't want to experience again.  Plus I wondered how much of a party it would be on the mountain the night before the stage, knowing the nine mile climb would already be packed with fans.

It was indeed a party with German drinking songs and Dutch techno music blaring and fans with bottles in hand.  There were only a few other cyclists so I was feted all the way.  Every so often someone would give me a push for a few seconds.  At Dutch corner half-way up the climb a guy MCing the festivities thrust a microphone in my face and asked how it was going.  "One pedal stroke at a time," I responded.  The Dutch guy Vincent and I met two weeks ago who puts on a Carrefour costume was there and ran along side me saying, "We meet again."  It had been the third or fourth time.

The pedaling was much easier than it had ever been.  Taking the train on the first rest day has made a considerable difference.  Two years ago I pedaled that five hundred mile transfer and my legs suffered for it.  It was two months before I was fully recovered. Pedaling up L'Alpe d'Huez that year at the end of The Race was a real ordeal.  I could enjoy it this time, especially knowing it was my final big effort of this year's Tour, as I will be taking the train back to Paris so I can get back to Chicago in time to drive up to Michael Moore's exceptional Traverse City Film Festival with Janina, our fourth time. And my legs won't be sighing with relief.  I can understand Contador's lack of pep, being the only one of the contenders who rode the Giro, where he won convincingly.  He took more out of him than he realized it would.

The detour sign two miles from the summit was already in place, but not being enforced, so I had the pleasure of following the route all the way to the summit.  Camping vans were parked everywhere in the sprawling ski town with fans standing about with beer in hand.  I took a side road out of town and found a patch of land just beyond two high rise condo buildings.  Germans were loudly singing on one balcony, but they quit before I had finished my dinner of ravioli and couscous.

I awoke to a more spectacular view than I could appreciate in the dark the evening before.

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