When we noticed the course markers had been set up in Utrecht Friday afternoon for Stage Two, a day earlier than usual, we decided to give them a follow and set out on the stage that evening, rather than the next afternoon. We had only planned to stick around until noon on Saturday anyway for a look at all the excitement the publicity caravan would generate and then start riding before the riders started whizzing around the nine-mile time trial course at one minute intervals.
But after half an hour of following the course markers with a dotted black line beneath the black arrow, indicating the initial neutralized portion of the stage before the racing began, the route intersected the time trial stage and the neutralized arrows ended. We had been tricked into thinking that the entire stage had been marked, when it was just the first couple of miles in the heart of the city, which would have been difficult for the crew to erect the next day with the city packed with people.
So rather than having the route marked for us, we had to figure it out for ourselves, which isn't the easiest thing to do through the urban sprawl and especially in Holland where cyclists are generally relegated to bike paths and not allowed on the road. The bike paths don't always follow the road one wishes to follow. And it can be tricky knowing whether there is a bike path on both sides of the road or just one or not at all.
Luckily one doesn't have to wait too long for a cyclist to come along to ask for assistance, and the Dutch have been amazingly generous with their help. A sixty-year old woman on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle rode with us for a mile leading us to the road we needed to find out of Utrecht. Half an hour later a young man on a racing bike wearing a special edition Utrecht Tour de France jersey rode with us for half a mile holding his cell phone with its GPS feature on to put us back on The Tour route.
The next morning when we had gone astray for the third or fourth time in Rotterdam before the course marker crew had come through, two twenty-year old Moroccans used their cell phone to show us the way. We invited them to ride along with us, but they said they were observing Ramadan and the effort in the heat without being able to eat or drink would be impossible. They joined us as we taking our first break of the day after spending the night alongside a small-town cemetery just twelve miles before Rotterdam. It was a semi-desperation campsite at ten p.m., as the countryside for miles had been too densely populated or fenced in pasture land for camping.
We were greeted at 7:30 the next morning by the cemetery caretaker, asking us if we knew we were camped by a cemetery. "We are a Christian community and this is a sacred site," he told us. When we told him we were following The Tour de France, which would be passing nearby the next day, and were preparing to be on our way, he invited us into his office for coffee and couldn't have been nicer.
The young Moroccans were equally cordial and conversational, but they didn't much like Holland. They had come with their parents and weren't fitting in at all, plus they complained how expensive everything was. After about fifteen minutes of banter, as we were preparing to leave, it came up that I was an American. They had never met an American before and couldn't have been more thrilled. It was the dream of both of them to come to America. They asked how much a plane ticket would cost and if I might be able to help them get a visa.
Some of our route through Rotterdam was on a bike path with embedded plaques stating "2010 Tour de France Prologue." We had all three been here for it. When we saw the Hostel Vincent had stayed at, he stopped to take a photo. "I didn't expect to ever see that again," he said.
We were remembering the difficulties we had then too followng The Tour route. Since cyclists don't ride on the road here, we couldn't actually follow the route, but just tag along beside it, while sometimes being forced to make loopy detours when the path diverged from the road. We were beginning to feel like the Moroccans in their regard for this country despite the goodwill of its people and its delicious rich chocolate milk. All day we kept getting separated from the route and then had to find our way back to it. And, most disappointing of all, the route was hardly decorated, as had been Utrecht.
We had one bonus stretch of a half hour when we latched on to the draft train of Geoff Thomas' group following The Tour route one day ahead of the riders. Thomas is a former prominent English soccer player who was diagnosed with leukemia the year after he retired in 2003. When his treatment succeeded in defeating the cancer, he was inspired by Lance Armstrong to ride The Tour route in 2005 to prove his recovery. He wrote a book about it called "Riding Through the Storm." Since then he has devoted himself to raising money to find a cure for leukemia. He decided to celebrate the ten tenth anniversary of his Tour ride by doing it again this year, and to try to raise a million pounds doing it. He hoped to recruit twenty cyclists with pledges of 50,000 pounds each. Armstrong was going to join him for the ride, but the powers-that-be in cycling let it be known that he wouldn't be welcome on The Tour route. Rather than doing the whole ride, he will just join the group for two stages between the Pyrenees and Alps.
The "BeforetheTour.com" group passed us riding on the road on the outskirts of Rotterdam. There were eleven cyclists in matching jerseys, including two women, led by three motorcycles and a car and trailed by four vans all plastered with decals promoting their Before the Tour ride. We sped up to their seventeen mile per hour pace and rode alongside them on the path for a couple of miles. When our path ended at a roundabout, we swung out on to the road and took advantage of their road privileges for several miles until the continual slowing at intersections and then accelerations did us in with the heavy loads we were carrying. If we could have simply ridden a steady pace, we could have stuck with them to the stage end, but our legs were done in by the effort to regain the lighter bikes every time we had to get back up to speed. Still it was nice to make contact with this group. We probably won't see them again, as in the future the only time we'll be riding a day ahead of the peloton will be in the evening hours after that day's stage and this group will be long done with their ride.
David doesn't like riding in the heat so we took a much, much too long two hour midday break so he could have a swim in a canal and a nap under a tree. When we returned to the road we had course markers to follow, though they were only of marginal help since we couldn't ride on the road the racers will. Our next stop came at three p.m. at a bar to watch the final two-and-a-half hours of the time trial. We had the television all to ourselves.
Vincent was thrilled that the Australian and former hour-record holder Rohan Dennis, riding for the American BMC team, had the best time so far and by a significant margin. None of his main threats had ridden yet, but still his time would be hard to beat. The camera was on him as he sweated out former time trial World Champion Tony Martin's strong effort, just several seconds short of beating his time, and then former prologue winner Fabian Cancellera missing by a few seconds more. When Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, among the last riders on the course, were even further behind, he held his wife in a prolonged embrace. He would be wearing the Yellow Jersey the next day, no doubt his proudest moment in cycling.
When we returned to the road the wind had turned cool and strong as we closed in on North Sea. And it was in our face. It held us to half the speed we had enjoyed the evening before when we were well off the coast and the wind was at our back. We pushed into it for a couple of hours, knowing that it could be even worse the next day. There was more open terrain than the night before, but we needed a camp site protected from the fierce wind. We passed up several sandy gullies, as David the biologist said that they wouldn't be an ecologically responsible place to camp. We settled upon a narrow strip of grass behind a hedge of trees beside a small parking lot overlooking a harbor. There were stray cigarette butts and condoms. It looked like a place people would stop for a pee as well. It was getting late and we were worn out. Once again Vincent had the last word--"A little urine never hurt anybody."