Sunday, July 2, 2017

Stage One

Froome let every know he is ready to defend his title.  There have been strong doubts with his less than dominating form all year, but his strong time trial today, gaining over half a minute on his primary rivals Porte, Quintana, Contador and Bardet, was an emphatic affirmation that he is still the man to beat.  And his Sky team also made a strong statement that it's ready too, with his teammate Geraint Thomas winning the time trial, becoming the seventh Brit to wear the Yellow Jersey. 

Some may say his rivals were just a little more cautious than Froome in the rain and may have better legs than they showed.  One who wasn't cautious enough was Quintana's chief lieutenant Valverde who crashed out of the race.  That's a most significant loss as he is always not only a top ten threat, but podium as well, especially if Quintana should falter.

I didn't get to see any of the action as I set out on the next day's route well before the first rider went off at 3:15.  I biked a few miles of the course, as it intersected with Stage Two at the first of the two bridges on  the time trial course over the Rhine.  I was hoping I might see some of the racers previewing the course, but none were out early in the wet conditions.  There were a handful of interlopers besides me, and even a few fans already staking out a choice spot.  A couple had claimed a dry spot under a bridge more than six hours before the first racer was due, sitting in chairs with the faded colors of the stripes of the German flag.

The rain began that night.  I could hear it on the roof over me.  It began as an off-and-on rain and continued so all through the day, never coming down hard.  It slowed me a bit too, but I was in no great rush.  I was just hoping to make it to Belgium, sixty-five miles away. No need to punish my legs, or even strain them much, other than the constant stopping and starting for traffic signals.  The terrain was flat to just before the Belgian border, where the killer hills of the Ardennes awaited me.

The course markers guided me, though I hardly needed them as there were "no parking" signs all along the first forty miles with one town merging into another with no breathing room between.  When I at last came to some farmland it reminded me of how glad I will be to return to France, where one doesn't have to endure such long stretches of dense habitation.  The homes in villages cluster tightly together, allowing long stretches of wide-open green space.

I am also eager for the French homage to The Tour.  The Germans weren't versed in expressing their appreciation for The Tour.  There were just a handful of decorated bikes and signs.

A factory along the route must have had a cycling enthusiast in its management.

But once I crossed into Belgium in the early evening I crossed into a land of Tour appreciation.  I was shortly greeted by a "Vive Le Tour" sign and decorated bikes galore.

I wasn't the lone Tour follower getting a jump on Stage Two.  There were camping vans already parked at open spots on the road, many flying flags and displaying course markers in their rear windows.  I was well-fueled with calorie-rich ham and potato and herring salads and a box of "American Style" chocolate chip cookies I had stocked up on at an Aldi's on the route.  I also had some eggs I'd been able to hard boil at Joachim's, one of the many bonuses of his hospitality.  His wifi had also allowed me to give Janina a call.  She was staying at a hostel in Montpelier enjoying a dance festival and contemplating a visit to Marseilles before returning to Onni and Craig.

Froome would be the last rider unleashed on the time trial course at 6:24.  He'd cross the finish about sixteen minutes later.  I began looking for a bar around six to to watch the climax of the stage.  I was approaching the large city of Aachen.  But there were no bars on the route in my time frame so at 6:30 I had to settle on a McDonald's and its wifi to learn how the racing had gone.  The cyclingnews commentary confirmed rain had been a factor all day, just as it had been for me.  I had to envision Froome and the others on their bikes as I read the minute-by-minute commentary.  

It was nice to learn Taylor Phinney, riding his first Tour de France for the Cannondale team, had posted a most respectable time, just four seconds slower than Froome.  Phinney would have been a favorite had he not suffered a near career-ending injury three years ago that he isn't fully recovered from,  he has hopes of joining his father Davis, who won two stages for the 7/11 team, as a stage winner. The New York Times had a story on him yesterday.  Phinney is just one of three Americans riding The Race, the fewest in a long time.  They are all on the Cannondale team. There are two other American-sponsored teams in The Tour, BMC and Trek, but neither included an American on their roster.  Teejay Vangarderen didn't make the BMC team for the first time in years, despite having been the team leader the past few years. Phinney was also one of thirty-nine racers competing in their first Tour, a little less than one in five, about average of late.

As night closed in I began looking for a forest to camp in to somewhat protect me from the rain as I set up my tent.  But the rain took another break and I set up my tent in a grassy pasture shielded from the road by a high hedge.  I may not have seen any of The Race, but it was still a good day.

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