All was going precisely as I'd hoped. I'd made it over two Category Three and one Category Two climbs in time to find a bar with a television in the small town of Allemont at the base of the Col du Glandon, a monster fifteen-mile climb that I would be very happy to rest up for while spending a couple hours watching men on bikes. I ordered my menthe á l'eau and took a seat at a table. The lone person watching, a white-haired lady, turned and asked, "Did you hear, Van Garderen is out of The Race."
She didn't know I was American, just that this was big news to anyone who was interested in The Tour. "No, what happened?" I replied, hoping it wasn't a drug positive.
"He wasn't feeling well. He was dropped on the first short climb twenty-five miles into the stage. He regained the peloton, and held on until the third climb and was dropped again. He just didn't have it, so he got in his team car. You may remember he had a bad day too after a rest day last year in the Pyrenees."
This woman knew cycling. She was English and had been coming to France for the past seven years for The Tour. She was of course a Sky fan and was particularly happy with the performance of Geraint Thomas, a Welshman, as she has been living in Wales. He's been the revelation of The Tour, shepherding Froome up the climbs and having enough energy left to finish each stage strong. He entered today's stage sixth overall and with Van Garderen out was in fifth. By the end of the day he had moved up to fourth, six seconds ahead of Contador, who suffered a crash losing two minutes to Froome.
The stage concluded with a three-and-a-half mile climb to the ski resort of Pra Loup. Simon Geschke of Germany rode away from the day's large breakaway group on a Category One climb fifteen miles from the finish and held everyone off on the descent and climb. Talansky was the number one chaser, closing to within 32 seconds of him. He now becomes the American hope, though not for the podium as were his initial aspirations, but rather the Top Ten. The six-and-a-half minutes he gained on the leaders moved him up five slots to twelfth, three minutes out of tenth. He's been trying to make things happen. He was in a break two stages ago that had gained seven minutes. But he had a flat and fell back to the peloton. He had a teammate in the break, but for some reason he did not offer Talanksy a wheel.
Quintana spurted ahead of Froome on the final climb several times, but unlike Pantani's attacks of yore that came like rocket launches, they were all short-lived and Froome was soon back on his wheel. Valverde now moves up to third with Van Garderen gone, and is looking legitimate despite being somewhat long in the tooth and secondary to Quintana on the Moviestar team. He was able to drop Nibali after the two of them had been dropped by Froome and Quintana.
Just as the results were all in and I was preparing to tackle the Glandon, a hard thunderstorm struck. The same thing happened yesterday, though a little earlier in the afternoon. I was approaching a town when the rain came yesterday and took shelter in its cathedral for near an hour until the storm fizzled to a drizzle. Ask rode I kept waiting for it to stop, but it had no such intentions. The terrain was up and down. I welcomed the climbs. They kept me warm and were safe. The descents were perilously steep. My brakes were just barely working. I knew I was wearing them out, so after an hour I made camp in a freshly mown hay field with the hay laying in bunches that I gathered for a mattress. I had hoped to bike at least another hour, but it was well that I hadn't, as I would have made a wrong turn in the town of La Mure, where the stage left the Route de Napoleon and headed over a high ridge. The course markers weren't up yet as this was a rest day and the crew was marking the next day's stage that would begin Digne-les-Baines.
I reached La Mure at nine a.m. just as its tourist office was opening. I asked if there was a supermarket on The Tour route out of town. There wasn't, so I had to settle for a small grocery store around the corner. As we were talking the crew that marks the course came rolling by in their two distinctive yellow vans. And just like that there were markers ahead. They had gotten an early start to beat the heat as this was forty miles into the stage. They must have been in a good mood as they were very generous and creative with their markers today, even adorning an antique vehicle in a roundabout with markers.
The heat was moderate until I plunged over 3,000 feet down to the valley that leads to L'Alpe d'Huez and also to the Glandon. Then I was back in the oven. I stopped at a rare rest area that offered water. While I rested in the shade a cyclist stopped and asked if I had any oil, as after yesterday's rain his chain was creaking. He was from Scotland and was staying up at L'Alpe d'Huez with six cycling buddies. The valley was full of MAMILS (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) testing their legs on the legendary Tour climbs and hanging out to watch the pros, which they all were trying to emulate as they flew by me with nary a word.
A handful joined me and the English woman at the bar. As each entered she asked if they had heard about Van Garderen. None had. The first was a Dutch guy with shaved legs, like many of the MAMILS. He said he used to race but was now a physiologist and coach. A German with unshaved legs said he had won his group's race up the nine-mile L'Alpe d'Huez with a time of one hour and three minutes, thirty minutes slower than Pantani's record. The English woman told them I had been following The Tour since its start. Neither said anything.
I wasn't particularly happy about more rain. I had gained over a thousand feet of elevation since descending into this valley and it was after five, so the heat was no longer so oppressive. But at least I didn't have to worry about my brakes, as what awaited me was nothing but climbing, the longest and hardest so far. I was hoping to get half-way up and camp. It was just twenty-five miles from the summit to the stage finish in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. I could be there by noon, exactly forty-eight hours after I had started the 116-mile stage in Gap. I hadn't had to overextend my legs so would be good for two more Beyond Category climbs in the next two days. And I could hang out at the stage finish and enjoy the Big Screen for the first time since the team time trial.