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.

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