Some of my most memorable days of riding The Tour have been on Bastille Day. It always seems like there are two or three times as many people out along the road on this great national holiday and a heightened degree of festivity. They begin flocking to the roadsides early with large picnic baskets and board games and newspapers and magazines. It is a day, too, when there are loads of cyclists riding the route. But today, despite ideal warm weather and the promise of a dramatic stage in the mountains, it appeared as if the people of this region didn't get the news The Tour was passing through. Fewer people were out along the course than any other stage this year, and almost any stage in my memory.
There were still people all along the route, but just in droplets and handfuls. And as it has been the previous nine stages, there weren't many on bikes. Maybe it was a Basque backlash. The Tour entered Basque country today. There used to be a Basque team, Euskatel, until two years ago, when it was disbanded due to the Spanish economy being in the dumps almost as deep as Greece. The orange-clad Euskatel fans were among the most enthusiastic. They took over the roadsides when The Tour came to the Pyrenees. There were some out today, though not in orange, identifying themselves instead with their flag or garb resembling the flag.
There were those sporting the French flag, the tricolor, as well.
Decorations were sparse. A dangling bike from a crane was about the extent of it.
The most striking sculpture of the day was a Paul Bunyan of a fisherman in a roundabout advertising the fishing in the area.
There were a few handmade signs exhorting French riders, to go along with the one of the girls asking for a water bottle.
The best exhortation though was the one a family was painting on the road the evening before for the French rider Mathieu Ladagnous.
The day's route passed through Mourenx, whose velodrome had been named for Eddie Merckx, honoring him for one of the most dramatic stages in Tour history that finished in Mourenx and that he won in overwhelming fashion in the 1969 Tour.
I realized, as I was gliding along in the cool and still of the evening, after spending all day traveling the 450 miles from Vannes to Pau via train, that the best decorations of all are the black-arrowed course markers on the bright yellow background with The Tour emblem in the corner. One comes into site up the road every couple of minutes, and each tugs my face into a smile and gives me a perk a joy with all they represent. They truly allow me to lose myself in the thrill of riding The Tour, not having to worry about finding my way, and fully reminding me where I am and what I'm doing. All I have to do is follow those arrows and all is well. And my joy is elevated by all the motor homes parked along the route with chairs and picnic tables out front occupied by others appreciating the experience.
That there weren't the usual mobs on Bastille Day hardly mattered. I could especially enjoy these miles, gazing upon the Pyrenees ahead, as I didn't have the pressure of trying to get as far down the route as possible. I intended to stop thirty miles from the summit finish, where I could turn and pick up the next day's course forty miles away. I only had to ride forty miles by noon, an hour before the caravan was due. I cut it a little close, as I was slowed by two Category Four climbs. While I waited for the caravan, I finished off some cornflakes and chocolate milk and made a couple of peanut butter sandwiches for later. There wasn't much competition for the items from the caravan, so I gathered up an item from nearly every sponsor, finally getting a Festina bicycle hat.
It took two hours to reach a town with a bar, as I had a couple of ridges to ride over that were higher than either of the rated climbs I'd ridden earlier in the day. It was the most climbing I had done since I'd been in the Alps over a month ago, but my legs were up for it, especially after nearly a complete rest day before, even napping a little on the train. Though my seat didn't recline, the train was so smooth and the passengers so quiet, it was easy to nod off. It was my first train experience in France and had me wondering why I hadn't taken advantage of it before. I could roll my bike fully loaded right on to the train. I had to remove the front panniers to hang it, but could leave on the rear panniers and the gear strapped atop. I needed a reservation for the bike, as there is only room for no more than two per car and many people travel with bikes, but it is only five euros. I had to make two transfers, but since French trains are on time to the minute, there was no concern about missing a connection, even when I had only fifteen minutes between one of them.
The bar I found had The Tour on and a crowd watching it. Maybe that's why so few were on the road. They wanted to be in front of a television watching all the dramatics. The final ten mile climb lived up to all expectations, finally sorting out who was for real. Froome proved that his dominance so far was not an aberration and Nibali revealed that his struggles were a true indication that he is not on form this year, losing nearly five minutes to Froome, effectively ending his Tour. It was rumored even before this that he knew he was subpar and wanted to go home. That would be a shameful thing to do. Unfortunately, Van Garderen proved his sceptics correct that he is not a bonafide contender, at least for the Yellow Jersey. He lost two-and-a-half minutes to Froome, though clings to second place by a few seconds over Quintana, who only lost a minute and can still hope to challenge Froome even though he was able to ride away from him today. With three days in the Alps and two more in the Pyrenees, he'll have the opportunity. Contador lost nearly three minutes and looked as if he may not be fully recovered from his winning effort in the Giro. No one has won them both in the same year in nearly twenty years and it doesn't look like it will happen this year.
Froome was elated crossing the line and later waiting to go on stage for his win. He could be thrilled by his effort and also of his team. Richie Porte finished second just ahead of Quintana and Geraint Thomas was sixth on the day, after accompanying him much of the way up the climb. Quintana dropped Porte when he accelerated trying to catch Froome. Porte could have let up and waited for his future teammate Van Garderen, a minute-and-a-half back, to help him, but that would have brought an explosion of controversy. Porte announced the day before he would be leaving Sky after this season. He didn't say so, but it is generally believed he will join BMC. But he remained a dutiful teammate to Froome and caught back up to Quintana. As they approached the finish he surged past him, denying him some bonus seconds that could be crucial to Froome.
Froome may have attacked a little early, with four miles to go, as he must have been eager when the lead group had been whittled down to just him and Quintana and Porte. The hierarchy may have been established today. The podium would well be Froome, Quintana and Van Garderen.
Teklehaimanot of Etria wore the Polka Dot Jersey for the last day as he finished 132nd, 21 minutes and 34 seconds back, Froome claims the jersey but since he will be in Yellow tomorrow, Porte will be wearing it since he ranks second in the competition thanks to his effort overtaking Quintana. And Sagan gives the Green Jersey back to Greipel, as Greipel won the intermediate sprint and Sagan put in no effort to finish among the top riders to get some points there.
One of the bigger disappointments to the day was Talanksy finishing sixteen mini tea back in 25th. He's got a lot to do to improve upon his tenth place finish of two years ago. He won't be challenging Van Garderen for the top American in The Race, as he had hoped.
I continued biking until after nine after knocking off a few miles of the next day's stage that starts in Pau. I joined up with Stage Eleven in Nay, home to the Beret Museum, whose sign is doffed with a concrete beret. I had a fine campsite in a narrow corridor between two cornfields that were already head-high ten miles from Lourdes.