There is no disputing the might of The Tour de France. Every July it appropriates whatever roads it chooses and mobilizes the police to enforce its jurisdiction. Every day it commandeers the two cities where the stage begins and ends and erects a vast village within it. It attracts media, print and electronic, from all over the world. Thousands line the road, often waiting for hours, waiting for the riders to pass while millions watch their procession on television in every corner of the world.
It's might may also extend to the weather, as when its satellite race, the eight-day Critérium du Dauphiné, the final tune-up race for many of those who will compete in The Tour, commenced, the rain that had besieged the country for the previous week subsided. The sky didn't suddenly turn an azure blue. It remained murky and threatening, but no rain fell during the three hours of the day's racing. But then the next day the clouds were gone and the temperature jumped. It was suddenly July in June and all felt resurrected and blessed. Hail, hail to THE TOUR.
My plans had been to watch the first two days of racing and then head north into Switzerland to check out Berne, where Stage 14 will finish, and then continue on to Mulhouse to visit Yvon. But it was so glorious to be back riding roads marked with official course markers and to be hobnobbing with all the devotees of The Tour, I felt the lure of continuing with the Dauphiné for the rest of the week. It was a remarkably relaxed atmosphere compared to The Tour, more like a friendly neighborhood gathering than the frenzied swarming masses of a Woodstock.
As Skippy and I walked past the gauntlet of 22 team buses all with a set of rollers for its riders to warm up on we were able to chat with riders and officials. We even had a word with the two Bernards--five-time Tour winner Hinaullt and two-time winner Thevenet. During The Tour they are so preoccupied with glad-handing dignitaries, they have time for no one else. Skippy was able to brief them on his "Stop Killing Cyclists" campaign. They gladly obliged him with a photo.
While we were talking with Thevenet a trio of photographers asked if they could take a photo of all three of us.
One could approach the riders on the rollers close enough to feel their breath. If Alberto Contador had shaken his head I would have been sprayed by the sweat pouring off him.
He was the third to the last of the 176 riders to take on the course. Froome, as defending champion of not only The Tour, but the Dauphiné, could have been the last of the riders, giving him the advantage of knowing what time he had to beat to win, but he chose to ride earlier in the day, not trusting the rain to hold off. He set the fastest time, just under twelve minutes for the brutal two-and-a-half mile climb with an average gradient of 9.7 per cent, but sectors of nearly double that, up one of the ski slopes of Les Gets.
There were few fans to cheer the riders on, unlike The Tour when the route would have been thickly packed.
Contador had been grimly focused on the rollers, looking weary and worn-out, his face frozen in consternation all the way to the starting block, where he crossed himself before setting out. But he rode like a man possessed, besting Froome by thirteen seconds. Then his face burst into a broad toothy smile of triumph and relief.
The Australian Richie Porte, Froome's chief lieutenant the past few years, who switched to the American team BMC during the off-season, was out of the blocks after Contador and also bettered Froome's time, by seven seconds, good enough to finish second overall and send a warning that he is a man to watch now that he is a team leader. It is not certain if he'll have that role at The Tour though. His co-team leader, the American Teejay Vangarderen, will be riding at the Tour of Switzerland next week. He will be under pressure to match Porte, who seems to be in peak fitness.
There was no giant screen by the course televising the race as there is during The Tour so I had to rely on a small set in a VIP area to watch the proceedings. Nearby in the town center was action of a different sort, but almost equally captivating, watching the enthusiasm of the toddler set.
As I straddled my bike a Belgian of my vintage asked if I were following the Dauphiné. I had yet to decide if I would be, but I told him I was preparing to follow The Tour in July. He said he had pedaled the route three years ago, but not during The Race, so he could ride every mile of it. He was renting a camper van and would be following the Dauphiné with his wife. He said his days of epic rides were behind him. He had ridden Paris-Brest-Paris five times, the mark of a true fanatic. I could detect a look of longing though as his eyes lingered on my bike. The chance of meeting up with him in the days to come and perhaps camping together along the road were an added lure to sticking with it myself.
But the next morning as I rode the route, the total absence of fans, unlike the packed roads of The Tour, swayed me from continuing on. It was still a joy to have those course markers guiding me and an extra delight that the gendarmes let me ride up until half an hour before the peloton was due, unlike The Tour, when they are itching to evict cyclists more than two hours beforehand. It is the infectious enthusiasm of the fans along the road, and all the decorations, which there were none of here, that are the essence of The Tour experience for me, so I made the decision to keep the Dauphiné to two days.
That allowed me to take a detour to Vetra-Monthoux, rather than pushing down the road as far as I could get, before the peloton passed. I had heard this small town had a monument honoring Eugene Christophe, first wearer of the Yellow Jersey in 1919 when Henri Deagrange introduced it in the middle of that year's race to make it easier for fans to pick out the leader. Christophe is also renowned for twice breaking a fork when he was in position to win The Race. The fans felt so sorry for him one year they sent money to him in care of The Tour amounting to more than what he would have won if he had held on to his lead.
I thought I would easily find his statue in the town center, but it wasn't there or at its stadium or in any of its roundabouts, so I asked at the City Hall where to find it. It was at the annex to the city hall on the town outskirts. It was too complicated to explain how to reach it, but they had a nice glossy map of the environs. The statue was in the entry, and it was another of those dazzlingly original set of swirls formed to represent a cyclist.
Then it was back to the race route. I continued to the first of the four categorized climbs and stopped halfway up awaiting the peloton. A handful of locals gathered, but there was more than ample space for me to spread my tent and sleeping back and gear to be scorched by the intense sun. There were no helicopters to warn of the approaching riders, just a series of gendarmes on motorcycles.
A two-person breakaway preceded the peloton by four minutes. The peloton was led by Contador's Tinkoff team and Porte's BMC team at a steady, unconcerned pace. No one had fallen off the back yet, unlike in the Prologue, where the 176th rider was more than five minutes behind Contador, almost fifty per cent of his time.
It is always a thrill to see these Titans pass, but I only had minimal regrets that I wouldn't be seeing them again for twenty-five days until the start of The Tour at Mont St. Michel.