I knew I would fall well short of making it to the Big Screen today to watch the end of the stage having camped one hundred miles from the finish, so I had to ride hard, or take minimal rest, to get as far down the course as I could before it was closed down. It is a rolling closure timed for an hour before the caravan is due. When I hit the road at 7:30, a little late, forced to finally replace my tube with the slow leak as it was fully flat this morning, I was on a sector that would be closed at eleven.
I took my first and only significant break at nine when I came upon a supermarket and bought my food for the day (a yogurt drink, quiche and cassoulet), to go along with the madeleines and couscous I had in reserve. By eleven I had reached the noon to four zone. That was a relief. Eleven would have been disastrously early to be derailed. Noon would still be sooner than I wanted to be brought to a halt, so I road steadily only pausing occasionally for a photo and a swig of yogurt drink.
The bike art was in greater abundance on this stage than any other. Giant bikes were popular.
So were signs thanking The Tour for coming this way.
And no stage is complete without hay art or Vive Le Tour signs, though rarely are they combined.
When noon rolled around I awaited the dreaded ejection. I was closing in on fifty miles, the minimum amount of mileage I would be satisfied with. There was already hardly any traffic on the road, bicycle or otherwise. Every car that came up from behind I feared would be a gendarme ordering me off the course. There weren't as many positioned along the course as usual. Many of the intersections that they would ordinarily be posted at simply had barriers placed in front of them, maybe a cost savings. It was a relief, as it is very arbitrary whether a gendarme will say "stop" or simply watch, and some are all to eager to exert their authority.
I was still going at 12:30, partially thanks to a long isolated stretch with few fans and no side roads. It was a hot day and after three hours with hardly a pause I was beginning to wish I would be stopped. I had gone beyond fifty miles and now every mile was a bonus. Finally at 12:45 a gendarme stepped out into the middle of the road from a crowd of people and pointed to the intersecting road for me to turn off to. He gave me a glaring, menacing look to make sure I knew he meant business and that I wouldn't try to ride around him as Skippy and others are known to do. I nodded an acquiescence as I approached and gladly complied with his order.
There were cornfields all round. The only shade was an old stone house close to the road. Others brought their own.
I took advantage of the touring cyclist's privilege and leaned my bike up against the stone house and plopped down in its sliver of shade while everyone else clung to the roadside. I hard barely begun to eat my Tupperware bowl of ravioli and couscous left over from dinner when a rider wearing a Tinkoff-Saxo uniform of Albert Contador's team was halted by the gendarme. He immediately protested that he was Oleg Tinkov, the owner of the Tinkoff-Saxo team and that he rides the course every day. The gendarme said that didn't matter, that the course was closed except for official vehicles. He was being trailed by a team car, but that wasn't official enough to allow him to continue on. As he pleaded his case a police car arrived on the scene, but they too would not grant him permission, even as he pointed at his uniform and told them who he was.
Then he called back to the driver of his car to bring him his shorts, as they contained his credentials that would prove he was who he said he was.
But that didn't matter either. Nor did the chants of a few boisterous fans on the opposite side of the road of "Oleg, Oleg,"
"See, everybody kmows who I am," he said.
I was rooting for him to win his case as a minor precedent for letting cyclists continue riding on the course up to just fifteen minutes or so until the caravan is due rather than a full hour. There have been times when I've been allowed to do this, but not often. The trick is to keep riding beyond the initial cut-off time. Then the gendarmes down the road will think that since I'm still riding, maybe its okay and they don't want to be the ogre earning protests from the fans all around.
But I was also rooting against him, as it was a minor pleasure to see that this Russian billionaire with a mouth like Donald Trump and controversial Twitter outbursts was being treated no better by these gendarmes than me. It was possible that they were fully aware of who he was and were happy to stand up to him. He is the most outspoken of team owners and had been threatening to lead a boycott of The Tour next year if The Tour didn't start sharing the millions of dollars it rakes in from television revenue with the teams. Just about all the teams are strapped for money and always desperate for sponsorship money. Tinkoff himself fears he will lose the Danish Saxo Bank as a co-sponsor next year after firing his Danish director Bjarne Riis and may have to fold the team, especially since his fortune has been jeopardized by Russia's banking crisis, which is the source of his money.
I've encountered Tinkoff riding the course in years past. Its highly admirable and demonstrates his love of cycling. Previously he was trailing a team car, almost in its draft. If he had been doing the same thing here, he wouldn't have been stopped, as the gendarme wouldn't have seen him, and as he whizzed by there would be nothing he could do. But it is much nicer to be out in front of the car looking out upon all the people along the course and all the decorations. It is further perplexing that he just can't get some sort of authorization from Christian Prudhomme, The Tour director, to ride the course beyond the closure time for motorists. I nearly asked Prudhomme if he might grant me such permission when I met him at the Tour of Oman this past February, but after a few pleasantries he had to tend to his official duties.
After nearly five minutes and another set of gendarmes in a car who wouldn't let Oleg ride, his bike went up on the car and he crawled into the front seat.
It was nearly an hour until the caravan made its raucous passage. I nabbed a few useful items that I had missed previously. Beside a madeleine I snatched up a packet of liquid laundry detergent, a regular item from years past, that I squeeze into a small bottle and then use to wash my clothes in small doses. This year's glasses wipe is blue and has The Tour monogram on it. It can replace my orange one from last year I'm still using. I also picked up a yellow wrist band from Banette, a brand of food, a some refrigerator magnets that are always nice to have. As the caravan went by at speed spraying its trinkets many ended up in the cornfields, but not for long.
After the caravan it was a ninety minute wait for the peloton. There was a town two miles down the road that I reached on some back roads. I found the cemetery, where I could immediately use the detergent, and then the tourist office, where I could do some charging and follow The Race at cyclingnews.com. It was just a half block from the race course. I watched the four-man breakaway whizz by and then the peloton a minute later and the fifty or so following vehicles. The last entry at cyclingnews was that Ivan Basso was performing domestique duties, dropping back to the Tinkoff-Saxo car for water bottles. When I resumed riding a minute later I passed several fans walking towards me clutching Tinkoff-Saxo bottles that had just been discarded and saw another on someone's portable picnic table. There was no hope for me finding one with the road so packed and fans walking both sides scouring the roadside. But thanks to my trusty pliers I was able to liberate a couple of course markers.
I continued on for an hour to the next big town with a television to watch The Race's finish. I didn't have to,look hard to find a large outdoor cafe with two flat screen televisions set up. Both had a cluster of fans sitting and standing watching.
Among them were a trio of Brits who were fans of Froome.
The breakaway had been caught setting up a sprint. There were no crashes this time and Cavendish altered his style of being led out, biding his time sitting on the wheel of Greipel, as Greipel had been doing to Cavendish. The stategy worked, as Cavendish surged past and handily won, proving he's not washed up, proving that he is a commodity that teams ought to be interested in. His contract his up this year with Etix-Quick Step. They have been saying they don't want to pay him as much as they have and maybe not at all. If he had win another stage or two, it would be worth millions to him. He's just thirty, actually younger than Greipel. So now it is Greipel two and Cavendish one in this Tour.
At last Tyler Farrar, one of only three Americans in The Race, along with Van Garderen and Talanksy, and the only one to have won a stage in a previous Tour, made his presence known in the sprint. He only finished seventh, but it was the first time he had collected any sprint points, meaning he hadn't once finished in the top fifteen--most perplexing.
The interest heightens. Unfortunately there won't be a sprint finish for a while. Tomorrow is the Mur de Bretagne, comparable to the Mur de Huy, then the team time trial and then three days in the Pyrenees after a long transfer to Pau. It will only get more exciting and on all fronts.