Saturday, July 9, 2016

Stage Eight

The large plaza in L'Isle-Jourdain where a giant screen showed yesterday's action was filled this morning with a bustling farmer's market.  The only evidence that The Tour had been to town was an occasional  person wearing one of the hats distributed by sponsors the day before--the yellow cap of Credit Lyonaise, the red polka hat by Carrefour and a green one from Skoda.  The plaza was so packed one could easily overlook the large yellow Tour banner adorning City Hall facing the plaza.  

If one ventured into the public library within the City Hall the large display of books relating to The Tour and bicycling would have been a reminder that The Tour had been to town. That is a common feature of libraries in towns on The Tour route and an added incentive to pay them a visit.  I was familiar with many of the books, but there were just as many that were discoveries.  They always provide an incentive that fails to stick for me to increase what little fluency I have in French.  A 150-page book, "Un Petite Philosophie du Vélo" by Bernard Chambaz in particular appeared to be a gem packed with homages to the bike.  It had short chapters on predestination, fatigue, death, God, aesthetics, effort, grace, sadness, passion, time, space, night and many more with references to Spinoza and Descartes as well as many significant cyclists.  

I also spent some time paging through another philosophical book of a different sort--a 500-page tome of cycling cartoons that have appeared in "L'Equipe" over the past fifty years. There were other most inviting and worthwhile cycling books.  How could they not all be checked out?  Luckily, or unluckily, the library did not subscribe to "L'Equipe."  They'd have had to kick me out when it closed at 12:30 if it did.  As it was, I lingered until nearly noon before getting about my business of riding my bike.  

I followed the route the peloton took for thirty miles right up to the fringe of the Pyrennes and then turned east to pick up the Stage Ten route that they would follow to leave the mountains after Monday's rest day.  There were painted yellow bikes along the road and an occasional bike edifice.  I picked up a small pack of candy that the caravan had tossed as well as an inflatable pillow that had somehow escaped the gleaners who walk the course after the peloton has passed and the fans have dispersed. 

At four o'clock I stopped at a bar to watch the final hour of the peloton's day in the Pyrenees.  The bartender's wife was temporarily filling in for him and wasn't too cooperative in putting it on even though the peloton had ridden past their bar the day before.  She asked if The Race was later that evening and didn't even know what channel to try. When her husband relieved her, he kept his back to the television and then charged me three euros for my menthe à l'eau, double the usual price.  Quite a contrast to my last bar, when the bartender only charged me a euro, thankful that I had asked him to put on The Tour as it brought people inside to watch and linger and buy more drinks.

There were a few patrons at tables outside this place too, but no one joined me.  They were missing out on some most determined racing.  For the first time this year no breakaway was up the road. A phalanx of Sky riders led a group of the significant twenty-five on a long climb riding as if they truly meant business.  They were clearly trying to make something happen, testing the limits of those left and trying to shed the weak.  No one was going to attack at the speed they were maintaining.  They were halfway up the third of the day's big climbs, the Category One Col de Val Louron-Azet.  Froome zipped ahead at the summit to take the King of the Mountain points. After a quick descent it was back up the day's final climb, the Peyresourde, another Category One.  The Sky troops kept up a relentless pace.  The only one to fall off was one of the French hopes, Pinot.

Froome once again spurted ahead at the summit and then caught the others off guard by propelling himself with extra vigor.  He opened a small gap and then crouched over the cross bar on his bike to make himself as aerodynamic as he could and continued pedaling in this ackward position at nearly fifty miles per hour.  He always looks gawky on the bike with arms akimbo and body swaying, but in this position he almost appeared fluid and at one with his bike.  It was a ten-mile descent to the finish in Bagnères-de-Luchon.  He opened a gap of ten seconds and then extended it to twenty by the time the descent somewhat leveled.  It looked as if he was going to pull off this audacious attack and claim the Yellow Jersey.   Those in pursuit remained in a bunch and remained seated on their saddles.  They made up some ground in the final kilometers, but Froome still won by thirteen seconds.  He punched the air several times and his face was tugged into the broadest grin possible.

It may have been an excessive expenditure of energy for such a small gain, but it was a strong statement that could cause his adversaries some concern.  The next day's stage is far more important with the first long climb to the finish where much larger time gaps can be achieved.  That's when we'll truly see who is the strongest and who could claim the Yellow Jersey for the rest of The Race.  Earlier, Froome had said that Stage Nine is when The Race begins.  He was bluffing, as for him it started ten miles before that.

Shockingly, the actual race has only ended for one rider.  Today saw the first abandon, the deepest ever in the 103  editions of The Race that someone dropped out.  It was the Danish rider Michael Merlov who had been persevering despite an injury.  That leaves 197.

The biggest surprise may have been the Irish rider Dan Martin, who used to ride for Garmin but switched to the Beglain team Etixx-Quickstep that Cavendish used to ride for, coming in second.  If not for Froome's bold move he could have claimed the Yellow Jersey.  He was surprisingly climbing with all the top dogs at the Dauphiné as well.  Tomorrow's climatic climb to Andorra, where he relocated after living with the Garmin guys in Girona, will tell if he is truly transformed and a full-fledged contender.  It ought to be the best day of racing yet.  

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