For the first time in over ten days since Vincent made his departure, I had a riding partner. A guy from Salt Lake City joined me for the last mile to the summit of the Category Two Col de Cabre. He said he had seen me riding the course the last few days and wondered where I was from and if I was riding The Race from start to finish. He had chased after me from his camper van, as he was only riding a few miles of the stage.
He was here with his wife and two children. They'd rented a deluxe camper van complete with a shower for three thousand euros. This was the last of five stages they'd see. Tomorrow he was off to bike up Mont Ventoux and then home. This was his first Tour, as he'd only taken up cycling three years ago. He had an independent spirit to be following The Tour on his own, rather than signing up with any of the many companies that provide the service. I used to meet such people all the time back in the Lance era. It was always a pleasure to meet up with fellow Americans who were having the time of their life's.
Now that rarely happens without a dominant American. The Tour does appeal to nationalistic urges. When Lance was an international celebrity Americans flocked to The Race in their Postal Service, then Discovery, jerseys and American flags. When Jan Ullrich was a factor, Germans were in abundance. Cadel Evans brought legions of Aussies. When Bjarne Riis took control of the 1996 Race, Danes descended upon Paris. The Norwegians have been a steady and strong presence since Thor Hushvold was winning sprints and the Green Jersey a decade ago and now with Kristoff doing the country proud.
Anyone who attends The Tour can't help but return to their homeland and gush such unabashed glowing accolades over the time they've had that their fellow countrymen ought to keep the flow going. But it doesn't work that way. People want to support a winner, not just a seminal event, except maybe the Norwegians. Their numbers still remain strong without a truly strong rider to support, fully aware that July in France is the experience of a lifetime. The Brits have been making their presence felt lately, but not as flagrantly as when Wiggins won The Tour, perhaps not fully embracing Kenyan-raised Froome as one of their own.
It was thirty miles from the summit of the Col de Cabre to Gap and then a loop that included another Category Two before descending to the finish in Gap. I only made it halfway there before I was halted in the pleasant town of Veynes with all the amenities I needed--a large supermarket, a tourist office, several bars and free-flowing ice-cold spring-water in spigots around town. I settled in for the next four hours of watching the caravan pass, then the racers, then retreating to a bar for the final hour of action.
I wasn't disappointed not to make it to Gap as I've seen a stage finish there several times and knew there was no shade around the Big Screen mounted along the finishing straightaway lined with shops. I wouldn't want to be standing in the sun for any period of time with temperatures still in the 90s. I even cut short my time scavenging from the caravan as twenty minutes was all I could take. Tomorrow was the second rest day, a day later than usual on a Tuesday, rather than the final Monday. It would be a rest day of a sort for me as well, though I'd still be spending five or six hours on my bike getting a head start on the peloton. And rather than riding a stage ahead, I'd be jumping two stages ahead, as the Wednesday stage was out of the way starting in Digne-les-Baines, the city with all the Goldsworthy sculptures. I'd already ridden that stage right after Cannes. I'd start in on Thursday's stage that sets out from Gap and includes a a Category One and a Beyond Category and several lesser climbs. It'd be nice to make a leisurely ride of it with no pressure to even find a bar on the rest day.
More than twenty riders had separated themselves from the main bunch including Sagan who has once again been putting on a super-human performance vying for Green Jersey points. He won the intermediate sprint and finished second on the day for the sixth time, this time unsuccessfully trying to chase down the Spaniard Luben Plaza riding for the Italian Lampre team. Since he's not vying for Yellow he's not besieged by accusations of doping as has Froome and anyone else who has led The Race since Lance. If he lost a few pounds and took over the lead of The Race then his life would be made miserable by the hounding of the press, as happened to Rasmussen when he couldn't be simply content with being the Polka Dot Jersey winner and went for Yellow a few years ago and then had to leave the sport in disgrace.
There were no threats to the general classification in today's break, so the Sky-led peloton let them have a fifteen-minute advantage while the main contenders awaited a possible showdown on the final climb.
None of the lead protagonists could likely gain even a minute on the climb and descent and by this point in The Race no one really needed to make a statement as all that had been done already. Everyone pretty much knows their status. Two weeks into The Race all had shown their strength. This is especially represented by Talansky. Every stage now where there is some separation among the riders he has lost time to the leaders, never being able to stay with them this year. And today again he lost another minute, though he's still in a semi-commendable seventeenth place, twenty-three minutes back, and twelve from tenth. With four days in the Alps he has to be hoping he's not as worn down as some of those ahead of him and he can equal his tenth of two years ago.
Though Nibali spurted ahead towards the end of the climb and used his pre-eminent descending skills to gain twenty-eight seconds on Froome and the seven others ahead of him, he remains in a distant eighth and did nothing more than show that he still has some will left. The biggest question remaining is if Quintana is possibly holding something in reserve and will fly away from Froome on one of the summit finishes in the Alps and overcome his three-minute deficit. But that is not the cyclist's mentality. They all want to crush their opponents and ride away from them whenever they can. He has been unable to do that so far and it would be a risk to hope he can since he can't be sure if Froome might have something in reserve himself. The top two places on the podium seem set, the same as two years ago. Third place though is up for grabs. It will be a challenge for Van Garderen to hold on to his thirty second advantage. It will be an exciting four days in the Alps.