Saturday, July 25, 2015

Stage Twenty

My usual spot in front of the Big Screen under an overhang was still available when I arrived at 10:30, though it was about the last available place to sit in the shade.  The lawn in front was packed as well with those not adverse to being in the sun for seven hours.  It wasn't going to be insufferably hot up at 6,000 feet, but the sun was certainly going to be intense in the cloudless sky.  

Even at this early hour I had to take a circuitous route to reach the Big Screen two hundred meters from the finish line, as the course was fully-barricaded the last two-and-a-half miles winding through the ski town, and the gendarmes were out in full force preventing anyone from trespassing upon it.  There were several openings where one could go from one side to another, but each was guarded by a full phalanx of gendarmes.  At the 500-meter to go mark two rows of gendarmes were performing vigilance, daring anyone to get by them, while a squadron of reinforcements lingered to the side.  Those stationed in such high profile positions were all legitimate, well-seasoned gendarmes to betaken seriously.

I sat and read a book on the French Revolution and peeked up from time-to-time to watch all the nationalities parade by.  The Norwegians and Colombians were easy to identify as they were the ones with flags or dressed in their national colors.

The Italians were the most animated and best dressed.  A group of Americans with Trek Travel  lingered searching for the best place to sit. A couple wearing jerseys with South Africa on them walked by.  I left it to my ear to identify the patter of the Germans and Dutch and French. The French teenagers were the ones wearing t-shirts with an English expression--"Slick for Life," "Pleeease, Not on Monday," "Too Fancy for New York, Too Crazy for Paris."  A cluster of German MAMILS with cell phones and shaved legs were drawn to the shade of my overhang to cool down from their ride up even though it was at a sharp angle from the Big Screen.

The Big Screen didn't begin broadcasting The Race coverage until one with a mere fifteen minute pre-Race show.  The host interviewed a handful of French riders standing at the start line.  Froome and Quintana were right alongside them, but their French must not have been adequate for any comments.  A clock in the background counted down to 1:15 and then they were off at a parade pace for about five minutes led by Christian Prudhomme with his head sticking out of the top of the lead car.

When he peeled off one rider rocketed away, Alexandre GĂ©niez, the young French rider whose home town The Tour passed through outside of Rodez. He kept looking over his shoulder to see who might join him and if the peloton was letting him go.  Only three others sped up to him.  One was from Cannondale-Garmin, but it wasn't Talansky, nor were any of them a threat to the top twenty placings.  They were allowed to gain a seven minute advantage within fifteen miles and the start of the long climb up the Col de la Croix de Fer.

About two-thirds the way up the climb Valverde made the first strike by Moviestar against Froome speeding away from the Sky-led peloton.  Froome let him go as he has every attack other than those of Quintana.  Valverde quickly gained time and then Quintana charged away to join his teammate. This could be a move of tactical genius if the two of them had the strength to ride the next fifty miles together to the finish and erase Quintana's two-and-a-half minute deficit.  It would go down as one of the most audacious attacks in Tour history and be thrilling to watch for the next two hours.  A monument would be placed at the point where it happened. But Froome knew it was way too early for such a move and that they weren't that much stronger than he and his forces.  He calmly let his teammates keep their pace up the mountain and by the summit they were all together again.  The fireworks would have to wait until L'Alpe d'Huez, as everyone anticipated.

Quintana didn't immediately attack at the steepest part of the climb in its first mile, as some expected, but waited for a couple of miles.  Once again Valverde made the first strike and it was ignored.  When Quintana attacked, Froome brought him back, not once but twice.  Finally Quintana made an attack that stuck.  He didn't seem to be going fast enough to gain enough time to take the Yellow Jersey, but he was increasing the gap on Froome.  He linked up with Valverde for a short spell and then sped away.  Then he followed in the wake of another teammate who had been up the road for a short breather and then accelerated.  

He had gained a minute on Froome, but there clearly wasn't enough distance to go to get it to the two minutes and more he needed.  The suspense became if he could catch Thibaut Pinot and win the stage.  To the delight of all of France, he fell short, and once again a Frenchman had the honor of winning The Tour's most iconic climb.  Quintana only bested Froome by one minute and twenty seconds.  Froome was smiling when he crossed the line, knowing he had won The Tour, but he had to have been feeling slightly defeated that he couldn't have done it with the panache of two years ago when he rode away from Quintana on Mont Ventoux to end The Race.  

All in all, he had ridden a very measured and calculated race, while Quintana had been very conservative too, waiting until the last two stages to extend himself.  Maybe his director didn't wish him to vie for the Yellow Jersey in the Pyrenees, preferring to let Froome bear the pressure and responsibility.  Though Quintana is considered more of a pure climber, Froome ended The Race with the Polka Dot Jersey, becoming the the first since Merckx to win both the Yellow and the Polka Dot in the same Race. This year's Race with minimal time trailing greatly favored Quintana. Sky's tactics, especially gaining valuable seconds in the early per-mountain stages, overcame this disadvantage.  

Nibali was unable to challenge Valverde for third when he suffered a flat just before the climb began up L'Alpe d'Huez.  But Valverde had been strong all day, so he wasn't about to be displaced from the podium.  The only change in the top fifteen was Bauke Mollema moving up to seventh, knocking Mathias Frank down to eighth, pleasing the Dutch and fans of Trek, while displeasing the Swiss and the I Am supporters.

For the first time after a stage on L' Alpe d'Huez I was in no great hurry, so didn't have to fret wondering how long it would be until the gendarmes let us ride down the mountain.  I let the main hoard of cyclists go first, then had a worry-free, unclogged ride down.  The gendarmes weren't allowing any but team vehicles and cyclists on the road and only those going down.  The road was lined with gendarmes standing on the white line in the middle, gesturing cyclists to the right and motor vehicles to the left.  This was a first and something for the better.  Down in the valley the road was backed up for miles with the motorized vehicles just inching along.  It was more glorious than ever to be gliding along on the bike.

1 comment:

Edward Davidson said...

George, enjoyable reading. You show us the world.