I pulled into Muret at eight a.m. and easily found the plaza overlooked by a yellow bike that the peloton would be departing from the next day and the course markers that would be guiding them. All was quiet. I was hoping to see the three vans and car and motorcycles of the One Day Before The Tour group and the eleven cyclists that I rode with for a few miles on the stage two route out of Utrecht almost two weeks ago now, as the one and only Lance Armstrong was to join them today for the next two stages. Their web site gave no departure time or invitation to join them. Eight seemed a likely time, but maybe they left early to beat the heat or maybe they were leaving later to recover from their ride up to Plateau de Beille yesterday.
It was going to be hot so I headed out, knowing they would catch up to me if they hadn't left already. Muret had gloriously accessorized the route through its outskirts with attractive oversized yellow bikes.
One round-about had sprouted several sculptures of wheels.
It made for a great start to the 124-mile stage to Rodez up on the Massif Central. The only downer was that the neutralized zone continued for eight miles, making it in actuality a 132-mile stage. The neutralized zones have been running long this year adding a good one hundred miles to The Race. I don't know if that is to allow the racers time to warm up or to trick them into thinking they don't have to ride as many miles as they actually do. They do ride at a reduced rate in the neutralized zones, but not me. I maintain my usual pace expending the usual amount of energy. The route sheets keep the distance of the neutralized zone a secret. As it continued on and on, it dawned on me that Lance's group might have skipped the neutralized zone and just driven to the actual start to spare their legs those miles. I noticed on their web site not everyone was in the photo at the summit of the Tourmalet. I can well imagine that not everyone in their group is riding every mile. My surmising was verified when I later read at cyclingnews.com that Lance had given an interview to a hoard of journalists in a supermarket parking lot where the group had departed from several miles into the actual route.
The end of the neutralized zone came at the beginning of a long gradual hill that would make it easier for an early attackers to get away. It was the first of a series of climbs in the first fifteen miles, none of which were categorized. Its not going to be the easy day that the riders may have been looking forward to after three hard days in the Pyrenees. At least they had sunflowers to look upon.
I took a quick break after ninety minutes to eat and rest my legs and get out of the sun, but I kept an eye on the road. A group of cyclists in matching uniforms and in formation came struggling up the climb I had stopped at, but it was a Dutch group with just one following van. They were in anguish already and their day had hardly begun. A stiff headwind out of the east wasn't helping matters for any of us.
I just kept it in a low gear and plugged away. By eleven I had given up on Lance and company coming by. I had been looking forward to showing Lance the yellow wrist band the caravan was distributing and also telling him how much I liked his bike shop Mellow Johnny in Austin. It was lacking a course marker when I was there and I had one to offer him. Though there was no Lance in body Lance appeared on the road and it wasn't "Lance Go Home" of "Lance Stay Away" but a series of affirmations as during his racing days.
The last time I had seen such graffiti was in 2010, the second year of his two-year comeback. It was in great abundance back then when thousands of Americans flocked to The Tour. The Lance-effect contributed millions of dollars to the French economy. Now I am practically the lone American here. Interest in The Tour has dropped dramatically stateside as well. Charles Pelky says that during the Lance-era 30,000 people a day would turn to his website liveupdateguy.com to follow his commentary on each stage of The Tour as it was unfolding. Now he gets 1,000.
This was rolling hay and grain terrain, which meant hay bale art. A simple TDF adorned a distant hillside.
A huge polka jersey was wrapped over a platform of bales.
And a couple of bales elevated a mutant cyclist.
It was such a hot day, in the upper nineties, that I didn't mind waiting in line at an air-conditioned grocery store, but it made the heat all the more ovenish when I went back outside. It was so hot that I didn't have to ask for ice in my menthe á l'eau at the bar where I stopped to watch The Race. I sat in front of a fan. The riders had it slightly better as it was raining in the Pyrenees. It was pelting down with hail at the finish a couple hours before they were due to arrive, but had stopped as they began trickling in after the ten-mile climb. The road wouldn't have slowed them and in fact the cooling effect may have helped some riders to hang on.
As with yesterday a breakaway group was well up the road. Froome and his Sky team would let one of them have the victory, content simply to keep his contenders within their reign. Joaquim Rodriguez took his second win while Froome maintained his comfortable lead arriving together with those behind him in the standings. Contador, Nibali and Quintana mounted token attacks that didn't amount to anything. Froome didn't even dignify Contador and Nibali with a chase, just waiting for their efforts to wither. Quintana was a different story. When he went, so did Froome. Van Garderen showed why he hasn't been lumped with the lead four by not mounting any attack, perhaps already focused on not risking or overextending himself and concerned about preserving a place on the podium other than the top step. Froome tested his legs to see if he could leave everyone behind as he did on Tuesday, but his legs weren't up to it.
It had cooled somewhat when I returned to the road, truly welcoming the cool in the late evening hours until slipping into a mown hay field for the night. My last fill-up came from a woman watering her flowers. The water was as refreshingly cool as any I've ever drunk.