Sunday, July 24, 2016

Stage Twenty-One

This was only the second time I've made it to Paris in time to ride the final stage into the city from one of its outlying suburbs, so I wasn't well versed in how eager the gendarmes would be to close down the course.  They could either be extra draconian or they could be very relaxed about it, not wanting to antagonize and strangle the urban traffic.  Not knowing, I was a little nervous when I got a belated start on the forty-mile ride from Chantilly, north of the city, to the Champs Elyées, where the peloton would make eight four-mile circuits of the cobbled boulevard.

There were quite a few other cyclists riding the course.  Most were MAMILs, but there was a fair representation of many of the other subsets of the cycling clan from kids to grandmothers.  Even though Chantilly was less than twenty-five miles from the center of Paris by a direct route, it was more of a distinct city than a suburb.  It had a chateau and was surrounded by a large forest and farmland.  The Tour route passed through a couple of other distinct towns before it entered the great Paris metropolis.  Once I reached the extended city I no longer feared being halted, as there were sidewalks to ride and parallel streets.  

With all the cyclists on the route I didn't have to be much concerned with going astray.  There is a greater chance that course markers will be prematurely appropriated by eager fans or delinquents in urban environments, but the markers seemed to be pretty much in place.  I did though come upon a cyclist in the act of stuffing a marker up the backside of his jersey.  He was stopped at a light and was accompanied by two women.  He asked them in English with an American accent, "Is it well enough hidden?"  He had put the yellow side facing out and it was just peaking above his jersey at his neck.  If he had been thinking, he would have put the bright, distinctive yellow side against his back and the bland white side facing out, but the women said it looked okay. 

I was appalled at this act of vandalism.  A course marker is a highly coveted object by all Tour followers, but there is a near universal sense of honor among them to leave them in place until after the peloton has passed. Then they are fair game. On those rare occasions when I come to an intersection that is missing a course marker, I feel a sense of rage that someone made off with it, and I felt rage towards this arrogant, affluent, entitled American.  I blurted, "That's contraband."  He seemed surprised to hear someone speaking English.  He smiled, as if I were joking and perhaps congratulating him on his theft of this prized momento, until I added with deadly seriousness, "It's a mortal sin to take one of those before the peloton has passed.  No one does such a thing."

"There was another nearby, so it wasn't really necessary," he replied, then continued, "These are worth a lot of money back home.  I tried to get one on another stage but failed."

"If you really want one, you can just stand by it until the peloton passes and then take it.  I knew a German guy who violated the code and took one early and he later broke the frame of his bike.  If you know what's good for you, you'd return that marker right now and beg the pardon of the cycling deities."  

He had no answer to that, but ignored my warning and headed down the road with his accomplices.  I saw no immediate retribution, but I knew he was doomed. The seeming joy he would derive from gazing upon his marker wherever he mounted it would be negated by whatever travesty the gods had in store for him.  Such a shame.  If he had come upon it honorably it would have lit up his home and his heart for years to come.

The route continued to the Seine and then turned away from the Champs Elysées before crossing the river on the Pont de Suresnos.  Then it doubled back through the Bois de Boulogne. Portions of the route were already closed to motorized traffic, but we on bikes were still welcome. I was less than an hour ahead of the caravan at this point, but the gendarmes gave no hint of being itchy about closing down the course. They seemed casual and easy-going, enjoying this light duty and not bent on exerting their authority.  Few fans had gathered until I neared the Champs Elysées.  Fencing had been put up several blocks away from it and spectators were being funneled in through checkpoints where their bags were being searched.  The lines were long.  I knew there was little chance of me being allowed in with all the bags on my bike.  It would have taken half an hour anyway to examine everything in my many bags.

I plopped down at the Louvre, where the peloton would make a sharp turn.  The fencing set spectators so far from the route that when the caravan passed all it gave out were waves and smiles.  I knew I couldn't get near any of the large screens so I went in search of a small screen.  Swarms of people were still flocking to the course, but after I was several blocks away I would have had no awareness The Tour was in Paris.  The usual bustle of Paris continued unabated.  A guy on a fixie pedaled along with me for a couple of blocks asking about my travels and telling me he had just returned from a tour in Norway.  He had other things to do this day than to watch The Tour.

I continued on for several miles beyond the reach of all the popular trendy bars until I found a working-class neighborhood bar.  The bartender though still had the notorious Parisian demeanor of having little tolerance for tourists.  I had to ask him three times to turn on the television after he had served me my menthe á l'eau.  Then he pretended he couldn't find the channel broadcasting The Tour.  After he put down the remote control to serve someone else I picked it up and had no problem finding it.

The peloton still had six of its eight circuits of the Champs Elysées remaining.  The route had fewer fans along it than I had ever seen.  Kittel was off the back making a bike exchange.  He was expected to contend with his fellow German Greipel for the win with Cavendish having departed The Race before the Alps.  He did catch up, but evidently expended too much energy to be a factor.  It came down to Greipel and Kristoff and of course Sagan.  Greipel just nipped a fast-charging Sagan, finally winning a stage, and repeating his victory on the Champs Elysées last year.  That made it four years in a row that a German had won it after the years of Cavendish dominance--Kittel in 2013 and 2014 and now Greipel the past two years.  It also kept in tact Greipel's remarkable record of having won a stage in every Grand Tour he has ridden since 2008 (eleven of them), something Cavendish can't say.

The nine Sky riders crossed the line a minute later lined across the road no-handed with arms on each other's backs.  Froome was in the middle in yellow and the rest in a new uniform for the day with a yellow stripe across the chest.  Froome was greeted by his wife and young son.  The long-time, beloved host of the post-Race show was there with a microphone, but was unceremoniously shoved aside by a Sky minion even though Froome had given him a Yellow Jersey the day before in honor of his retirement.

The 174 riders who finished The Tour is the most ever, meaning the Lantern Rouge, Sam Bennett, had the lowest placing in the history of The Tour.  It would have been 175 had not Tony Martin abandoned with knee pain after one lap on the Champs.  No one finished The Tour more disappointed though than Mollema and his Trek teammates.  He ended up eleventh when he would have been second if he had not been so needlessly aggressive on the descent in the Alps where Froome also fell.  He wasn't going to overtake Froome nor did he have to fear anyone overtaking him.  His team director was outspoken in his regret at Mollema's error in judgement. Besides the glory of the podium, a second place finish would have won his team 200,000 euros to split among everyone, 300,000 euros less than Sky.  Quintana can thank him for allowing him to slip onto the podium in third.  He would have been fourth otherwise.

It was twelve miles from the bar to my campsite in a forest beside Charles de Gaulle airport.  I nearly bonked and had to stop and make myself a sandwich.  When I reached the forest it was near dark, but the jets were still landing on the nearby runway.  For the first time ever I noticed a fellow squatter or at least his campsite--a tent with a bicycle beside and a clothes line and a chair, implying it didn't necessarily belong to a traveler.  There was no light coming from the tent or evidence of its inhabitant.  With the non-stop roar of jets it was unlikely the camper had heard me.  I penetrated deeper than I usually do well out of his range.  I did give Janina a call to tell her I was in the forest by the Concorde Memorial just in case I didn't survive the night.  If I had legitimate concerns I could have relocated to another forest, but it was near dark and I was hungry and fatigued and not all that wary.  

Nothing disturbed my sleep, real or imagined.  I had just a couple more hurdles and my trip would be complete.  Air France was still providing boxes for bikes, so I didn't have a last minute frantic search for an abandoned box from an arriving cyclist or have to rush off to a bike shop.  The pedals came off without effort and the box was large enough I didn't have to remove the front rack.  All good news.  The biggest hassle was standing in lines for nearly two hours to get the box, check in, have my passport stamped and then have my bags X-rayed. It was the longest I had been on my feet since standing in lines at Cannes.   Without much air conditioning I was close to passing out.  But I had allowed loads of time, so didn't have to fret.  

I saw an occasional passenger with a Tour souvenir, but no one else with a bike, just a few people with golf clubs.  One ticket agent asked if I had come for The Tour and was thrilled to learn that I had.  She had actually been on the Champs Elysées for the finish.  I'll have an even greater blast of heat and humidity in Chicago, but Janina and I will be leaving immediately for the North Woods and Michael Moore's film festival in Traverse City.  Our bikes will accompany us.  

Stage Twenty


As I sat outside the tourist office in the ski town of Flumet at the six-mile point in today's stage eating a second breakfast of yogurt, cereal and a banana beside an electrical outlet, biding my time until the arrival of the caravan, a fresh-faced, tousled-haired young man traveling by bicycle asked if I spoke English.  He was a Kiwi and he was dabbling in The Tour.  This would be his fifth stage.  Rather than trying to follow it from the start he had concentrated on the Alps where there was a cluster of three stages that one could stay put and see them all.  He'd been on the road over a month and was wild-camping most of the time, but with the congregation of all these stages he decided to base himself at a campground until he learned it would be 180 euros for four days--inflated Tour prices he was told.

He had approached me hoping I might know if cyclists could get thrrough the barricaded road several miles down the canyon.  It had nothing to do with The Tour route.  I had come up that way several days ago and had wondered the same thing, but was told in no uncertain terms that the road was impassable due to rock slides and fencing totally blocking the roadway.  But I could tell him the detour only amounted to a two-mile climb up to the ridge above the canyon and then a six-mile descent into Ugine.  He was glad that it was only a modest detour and even more glad to learn that the bathroom facilities attached to the tourist office in Ugine included free showers. 

Louie was on his first lengthy tour and loving it so much he thought he'd make it his life. He asked if I knew of Heinz Stucke, the German cyclist who left home fifty years ago and has yet to return.  I did indeed, and I could tell him that a friend in Chicago had just hosted him for two days and didn't much like him.   She said he was a "jerk," that he wouldn't stop talking and didn't take a shower and told her the seat height on her bike was wrong and that he needed a hip replacement but couldn't afford it and when he left he wrote in her guest book that he'd had a very uncomfortable time.  She couldn't wait for him to leave.  I knew he was an eccentric, but had never had a first hand report on the specifics.

Louie couldn't have been more different.  He was overflowing with youthful exuberance and positive energy.  His frustrations perplexed rather than enraged him.  He was exasperated by the gendarmes along The Tour route.  He said back home the police were helpful.  Here they only seemed to want to harass.  That is an easy conclusion to come to on The Tour route.  When the caravan finally made its appearance, we were too caught up in conversation to do much scavenging, though we did nab a polka dot grocery bag and also a bottle of water.

After today's stage Louie intended to dip deeper into the Alps to ride some of the Tour's blue ribbon climbs (the Galibier and Izoard and L'Alpe d'Huez) and then over to the Pyrennes for more of the same.  I'd like to keep up with his travels, but he's not a blogger nor does he much use the Internet.  He pulled out his journal and said, "This is where I write."  

It would have been nice to stick around the ninety minutes until the peloton passed and continue our conversation, as we were both the first touring cyclist either of us had encountered, but I had a train to Paris to catch in Albertville at about the same time the stage would be ending. I wanted to arrive in ample time to watch the final fireworks of The Tour on the Beyond Category Col de Joux Plane just before the finish.  Unfortunately, there was more rain and the fireworks were washed out. As the day before, there were some heavy downpours.  The French are too devoted to their pets to call it "raining cats and dogs."  They say "it's raining ropes."   The much anticipated final climb was a non-event among the contenders.  It was almost as if the processional ceremonial final stage had begun a day early as Sky led them up the climb with nary an attack, everyone seeming to accept their final placements.  All the crashes of the day before may have been a contributing factor as well.  

At least there was some excitement up the road where Pantano, Alaphilippe, Nibali and Izagirre fought for the victory.  Alaphillippe seemed inspired by all the acclaim heaped on Bardet for his win yesterday to get another win for the French.  But he ran out of gas.  Nibali came from behind to overtake Pantani and Alalphillippe shortly before the summit and seemed  likely to take the stage, especially since he is a renowned great descender.  But he, as an elder with wins of all three Grand Tours, didn't seem willing to risk as much as the other younger riders on the wet, treacherous descent and settled for third.  The surprise winner was Quintana's Movistar teammate Izagirre.  Froome could smile when he crossed the line several minutes later, having survived the day and wrapping up The Race.

I was nervously watching the time, not wanting to be late for my train.  I was out of the bar by 5:15.  The TGV pulled in just after I arrived at the station.  I found my car and the conductor did not flinch at my bike.  Some TGV's required a bike to be in a bag.  I had been assured by the ticket agent that I didn't need one for this train, and he was right.  Mine was the only bike in the baggage compartment of my car, otherwise packed with large suitcases.  My next concern was that the train be on time in Paris--9:15, an hour before dark--as I needed all the light there was to get out of the city and find a place to camp.  As concerned as I was about it being on time, I didn't greatly appreciate the hundred plus miles an hour we were flying at rushing past all the scenery.  This was like eating at a McDonald's.  Of equal concern was the train didn't provide outlets for charging, something perpetually on my mind. 

It was right on schedule, and suddenly I was immersed in a hot and steamy Paris on a Saturday with thronged sidewalks and outdoor cafes and plazas.  I passed through the familiar Place de Bastille and Place de Republic as I headed to St. Denis and then the hinterlands.  Not unexpectedly, night fell before I had escaped the sprawl, but street lights and headlights provided enough light, though I needed my flashlight to find a flat spot in a patch of high weeds by a factory to disappear into, fifteen miles from the start of the next day's stage.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Stage Nineteen

Both yesterday's time trial and today's stage included the Côte de Domancy, a steep climb up from the small village of Domancy.  Yesterday the riders went up it one by one and today they descended it in mass.  The climb was the key feature of the 1980 World Championship Race that Bernard Hinault won in dramatic fashion.  Before yesterday's stage a monument commemorating Hinault's win was unveiled in a round-about on the main highway leading into the city of Sallanches, just two miles from Domancy, that hosted the World Championships.  

Domancy had long ago erected a monument of its own to Hinault.  It welcomes one to the village.

The Côte de Dormancy added to its lore today when Froome slid out on the rain-slickened road on his descent, which could have ended The Tour for him. He wrecked his bike and tore gaping holes in the backside of his jersey exposing splotches of bloodied flesh scraped raw by the pavement.  He quickly appropriated the bike of his teammate Geraint Thomas and resumed riding, somewhat tentatively at first, but then back to nearly full capacity, despite being on a bike with a different set-up than he's accustomed to. Luckily his wounds seemed to be just scrapes.  It was less than ten miles to the finish, a six-mile Category One climb.  He was able to regain the group he was riding with as it began the climb.  Only at the very end did he waver and lose a few seconds to Quintana, but not to the second and third placed riders, Mollema and Yates, as they both had struggles of their own and fell off the podium, Mollema all the way to tenth and Yates to fourth, eleven seconds behind Quintana.

The rain caused havoc, with double stage winner Demoulin crashing out and others taking a tumble as well, including Mollema.  Porte was caught behind a crash and needed the help of his teammates to catch up.  Van Garderen wasn't one of them as he was more than half an hour back with the laggards just trying to make the time cut.  We'll find out tomorrow if he rode so woefully because he's depleted, or so he could go for the stage win on the last day in the mountains tomorrow.  Porte finished seventeen seconds behind Froome, but is still within fifty seconds of Quintana and the podium.  All will be on the line tomorrow.  The podium could undergo another complete overhaul.  Froome still has a four minute advantage, but how stiff will he be?  After the stage he said he'd be okay, but as he accepted his Yellow Jersey he had a wrap around his right knee to go along with his raw back.

The day's big winner was Bardet, who won the stage and jumped from fifth to second.  The French at last won a stage. And if Froome had crashed out, the French would have had the Yellow Jersey with just two stages to go, one of which is largely ceremonial.  The nation would have been in an uproar, what with it being over thirty years since Hinault was the last French winner.  When Bardet dropped his breakaway companion on the climb to the finish the crowd I was amongst watching it happen on a Big Screen in Mégeve's plaza erupted into applause.  

They applauded again as he approached the finish and then when he crossed the line.  He gave a smile of great satisfaction and sincerity, as if he was happy not only for himself and his team, but for all of France.  It wasn't one of those exuberant, self-indulgent smiles of extreme ecstasy, but a deep, genuine, somewhat abashed smile, tempered by a degree of modesty.  

Even though it leaves him just a heartbeat or a crash from the Yellow Jersey, he's keeping his ambition in check.  He wasn't so emboldened as to say this proves he can win The Race, rather saying that next year he hoped he could keep up his streak of winning a stage a year.  That's not an attitude that Hinault endorses, though he won't be around next year to encourage him to do better, as Hinault has announced that he will be retiring from his podium duties so he can spend more time with his grandchildren.  He retired prematurely from racing at 32, and is withdrawing from the whirlwind of The Tour when he looks to be as vibrant as ever.

I had planned to be at the finish of today's stage, just fifteen miles from Mégeve where I had camped for the second straight night, but the threat of rain deterred me.  I was kept in my tent until nine by the rain, almost preventing me from descending the Côte de Domancy to Sallanches to see the Hinault monuments, as I didn't want to do it on a wet road, plus I knew I had to be back to Mégeve by two before the roads were closed.  I could manage the climb in the rain, but I didn't want to continue to the stage finish, a six-mile climb with a nine per cent grade, and face the possibility of having to come back down in rain.  And this was before I saw all the carnage the rain later produced.

The morning rain was disheartening, as I really wanted to see the Hinault monuments. I had twice been thwarted in my efforts over the years to find the one in Domancy.  I was under the impression that it was in Sallanches, since it was the host city for the World Championships.  In two previous visits to Sallanches I couldn't find anyone who knew anything about a monument to Hinault.  And then when I met Himsult at the Critérium de Dauphine last month I forgot to ask him about it.  But with The Tour including the Côte de Domancy, there were articles about Hinault's World Championship win and what a crucial role the climb played in it, making it seem likely that's where some memorial would be placed.  I thought it might be a small plaque on a rock at the summit of the climb.  When it wasn't there I tried the town's plaza and found someone who pointed at it down the road.  

My ride down to Sallanches was also rewarded by a marvelous giant bicycle swing along the road by someone's home.  As I stood in the road taking a photo, someone shouted a warning of "voiture" from the second floor of the house, though I did hear the car coming.

There was also a tree of bicycles in a roundabout on the seven-mile climb back up from Sallanches.

If the day had been clear, enabling me to watch all the day's dramatics on the Giant Screen at the stage finish, I would have missed out on another dose of caravan frenzy.  It is actaully heartwarming to watch how happy it makes all those gathered along the road to get free stuff.   All await with great snticipation, as if it is Christmas Day, wondering what Santa will bring them.  Young and old are filled with glee when they get their hands on something, even without knowing what it is, and adding it to their stash of goodies.

People dive and scramble for whatever comes flying.

They quickly examine what they've grabbed and then rush to show it to whoever they're with and then get ready the next item.

No one was happier on this day, not even Bardet, than the little English girl who nabbed a water bottle flung by a rider when the peloton flew past.  I wasn't there to see it, but I saw her reenactment of running and grabbing it later in the town square.  She cradled the bottle as if it were a doll.  She let her slightly older brother clad in a Sky shirt hold it, but not for long.  For half an hour my attention was divided between watching all the excitement on the Bog Screen and this little girl's glee.  She kept showing it to her mother and her father, and fondled it as if nothing could be more valuable.  Seeing The Tour is a momentous occasion for any child, but even more so when one comes away with a rider's water bottle.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Stage Eighteen

Today might have been a short day for the riders, a little more than half an hour on their bikes riding the ten-and-a-half mile up-hill time trial, but for the spectators who arrived early and stayed until the end,  it was a long and exhausting day starting before nine and not ending until nearly six.  The early arrivals had a chance to see some of the riders previewing the course, though not many do.  The only ones I saw were Porte and one of his BMC teammates, not Van Garderen.  Porte wouldn't commence his ride until after 4:30, the sixth to the last rider, but there he was in full uniform more than eight hours before he would take to the course for real.  It wasn't the first time he previewed the course, as he'd been there a month ago after the Critérium du Dauphinè.

Even though the caravan wouldn't reach the finish stretch where I was stationed until ten, the giveaways had been going on for more than ninety minutes.  Yellow hats were being put into the hands of anyone who would take one.  Fresh fruit was also being handed out.

And small boxes of juice.

If one wanted a t-shirt, a little patience was demanded.

People were drawn as much by the free stuff as by the racing, which was a dull affair by comparison, riders zipping past in a flash on the descent to the finish at better than thirty miles per hour every couple of minutes for six hours.  Only the last hour had any meaning when the top ten placed riders would go at it.  I found a place on the periphery of all the hubbub within range of the Giant Screen and sat in the shade and read the Flaubert I'd brought with me, while still absorbing the atmosphere.  I had hoped to retreat to the library for a spell in the glitzy sports center overlooking the finish line, but it was closed, though not the indoor swimming pool and other facilities.  

After awhile I ventured back into the town's central plaza to check on a smaller Big Screen set up beside its cathedral. There were only a handful of spectators, two of whom were a recently retired English couple who had been following The Tour since the fifth stage in a camper and with a tandem.  It was their first time in France for The Tour, though they had seen it in Yorkshire.  They could give a first-hand report of the chaos on Ventoux, as they had ridden their tandem up to one kilometer from the finish.  They didn't get to see Froome run, as his crash happened a few hundred meters beyond them, but they knew something had happened as all the cars following the lead riders came to a halt right in front of them.  

I'm always curious about how those driving campers decide where to park their vehicles along the course.  They didn't realize how easy and acceptable it is to do, so had reserved campgrounds ahead of time.  They marveled at the beauty of where The Tour had taken them and are eager to return to France and spend more time in many of the places they'd been introduced to.  As much as The Tour, they were enjoying a break from all the Brexit aftermath back home and were barely keeping up with current events.  They did know though that Cavendish had bowed out of The Tour on the rest day to save himself for the Olympics.  They didn't mind at all that he was sacrificing an opportunity for a fifth stage win on the Champs Elysees Sunday.

During our conversation Demoulin, who won the previous time trial, posted the fastest time.  It was nearly two hours though before Froome and Porte and the other GC contenders would have a chance to challenge him.  The English couple wanted to be at the roadside when Froome came flying into the finish stretch, while I had a spot picked out at the Giant Screen one hundred meters from the finish.  My spot was still available.  Froome masterfully paced himself, lagging a bit behind Demoulin at the first time check but then charged up the second of the two steep climbs to overtake Demoulin and win by twenty-one seconds.  

He was gloveless as he had been in the first time trial, and so was his teammate Geraint Thomas.  Among the latter riders it was fairly evenly split between gloves and no gloves.  Porte and Yates wore gloves, but not Mollema or Bardet.  Sky excessively tests such minor details, so it must have determined the wind skims over bare hands faster than gloved.  Froome's second stage win extended his lead over his chief rivals by over a minute, giving him a cushion of nearly four minutes over second-placed Mollema.  Quintana had the tenth best time, falling another minute behind Froome, but he gained thirteen seconds on Yates in third.  

With two stages left in the mountains it will be an intense battle for the podium places between Mollema, Yates, Quintana, Bardet and Porte.  Froome has certainly secured first but second and third are very much up for grabs.  At least Porte can hope for the support of Van Garderen.  He proved himself to be a good teammate by not exerting himself today, saving his energy, finishing five minutes back in 132nd place, after beating Porte in the previous time trial.   Van Garderen still is 17th overall.  He said it wasn't important to move up a couple places when he was so far back.  He's still the top American overall, even though he was the fourth placed American on this stage, finishing behind Stetina, Bookwalter and Craddock, beating only Howes.

After the stage several of the town's ice sculptors gathered in the park with the topiary cyclists and created a tribute to Froome and The Tour.  Even though their sculptures were in the shade, they were melting fast.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Stage Seventeen

Neither the lone old-style, one-man bike shop in Ugine, nor the three larger chain bike shops in Albertville had a freewheel with a ring larger than twenty-eight teeth. If I were more with the times and had a cassette, I could have found one with a monstrous thirty-six teeth.  But I remain faithful to the forty-eight spoke old-school tandem hub that I've been using for over thirty years with hardly a broken spoke and only one broken axle.  

Fortunately my legs are at optimum strength with nearly 5,000 miles of riding the past three months, so I only had to grimace with a little more determination when the grades approached ten per cent on my nineteen-mile climb from Ugine to Mégeve this morning.  When they stuck to the customary five and six per cent the twenty-eight was perfectly adequate.  After a marginal "rest day" of just twenty-five mostly flat miles, my legs felt fresh and uncomplaining.  If my knees felt as if they were going to give out, I was prepared to return to Ugine and wait for the peloton to pass through on Friday, and then head to Albertville for my train to Paris Saturday night. But all was well and I'll be in the thick of The Tour the next three days.

I didn't mind the detour to Albertville yesterday, as it had added some nifty bike sculptures since my visit last month scouting out this departure city for the Nineteenth Stage.  Besides the above contraption, it had two very minimalist versions of the bicycle.

If one didn't know better one set could have been mistaken for spectacles.

Mégeve had gone in the opposite direction, mounting a pair of topiary cyclists in a park just a block from the finish for tomorrow's time trial.

The ski town was already throbbing with early arrivals for tomorrow's stage. The bar where I watched today's action just over a mountain ridge in Switzerland was filled with fans chattering away in Italian, German, Spanish and even some French.  Fortunately there were no Colombians, as they would have been making a scene urging on Pantano in a two-rider break on the final Beyond Category climb to the finish to win his second stage of The Tour.  And they would have been exasperated at Quintana's failure again today.  The headlines have been harsh on this two-time second place finisher in The Tour, who does not look like he is ready to improve upon that.  One headline called him a "Spectator" and another "Not in the Match."   While his compatriot fell off and finished second to the Russian Ilnur Zakarin, Quintana was distanced by Froome and Porte and Yates.  Not only is winning The Race an improbability for Quintana, the podium is now in doubt as well.

While Quintana could contend he was saving himself for tomorrow's time trial, Zakarin had no such concerns and could squeeze every drop of energy out of himself.  He was so spent he didn't have the energy to fully zip up his jersey at the finish or the strength to sit upright to maximize exposure for his sponsor, only taking one hand off his handlebar to shake his fist in triumph.  He gave up on his first attempt to zip his jury as he approached the finish and then tried again, just getting it started.

The worst day honors though go to Van Garderen, who finished eighteen minutes behind Froome and Porte and plummeted from eighth to seventeenth, with all hopes of a podium or even top ten finish out the window.  His teammate Porte though is now breathing down the neck of Quintana, just a minute behind, and looking stronger and stronger.  He'll be motivated for a strong time trial, while Quintana could well have a sleepless night, dreading the further catastrophe that awaits him.

Second-placed Mollema struggled today, losing thirty-two seconds to Yates, leading him now by only twenty-six seconds.  With the Dutch rider faltering and the Aussie Porte ascending, an all-⎌English speaking podium is a possibility.  That would be a first and a greater affront to the European traditionalists than Brexit.  While Froome seems to have ended any suspense as to who will win The Race, there is plenty of suspense on the places behind him.  That will make for three more days of intense racing before the ceremonial ride into Paris on Sunday.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Stage Sixteen

As invigorating and uplifting and exciting as it is to be on The Tour route, it is so straved with stress, continually pressed to getting as far down the road as possible, that when I make a departure from the route the cycling becomes so tranquil I almost wonder why I subject myself to the intense, all-consuming focus riding it takes.  I likewise wonder how the riders survive it, even with all their needs tended to.  They must ride with near all-out effort for hours each day, and if they waver and fall outside each day's time limit, they are eliminated. I at least don't have that hanging over my head, just the gendarmes ordering me off the course for a few hours.

But The Tour has such grandeur and aura of excitement, being part of it redeems it all.  I am happy though for my brief breaks to recover physically and mentally.  Even if I still have to ride big miles and many hours, it is at least on my own terms other than finding a bar to watch the end of the stage.  It is a huge relief to be freed of the tyranny of the gendarmes.

My travails at least haven't included the ignominy inflicted upon Skippy ten days ago when he was hit by the van hauling the monstrous cyclist of sponsor Credit Lyonnaise that leads the caravan.  It was being towed to the start of the next stage.  Skippy was knocked in the back by its extended mirror as they were both negotiating a round-about.   It wasn't an "accident" Skippy said, but rather "TRAFFIC VIOLENCE."  The driver kept driving, either not realizing he had clipped Skippy or choosing to ignore it.  Skippy chased after him to find out.  He caught up about a kilometer later when it was halted by a red light.  

The driver didn't care to admit he did anything wrong nor engage with Skippy in any manner except with a middle finger.  Skippy was having none of such attitude and stood in front of the vehicle to prevent it from driving away before he achieved some resolution.  That didn't matter to the driver, as he nudged into Skippy, knocking him and his bike over.  Skippy leapt to his feet, leaving his bike in front of the vehicle, and started pounding on the driver's window gesturing him to pull over.   Skippy created enough of a scene that the driver stayed put until several sets of Tour officials arrived urging Skippy to let it go even though he was bleeding in several places and had ripped shorts and a damaged bike.  It was more than an hour before a police officer finally arrived, who after talking to all parties sent the driver on and summoned an ambulance for Skippy.  He spent the night in a hospitable and returned to his base in Innsburck to nurse his wounds and contemplate if he's had enough of the all-powerful, above-the-law attitude of those who administer The Tour.  It's heady stuff for them taking over the country for three weeks every July.

Even when I haven't disappeared into the vortex of The Tour and am just leisurely touring around France, I am relatively free of the maelstrom of worldly events.  With no television bombarding me with the horrific images of Nice and Turkey and Dallas and Baton Rouge or wherever, nor commentators going on and on about the latest calamity, I'm not riled to a sense of rage and despair and can live in my little bubble enjoying my biking and the anticipation of where it will take me almost thinking that all is well in the world.

Today I had a fabulous ride along the brilliant blue waters of Lake Annecy on the road that the peloton will be riding Friday from Albertville to Mont Blanc.  It's towering glacier-covered hulk could be seen in the distance.  The lake was full of swimmers and boaters, all seemingly without a care.

I wasn't as worry-free as I could have been,  as all the bike shops in Annecy were closed, it being a Monday, which meant I wasn't able to acquire a freewheel with a few more teeth.  I could drop down to Albertville tomorrow, as it will have a well-stocked bike shop or two, if I can't find one in Ugine on my way to Megeve, which will be intersected by the final three stages in the Alps beginning with Thursday's time trial.  I have plenty of time to get there, as tomorrow is a rest day and Wednesday the peloton will be in the Swiss Alps, while I remain in France.

Annecy did at least provide me with a selection of bars to watch today's stage.  I passed on the glitzy tourist bars in the town center and found one more to my liking by the train station, though no one else was interested in The Race, preferring to sit outside along the sidewalk.  Today's breakaway was a rare pair of teammates, the strong time trialist Tony Martin of Germany and the French Tour of California winner Julien Alaphilippe who ride for the Belgian Etixx-Quickstep team.  It might be argued that they were forcing the sprinting teams to chase them and tire themselves out making it easier for their teammate Kittel to win the sprint, but Kittel couldn't keep up and wasn't a factor in the sprint after the duo were inevitably caught.  

Nor was Cavendish, opening the door for Sagan to win his third stage, but by the narrowest of margins over the Norwegian Alexander Kristoff riding for the Russian Katusha team, who actually thought he had won.  Sagan is as much of a star of this year's Tour as Cavendish and Froome.  As the French would say, they all deserve our thanks for their sterling efforts.  They have been putting on quite a show making things happen.  Local hero Cancellera, whose home is just two miles from the finish in the Swiss capital of Bern,  surged to the front at one point, but he was no factor in the sprint, so there was no fairy-tale end to the stage.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Stage Fifteen


The raucous Colombian fans peering up at the Giant Screen beyond the finish line of today's stage had their cheers rewarded when Jarlison Pantano, one of four Colombians in The Race, outsprinted Rafai Majka to take the stage for the IAM team.  It was an extra sweet win for him, as he is looking for a new team next year, as IAM has announced that it is ending its sponsorship. Though Majka had to be disappointed with second, he at least had the consolation of taking the Polka Dot Jersey.

The clown with the horn blasted the damn thing at ear-piercing decibels for nearly two hours straight right up to the end of the stage. He must have been too frightening for the many gendarmes in bullet-proof vests to curb his flagrant disturbing of the peace.  Every thirty minutes the broadcast of the stage was interrupted by an announcement in French and English to be "vigilant" and not to leave one's bags unattended and to report any strange behavior.  Why he wasn't reported, I know not.  I remained as far from him as possible in a slowly dwindling sliver of shade up against a building, but that wasn't far enough to avoid a headache from his noise-making.  If Quintana had his vigor and fierce defiance, he'd be leading The Race by half an hour.

Quintana had another benign day sitting on Froome's wheel over six passes in the Jura Mountains while a group of thirty non-threats to the Yellow Jersey were up the road.  For the first time in five days wind was not a factor, though the heat was.  I was sweltering even in the shade as I sat for three hours watching the race unfold with the day's final climb in the background.

Froome had all eight of his teammates with him at the head of the peloton fully controlling matters through the first half of the stage, letting the breakaway group maintain an eight-minute advantage.  With the Beyond Category Grand Colombier climb several of Froome's lieutenants faded away and then Aru's Astana team upped the pace.  The only significant casualty was Van Garderen, who ended up losing a minute-and-a-half to his top ten rivals, falling from sixth to eighth and twenty seconds behind his teammate Porte.  None of the top four (Froome, Mollema, Yates, Quintana) showed any aggression with this being a non-mountain top finish, saving their dramatics for the four upcoming days in the Alps starting Wednesday.

Before they tackle the high mountains they have a relatively flat stage tomorrow into Switzerland and then a rest day.  Tomorrow's stage ends in Bern, the hometown of Fabian Cancellera, who will retire this year holding the record for the most days in Yellow by a rider who hasn't won The Tour--twenty-nine.   If the peloton had room for sentimentality, they'd let him win the stage.  But there is too much at stake, so he'll have to win it on his own.  He didn't overextend himself today, finishing twenty-eight minutes back, just ahead of Sagan and all the sprinters.  

There will be no Switzerland for me, as the transfer from Culoz to the start of tomorrow's stage in Moirans-en-Montaigne is too long and mostly uphill.  I'll being able to visualize both of tomorrow's Ville Ètapes though, as I visited them both a month ago and noted their preliminary Tour preparations.  Instead, I'll head to the large city of Annecy in search of a bike shop with a freewheel larger than the 28 I've been riding with the last couple of days in deference to my knees.

Three French riders finished in the top seven today, but France still remains without a stage victory, as do Italy and Spain.  It's the first time in ninety years that none of these cycling powers has had a stage win by now.  At least they each have a rider in the top ten.  Great Britain is the only country with more than one--the first and third placed riders Froome and Yates.

As I was headed into Culoz this morning a guy on a bike asked me in very bad French if I spoke English. I said, "Yes, I'm an American too."  He was a New Yorker and was excited to be experiencing The Tour for the first time. He was on a rental bike and was staying in a hotel a few miles away.  He asked where I intended to watch the stage.  I told him about the Giant Screen at the finish.  He'd seen plenty of The Tour on television and wanted to be at the roadside, hopefully up the Lucets du Grand Colombiere climb which began in Culoz before the plummet back into the town.  He had to push his bike up, as the road was already closed at noon.  He was going to have a long day in the sun awaiting the peloton.  If he didn't melt away I may see him in the days to come.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Stage Fourteen

I had a prize-winning, as they all are, wind-protected campsite on a grassy strip between a forest and a cornfield. I drifted off to sleep torn between wanting the winds to desist and not wanting them to let up, as they could lead to a day of memorable racing. The strong crosswind I had battled all day forced me to ride in the middle of the road to insure I wouldn't be blowin off the road, particularly when it was accompanied by a deep ditch.  If the peloton had to contend with such winds, it would be broken into rows and rows of echelons and a team with the strength of Sky could get out in front and cause havoc. Panic would be raging in the peloton.  The helicopter shots would be fantastic.

But the wind had slackened to a mere strong breeze and it was mostly from the north, a direct headwind for the peloton, keeping it in file rather than strung across the road.  Still the wind was hearty enough that the start time was moved up fifteen minutes to help the peloton to arrive at the finish around 5:15 to accommodate television.  But that wasn't enough, as they still arrived half an hour late after a day of restrained racing.  

A four-man breakaway was allowed to set the pace for the day with the peloton hanging back within a few minutes until it was time to gobble it up and let the sprinters get down to business. The last two in the break were swallowed up with three kilometers to go.  The two comrades for the day clasped hands as their time in front came to an end.  The television announcers gave them a "Merci" for being the day's sacrificial lambs.  

No one really wanted to extend themselves on this relatively flat stage with just three Category Four climbs, as all would need whatever energy they could muster for the next day's stage in the Juras, cousin to the Alps, with their most climbing yet--one Beyond Category, two Category Ones, one Category Two and two Category Three climbs.  It will make a fine day of Sunday viewing for racing fans.  I'll be at the finish by noon, taking a shortcut and avoiding all the climbs, so I can sit on the grass and watch all the excitement on the Big Screen, something I haven't been able to do since Stage One at Utah Beach.

Making it to tomorrow's finish before the peloton would have been iffy if I hadn't been deterred by the winds from reaching the end of today's stage.  I fell forty miles short, only managing the first eighty miles.  Since the next day's route swung back down to the finish in Culoz, I was just sixty-five miles away. If I had made it all the way to the end, I would have had a much longer ride, and I would have ridden some of the stage route and its climbs.  By cutting across I missed out on the route the peloton would take, and those delightful decorations that always make riding it such an incomparable experience.

I was halted on the outskirts of the small town of Cour-et-Buis by a pair of gendarmes as I rode today's route.  I immediately plopped down in the shade of an auto repair shop to eat before walking my bike into the town center.  As I ate, a fan from the other side of the road came over to tell me he did some touring himself and offed a glass of wine.  He gave me a smile of approval when I told him I was loyal to menthe á l'eau, and opened my water bottle to show him it was filled with the green minty drink.  

Though fans were strung along both sides of the road into and out of and through the town, they were spread out enough that I had my best haul from the caravan yet, including some items I could truly use.  The best were two packets of detergent, as the bar of soap I was using to wash my clothes was down to a sliver.  Now I don't have to worry about replacing it during my last eight days in France.  I also nabbed a three-pack of Bic pens and five madeleines.  I dropped a fold-up frisbee and an inflatable pillow on the small pile of items a little girl had neatly arranged on a piece of cloth and she gave me an appreciative "Merci."

Rather than lingering for ninety minutes awaiting the blur of the racers, I took a side road out of town east towards Culoz.  After riding under pressure all morning it was a pleasure to ride carefree, at least for a few miles until I had to start feeling concern about finding a bar with a television. I was sure to find one in the large city of Bourgoin-Jallieu twenty miles away.  I didn't have to go deep into the city before I came upon a bar with its television tuned to the Race and a handful of men watching it on this Saturday afternoon. 

With the peloton slowed by the wind and its own insertion I had nearly an hour to peruse "L'Equipe" and a couple of the local newspapers.  They were all filled with commentary on the Bastiille Day terror in Nice.  No one disagreed with the decision not to cancel the next day's stage.  Only the two World Wars have caused a disruption in The Tour.  

As soon as Cavendish won for the fourth time this year everyone in the bar got up and left.  Kittel was so frustrated when Cavenish came up from behind him to take another victory he thought would be his, he raised his hand in protest claiming that Cavendish had nudged him as he passed, a most uncharacteristic gesture from this normally gentlemanly German.  With a possible two sprinting stages left Cavendish has a chance to equal his best Tour performance of six wins.  That would almost be a bigger story than Froome winning it for the third time, though Froome has insured he is the story with the panache he has exhibited so far.  And tomorrow ought to be another day of glory for him.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Stage Thirteen

The return to the mountains, first the Juras, then the Alps, are two days away,  but they have suddenly gotten steeper for me as my freewheel gave out and I had to replace it with one that has four fewer teeth on its largest clog, a 28 rather than a 32. I'll be spending a lot more time standing on the pedals.  I don't know if my freewheel was a victim of the fierce winds that continue to persist, as I've been subjecting it to the sustained pressure of climbing an eight per cent grade all day, or if over 30,000 miles of wear finally did it in.

It began slightly skipping yesterday in my evening stretch until it just completely stopped engaging.  I could only propel the bike scooter-style, pushing off with first one foot and then the other.  I would rest the other foot on a pedal.  After a couple minutes when I applied some pressure to the pedal I felt the freewheel click back in and I could resume pedaling.  All remained well the next morning except a wind that hadn't lessened one bit during the night. Where it was coming from I couldn't imagine.  This was a worse wind that any I've encountered, even in Iceland.  At least one could blame the persistent winds of Iceland on glaciers and the North Pole and the open sea all around it.  Here the blame probably resides with climate change.  Days of such wind in France in the summer are unheard of.  It is an ill wind. of course, that doesn't blow any goodwill and it had been largely ill until today when I was passing through fields of lavender and the strong winds blew their rich aroma over the road.  For a spell it was luxurious, despite the effort to keep the bike upright and on the road.

When my freewheel next spun out on me I was on the outskirts of the city of Bollene twelve miles into my day.  It was large enough to have a Decathalon, a large sporting good store that also does bicycle repairs.  I couldn't have been luckier unless I had been way layed at its very doorstep.  Not many towns in France have a bicycle store.  I could have been stranded thirty or forty miles from one.  My GPS device indicated it was 1.4 miles of scootering away.  It wasn't yet nine, but on the way to the store I passed a supermarket, so I could take care of my daily replenishment of my food supplies.

It was too much to hope for that the store would have the over-sized freewheel I prefer.  The 28 largest ring they had was my second lowest gear.  My other touring bike doesn't have as low a gear as this one.  I use it on trips when I know the grades won't be as steep as the Alps can be, though sometimes they are and I manage.

The wind once again was severely limiting my mileage.  I had to stop much earlier than I wanted and with much fewer miles than I would have liked to watch the day's time trial.  I couldn't risk missing this crucial stage.  The 23-mile course had two significant climbs and would take a bit less than an hour to ride.  The climbing eliminated from serious contention the former World Champion time trialists Fabian Cancellera and Tony Martin, who excel on the flats, and favored the climbing time trialists Froome and Demoulin, who had both already won stages in this year's Tour.  And they lived up to form, with Demoulin winning and Froome finishing a minute behind.  Froome couldn't be disappointed though, as he gained significant time on all his rivals, which Demoulin isn't.  He ranks 40thnoverall, nearly an hour behind.  He had to wait over an hour after he finished for the rest of the riders to finish.  The camera flashed on him occasionally as he sat in front of a wall of Tour sponsors.  When the camera caught him eating, the announcers commented, "Bon appetit." 

Quintana finished 20th, two minutes behind Froome, putting him three minutes back overall, more than he ever was last year.  He no longer appears to be a threat.  Mollema, who hung with Froome on Ventoux the day before, showed he is for real with a strong time finishing sixth fifty seconds behind Froome. In the overall he is in second 1:47 behind Froome and 58 seconds ahead of Yates, who continues to lead the young rider competition.  Mollema is Dutch as is Demoulin.  Holland has gone even longer than France, over thirty years, since it had a Tour winner--Joop Zoetemelk.  It's not likely that either will win this year, but they give their country the best hope it has had in a long time for the future.  Mollema rides for the American team Trek.  His lone American teammate, Peter Stetina, predicted before The Tour that Mollema could be the surprise of The Tour.  That is proving true.

In the battle between the BMC teammates, Van Garderen bested Porte by 18 seconds.  Porte finished with the same time as Quintana.  Van Garderen, the American hope, moved up to sixth overall 3;19 back, while Porte sits in eighth, 4:27 back.  Van Garderen is within striking distance of fourth, an improvement on his two fifth place finishes, but the podium is probably out of range.  But with four days in the Alps and a truly uphill time trial to come, there is still a lot of racing ahead that will provide opportunity for all and drama aplenty for us fans.

Most of the riders today opted for a solid rear disc wheel despite the windy conditions.  They would have had ample opportunity to test them and receive feedback from teammates who had already ridden, so they weren't taking any great risk.  I noticed Froome wasn't wearing gloves despite a long-sleeved aerodynamic jersey.  It was too late to see if the other Sky riders did the same thing as another marginal gain the team had discovered or if it was just a personal choice of Froome or if he may have simply forgotten to wear them.  He is known to be absent-minded, once forgetting to pull the tissue he stuffs in his nose soaked with eucalyptus oil to open his breathing passages while he warming up on his trainer before the prologue in Liege a few year ago.  Having his nostrils blocked was an adverse effect.  I'll be checking for gloves at next week's time trial. 

I was hoping to make it to the Big Screen for tomorrow's finish but the winds have put a kabash to that.  I needed the twenty miles I was denied yesterday and the thirty today to make it.  I'll have to be content to watch the peloton pass thirty or forty miles from the finish and then watch the finish on television once again.  Still not a bad way to be experiencing The Tour.

Stage Twelve

When I resumed riding this morning at 7:30, less than ten hours after I had ended riding the evening before, the wind had calmed so much I thought maybe The Tour would reconsider its decision to move today's finish from the top of Mont Ventoux to four miles below the summit at the tree line.  It probably couldn't, since it takes hours to set up all the finish line structures, and they'd be well on their way to completing the task.

And it was well that they didn't, as the swirling, gusting wind soon picked up and  grew stronger and stronger as the day wore on.  It had me at a near standstill on the descent from the day's Category Three climb through a narrow canyon.  I felt like a test pilot for The Tour, determining whether it was manageable for a cyclist to survive these conditions.  I wasn't knocked off my bike, loaded with over fifty pounds of ballast, nor blown off the road, though I was buffered all over.  There was just a handful of other cyclists riding the route, and they too persevered with caution and concern etched on all of our faces.

It was Bastille Day. The road should have been packed with fans, but the fierce cold wind was keeping the masses away, at least early in the day.  Those who make The Tour an opportunity for that great French pastime, the picque-nique, had to be hardy and innovative.  But there were plenty who would not be denied.  

This group had taken the time to construct a prehistoric-looking bike from rocks and twigs on an embankment across from them, the only bike art of the day.  There wasn't even a bike painted yellow along the road, nor any decorated bikes in front yards or given a place of honor hanging from buildings or perched on pedestals.  The Tour passes through this region often enough, that the locals don't go out of their way to celebrate it as elsewhere.

I approached the summit of the Category Three climb from a side road, as the actual Tour route up from the tourist town of Gordes, was closed, as it was so packed with fans somewhat sheltered from the wind.  Cars were parked on both sides of the narrow road for over a mile and swarms of fans carrying coolers and blankets were walking from a parking area even further away.  The town of Mazan, ten miles before the climb to Ventoux was likewise thick with fans. It was another town with a chateau that the Marquis de Sade spent time at.  I lingered there for the caravan and then headed over to the big city of Carpentras, three miles away, to watch the final two hours of The Race on a television.

The television showed thick, enthusiastic crowds all the way from Mazan to the finish, too thick in fact, forcing the motorcycle leading Froome and Porte and Mollema speeding away from Quintana and the rest to come to a sudden halt less than a mile from the finish, causing Porte to crash in to it and then Froome and Mollema as well.  The live broadcast missed this catastrophic event as it was focusing on the sprint to the finish five minutes up the road between a pair of Belgians--won by Thomas De Gendt over Serge Pauwels. 

There was a cameraman on the back of the motorcycle, so we got to eventually see what happened, but initially all we saw was the aftermath with Froome running up the road without his destroyed bike.  He quickly gave up and was given a bike that didn't fit him by a neutral support vehicle.  Within moments the Sky car had somehow managed to reach him through the thick crowds and gave him another bike.  In all the chaos it wasn't clear how much time he was losing and who all had passed him.  He had gone from putting a clamp on The Tour, having dropped Quintana and Yates and Martin, his closest rivals, to be in jeopardy of losing The Tour.  

No one could answer immediately if he could be awarded the time difference he had established when the crash occurred, particularly since it came near the end of the stage.  As it turned out, he didn't lose much more than a minute to his rivals, a time he could easily overcome having shown once again today that he is the strongest rider in the field.  He would have a chance to prove it emphatically in the time trial the next day.  It would most certainly be the Race of Truth, truly demonstrating who was the strongest.

I didn't learn until later in my tent that the commissars after more than ninety minutes of deliberation  agreed that Froome and Porte and Mollema should not be penalized by the chaos caused by the fans and they were granted the nineteen seconds they had gained at the point of the crash, extending Froome's lead over Quintana to a minute.  Quintana still benefitted from the crash, as the three were riding with great conviction and could have gained another half minute or more.  He wasn't going to close down the gap.  For the first time he made two token, rather feeble attacks on Froome earlier in the climb, as if in response to all his critics who have maligned his lack of vigor.

When I left the bar, the wind was gusting with even more ferocity and for the first time I would be heading directly into its teeth, to the north and west.  I had to walk at times when the shoulder of the road narrowed and had a sharp drop or was contained by a curb, as it was impossible for me to hold a steady line and I could be driven into the curb or knocked off the road as happened to Simon Gerans on the Category Three descent, who crashed and brought down two of Froome's teammates.It took two hours to cover ten miles.  I took shelter behind a shed to eat and rest and hope that as the sun declined, so would the wind.  But the wind had no desire to relent just yet.

It was vineyards as far as the eye could see without a windbreak in sight other than the occasional homestead.   I needed a forest to camp in to block the wind enough so I could set up my tent.  Three miles later when I came upon an abandoned house, I used that as my windbreak for the night.  I'd go to bed early and get up early when the wind was calm.  With luck it would stay calm.  

At least I don't have to pile up the miles.  I planned to bypass the time trial, as I had ridden the course after Cannes, and start riding the next day's stage starting in Montélimar, thirty miles from my campsite.  I'll be heading due north, staying east of the Rhone River and east of Lyon.  I did it in the rain five weeks ago.  I'd gladly take the rain over this insufferable wind.  It is debilitating.  It would be a quiet night at least other than the sound of the wind.  Bastille Day fireworks had to be cancelled.   Every town has a display.  Wherever I have camped on Bastille Day in the past I could look out and see fireworks in every corner of the sky and hear their explosions into the night.

I can now confirm that The Devil has joined The Tour.  I caught a glimpse of him on television as the breakaway group began their climb on Ventoux.  It was so quick, I thought it might be an impersonator until I saw his signature road graffiti of a giant bike and a series of tridents.  And then after the stage as I was battling the wind he passed me in his van with his image painted on the back and gave me a toot.  I won't see him tomorrow, but hopefully the next day near the end of the stage as he prefers to be. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Stage Eleven

A bull fight was on the television in the lone bar in the small town of Gallargues-le-Montueux.  A disheveled older guy was the solitary patron in the bar.  He was seated at a table and had his gaze fixed on the television. As always, I came in wearing my helmet to authenticate myself as a cyclist, hopefully giving me some rights when it came to asking to put The Tour de France on the television if it wasn't already. I told the bartender I was looking for a bar with a television that might be showing The Tour.  He picked up the remote control and asked his patron if he minded if he switched to The Tour.  He nodded his approval.  That made me very happy.

It was down to the last twenty kilometers.  Sagan was at the front pushing the pace.  There was no breakaway to chase, just an entire peloton to leave behind.  With twelve kilometers to go he gave an extra acceleration and he and his teammate Macjiej Bodnat managed to break free.  Froome was near the front and he sped up to the duo and so did his teammate Geraint Thomas.  Before anyone else could react they had gained a few seconds and then some more.  This was an astounding development and looked as if it might actually work.  Sagan is known as an animator, but to see Froome join him was a brash demonstration of how much he wanted to win this race and how strong he was.  Quintana had made a practice of remaining glued to Froome's wheel, but he was caught unawares here just as he was when Froome charged down the mountain descent a few days earlier to gain sixteen seconds on him and claim the Yellow Jersey.   A helicopter shot showed Quintana well back in the strung out peloton and not looking too concerned.

Merckx and Hinault, arguably the two greatest who lived by the mantra "Attack" not "sit back,"  had to be cheering wildly at this rare display of aggression by today's conservative modern riders.  Even fans of Quintana, who must be growing weary of his nonchalance, had to be rooting for Froome to stay away, though not to gain too much time.  Their advantage grew to twenty seconds but dwindled to six by the finish with Sagan, not unsurprisingly, holding off Froome in the sprint.  But Froome gained a bonus six seconds for his placement, extending his lead over Quintana to thirty-five seconds, still not much, but it was another brash assertion made by Froome that he has come to race and seize any opportunity that presents itself.  This certainly wasn't planned, nor launched by a voice in his earpiece.  He was just being vigilant and opportunistic. This move has to inspire Froome's teammates to give their all for him, as much as it sews seeds of concern in his competitors.  As the French would say to Froome--"chapeau."  He is making himself a deserving champion.

Sagan and his teammate hugged triumphantly.  Froome could have joined in, as they had been valiant allies who fought as one for those last five miles, but they went their different directions at race's end..  One can be sure there will be hearty handshakes at the start line tomorrow when they line up beside each other at the front of the field with the White and the Polka Dot jerseys.  Whether the camera went to Froome and Thomas I don't know as the bartender switched the television back to the bull fighting.

Now Froome has to hold his own on Ventoux tomorrow, though it won't be as much of a test as it usually is, as the final several miles to the summit have been lopped off due to the prediction of more high winds.  They were gusty and strong today.  They'll be considerably worse, dangerously so, on the upper reaches of Ventoux above the tree line. 

The wind greatly affected my riding today too as I alternated from flying along at better than twenty miles per hour in my biggest gear one minute, and then struggling in a small gear to go ten miles per hour when the road or the wind switched directions.  At least it was a refreshingly cool wind.  

The wind interrupted my sleep the night before.  I was camped in a forest. I kept waking at the sound of debris falling on my tent, thinking at first that it was rain and I had to rush out and put on my rain fly.  The wind made the riding perilous entering and exiting the traffic clogged metropolis of Montpellier, the stage finish and start of the next day's stage.  Montpellier has always been my nemesis.  There's no easy way in or out and it always leaves me flummoxed.  I thought I would be spared this time, with course markers leading me into the city and then out, but they failed me.  On the way in they led onto a highway that prohibited bicycles.  I was too early for the road to have been closed down, so had to struggle to find my way.  At the finish I came in on the side that was for VIPs and officials only, so had the additional frustration of having to backtrack to get to the other side.

I was way early, before noon.  The crowd was just beginning to gather.  No one was giving anything away yet except a bicycle service organization that was handing out very worthwhile reflective bands.  When I asked for one I was told to stick out my arm and then a guy clamped one around my wrist.  The same group had a pump and offered to check my tires.  They were both down about twenty pounds.

It was two miles from the finish besides a sports center to the town center where the next day's stage would start.  The central plaza is huge, five or six blocks long and two blocks wide and surrounded by magnificent buildings.  As I entered I spotted a course marker and began on the next day's stage.  It took me past the city's Arc de Triomphe and another noteworthy sites. The neutralized zone went on for over ten miles, some of it along a tramway whose accompanying road was too narrow for cars and bicycles to share.  I had the pain of riding on the sidewalk for a couple of miles.  As happens in large cities, the course markers are sometimes appropriated by ne'er do wells, and so it happened here at a crucial turn. I found myself on a busy highway and had to turn back, not such an easy task.  Montpellier had caused me another headache.

The route sheet allows the peloton thirty minutes to complete the neutralized zone.  It took me over an hour.  It made the small, picturesque towns all the more pleasing.