Saturday, July 15, 2017

Interlude in Tours

My route to Cherbourg took me through Tours where I was able to salvage a visit with Florence and Rachid, a near annual event these past fourteen years.  It was an extra bonus to taking the Queen Mary home.  And my visit to Tours was enhanced with Janina joining us.  She'd been in Paris the past nine days and was undecided on whether to head to London or Cherbourg.

There had been the possibility of meeting up with Florence and Rachid in Digne a month ago, but Florence was immersed in a job she couldn't forgo.  It would have been a two-day drive across the country.  She'd just begun a two-month assignment of forty-five hour weeks.  The French worker may have won the right to a thirty-five hour week years ago, but employers have ways of getting around it and Florence had fallen victim to it.  It may be inflating her pocketbook, but at what price she's not sure.

Luckily my arrival coincided with the July 14th holiday, so she wasn't tethered to her servitude.  For the first time I could enjoy this great national holiday, as in years past I've been fully immersed in The Tour and spent the day pushing the pedals.  It's always a special stage with an extra amount of fans and fervor along the road and with the route designed with flair to honor the day.  For once I could watch the stage from start to finish and without the nagging concern of how far I could cycle after it concluded.  

It was a short 63-mile stage with three significant climbs meaning it would be vigorous racing from the gun.   It didn't start until 2:30.  The four of us watched it in the comfort of Rachid and Florence's apartment.  After a Sky rider had worn Yellow the previous eleven stages, another rider began the stage in the holy garment--Aru.  Lance commented that it was the first time in years that an Italian had been in Yellow, forgetting that Nibali, Aru's former teammate, had won The Race just three years ago.  Lance has acknowledged he hasn't followed racing very closely until recently and he proves it from time to time.  

Froome was just six seconds behind after faltering in the final couple of hundred meters up a steep 20% climb the day before.  Aru didn't win the stage, that honor went to the French rider Bardet, but he finished far enough ahead of Froome to seize the lead, heightening the drama of today's stage.  Had Froome just had a bad day or wasn't he on form to win The Race?  Up till now most had been conceding The Race to him.  Would he claw back the time he had lost or lose even more?

Today's stage further undermined everyone's expectations with Froome's Spanish teammate Landa linking up with Contador to get two minutes up the road on the main contenders.  In between the two groups was Quintana, like Contador trying to get back in The Race.  The cameras were kept busy following the three groups.  By the end Quintana and Barguil in Polka Dots had joined up with the two up the road with Barguil surging to the finish to take the victory, the first French win on Bastille Day since 2005.  

Froome stuck with Aru and Bardet and Uran, who are all within 35 seconds of each other, the tightest cluster of the four top riders in Tour history this late in The Race.  So Froome showed he wasn't vulnerable today, except maybe to Landa, who moved up to fifth, just one minute and nine seconds behind Aru.  His loyalty is suspect, as he will be moving to Quintana's Moviestar team next year.  The Race was truly heating up, and the next day had another of those short steep finishes that had undone Froome the day before,  but not after a long climb.

We hadn't been out all day, so were happy to be finally freed to take a stroll into the city center two miles away.  We crossed the Cher River and continued on to the Loire, where the evening's fireworks would be launched.  Tours is a metropolis of nearly half a million people, the 18th largest in France.  It has a large cathedral dating to the 13th century that had recently been restored by a group of craftsman whose life's mission is to go around France devoted to the enterprise.  

Janina may not attend religious services, but she is always eager to partake of these majestic, old cathedrals, as she has studied medieval architecture.  She turns tour guide excitedly pointing out Gothic and baroque and Romanesque features.  The tight row of columns and the high windows letting in extra light made this a cathedral unlike any she had visited, and instantly her favorite.  Among its new features along with some modern stained glass windows was a huge rock serving as the base of the altar, alluding to the Druid predecessors of these large cathedrals.  We arrived in time for Friday night mass, watching a procession proceed to the altar for a biscuit and sip of wine and a blessing. 

Almost as impressive as the cathedral was a two hundred year old sprawling Lebanese cedar nearby with large posts holding up its lower branches that extended out almost as far as the tree was high.  Looking out from behind a window was the stuffed carcass of the legendary Barnum and Bailey elephant Fritz, who had been put down in Tours in 1904 after it had gone berserk.  Just a couple blocks away along the Loire was a memorial to the American army that had defeated the Germans in battle there.  Rachid also took us by the blacksmith shop that had made Joan of Arc's sword.  He was well aware of it as he was one of six hundred artists enlisted to contribute a work of art relating to the six hundredth anniversary of her birth in 2012.

The masses were gathering for the fireworks a couple of hours before they would commence at 10:30 after sunset.  That was too late for us.   We were content with whatever glimpse we could catch from our fourth floor sanctuary a couple miles away.  We had the television on in the background hoping to see what coverage French television would give to Trump's visit with Macron this day, but none appeared.

We watched the early coverage of The Tour the next day before Janina and I resumed our travels to Cherbourg two hundred miles to the north, me by bike and she by train.  It is always hard to say goodbye to Florence and Rachid, who epitomize the ultimate in unselfed friendship.  They are as much of a reason to visit France every year as Cannes and The Tour.  They provided a most welcome respite from the pedaling, but it was a a revitalizing joy to be back out in pastoral France gliding along on the bike.  

I continued for two hours before stopping at a bar to watch the conclusion of the day's stage.  Kittel had been shed before a late Category Three climb and the contenders for the stage had been narrowed to the elite cadre of explosive riders who could climb.  It would be a dandy finish that had Sagan written all over it had he still been in The Race.  His absence allowed the honors to go to the Australian Michael Matthews, who  is one hundred points behind Kittel in the points competition.  But more importantly, Froome rediscovered his legs and Aru lost his, finishing over twenty seconds behind Froome and losing the Yellow Jersey.  Landa too must have been depleted by his effort the day before, as he finished fifteen seconds back.  

The next major showdown doesn't come until the Alps on Wednesday and Thursday, though the next day's stage on the Massif Central with two Category One climbs could shale things up as well.  Every stage has become must-see viewing, but none moreso than Thursday's first ever finish on the Col d'Izoard.  I'll be watching it either on the ferry as Janina and I are crossing The Channel or in a bar in the UK packed no doubt with Froome fanatics.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

Adieu to The Tour

Word from Cunard is that the Queen Mary will allow me to roll my bike right on board and take it to the cabin that will be my quarters with Janina for a crossing of the Atlantic and at no extra expense.  What a contrast to the airlines.  So rather than heading to the Pyrenees, I am saying adieu to The Tour and hello to a week of luxury at sea. I  am biking up to Cherbourg, which juts out into the English Channel, where I'll take a ferry over to Portsmouth, just twenty miles from Southampton where the Queen Mary will depart.

I am sorry to abandon The Tour, but Janina has for years been extolling the joy of these crossings, which she has done half a dozen times she loves them so much, that I couldn't resist the opportunity to share the experience with her.  I would have missed the next four stages of The Tour anyway as I made the long transfer from one side of the country to the other.  I'll still be able to witness the next nine stages in bars across France and savor the wondrous French countryside at a less frantic pace.  If golf is a good walk ruined, racing to keep up with The Tour can at times be a good bike ride ruined, especially when I am under the tension of every gendarme guarding an intersection stepping out and ordering me off my bike.

I'll still be deeply steeped in The Tour even though I will be heading away from it as I listen to a handful of podcasts devoted to it as I pedal along.  There are two daily podcasts analyzing each stage--one by Lance Armstrong and another by two British and a French journalist at The Tour.  The VeloNews and Cyclingnews both offer two or three podcasts a week and then there is the weekly wrap up by the Warren brothers.  None are more passionate than the Warrens.  They first attended The Tour in 1988 witnessing two stages, camping along the route, on a cycle tour from Germany, where Dean had been going to college, to Rome.  Dean has been back many times since, but Randy has only managed a subsequent visit to the Giro d'Italia.  They watch as much of The Race as they can.  Randy calls it a "huge time suck," as it infringes on his training and coaching, not that he's complaining.   They both felt a let down, as I have, with Sagan out of The Race. It is a much lesser race without him in it.  

Armstrong's podcast has been a huge hit, catapulting it into the top ten.  His greatest listenership comes from the UK, where there is a much greater interest in bicycle racing than in the US, though it helps considerably that the Brits presently have so many top racers.  If the US had a contender it would be a different story.  Even the French need a contender to attract more than the casual fan.  With Bardet in second and other French riders winning stages I don't have to worry about asking bars to put The Race on their television.  Today in Autun there were a cluster of bar patrons gathered at the television as there has been at every stage I've watched in a bar.  And this despite the French sprinter who won an earlier stage and had been in the Green Jersey out of The Race after missing the time cut Sunday.  

Lance is the only one of the podcasters to have ridden The Tour.  He is strongly sympathetic to the riders.  They have little say-so.  The prize money hasn't been increased since Lance won his first Tour nearly twenty years ago.  Their winnings are paltry compared to what tennis and golf rewards.  The Tour winner gets 500,000 Euros which he splits with his eight teammates and all the staff.  One change Lance has noted since his time is that the numbers the riders wear on their backs are now put on with adhesive, rather than pins.  That makes it a pain to wash them.  Lance also says it was handy to have a pin as rider could jab his leg with one if he had a cramp, as a French rider suffered on Stage Eight coming to the finish. 

Without Demare and Cavendish and Sagan today's sprint was a joke with Kittel winning as handily as if he were racing a bunch of juniors.  His fellow German Griepel didn't even have enough to finish in the top ten.  It makes me inclined not to bother with tomorrow's sprint finish and just save my viewing for the following two days in the Pyrennes where Aru and Bardet can test Froome, and Uran will have the chance to prove he's the Colombian to worry about and not Quintana.  After Uran's stage win on Sunday all the Colombian fans flocked around the Cannondale bus, abandoning Quintana.

While I dwell on the racing to come I'm also greatly anticipating my week at sea with nothing but water and sky to gaze out upon and all the shipboard activities.  There will be lectures and movies and games and conversation and dancing and food and food and more food, Janina tells me.  I'm always ten pounds or more down after one of these tours, so I will have a quick opportunity to regain it.  Janina always has an interesting table of dinner mates, some of whom have become great friends. We'll have a jolly time picking their brains.  It may be a little painful severing myself from The Tour, but I know it will be worth it.

It won't be the first time I've ended a tour with a "cruise."  After I biked up to Alaska from Chicago in 1981 I returned from Alaska on a cruise ship through the Inside Passage to Vancouver.  My parents knew the captain of the ship.  He happened to have an extra cabin and let me have it.  I have never endured such a severe case of culture shock.  I had been sleeping in my tent for over two months and ended my trip staying with a homesteader eating elk and moose and other wild game.  My diet was suddenly snails and frog legs and foie gras.  The biggest assault to my senses was having to breathe all the colognes in the cramped quarters of the ship after breathing clear, fresh air for weeks.  It was an unimaginable jump from living wild to living in the lap of luxury.  This won't be so extreme, but I will still have to remind myself that I am living this experience and not dreaming it.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Stage Nine

Waiting around for the stage start in Nantua rewarded me with a close-up of Marcel Kittel in the Green Jersey edging to the front alongside the lead car transporting Tour director Christian Prudhomme, who would shortly wave the racers into action after they departed this scenic lakeside town in the Jura mountains. Froome in Yellow behind the car didn't seem much concerned just yet before the toughest stage of The Tour so far that saw his teammate Geraint Thomas in second crash out and Richie Porte in fifth as well.  Thomas, sporting a Yellow helmet like all his Sky teammates, looked perfectly calm clinging to the curb just behind Kittel trying to stay out of trouble as well at the stage start.

After all the day's carnage that saw five crash out and seven eliminated by not making the time limit, including Mark Renshaw and Sagan's brother Juraj, Froome held onto Yellow, though Bardet had him on the ropes when he took the lead on the run-in to Chambery after the descent of the Mont du Chat where Porte had an ugly crash losing his bike when he veered into the grass and was hurled into the rocky cliffside.  I watched the thrilling final hour of racing in a bar in Bourg-en-Bresse thirty-five miles away from Nantua.  If the large screen at the stage start had broadcast the stage rather than just the the pre-stage show, I would have gladly glued my eyes to it for the  five hours of racing that began with a Category Two climb less than three miles from the start and then seven more categorized climbs over its 112 miles.

Nothing was more dramatic though then the final chase to the finish as Bardet tried to hold off the heavy hitters Froome, Aru, Fuglsang, Uran and Barguil, who had been at the front all day and collected enough mountain plots to claim the Polka Dot jersey.  Not only were they trying to catch Bardet, they were also trying to put more time into Quintana and Contador, who had both been dropped.  They caught Bardet two kilometers from the finish, setting up a sprint among six non-sprinters.  Froome took the lead but couldn't hold it.  Barguil summoned the strength to take the sprint, but the photo finish revealed that Uran had actually won.  Barguil's tears of triumph were all for naught.  The Polka Dot Jersey was a worthwhile consolation, which he ought to keep for a couple of days with two flat stages coming up after the Rest Day.

Uran's win brought more happiness to the Cannondale team.  Their American GC hope Andrew Talansky, a former Top Ten finisher,  had been creeping up on the Top Ten.  He entered the stage in 17th, less than a minute from the coveted domain of the leading ten, but he had a disastrous day coming in with a large group twenty-seven minutes after Uran, dropping him to 31st and ending whatever aspirations he might have had.  Now his efforts will be relegated to helping his Colombian teammate, who jumped to fourth with his day's exhilarate triumph.

As The Race approaches the half-way point with nine stages down and twelve to go the peloton has thinned by almost ten per cent, losing seventeen of its 198 starters.  It is still a river of bodies filling the road.

I pedaled into Nantua with the caravan.  It had assembled two miles out of town.  A gendarme initially halted me, but when there was a gap I just slipped in and rode along.  They weren't giving away anything yet other than waves and smiles and a lot of blaring music.  The speakers pointing out must not effect those on the floats, otherwise they would end The Tour stone-deaf.  After I entered the barricaded portion of the route before the starting line a gendarme on a motorcyclist chased after me and ordered me back and over on a trail along the lake for the final half-mile into town.  If he hadn't I would have been trapped on the official route for a couple of miles packed with fans on both sides of the barriers.

Luckily I'd scouted out Nantua three weeks before and knew where I could get water and how to reach the tourist office by circumventing the stage route.  The plaza in front of the tourist  office was packed with vendors giving away more worthwhile goodies than from the caravan--tiny yellow bikes, smoothies made on the spot, reflective anklets, t-shirts and more.  It was overcast with the threat of rain, but all were in sunny spirits.  There had been a few drops of rain already, but not enough for me to dig out my raincoat.  I did have to rush out of my tent in the middle of the night and put up my rainfly.  It was just a few drops then too.  I would have liked to have removed the the rainfly, as it increased the temperature in the tent a few degrees, but I didn't dare.

After a transfer across the country the peloton will head south towards the Pyrenees.  I will start pedaling west awaiting word from Cunard on their bike policy to determine whether I turn south and continue with The Tour or head north and meet up with Janina for a week on the Queen Mary. My legs feel as if they've already had a three week tour what with my hard nine-day ride to reach Düsseldorf in time.  Usually that week before The Tour I'm resting my legs, not overly exerting them

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Stage Eight

In the sweltering ninety degree temperatures the most popular person in the caravan of sponsors is the person on the Vittel float spraying everyone with water.  No one turns away or goes running as they do in cooler temperatures.  It may be the last of the 170 vehicles in the parade of sponsors and not dispensing anything to take home, but no one is disappointed by what it does offer.

Young and old have their hands out as the parade goes by dispensing morsels that they scramble for as if their life's depended on it, only to discover they've made a fool of themselves for a packet of laundry detergent or a flimsy key chain.  But they delight in it as if it's a nugget of gold.

It's as thrilling as Christmas morning for the kids.

They are nearly overcome with glee.

Capturing their ecstasy is more satisfying than capturing anything the caravan has to offer.

I nearly had the opportunity to share the caravan experience with Skippy.  He passed me in a car less than an hour after I had left my campsite in a public park.  He was being chauffeured by a fellow cyclist who offered him a place to stay the night before just minutes after we'd encountered each other on the outskirts of Dole.  They were going to continue another ten kilometers and then climb aboard their bikes.  Skippy said he'd wait for me, but I came upon a supermarket that I couldn't pass up, as one never knows when one might encounter another on the small roads of The Tour route.

After the caravan passed it was less than an hour before the peloton flew by, less of a time gap than usual as it was riding furiously not allowing any breakaway just yet.  A breakaway finally did form and for the first time held off the peloton and produced the day's winner--a French rider for the second time, Lillian Calmejana of the French Direct Energie team.  He rode alone up much if the seven-mile Category One climb seven miles from the finish and then held off the chasers on the somewhat flat remaining miles.  Froome and company came in fifty seconds later, not sacrificing any bonus seconds to any of the contenders with the top three places going to guys in the break.  The French broadcast concentrated on the French rider with only glimpses of the Sky led peloton behind, so one couldn't see the effort the pursuers were having to summon.  Contador afterward said though it was s hard day with an expenditure of energy that may be needed tomorrow.

I was able to watch it at a bar at a lakeside resort that I had to make a two-mile detour to reach.  Both the bar and the lake were packed.  The route through the Jura mountains was scattered with lakes teeming with bathers in this heat.  Tomorrow's stage starts right beside one in Nantua.  I won't be riding any more than the first few miles of the day's route that heads into the mountains with three Beynd Category climbs that will make for the most explosive days of racing so far.  I camped fifteen miles before reaching Nantua, content to arrive in time for the early caravan departure of 9:45, followed by the peloton two hours later, its first pre-noon start.  

The next day is the first of the two Rest Days.  The Race entourage will be making a long transfer across the country.  There is no easy train connection. A friend of Skippy's took a train yesterday up to Paris and then another down to Périgueux where Stage Ten starts. I'll leave The Tour for a few days and either pick it up after the Pyrennes on the Massif Central or possibly abandoned it altogether.  Janina is enticing me to return with her on the Queen Mary, but first has to find out If it will accept my bike.  If that's the case,  I'll bike up to Cherbourg and take the ferry across the Channel with Janina and then have a week of luxury across the Atlantic.

I've gained some altitude in the Juras, blunting the heat a bit.  Just as the US has state pride, the French have pride in their Département.  There were banners and signs all along the route celebrating the Jura Départment that today's stage took place in.

Stage Seven

No Giant Screen viewing for me on this stage as it was situated on a narrow road between vineyards alongside the finishing stretch with not a sliver of shade.  I arrived at noon, more than five hours before the peloton, and though there were a few fans already lined up along the barriers, most were cowering in the minimal shade the barriers provided.  The sun was searing and not even the cold water the Vittel reps were passing out was enough to entice me to stay.

The heat was melting my brain.  I committed a semi-catastrophic faux pas heading to Dijon for the next stage start rather than Dole.  I didn't realize my mistake until I reached the tourist office in Dijon and asked where the departure point for The Tour was the next day and the woman at the desk didn't have a map or brochure at the ready and had to go to the computer to find out.  It was only a twenty-mile mistake, but since every mile is crucial, this was a huge setback.  There were some consolations though.  

Dijon is a much bigger city than Dole, and I was able to find a bike shop with just the tire I needed.  My rear tire had worn through the tread.  Usually I put on a new tire at the Grand Départ, but since I was some 500 miles short on my training this year due to my limited mileage riding with Jamina for two weeks, I wasn't in need of a new tire just yet, nor to put on a new chain, which I did at the same time.  The forty-minute mechanical was my lunch/rest stop and also allowed me to recharge my iPad, as my generator hub has slowed down on the job.  I'm only getting about half the charge I was earlier.  I don't know if it's due to the generator wearing out or the adapter or the batteries I'm charging.  

It had been twenty miles from Nuits-Saint-Georges, the stage finish, to Dijon, then thirty miles to Dole.  Nuits-Saint-Georges is a wine town.  It was lined with small wineries offering tastings.  

Many of its Tour decorations were wine oriented.

The fans along the route also joined in the spirit.  One of the top French riders is a Pinot.

It was doubly embarrassing to have confused Dijon with Dole because I passed through Dole on my way to Düsseldorf to scout out The Tour route.  It still paid off as I know where the starting point was below the city center along a river and sporting fields.  My way into the city hadn't taken me pat any course markers, so I would have been groping.  I was three miles into the neutralized zone that went on for five miles when Skippy came towards me.  It was nearly eight p.m. and he was just competing the transfer from Nuits-Saint-Georges.  My first question for him was, "Who won the stage," as I had been so undone by my diversion I hadn't bothered to stop to follow it on my iPad.  It was no surprise that Kittel had won his third spring, though this was in a photo finish, in contrast to his convincing two-bike length win the day before.  He also accumulated enough points to take the Green Jersey from Démare.  But without Sagan, it is a hollow conquest.

Skippy was heading into the city looking for a place to stay, hopefully a hostel, while I was heading out of the city knowing I had an idyllic campsite awaiting me.  He seemed to have no more worries than me, knowing he always finds a place and that it will have an interesting story.  Last night he ended up in a convent, locked into an attic room with a chamber pot as his toilet until the sisters let him out in the morning.

I had an hour of cycling ahead of me, but it only got me ten miles down the course.  Without my Dijon fiasco, I would have been at least twenty miles further.  I camped in a field just beyond Belmont, which had lined all its hedges and walls on the route with Yellow.

It had even Yellowfied it's crucifix.

When I stopped for one photo someone asked if I needed water and filled my bottle with cold fluid.  The evening  before when I had stopped outside a tourist office to take advantage of its wifi and also to prepare my dinner of ravioli and couscous a woman asked if I'd like her to heat up my meal for me.  My most exemplary act of kindness though came in Luxembourg when I had stopped in a bus shelter with seats for a snack.  As I was eating a guy who had been washing his car across the street came over and put a cup of coffee and a slice of apple bread on the seat beside me without saying a word.  At first I thought he was reserving the seat for himself, but then realized this was an offering.  It came with two packs of sugar and a stir stick.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Stage Six

I had a day fully free of deadlines, not having to reach a certain point before a road closure or under any pressure to be in a town large enough to have a bar with a television for this inconsequential sprinters' stage, rendered even more inconsequential without Cavendish and Sagan.  I still needed to rack up the miles, though, and get an early start.  

My mission was to ride ten miles of today's stage, then ride sixty miles through no-man's-land to the next day's stage and then ride at least fifteen more miles putting me within fifty miles of the stage finish so I could finally watch the final two or three hours of the stage on the Giant Screen at the stage finish.  This is the deepest I've gone into a Tour without that pleasure.  

I've probably ridden more miles of the course at this point than any other year, but I've been under too much pressure to be able to take the time to be at a stage finish, though I came within minutes at Vittel.  That's not to say it's been a bad Tour for me at all.  The point is to experience as much of the course as possible.  

It is truly a joy to ride for miles and miles past decorated bikes and banners celebrating The Tour and its participants.  My sixty mile lull today through luscious scenery was a joy too, but returning to the corridor of bike honor is like being in a cyclist's paradise, other than having to share it with motorists.  The French are enlightened in many ways, but they still get around in automobiles.

The gestures of appreciation take an untold variety of forms from mannequins dressed as fans to pyramids of bikes and elaborate constructions in roundabouts and...

...the simple draping of cloths in the colors of the Tour jerseys.

The variety is boggling from adorning a tree with water bottles... going for a laugh.

I found myself at four o'clock in a town large enough to have a bar, but I didn't want to sacrifice ninety minutes or more watching the peloton wind itself up for a sprint when the road beckoned.  A series of villages awaited me five to eight miles apart.  None had a bar so I missed seeing Kittel win for a second time.  It will be a similar stage tomorrow.  I won't mind in the least sitting with several hundred others in front of the Giant Screen soaking in every pedal stroke.  I ought to be there early enough to find a spot in the shade.  If there isn't any, I may have to resort to a bar.  I'll have enough time to bike to Dijon, just fourteen miles away, where the next day's stage will start.  That might me a wise thing to do anyway as the road between the two Ville Ètapes will be bumper-to-bumper with Tour traffic crawling along after the stage.  There are 2,000 accredited vehicles, not to mention the hundreds of fans following The Tour.  With luck I might have Skippy leading the way.

It was well that I didn't stop early to watch the stage finish as a long climb awaited me.  It was almost as if I was back up on the Massif Centrale.  And there was more climbing when I connected with the Stage Seven route.  I still met my goals for the day, but with a greater expenditure of energy than I anticipated.  

There was one steep perilous descent about fifty miles from the stage finish that I will be most curious to watch the peloton negotiation.  It goes under an old stone bridge and makes a sharp left.  As I approached the bridge braking hard even with the arrows marking the way I wasn't sure how to make the turn. The motorcyclists leading the way will have a tricky time of it as well if they haven't been briefed.  It reminded me of the dangerous descent in the 2012 Tour before Metz where there was a horrible crash known as The Massacre at Metz that devastated the Garmin team and took down much of the peloton.  The crash occurred before the descent as everyone in the peloton was riding like mad to be in the lead for the descent.  The racers will be in a like mind before this one.

Stage Five

I anticipated an easy day on the legs, as my plan was to bike thirty miles of the stage route, wait for the caravan to pass and then duck down twenty miles to Vesoul to watch the end of the stage in a bar and then commence riding the next day's stage.  It would be a welcome break from the day before when I had to ride hard for sixty miles to reach a point to watch the caravan and then twenty-five miles of pushing it to try to get to Vittel before the peloton.  

My morning would be so relaxed, only having to ride those thirty miles by noon, that I could sleep in until seven.  I could stop for some of those photos that epitomize The Tour, such as elderly couples who park their cars at a choice spot along the route not long after sunrise and have breakfast and then lunch while awaiting the peloton.

It was a little after eight when this couple happily greeted me with a "Bonjour," and then added as I made my departure a "Respecte."  Of all the appellations accorded me as I ride by all the thousands lining the route--allez, bravo, bon courage, chapeau--it is the rarest, like a diamond in the rough, but the most heartfelt and appreciated.  

I didn't receive any respect though from the carload of thugs who look as if they are from Marseilles who lay seize to The Tour every year forcing mini-cellophane French flags on people along The Tour route and then demand a Euro. They are a true menace jumping out of their car and rushing up to people sitting in their chairs, handing them a flag and then soliciting money.  Sometimes they commandeer an intersection and stop every passing vehicle.

I snuck in a couple of photos before their leader saw what I was doing and pounced on me trying to get me to delete what I had shot.  

I played dumb and said I was just a tourist and got away as he tried to fish my ipad out of my handlebar bag.

I made it to my caravan-watching spot in the city of Luxeuile-les-Baines in ample time to get groceries and stop in at its Tourist Office to take advantage of its wifi to download Lance Armstrong's daily podcast of The Tour called Stages.  I'd prefer the Warren brothers if they were podcasting during The Tour,  it brother Dean is taking a 25th anniversary cruise with his wife.  It will be a rare occasion when he hasn't attended The Tour, as his job as a flight attendant allows him to at least make it to Paris for the final stage. 

Lance does does offer some insightful commentary, though he doesn't cite as many personal anecdotes as he might.  And he's a little sketchy on Tour history.  He said the early tours were just five stages, when they were six, and that they ventured into the mountains even then, which didn't happen until several years later.  He also said the Yellow Jersey originated because it was the color of the newspaper that sponsored The Tour.  The official story is that it was adopted in the middle of the 1919 Tour to make the leader more identifiable to the public and it was the only bright colored jersey the director Henri Desgrange could find in the city where The Tour found itself at the time.  Eugene Christophe, of toe strap fame, was the first to wear it and his fellow competitors mocked him and called him a canary.

I didn't do much scavenging in this city with the road packed with fans.

Instead I was content with vicariously enjoying getting some thing from those who did.

There were no Colombians to be seen, but there was a contingent of Norwegians.

One little girl was wearing a green jersey she had received from the Skoda publicity crew, sponsor of the Green Jersey.

After this twenty-minute interlude I set out for Vesoul.  I had my choice of a little longer direct route on a major highway way, or a shorter route winding through small villages.  I chose the scenic route, knowing though it could be tricky finding my way.  It had cost me time the time before to Vittel.  And I was victimized today again, first when the route intersected with The Tour route, which was closed down, so I had to detour around it.  I eventually got on the main route, but was besieged by 18-wheelers and then Tour followers in their campers.  What I thought would be a leisurely, scenic two hour ride, turned into a two-and-a-half hour race to get to Vesoul in time to see the dramatic end to the first significant stage of The Tour--one of its three mountain-top finishes, though it was less than a four-mile climb.  It would be just an indicator who was on form, rather than a true test.

I found a bar in the plaza where the next day's stage would start with a cluster of working men glued to the television along with a handful of the crew that would start erecting the Départ structures, a perfect setting.

The Italian Fabian Aru, who missed the Giro, his first ambition, due to injury, surprised the climbers by attacking 2.3 kilometers from the summit.  Froome and company let him go.  He was able to hold on for the win, but when Froome eventually gave chase, only Porte, Martin and Bardet were able to stick with him.  Quintana and Contador failed the test.  Froome let up to see if anyone else cared to help with the chase of Aru, but they didn't have anything left.  Martin eventually took off.  Froome couldn't quite catch him, but held off Porte to get the crucial third-place bonus seconds.  Froome's teammate in Yellow, Thomas, couldn't keep up, so Froome assumed the leader's jersey, with Thomas holding on to second.  As with the opening time trial, Froome once again asserted he is the contender with the best legs.

I then began following the course markers through Vesoul.  The black-checked neutralized version of the markers went on for an intolerably long seven miles, winding through neighbor's and an adjoining village.  It made me suspicious that The Tour accepts an extra 10,000 Euros here and there to include a place on its route.   Fortunately I was overly chagrined by the length of this neutralized zone, as I would be turning off The Tour route after twenty-five miles to cut over to the next day's stage.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Stage Four

The peloton finally caught up to me, but just barely, beating me to Vittel by less than fifteen minutes.  If it had ridden at the same pace as yesterday, I would have maintained my lead, though I temporarily regained it setting out on Stage Five while the riders all retreated to their hotels.  I feel as if I'm the lucky one, still riding.

After being halted by a gendarme at 1:45, I found an alternate route for the final twenty-five miles to the stage finish after I waited an hour to indulge in the caravan for the first time this year.  It was the usual trinkets from the one hundred plus vehicles that speed by at twenty-five miles per hour, about the speed of the peloton.  Those dispensing the booty are trained to fling it at the feet of those along the road.  They could inflict harm if their projectiles hit one's body.  I gathered up some edibles (candy and madeleines) and a box of juice, which I had to grab from the hand of the passing vehicle.  Then there were the souvenir items--refrigerator magnets, hats, key chains, a wrist band and a red polka dot shopping bag.  Janina will be happy I got her another sun deflector for her car that folds up into the size of a Frisbee.  

While I waited for the caravan I was able to do some wash at the town's troughs of spring water under a covering route on the route that goes back centuries and is now just a charming vestige of the past.  Luxembourg and Germany and Belgium were fully modernized, while French villages retain their features that go back centuries.  Their stone homes dating to the 1800s haven't been replaced by glass and brick homogeneity.  One French journalist upon returning to France said it was a relief to return to civilization, referring mostly to the time he had to spend in Belgium.  I too was glad to leave Belgium.  Despite its fervent racing culture there is a backlash from some against cyclists as I well know from ventures past including being pelted by a tennis ball from a passing car. I had horns blasted at me by passing motorists, and unlike France there is the occasional car exceeding the speed limit by thirty or forty miles per hour as if the driver were a test pilot. 

Earlier in the day's stage my biggest "Wow" of the day came from a Yellow Jersey unlike any I've seen.  Such discoveries are among the chief joys of riding The Tour route.  It was a patchwork of every winner of The Tour other than Armstrong.

The route also included the common site of a gathering of Deux Chevaux.

I have yet to see any Australian fans along the route, just the usual French and Belgian flying their flags and team preferences.

When I realized I wasn't going to make it to Vittel in time to see the finish on the Giant Screen at the finish I began looking for a bar.  It was unlikely in the small villages I was passing through.  I only saw one bar and it didn't have afternoon hours.  I tried a campgrounds, but it wasn't big enough to have a television room.  So I had to rely on my iPad for the second time this year to follow the closing kilometers.  I never saw the footage of the crashes leading to the sprint so I can't offer first-hand testimony on the travesty of Sagan being ejected other than I doubt it would have happened had he not knocked Cavendish out of The Race with an injury.  

The stature of a rider such as Sagan should have given him the benefit of the doubt on his intentions and recklessness.  The Race is much poorer with out him.  The penalty will certainly not curb seemingly uninhibited riding in the sprint.  If there were a French influence on the decision, the fact that there is a French sprinter for the first time in a decade who can be a factor could have had some bearing too on the decision.  And that French sprinter, Demere, won the stage and assumed the Green Jersey that had been conceded to Sagan even before The Race started.  Whoever wins it in the end can't be too proud.

I didn't learn about Sagan's expulsion until the day after, as my camp site was too isolated to connect to the Internet.  It was quite a shock to hear the news the next morning.  

I met up with Skippy for the first time since the presentation of the team's.  He was at the tourist office trying to find accommodation for the night.  Skippy travels light with just a pack on his back and another strapped to his handlebars, so he doesn't camp.  It enables him big mileage though.  He'd ridden 150 miles today, partially because he has been avoiding The Tour route not wanting to contend with the gendarmes

Skippy often stays at hostels, but there were none in the vicinity.  The tourist office in Vittel had a list of locals who had offered rooms for visitors for The Tour visit, knowing the hotels would all be booked.  And there was one still available for Skippy and without charge.  The person offering the room sent a cyclist to the tourist office to lead Skippy there.  The woman in the tourist office who helped him had grown up in Quebec.

I didn't get out of the tourist office until seven.  The next day's stage began right out front and proceeded through a pedestrian way of the old city that was still thronged with partying fans.  It took me half an hour to reach the Départ Réel well outside of the town.  Once again I had a wonderful evening riding in the cool past pastures of grains and stretches of forests before disappearing into a forest for the night.  

Monday, July 3, 2017

Stage Three

One of my favorite sights on The Tour route is a pair of course markers one on top of the other.  They indicate the Départ Réel of the stage, as opposed to the Départ Fictive miles back in a town center where the crowds gather and the peloton rolls out at a ceremonial pace often looping around an urban environment before getting out into the countryside.   

The highly detailed route sheet does not reveal the length of the neutralized zone.  I want it to be as short as possible, as it is extra miles for me to ride.  In Yorkshire the neutralized zone went on for ten miles or so to a royal palace where the peloton paused for a greeting from Prince William and Kate and then went a bit further before the stacked course markers let them get down to business. 

As I'm riding the neutralized zone I'm increasingly impatient for the Départ Réel, knowing I have x number of miles of riding to the finish once the real racing commences.  I am always pressed for time and every extra mile adds extra minutes.  The above markers were just two miles from the Départ Fictive for Stage Four in Mondorf-les-Baines in Luxembourg just across the border from France.  I reached it just about the same time as the peloton was setting out on Stage Three from Verviers in Belgium.  I had ridden the first 103 miles of the stage to Dippach, where I turned off and rode eighteen miles to Mondorf rather than riding away from it for thirty miles to the finish in Longwy, France that I had visited last week.

Mondorf is a casino and spa town.  Like Vesoul in France it had added yellow umbrellas to its Tour decorations.

It had also constructed flower beds in the shape and colors of The Tour jersey, an original gesture to The Tour.

Earlier in the day along the Stage Three course as I closed in on France the decorations along the road became more plentiful, both individual and civic.  One home beclothed a mannequin in cycling garb by its front door.

The town of Grosbous welcomed the peloton with a giant Yellow Jersey.

When I crossed into France seven miles into Stage Four the decorations became much more plentiful with many incorporating hay bales.

I cycled alongside the Moselle River, which separates France from Luxembourg, for just a short spell before becoming wholely in France.  The bridge that the peloton was to cross when the route was originally announced was closed for repairs, so it had to continue along the river up over a rise to the next bridge adding three miles to the stage that I hadn't included into my calculations.  But that wasn't the worst calamity for the day.  I was further setback by the slow pace of the peloton.  They were due to arrive in Longwy at 5:08 if they averaged 45 kph.  But it's speed was just 41 kph pushing their arrival time back to 5:36.  

I had found a nice neighborhood bar at four expecting an hour break.  The extra time cost me six miles.  At least I was assured of seeing the finish, which promised to be the most exciting yet with a mile steep climb.  And it lived up to it with Porte attempting to make a statement going off the front as Cadel Evans did in 2011 when he won The Tour and had a dramatic early stage win of similar profile proving he was someone to be reckoned with.  But Porte failed in his attempt to get away, perhaps indicating he is not the man some think he is this year.  Instead it was World Champion Sagan proving he is the alpha male when it comes to anything but the high mountains.  He won going away even having come unclipped from one of his pedals 200 meters from the finish.

It was no surprise that Phinney relinquished the climber's jersey, but it was a huge surprise that his teammate Nate Brown, also riding his first Tour, took possession of it.  He managed to infiltrate the day's break, even though it hadn't been his assignment for the day,  and was first over on the first Category Four climb, then made an extra effort on the Category Three that I had camped on the night before, to take off ahead of his breakaway companion to claim the two points and the Polka Jersey.

It was nearly six when I resumed riding.  An hour later when I checked email I learned from Ralph that he'd just had his custom-made carbon fiber bike stolen from outside his hotel in Strasbourg, a major catastrophe, and wouldn't be able to meet up with me in Vittel.  That lessened my pressure of trying to get their before the peloton.  I curtailed my riding at nine after 97 miles, leaving me 82 miles from Vittel.  I would have been well over one hundred if the peloton hadn't had a lackadaisical day or if I had Ralph to meet up with.

I went to sleep at a least excited that I would be partaking of the caravan for the first time the next day and seeing the peloton in action rather than just bumbling along in Düsseldorf.  I had seen some of the caravan vehicles in Düsseldorf and actually saw the Credit Lyonnaise lion today being transported to Momdorf.  The first three stages had had a smaller version of the caravan.

Stage Two

Taylor Phinney continues to ride an inspired Tour fully justifying his team's selection of him.  He sprinted into an early four-man break and was one of two survivors for over one hundred miles to just before the one-kilometer to go arch when he was inevitably caught by the fast-charging sprinters' teams.  Kittel may have won the stage with Griepel third and Cavendish fourth and the French dark house Demere sneaking in at second, but Phinney was its hero.  He was out front with the spotlight on him for over four hours.  Such prominence was expected of him early in his career when he finished fourth in both the road race and time trial at the 2012 London Olympics until his horrific accident derailed him three years ago.  And he'll be in the polka jersey tomorrow, as he was first over the first hill four miles into the stage, nabbing its single point and also grabbed the other point on offer in this stage on the other Category Four bump towards the end of the stage.

I only saw the last ten minutes of his heroics, as I was focused on getting down the Stage Three route. I began my day riding five more miles of Stage Two before leaving it at Thimister, twenty-one miles from the finish in Liege, as I could duck down from there to Verviers, the Stage Three Départ, less than ten miles away. It was another cool, dank day with the possibility of rain at any moment.  As I headed to the city center I came upon a course marker and, voila, I had my way laid out for me for the rest of the day.  Trees through the city had been wrapped in specially darned strips of cloth in the emblems of the Tour . 

Few towns go to such effort, content to simply wrap them in a sheet or plastic, as evidenced further down the course, which is always tribute enough, but Verviers set a new standard that will be hard to surpass.

The team of seamstresses in Verviers  also sewed a perfectly-fitting yellow jersey for a statue along the route.

An even larger jersey adorned a high tower.

I was greeted by a hard uncategorized climb out of the sprawling city and the climbs continued for forty-three miles until I crossed into Luxembourg with only one designated as a Category Four. I had to make a detour around a large race track in the town of Spa that the peloton would be riding through, as racing was presently going on.  Cars and motorcycles were parked all around and I could hear the whizzing of what sounded like motorcycles on the track.  The detour added three miles and some extra climbing to my route.  At this point every mile is crucial as I try to get to the Stage Four finish in Vittel some two hundred miles away before the peloton to meet Ralph Tuesday afternoon by two p.m.  It's not going to be easy.

The terrain leveled somewhat when I reached Luxembourg and a cluster of stores that were mobbed by duty-free shoppers from Belgium.  I ducked in to see if televisions might be for sale turned to The Tour, but no such luck.  It was fifteen miles to where the intermediate sprint would be.  I hoped it would be at a big enough town to have a bar showing the racing as the finish was in less than ninety minutes.  It would be tight if I could make it by five and the finish.  A few miles before I came to an Irish Pub attached to a fancy hotel.  I peered in through the window and could see the thrilling sight of The Tour on its large television.  And there was Phinney in his green Cannondale jersey out in front with eight kilometers to go, but with the peloton only thirty seconds behind and going a bit faster than he and his companion.  They were doomed to be caught, but they'd still had a victorious day.  The bar had wifi so I could scan the cyclingnews commentary from the very start and relive the stage.  The peloton had been inflicted by sporadic rain, just as I had.

I was back on my bike at 5:30 hoping to ride for at least another three hours and get ninety miles for the day.  The hills had kept my average speed to ten miles per hour.  Nine hours on the bike would be my most so far, but my legs weren't complaining.  The hills weren't as severe as they had been on the other side of the border in Belgium when I had biked up to Düsseldorf.  At least that ride took me through Bastogne, a legendary Belgian racing town, as it is the halfway point of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege that is one of the five Monuments in cycle racing and the oldest continuing race.  The round-about where the racers make their return has four statues of cyclists.

Alongside is a tribute to the race and a list of all its winners, including the lone American winner Tyler Hamilton in 2003.

Every town I passed through in Luxembourg had a large vinyl poster of The Tour route through the country with a dot showing the town.

This one was below a large dam and marked the beginning of the first Category Three climb of this year's Race.  I was nearing my goals for the day and reached them a mile into the two-and-a-half mile climb.  That was a perfect place to stop, as I could see the road suddenly turned very steep with a twelve per cent grade for nearly a mile, explaining why it was a Three and not a Four.  There were quite a few camping vans parked along the climb but they were blocked from parking in front of a church.  There was a clearing beside it that made a perfect camping spot for me.

I had stopped a couple times during my evening riding to start in on my ravioli acne couscous, so didn't need to eat much beyond ten to get enough calories into me.  I am eager to cross back into France tomorrow when my SIM card will be reactivated and I'll be able to read all the post stage coverage before I hit the hay.