Friday, July 15, 2016

Stage Twelve

When I resumed riding this morning at 7:30, less than ten hours after I had ended riding the evening before, the wind had calmed so much I thought maybe The Tour would reconsider its decision to move today's finish from the top of Mont Ventoux to four miles below the summit at the tree line.  It probably couldn't, since it takes hours to set up all the finish line structures, and they'd be well on their way to completing the task.

And it was well that they didn't, as the swirling, gusting wind soon picked up and  grew stronger and stronger as the day wore on.  It had me at a near standstill on the descent from the day's Category Three climb through a narrow canyon.  I felt like a test pilot for The Tour, determining whether it was manageable for a cyclist to survive these conditions.  I wasn't knocked off my bike, loaded with over fifty pounds of ballast, nor blown off the road, though I was buffered all over.  There was just a handful of other cyclists riding the route, and they too persevered with caution and concern etched on all of our faces.

It was Bastille Day. The road should have been packed with fans, but the fierce cold wind was keeping the masses away, at least early in the day.  Those who make The Tour an opportunity for that great French pastime, the picque-nique, had to be hardy and innovative.  But there were plenty who would not be denied.  

This group had taken the time to construct a prehistoric-looking bike from rocks and twigs on an embankment across from them, the only bike art of the day.  There wasn't even a bike painted yellow along the road, nor any decorated bikes in front yards or given a place of honor hanging from buildings or perched on pedestals.  The Tour passes through this region often enough, that the locals don't go out of their way to celebrate it as elsewhere.

I approached the summit of the Category Three climb from a side road, as the actual Tour route up from the tourist town of Gordes, was closed, as it was so packed with fans somewhat sheltered from the wind.  Cars were parked on both sides of the narrow road for over a mile and swarms of fans carrying coolers and blankets were walking from a parking area even further away.  The town of Mazan, ten miles before the climb to Ventoux was likewise thick with fans. It was another town with a chateau that the Marquis de Sade spent time at.  I lingered there for the caravan and then headed over to the big city of Carpentras, three miles away, to watch the final two hours of The Race on a television.

The television showed thick, enthusiastic crowds all the way from Mazan to the finish, too thick in fact, forcing the motorcycle leading Froome and Porte and Mollema speeding away from Quintana and the rest to come to a sudden halt less than a mile from the finish, causing Porte to crash in to it and then Froome and Mollema as well.  The live broadcast missed this catastrophic event as it was focusing on the sprint to the finish five minutes up the road between a pair of Belgians--won by Thomas De Gendt over Serge Pauwels. 

There was a cameraman on the back of the motorcycle, so we got to eventually see what happened, but initially all we saw was the aftermath with Froome running up the road without his destroyed bike.  He quickly gave up and was given a bike that didn't fit him by a neutral support vehicle.  Within moments the Sky car had somehow managed to reach him through the thick crowds and gave him another bike.  In all the chaos it wasn't clear how much time he was losing and who all had passed him.  He had gone from putting a clamp on The Tour, having dropped Quintana and Yates and Martin, his closest rivals, to be in jeopardy of losing The Tour.  

No one could answer immediately if he could be awarded the time difference he had established when the crash occurred, particularly since it came near the end of the stage.  As it turned out, he didn't lose much more than a minute to his rivals, a time he could easily overcome having shown once again today that he is the strongest rider in the field.  He would have a chance to prove it emphatically in the time trial the next day.  It would most certainly be the Race of Truth, truly demonstrating who was the strongest.

I didn't learn until later in my tent that the commissars after more than ninety minutes of deliberation  agreed that Froome and Porte and Mollema should not be penalized by the chaos caused by the fans and they were granted the nineteen seconds they had gained at the point of the crash, extending Froome's lead over Quintana to a minute.  Quintana still benefitted from the crash, as the three were riding with great conviction and could have gained another half minute or more.  He wasn't going to close down the gap.  For the first time he made two token, rather feeble attacks on Froome earlier in the climb, as if in response to all his critics who have maligned his lack of vigor.

When I left the bar, the wind was gusting with even more ferocity and for the first time I would be heading directly into its teeth, to the north and west.  I had to walk at times when the shoulder of the road narrowed and had a sharp drop or was contained by a curb, as it was impossible for me to hold a steady line and I could be driven into the curb or knocked off the road as happened to Simon Gerans on the Category Three descent, who crashed and brought down two of Froome's teammates.It took two hours to cover ten miles.  I took shelter behind a shed to eat and rest and hope that as the sun declined, so would the wind.  But the wind had no desire to relent just yet.

It was vineyards as far as the eye could see without a windbreak in sight other than the occasional homestead.   I needed a forest to camp in to block the wind enough so I could set up my tent.  Three miles later when I came upon an abandoned house, I used that as my windbreak for the night.  I'd go to bed early and get up early when the wind was calm.  With luck it would stay calm.  

At least I don't have to pile up the miles.  I planned to bypass the time trial, as I had ridden the course after Cannes, and start riding the next day's stage starting in Montélimar, thirty miles from my campsite.  I'll be heading due north, staying east of the Rhone River and east of Lyon.  I did it in the rain five weeks ago.  I'd gladly take the rain over this insufferable wind.  It is debilitating.  It would be a quiet night at least other than the sound of the wind.  Bastille Day fireworks had to be cancelled.   Every town has a display.  Wherever I have camped on Bastille Day in the past I could look out and see fireworks in every corner of the sky and hear their explosions into the night.

I can now confirm that The Devil has joined The Tour.  I caught a glimpse of him on television as the breakaway group began their climb on Ventoux.  It was so quick, I thought it might be an impersonator until I saw his signature road graffiti of a giant bike and a series of tridents.  And then after the stage as I was battling the wind he passed me in his van with his image painted on the back and gave me a toot.  I won't see him tomorrow, but hopefully the next day near the end of the stage as he prefers to be. 

1 comment:

j. said...

great read, thanks George