Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Stage Three

Vincent and I had pedaled thirty miles down today's stage, the first of two in Belgium,  past dozens of early arriving fans along the road before we received our first cheer, and it came from an older couple with French license plates on their camper. In France nearly everyone applauds as we pass or shouts out "Allez," or Bravo," or "Bon Courage."

The Belgians are a somber, withdrawn lot not prone to expressing their emotions, except when they don't approve of a cyclist on their roads. Though racing is a popular sport in Belgium, there is an element who regard cyclists as less than admirable and pass all to close in their cars or shout to get on the bicycle path.  I was even hit by a tennis ball from a car.  It hit me in the back and stung.  I had to ask Vincent, who was trailing me, what it was that hit me.  It came so suddenly he didn't even see it launched from the car.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of Belgians who are friendly and enthusiastic towards cyclists.  We've had one encounter after another with Belgians who fully embrace our ride.  We watched today's stage in a bar with a fine fellow who sat with us for over an hour translating the commentary and expressing awe at what we were doing.  Towards nightfall a guy in a car with his young son, who recognized us as Tour followers, stopped to tell us they had been on the Mur de Huy for today's finish and was excited for what we were doing.  A little later a Belgian touring cyclist invited us to a place that provided free accommodations for cyclists.  We would have loved to join him, but we had to get another ten miles down the road to get within seventy miles of the next day's finish.  Earlier in the day when I stopped to take a photo of two Belgians beside their vintage car they wouldn't let me leave.

They had advice on where to watch the day's stage and also wanted to know how far we were riding.  The owner of the vintage car said his ninety year old father lives in the south of France and would be watching today's stage.  They would be waving to him as the peloton passed, sure that the cameras would zoom in on them.

They weren't alone in that.  A Dutch family was offering up a painting by the husband of a rider from the early mustache era.

With no Belgians a threat to win The Race or even a stage the only banners celebrating Belgian riders were devoted to Eddie Merckx, who just turned seventy.  The lower corner of this one thanking Merckx also acknowledges his number of victories (525), a number that all Belgians recognize as synonymous with Merckx, as 714 once was with Babe Ruth in the baseball world for his career home runs.  

Vincent and I reached Andennes by 12:30 after forty-one miles, where we waited ninety minutes for the caravan to pass.  We were far from alone.  Plenty of kids were most expectant peering up the road.

Vincent and I nabbed a nice sampling of the goodies, standing back grabbing the items that flew past the first row of fans.

We both got a green hat from Skoda, new sponsor of the Green Jersey.  The past few years their hats have been the white of the White Jersey it sponsored.  I also snatched a madeleine and a packet of syrup to flavor water and a couple of key chains and a bag and a couple of items I'm not sure about.  Festina is giving out a bicycle hat this year that looks like it might be the best item of all.

After the thirty minute procession we headed on down the road, as we were 120 miles from the next day's stage finish.  It would be ninety minutes before the peloton passed and we couldn't afford the time to watch them zip by.  We knocked off fifteen miles guided by the course markers and then began our search for a bar in Namur with a television.  It only took two attempts this time.  And it had the added bonus of WIFI so we could supplement our viewing with the commentary on the action at cyclingnews.com.

The peloton was sixty kilometers from the finish.  Not long afterwards a horrific crash left quite a few riders sprawled in agony including Cancellera in the Yellow Jersey.  It was so bad that for the first time ever the race director halted the race on the grounds that all the medical staff was occupied tending to riders leaving none available to assist down the road if there were another accident.  It was a controversial decision with riders wildly gestilating that they wanted to keep riding.  Vincent and I did too, as any delay here would also delay us in resuming our ride. The Race resumed over a climb.  Two more short climbs were ahead including the final kilometer up the Mur de Huy with it nineteen per cent grade.

The finale did not disappoint.  Froome spurted ahead but was passed by Rodriguez, who had won up this climb at the Flèche Wallone.  He's not a contender for the overall, so Froome couldn't be disappointed.  Instead he could be pleased that it revealed he had an edge on his three prime contenders and he had the added bonus of assuming the Yellow Jersey thanks to his time bonus, reintroduced after a several year absence.  That's two stages in a row that the time bonus determined the race leader.

From the bar Vincent and I faced the lone categorized climb on Stage Four up from the Meuse River to a Citadel with magnificent views.  We biked until a little after ten just as it was getting dark.  We needed our headlamps to eat in the dark forest where we camped.  

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