Peering down on the vast gathering for the presentation of the 22 teams of nine riders each for this year's Tour was the effigy of John Steele, the American soldier whose parachute was caught on the cathedral on the night of June 6, 1944 preceding the D-Day, or J-Jour as the French call it, landings on the nearby beaches. He was among 13,000 soldiers who parachuted in that night leading to the liberation of France. This wasn't a special feature for the night's event, broadcast all over France, as he and his parachute were placed on the church thirty years ago.
But tribute to the Normandy landings was a theme of the presentation. Each of the teams was brought to the stage on the back of an old military vehicle led by men and women on foot wearing dress of the day through a gauntlet of fans. They were deposited at the foot of the stage where they mounted their bikes, and then rode up a ramp for their introduction. They then bicycled through the barricaded streets of Sainte-Mére-Eglise back to their team buses.
It was a cold and sultry evening. Fans were bundled in parkas, but the riders were clad in their cycling shorts and jerseys, mostly bare-armed, except for just a couple of teams wisely wearing arm warmers. They rode past the fans grim-faced with gritted teeth, trying not to shiver, as quickly as they could back to the warmth of their buses. There wasn't a smile to be seen on their faces despite the cheers, a stark contrast to my previous presentations in civil weather, when the riders are in no hurry whatsoever, soaking up all the adulation with beaming faces, sometimes stopping for autographs or photos. Hopefully we won't be hearing in the days to come racers having to abandon The Race after contracting a virus from their prolonged exposure to the cold of this evening.
Ralph and I were barely keeping warm in our cycling attire, despite multiple layers. Ralph and I reunited at the library an hour before the evening's program began. He'd been bicycling in Scotland and then the Pyrenees since we'd last seen each at Cannes five weeks ago. He'd taken the train up from Pau the day before to Saint-Lô, then biked the thirty miles to Sainte-Mére-Eglise.
Like Skippy he's biking with no panniers and just a small amount of gear, finding hotels and bed-and-breakfasts for his accommodations, one of which has been a yurt. His hotel for this night was twelve miles away. I had my choice of a multitude of pastures and forests all within a few miles. Ralph had to leave the proceedings early to make it to his small hotel by 8:45. He missed out on the highlight of the evening--banter between the Tinkoff teammates World Champion Peter Sagan and two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador.
The announcer initially handed the microphone to Sagan and asked him to introduce his teammates, the only one of the 198 riders he offered such an opportunity. Sagan joked that he wasn't sure if he knew all their names. As he introduced his teammates he didn't much embellish their credentials other than to mention two recent national champions. The announcer chided him for not giving Contador enough of a build-up and then demonstrated how to do it.
That was the most repartee of the evening. Otherwise it was just a standard question or two of the top riders of each team, mostly in French. Even Froome's interview was conducted in French. Among the few in English was that of the Italian former Tour winner Nibali. He refused to say he was here in the service of his teammate Aru, who has been appointed team leader, saying he'd wait and see how his legs felt after winning the Giro, whether he'd vye for the Yellow Jersey. That was far from the politically correct thing to say.
Despite the uninviting damp fifty degree weather the small town of Sainte-Mére-Eglise was thronged with fans. Roads into the town were already barricaded at 2:30 when I made my arrival, three hours before the opening musical act was to take the stage. Ralph and I were a football field from the stage, watching the proceedings on one of the two large screens transmitting all the events we were too distant to see. This was Ralph's first Tour experience and he couldn't help but be overwhelmed by all the fervor. Unfortunately he'll only be able to experience the first two stages before he must be off to London.
The racers and us will have a light day Friday previewing a portion of the Stage One route before the Grand Race commences on Saturday. We're not much more than ten miles from the finish at Utah Beach, so Saturday will be a light day as well. Hopefully we won't be battling the elements as we watch them on the Big Screen at the finish charging over from Mont Saint Michel. Once the stage finishes around 5:30 my own personal race will be underway. I'll ride the 28 miles to the Stage Two start in Saint-Lô and then get ten or fifteen miles down the route before I camp. The next day I'll await the peloton's arrival at the twenty-mile point in the stage and then head south down the 139-mile Stage Three route, riding until dark. I'll have to ride 300 miles in two-and-a-half days to keep up. If the prevailing winds prevail, I'll be propelled by a nor'wester. I'm as eager as ever.