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.

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