Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Stage Four

Every patch of green turf along the six-and-a-half mile neutralized zone through Saumur to start Stage Four was populated with the most elegant of bicycles.  There were dozens of them, some solitary and others in colonies.  They came in a variety of colors.  If it weren't too late to find the tourist office open I would have returned to learn who manufactured them and then order a dozen for Janina's front yard.  Cyclists from miles around would flock to the shrine. 

Much further down the day's 148-mile course a cycle and cyclist that Michelango might have chiseled if he worked in wood was equally breathtaking. 

With the caravan setting out extra early this morning at nine and the peloton two hours later for this long station, I wasn't sure how far I could get down the course before I was ordered off my bike.  I began my riding at eight a.m. thirty-two miles down the course.  I had camped on a grassy side road with two tire tracks that didn't appear to have been driven recently.  It was beside a thick forest infested with mosquitoes that I didn't care to penetrate.  I had attempted it along the road and was immediately swarmed by the voracious pests.  

I found a wide spot to pitch my tent just off the road in case of the unlikely event of a tractor or some such vehicle coming along first thing in the morning.  My precautions weren't in vain as I was woken after midnight by bright headlights bearing down on me.  I felt no concern as my bike was prominently visible.  I knew I'd be taken as a Tour follower, who are given special dispensation to camp anywhere along the route the evening before a stage.  The vehicle slowly passed and parked at the end of the road, claiming the spot to watch the peloton pass.  When I left in the morning, two people were still asleep in the back of the enclosed mini-truck.

A heavy fog hung over the countryside, but with no wind I could gobble up the miles.  I had been hoping to get at least twenty-five miles down the road, leaving me less than ninety miles to the finish, which I'd be happy to reach by ten p.m.  Five more miles and the road had yet to be closed.  Then five more.  I passed through a town with an open cathedral and water nearby that would have been a perfect place to be stopped for two plus hours, but I could keep going.  In the next town as I slowed through its packed narrow streets a well-dressed gentleman stepped out into the road to stop me.  He wasn't an official so I wasn't alarmed.  "Do you remember me," he asked.

"You're the journalist from French TV who wanted to do a story on me a couple years ago," I said.

"That's right and I still do.  I've been covering The Tour for eleven years and I've never met anyone like you.  Where are you going to be tomorrow?"

I told him that after the Stage Five start in Limoges I intended to head south to the end of Stage Six.  That wouldn't work as he needed me live for the pre-Race show that he was a part of in some small town along the route.  He took out The Tour map for me to outline my intended route.  It might work for the time trial on July 15 or later in the Alps.  We were having a nice chat but I was anxious to keep riding.  I left him my email and continued another half hour before a gendarme on a motorcycle came up alongside me and told me to stop.  I consulted the time table.  I had gotten forty-three miles down the course, far enough that the caravan wasn't due to pass for an hour, way too early for me to stop.  But there just happened to be a gendarme posted at a nearby road, so he knew I had been detained.  I was spent, but would have gladly continued on, at least as far as a town with water and electricity.  But at least there was a forest here providing shade along the road and a nice gathering of people.

Half an hour later Oleg Tinkow, owner of Sagan's team, came rolling by on his bike followed by a bright yellow team car.  He wasn't going very fast as he has some injury that has him on crutches.  I ate and studied my map.  I discovered a short cut that would save me six or seven miles, leaving me just sixty-two miles to Limoges.  I could surely make it by dark.

After a nearly three-hour break beginning at 11:30 a four-rider breakaway passed.  Six minutes later the peloton followed led by Tinnkoff with Sagan in yellow tucked in adjusting his helmet.

I'd had an all too long three-hour respite when I resumed riding at 2:36. Yesterday in had put in ten hours and nineteen minutes on the bike riding from eight a.m. to ten p.m. as I was able to stay well ahead of the peloton all day. I wasn't going to manage that many today.  It had finally warmed up enough that I could wear a short-sleeve shirt for the first time in two weeks.  When I continued I was on the alert for a cemetery or town faucet to fill my water bottles and to do some much needed wash, myself included.  The peloton had threatened another slowdown today in protest of the length of the stage, so I didn't feel pressed to get to a bar until well after five.

I didn't think I'd gather any course markers this year and happily passed the first one I saw.  But when I came upon another I felt it my duty to remove it.  It should have been long gone.  It was an insult. To ThenTour that it hadn't been instantly scavenged.  So I kept in tact of at least one marker a year, a much easier souvenir to come by that a water bottle, though there are much fewer of them, since one must have a tool to remove them.  I didn't see another for the next fifty miles except one high on a railroad gate, the first I'd ever seen in such a place.

It was 5:15 when I came upon a bar, not frantic in the least as I normally get when the five o'clock hour approaches.  But the peloton surprised me.  Evidently they didn't care to prolong their time in the sun, so they finished a little ahead of schedule.  The broadcast was replaying the just completed sprint.  Kittel got the monkey off his back.  He dominated two years ago but was so poor last year didn't even ride in The Tour.  After winning several stages in the Giro earlier this year it looked as if he had favored status.  But. Cavendish had ruled the first two sprints.  Cav didn't have it today, lagging behind in seventh.

I was thirty miles from where the sprint had just taken place.  It was up and down terrain.  The long, steep climbs delayed my arrival until 9:15.  I went straight to the grand City Hall where I knew the nest stage would start.  It actually started at a park a mile away, but there were course markers by City Hall indicating the direct the peloton would take the next day.  I biked once again until ten and camped in a freshly cut field of hay right on the route.  It was a 110-mile day.  I had completed this year's two marathon stages and had ridden over 300 miles in two-and-a-half days and was still ahead of the peloton.  I wasn't sure if all the rain of the past month had put me behind on my training, but if I could handle this and still have plenty left, I came into The Race as ready as any of the racers.

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