I completed the twenty-eight miles left on the transfer from Montauban by ten, an hour before the caravan made its departure. That gave me time to wander the bustling streets after leaving my bike in front of the cathedral. A small plaza overlooking the starting line had a fence around it. Two security guards checked the bags of everyone entering. Volunteers in yellow t-shifts circulated everywhere. This was the first time L'Isle Jourdain had hosted The Tour. It might have been the biggest day in its history.
The road the peloton would be take out of town was lined with barricades for half a mile and was already deep with fans. So was the street leading to the starting line from where the twenty-two team buses were parked. All sorts of goodies were being handed out by sponsor reps from behind the barricades--some useful, such as shopping bags, and others not, such as giant sunglasses. The CGT, the labor union, had placed a tent at the first bend and was giving out red balloons. Janina had been hoping I could get her one of their large flags she sees every night on the French news at protests. They had flags, but not to distribute, even for a price. She'll have to be satisfied with several balloons.
Rarely do I witness all the hoopla at the start of a stage, as I'm usually well down the course, so I didn't know how generous the caravan would be since there had already been a pre-distribution of product. That didn't matter. The young folk tossing booty started out with great relish. At times when they pass me well down the course after several hours of trying to look like they're having the time of their life, they are clearly eager to get to the end of the stage, sometimes flying along at excessive speed. Out of the gate their vehicles were at a crawl and those aboard were happily responding to all the eager fans. With such skimpy offerings this year (no "L'Equipe" or wrist bands or collectible frig magnets or reflective bands or Tour-monogrammed glass wipes or significant food items) I could just stand back and watch the spectacle of delight over silly nothings. Young and old are thrilled with whatever they nab, at least until later.
Once the caravan had fulfilled its duties I retreated to the shade to get some food into me and then ventured over to the stage where all the riders sign in and are quickly introduced. There is no particular order. Every individual is on his own. It seems that they prefer to go in clusters so that the announcer can't grab them while he's talking to someone else. Sagan, now out of Yellow and back in his World Champion jersey, was quick about it and avoided the microphone.
Just before the sign-in stage was a Power Bar tent dispensing drinks and gels and energy bars for the riders in case their team didn't have their preference. Most seemed to grab something, including Sagan.
I went back down the course to watch the launch. I was close enough to the start line to hear the countdown. All around me there was an intense focus anticipating the riders.
They were led by race director Christian Prudhomme, who team director Marc Madiot referred to as God in his latest blog post at cyclingnews.com, in his open-topped car. Once the peloton completes the neutralized zone and he signals them to start racing he peels off and speeds ahead to the arrival city. I could have spent the next four hours sitting in the main plaza in front of the City Hall watching The Race on a giant screen, but the first three hours were all flat until a Category Four, then One, climb. Instead, I went to a nearby lake for a much needed swim, my first of these travels, and then to the tourist office and its WIFI for a call to Janina. It has been go-go-go for the past week, the longest stretch since we've been able to talk. She had the exciting news that she'd decided to paint an owl on her shed.
When I returned to the Big Screen the scorching heat had kept the crowd down. There were only a few diehards in the thin stretches of shade.
The Yellow Jersey (Van Avermaet) was in a breakaway with Nibali and several others. Since Nibsli had lost fifteen minutes earlier, the GC contenders allowed him this latitude and Van Avermaet too, as he was no threat when the real climbing begins in the next two days. He could handle this Category One (the Aspin), as it had a not so severe five and six per cent grade. He fell off a bit, but clung to the Yellow for at least another day.
Steve Cummings too can contend on such a grade. He was in the breakaway and then attacked and held everyone off. The mighty climbers five minutes back had declared a truce and saved their powder for another day. It was an unlikely site, Froome's Sky team and Quintana's Moviestar team, riding a semi-tempo pace up the Aspin and not flexing their muscles. It allowed the spotlight to shine on Cummings and Van Avemaet and also on British cycling and Cavendish's Dimension Data team, as that is who Cummings rides for.
He was so ecstatic at his stage win that he was hurling fists in the air the last fifty meters and then gave his director a hug that didn't seem as if it would end. This is just the second year for Dimension Data. They are having a sensational Tour, winning four of the seven stages, with more possible when the flats return and Cavendish can contend.
I could stick around and watch all the post-race interviews as I was in no rush to be back biking. I was going to camp just outside L'Isle-Jourdain, then take advantage of its library in the morning hopefully perusing a week's worth of "L'Equipe" and it's deep dissection of every angle of The Tour and the French hopes. The peloton's rest day doesn't come until after Sunday's Stage Nine. I was taking mine a little early, even though my legs weren't demanding it.