Sunday, July 29, 2018

Stage Twenty-One

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Traffic is always light on a Sunday morning, but even more so in July and August in Paris, the prime vacation months for the French when the capital is dominated by tourists rather than Parisians.  The French are so vacation-obsessed that French television had an hour-long show while I was visiting Florence and Rachid in Tours during the World Cup before France had won it calling the French the World Champions of Vacations as the vacation season began.

I had little traffic to contend with as I contentedly pedaled the peloton’s route into the city from Houilles.  The caravan wouldn’t set out until 2:15 and the racers two hours later, so even though I didn’t get going until nine, getting more than eight hours of sleep for the first time in days, I had no pressure of being evicted from the road and didn’t have to ride as if I were chasing down a break.  I could have been sipping champagne and chatting with my companions if I had any, just as the peloton would be doing later in the day.  

The town of Poissy was scattered with vinyl signs welcoming and thanking and cheering The Tour, honored that it had been included on the route.


I recognized a few camping vans parked along the route that had been following The Tour from the start.  They all must use google earth or some such website  to know where the route turns rural enough to have a good spot to park for the night.  I never would have guessed that this route so close to a metropolis of twelve million people would go through corn fields and forests, perfect for the camping vans.

After fully submerging itself into the metropolis, the peloton would have a brief respite through the Bois de Boulogn fifty kilometers after setting out.  There is a campground in there and also the possibility of wild camping if one is daring.  Just a few kilometers further they will be treated to the stunning site of the Arc de Triomph and with that one has the full impact of having arrived in the great city of Paris. The day before it had been clogged with traffic, but even a couple hours before the caravan was due, the side of the road the peloton would grace had been transformed into an avenue des velos.


I was certainly in no hurry to turn from this view.  At this point clusters of heavily armed soldiers began to dominate the city.  What a travesty the world has come to this.  Rather than penetrating deeper into what looked like a war zone, knowing from last year how disheartening and frustrating it was to deal with all the closures and restrictions, I crossed the Seine and got to ride past the Musée d’Orsay rather than the Louvre.  A museum devoted to the Legion of Honor was across from the d’Orsay.  Along the Seine just around the corner a statue of Thomas Jefferson gazed with approval. 

I ducked into the Legion of Honor Museum hoping there might be a list of winners, but it was mostly portraits and other paintings that the Louvre may have not had room for and cabinet after cabinet of different medals.  A few small television screens had tributes to the obvious such as Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower and other high profile recipients.  I was hoping for something similar to the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm that gave full resumes and the speeches of each of its recipients.  I wanted to see what kind of tribute the French gave Bill Cunningham and who else might have been in his class and who else from around the world had merited recognition, but this museum did not include such material, nor was there anyone to ask about it.

With security so tight around the loop the peloton would take eight times on the Champs Élysées I skipped on one last glimpse of my companions for the past three weeks and headed straight to the airport.  I had an early morning flight the next day.  I knew the airport would be mobbed in the morning.  I didn’t want to be nervously standing in long lines.  

Getting a box from Air France and then getting it to check-in would be interminable, so I decided to take care of it the evening before and then crash at the airport to beat the early morning rush.  Luckily Air France hadn’t run out of boxes.  For a mere 5.92 euros I had a nice large box, the last of my minor worries.  I had been concerned about a strike canceling my train from Pau the day before, knowing the French can go on strike on a moment’s notice.  I was lucky my train came into Austerliz Station as the train later in the day to the Montparnasse Station in Paris was cancelled due to a fire at the Station, forcing some Tour followers to scramble for alternate transportation. 

The only drawback of going to the airport early was that I had no success in finding a television to watch the peloton’s procession or the sprint. If I hadn’t eagerly boxed my bike, I could have pedaled to a nearby Sheraton Hotel.  Another option was splurging on membership in the Air France VIP Club to gain access to its lounge, but having seen the final stage on the Champs Élysées many, many times, seeing it again was no necessity, especially with the diluted sprint field.  If it had been a showdown between the Top Guns, I might have been tempted.  Instead I turned to the trusty iPad for the written transmission of the uneventful proceedings that I could easily picture in my mind’s eye.

It was fitting that Norwegians finished first and fourth, rewarding this strong fandom, just as the Colombians were rewarded with Gaviria‘s and Quintana’s wins earlier in The Race.  Alexander Kristoff claimed his third career in Tour stage win, four years since his last, handily beating John Degenkolb, who won the cobbles stage.  Third place went to Arnaud Demare, who had earlier claimed a win for France.  Edwald Boasson Hagen, who at one time rode for Sky, was the other Norwegian in the mix.

Even if I had found a television there is no guarantee I would have been able to see Thomas and Froome sharing the podium, as in year’s past once the sprint has been completed the television is often switched to a soccer game.  But I do look forward to seeing the photos of the two.  Froome won’t be grimacing as Fignon was on that 1989 podium when LeMond beat him by eight seconds, overcoming a fifty second deficit on the final stage—a time trial that started in Versailles.  Froome will no doubt look as happy as a proud older brother for his friend’s victory.  

It seems to be universal that everyone feels good for Thomas.  The British television crew interviewed Cavendish over the phone.  Cavendish said he had been friends with Thomas since they were boys and he had goose pimples all over his body thrilled for his success.  No one can find anything bad to say about Thomas.  A sportswriter who knew him well was asked if he had any faults.  All he could come up with was that he didn’t have the arrogance of a champion, that he was too humble.  His emergence as this year’s winner added a little extra luster to The Tour.  Each is a good one, some  just better than others.  This qualified as a cut above in every respect.  Vive Le Tour.










Stage Twenty


It was more dark than light when I broke camp at 6:30 this morning in a forest five miles from the Pau train station.  I’d allowed plenty of time to make my 7:47 train in case of mishap or flat.  I had to push my bike through a barrier of prickly bushes, which is almost a matter of course when penetrating the periphery of French forests. They had yet to cause a flat, but I’m always wary.  I survived once again, even in the dark, having to use my headlamp to find my way back to the road through the brush.  

The station was filling with others heading to Paris on the first of three daily trains from Pau  that make the 400-mile trip in less than five hours including a handful of stops.  The French pride themselves on their trains being on-time, but there was a notice our departure wasn’t until 8:20.  The train was sitting in the station but there’d been a delay in cleaning it.  I didn’t see any other cyclists.  I had a slight concern that my bike might need to be in a bag, as is the case on some TGVs, though I’d been assured that there was no need on this one.  Luckily that turned out to be the case.  

There was a space for two bikes in an open slot beside my assigned seat. One bike had preceded me and a couple of passengers had put suitcases beside it hoping there wasn’t another bike. One was quite perturbed when I moved his bag.  It sure was nice to wheel my bike right on, panniers and all, and have easy access to it all during my flight, or what seemed like a flight as we smoothly flew along and I sat in highbacked comfort.




The train had WiFi so I could catch up on all the pre-time trial stories on the cycling websites.  The consensus was Thomas had it all wrapped up, but Froome was doomed to fourth and that Dumoulin’s second was in jeopardy from the fast-charging Roglic who’d won the previous day’s final mountain stage and seemed to be getting stronger and stronger as The Race went on.  Someone even speculated that if The Race were four weeks instead of three that Roglic would win it.

But Froome was having none of it when he set out on the 31-kilometer time trial course west of Pau just inland from the Atlantic in Basque country.  He was the fourth to the last rider to hit the course shortly before 4:30.  I had found a bar nearly an hour earlier in Houilles, the Paris suburb where the next day’s stage would start.  It was less then ten miles from the Champs Élysées, where the peloton would end up after skirting the western periphery of the city for thirty-some miles before its eight 3.6 mile circuits of the Champs. Tour boutiques were already set up on the Champs, and they were thronged.  

By the first checkpoint at the 13-kilometer point it was clear Froome had rediscovered himself.  No one had a better time until Thomas, the last rider, came along.  Froome had erased his deficit to Roglic and had regained the podium.  Not only was Froome having a great ride, Roglic was having a bad, or not good,  ride, maybe paying for all the energy he expended the day before.  Many thought Roglic would win today, but he came in eighth, over a minute behind Froome.  

Dumoulin, in the World Champion colors as he can wear in time trials and not Sagan, since he owns that title, came on strong and nipped Froome by a second.  Thomas let up taking no risks after having the best time at the two intermediate time checks and finished third, fourteen seconds back, but securing the Yellow Jersey.  It was hearty hugs all round at the finish, first with his wife, but no kisses as he was still wearing his special time trial helmet with built-in visor. He was so overcome by emotion in his post-race press conference he was in tears.  Vincent, who has ridden The Tour with me several times, one year dispensing small packets of vegemite to his fellow Aussies along the road, wrote, “makes you believe again.”  

Sky dominated the time trial even more than The Race, with Michal Kwiatkowski having the fourth best time, Jonathan Castroviejo 14th, Wout Poels 17th and Egan Bernal 25th.  Sky is impressive—six of the top 25 times.  How did they not win the team time trial?  The seventh Sky rider, Thomas’ fellow Welshman, Luke Rowe, just one of three Welsh riders to compete in The Tour in its entire history, didn’t push it, coming in 112th.  This is Sky’s sixth Tour win in seven years with three different riders.  It gets good riders and trains them well.  Thomas had three altitude training camps of two weeks each on Tenerife Island, the first time he has had so many before The Tour.  His team believed in him and prepared him as if they expected him to be a contender.  He rode the time trial course three times in May after winning the Dauphiné.  Roglic had not ridden it  even once until the morning of the stage.  

It was odd seeing the number eight on the back of the Yellow Jersey.  Next year Thomas will have number one, but what will happen with him and Froome?  They both have two years left on their contracts with Sky.  Will they enter next year’s Tour as co-leaders and let  the road decide, as it did this year, who is the strongest?  Even though Thomas was demonstrating he was, it wasn’t until the Pyrenees that he was officially anointed team leader, since he had never proven himself, a situation Froome was in during the 2012 Tour won by Wiggins when it was clear to everyone Froome was the stronger climber, having to wait up for Wiggins at times.  Dumoulin can point to the Stage Six of the Mur de Bretagne when a flat tire and a 20-second penalty for drafting his team car comprised a good part of his deficit to Thomas, but still Thomas put time into him on seven stages and not once did Demoulin take any time out of Thomas until the time trial. 

With such a short final stage into Paris I only rode the first few miles after watching the time trial with course markers guiding me, which there none of on the Champs Élysées, before camping in a forest.  I attempted a campground along the Seine beyond Houijlles thinking it would be nice to get a shower before my flight home on Monday, but there was such a long line of people at the receptionist’s desk, I turned around and headed to the peace and quiet of the nearby forest, which I knew all about from my scouting trip the month before allowing me a much better sleep than if I’d been in the campground.  I’ll get a semi-shower at a cemetery in Mitry-Mory near the airport as I usually do. 

There was a hint of cool in the air when I stepped off the train at the Austerlitz Station, at least in contrast to the hotter south, so I worked up no sweat as I pedaled through Paris on assorted bike lanes for better than ten miles until I neared Houilles.  There were plenty of other cyclists taking advantage of them, some on rental bikes, but mostly on their own.  Someone in a large group of fifty or so all wearing the Bora jerseys of Sagan’s German-sponsored team took a fall in front of me on the cobbly Champs Élysées, but at a slow enough speed not to be injured.  

Yesterday’s most spectacular Tour injury went to Taylor Phinney, who crashed face first into a tree on the final descent breaking his nose and a small bone below his eye.  He finished the stage and had his nose reset and did the time trial today.  There is a strong competition for who is riding with the worst injury and is the champion of suffering.  Lawson Craddock, who has ridden the entire Tour with a broken scapula, seemed to being dominating the competition, but Sagan has ridden three stages with a totally battered body, saying he’s never suffered so much.  Gilbert finishing a stage with a broken knee and shoe full of blood merits honorable mention.  Quintana has had some ugly, Lycra-lacerating crashes and others too.  One must be tough to endure in this sport.  Porte’s toughness was questioned when he quit a stage with what he thought was a broken collarbone when x-rays showed that it was only a severe contusion.  

Bob Roll, NBC Tour announcer and former teammate of Lance and great wit, finally made an appearance on Lance’s podcast.  He was like a big brother to Lance in his early days and was one of those he called upon when he returned to the sport after recovering from cancer and wasn’t so sure he cared to endure the suffering leaving Europe after struggling in an early-season race.  He took a long ride with Roll and Chris Carmichael and they convinced him to stick to it.  Since Lance doesn’t mention Roll on his podcasts even though he listens to his broadcast every day, there was reason to think maybe they’d had a falling out.  So it was nice to see they seem to be on good terms.  

Lance let him know he was recording and not to say anything stupid.  Roll replied, “You may have the wrong guy.”  None of them could fault Roglic for chasing after the lead motorcycle on yesterday’s descent.  They all would have done the same thing.  Roll was known as a fearless descender in his day. Hincapie chided him for letting Vande Velde drop him on a descent filmed for NBC.  Roll explained he was a little hesitant after having a blow-out of a front tire on a descent a couple days before.  

Once again Lance allowed us to see beyond the surface of the sport and get to know the personalities of those involved in it.  He maintains a most entertaining repartee with Hincapie, admitting George is right way more than he is, and poking fun at him for being so well-liked, especially compared to him. Lance attended a dance-competition fund-raiser in Aspen the night before.  When he arrived he was greeted by the woman at the door, who didn’t know him, as “Mr Hincapie.”  A couple of guys with the woman who listen to his podcast whispered to her that the guy coming is George Hincapie.  Lance and the guys got a good laugh out of it.  Lance was asked if he participated in the contest.  He said he had no interest, though his mother is always telling him he should do Dancing with the Stars, thinking it will make everybody will like him again. 



Friday, July 27, 2018

Stage Nineteen


With today’s start in Lourdes religion came to The Tour.  Unlike the rest of France, members of the clergy, male and female, can be seen wandering about in their vestments in Lourdes, a virtual religious theme park.  It is hugely popular as a pilgrimage site for Catholics all over the world.  Only Paris has more hotel rooms in France.  Many cathedrals I duck into all over France have notices of a trip for its congregation.  The city abounds with souvenir shops, many selling water from its holy grotto. 


The crowds lining the route for the start of the stage were so thick, I gave up trying to reach the starting point in front of the city’s majestic basilica and was content with a spot that a handful of fathers in their robes had selected.  They didn’t decline any of the offerings of the caravan, some eagerly soliciting.


I got my first glimpse of Thomas in his holy vestment with Froome keeping his distance.  He can’t be accused of sulking, or feeling sorry for himself.  He knows what it is to win The Tour, so he can feel happy for his long-time friend and compatriot.  He has said, “G has ridden a faultless race.  He deserves this.”


And today’s final day in the mountains offered further confirmation that he is the strongest rider in The Race.  Roglic managed to escape on the twelve-mile descent to the finish line from the top of the Beyond Category Col d’Aubisque, thanks in part to getting in the slipstream of the lead motorcycle according to Dumoulin, who said he was “pissed” about it to the reporters who swarmed him as soon as he crossed the line.  But Roglic isn’t entirely to blame, as he was rocketing so fast the motorcyclist couldn’t outdistance him.  Roglic moved past Froome into third, nineteen seconds behind Dumoulin. He is thirteen seconds ahead of Froome, who finished nineteen seconds behind him in a group of seven that included Dumoulin and Thomas. Thomas showed his superior strength by surging ahead of the group to take the six-second bonus for finishing second, raising his buffer on Dumoulin to 2:05.  Dumoulin does have reason to be angry, as Roglic is a threat to overtake him too and move into second.

It all comes to a head on the next and penultimate stage, a 31-kilometer time trial.  Research has shown that when Thomas and Dumoulin have gone up against each other in time trials, Dumoulin is better by just under two seconds a kilometer.  If that holds true, Thomas will have a minute to spare.  They just have to hope that Roglic doesn’t have a super-super-charged ride, an extremely unlikely event.  There will not only be suspense as to Roglic moving into second over Dumoulin, but also whether Froome can find the power to overtake Roglic and regain the podium.  Roglic moving up to second is more likely than his falling to fourth.  And he’ll be more motivated than Froome.  

Froome would no doubt be happy to share the podium with his friend, unlike Lance who wasn’t happy at all about finishing third to his teammate Contador in his comeback Tour. Hincapie brought up the issue on their podcast asking, “How did it feel to finish third after winning The Tour seven times,” knowing full well the answer, but happy to set Lance off.

“It fucking sucked,” he exclaimed, “especially to that wanker on the top step.”

The best laugh though from the show came over the issue of a dog running out on the course during the pepper-spray stage.  Lance had been watching the Australia feed.  He quoted one of the announcers, while trying to imitate his accent, as saying, “Bringing a dog to a bike race is not a good idea.  It’s like having a shark at a pool party.” 

After watching the peloton set out for its afternoon in the Pyrenees I biked twelve miles north to Tarbes, hometown of Yvette Horner, the recently deceased star of the caravan over fifty years ago playing the accordion.  One of her obituaries mentioned a Place had been named for her.  A young intern af the tourist office had to consult with an elder to find out where it was. It was over a mile north of the city center just off a one-block street named for her in recent housing development of small homes clustered side by side without yards, just the small Place at the end of the street.  Signs at both identified her as an accordionist, neither mentioning her association with The Tour.


There was a row of small trees in the grassy Place.



I went to the cemetery where she was buried, but it was too daunting a task to try and find her with my need to find a television for The Tour of much pressing importance.  I know from experience searching for the graves of Tour winners, it can take a long time. I lingered a few moments preparing a sandwich hoping someone might show up and know where her grave was, but no such luck.




It was twenty-five miles back to Pau, where I had a train to catch the next morning at 7:47 to Paris.  It was due to arrive at 12:12, well before the start of the time trial.  I’d have ample time to bike out to Houilles, where the next day’s stage would commence taking a circuitous route to the Champs Élysées for the finale sprint.

In a park across the street from the train station in Pau were several circles of yellow monuments.  It was an eerie site, but based on their color I hoped they had something to do with The Tour.


And indeed they did.  There was one for every Tour, over one hundred of them.  On the front they gave the details of each race and on the back they profiled the winner. And Lance was not excommunicated, though the exploits of the French racers in each of his wins took precedence over him.  Voeckler was the hero of the 2004 Tour, holding on to the Yellow Jersey for ten days.


LeMond’s first win in 1986 featured Hinault as much as him.


It was another superb tribute to The Tour that I hope is not a one-of.  I’d gladly give it my full respect on an annual basis.

















Stage Eighteen


As I finished off the final forty miles of this stage riding into Pau there were so few people along the road I wondered if I had the day wrong and the stage wasn’t until the next day.  Part of the reason for so few people  was that most of The Tour followers in their campers had stayed over in the Pyrenees, selecting s choice spot for the next stage in the high mountains rather than coming over to the relatively flat, though rolling, terrain of this stage. They were missing out on some fine scenery, but that can pretty much be said of all of France.  There are no boring Plains here. Rivers lace the entire country. A forest is always nearby.

Riding the marked route when there is little traffic I sometimes get so lost letting the arrows lead the way I have to be careful not to take a hard left at a roundabout as the arrows point, rather than going around the roundabout before making the turn.  When I first came to France and had a strong bicycle messenger mentality taking any short cut I could, I would pull that trick avoiding the long way around.  That was before I knew how quick cars can come out of nowhere in France and learned it was best to abide to full roundabout etiquette.  I always have to adjust my reflexes when I return to France, as drivers like to accelerate super fast here.  They don’t necessarily speed, but they do get up to speed fast. 

With the French propensity for quick acceleration it is a wonder they haven’t produced a dominant sprinter.  They can imagine they have one in Arnaud Démare, who won today’s sprint, but only because the top sprinters have all been eliminated from The Race and Sagan was so battered from a bad crash yesterday he could only finish eighth, one spot ahead of the American Taylor Phinney, whose father Davis won a few Tour sprints and who was so dominant in the US, winning sprints at will, his nickname was Cash Register.  Démare was so excited and  relieved to win, it didn’t seem to matter to him he beat a diluted field.  The biggest cloud hanging over him was the tweet from Andre Greipel, one of the alpha dogs who bowed out in the Alps unable to beat the time cut, that it was highly he only lost nine minutes on the final climb the day before, implying he’d gotten a tow from a team car.  Démare took great offense to that, and Greipel apologized.  Lance on his podcast highly applauded Griepel for raising the issue.

I arrived at the Giant Screen before one.  Vittel was handing out two water bottles to anyone who wanted them.  Before I could grab one a guy next to me handed me one of his.  The Screen faced a large field with no shade. The stage hadn’t even begun yet, so there was absolutely no reason to hang out except to let a guy who had been living in Seattle for the past thirty years with his American wife talk my ears off.  He’d been at the finish line since 9:30 just to be part of the scene.  He could remember the first Tour he saw as a boy in Pau.  His brother got a water bottle from one of the racers.  He greatly regrets they don't still have their trophy.

He’d raced as an amateur in the ‘70s and knew how rife drugs were in the sport.  They always have been.  Anquetil fully acknowledged his use. He thought it a travesty that Lance had been shamed out of the sport, but was happy he was regaining his stature.  If there had been a shady tree to plop under I could have listened to him until the cows came home, or peloton arrived. I needed to get off my feet and eat, so I bid him farewell. I found some shade and refueled.  Then I went in search of the youth hostel and Skippy.  The hostel was closed during the afternoon hours, so I returned to the race route a mile from the finish where the crowd was thin to await the caravan.  It was twenty minutes behind schedule, meaning the peloton wasn't overly exerting itself. The organizers don’t want a prolonged gap between the caravan and the peloton, otherwise fans will become impatient and leave and that doesn’t look good on television.   The caravan draws them early.  Some leave after it passes, more than arrive later.  

I had my best harvest yet, grabbing an early juice, knowing to be ready for it with hand outstretched, as that and the Vittel water are the two items that aren’t thrown, just handed out. Then I gathered some candy, a madeleine, a hat, a pack of Bic pens, a key chain in the shape of France, a wrist band, a shopping bag, refrigerator magnet, a lanyard, and a cardboard foldable CGT megaphone that Janina will be delighted with.  Wisecracking journalists commented that the farmers who disrupted The Tour a couple stages ago were doing what the French do best—protest.  The megaphone from the workers’ union represents that. It might be meant for cheering the racers, but with the CGT logo it carries the association of marching protesters shouting invective.

After the caravan passed I returned to the Giant Screen.  There was the usual large crowd with the Norwegian flag on prominent display.  It’s been a close race the past few years between Colombia and Norway for the most.  The once dominant American flag is rarely seen now—only one along the road in three weeks.


After the peloton charged past, the first 89 together, and Lawson Craddock the last 4:36 later, padding his overall place in last, I moseyed over to the team buses knowing I’d find Skippy there.  He was holding his “Stop Killing Cyclists” sign and asking riders who he hadn’t photographed with it to stop for a photo.  On the Rest Day in Carcassone he’d gotten Thomas and Froome and Prudhomme and quite a few others.  After half an hour we headed to his hostel where I could get a much needed shower.  It has been hot and sticky the last couple of days and the night before I had camped in a field abounding in ticks that had attached themselves to me, my worst case ever.  And some mysterious insect other than a mosquito had found my non-tanned skin to its liking.  I had a long night of itching.  I needed a genuine shower, not just the dousing of spigots and faucets I’d been getting.  Skippy had the added bonus for me of a five-pound tub of couscous that he had been bequeathed at one of The Tour’s VIP affairs.  Skippy frequently is granted leftovers from such events. I could only eat a few mouthfuls with him before getting out on the road to Lourdes, the next day’s Départ, to find a place to camp.  

I’d had another rich day of podcast listening.  Ian Boswell mentioned he won a ten dollar bet from Geraint Thomas in the middle of the protest stage when Thomas didn’t think a teammate of Boswell’s could catch the breakaway early in the stage, thinking his efforts were futile going after it.  Rupert Guinness recounted the death of Fabio Casartelli in the 1995 Tour, as the peloton passed his memorial, not too far from where Gilbert had a bad crash knocking him out of The Race, the thiryth of the 176 starters out.   

Guinness said it always made him teary to remember that day when the announcement came over the race radio that Fabio Casartelli, rider number 114, had died.  The next day’s stage was equally memorable as the peloton rode at parade pace.  Even though they ended the stage way way past the designated time, French television didn’t cut away for its normal programming that it was cutting into as they knew the finish with his Motorola teammates, including Lance,  crossing first along with Casartelli’s bike dangling a black ribbon perched atop a team car would be such a powerful image.

A Welsh journalist on the BBC podcast asserted that Geraint Thomas winning the L’Alpe d’Huez stage may be the greatest achievement by a Welsh athlete and if he held on to win The Tour he would be a great national hero.  He said the biggest joke of The Tour for him was arguing with a Dutch journalist on how to pronounce his first name. 

Dumoulin isn’t ready to concede The Tour to Thomas, even though he’s two minutes behind.  A journalist asked him, “Is this now a race to keep second place?”  He replied,”Argh. I always keep a little bit of faith, a little bit of hope.” He is afterall the last person not named Froome to win a Grand Tour with the Giro in 2017.  François Thomazeau is among those thinking its a foregone conclusion.  He said, “I don’t like to show off, though I am French, but I did say back when Thomas won the first mountain stage, that the winner of it usually goes on to win The Race.”

The podcasters certainly keep me entertained.  I’m going to miss these guys.






Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Stage Sixteen




I peeled off today’s stage in St. Girons 77 miles into the 138-mile stage shortly before the first of its three monster climbs—two Category Ones and a Category Two. I had ridden the first two in late May (Portet-d’Aspet and Mentè) where Fabio Casartelli and Luis Ocana had crashes that were marked by a monument and a plaque.  Rather than burrowing deep into the Pyrenees I circumvented them, heading to the start of Stage Eighteen in Trie-sur-Base 62 miles from St. Girons.  

It was ten when I arrived in St Girons.  Crews were busy setting up the barriers and arch for the intermediate sprint.  Others were setting up tents and concession stands.  And the mini-cellophane-flag-sellers were out in force accosting cars and pedestrians.  They have quite a racket going.  I don’t know if people buy their flags because they really want to or just out of sympathy or that they’re in a weakened state of goodwill on Tour day.  Whatever makes people susceptible to them, it does allow them to rake in quite a few euros.


I hit a supermarket and then proceeded on to St. Gaudens where I stopped at the tourist office to make use of its WiFi to check in on the peloton.  Protesting farmers halting The Race at mile seventeen was the big story.  It delayed the peloton for fifteen minutes, largely for many of the riders to wash pepper spray the police had used out of their eyes and mouths.  The delay was good news for me, as I wanted to push on to Lannemezan, twenty miles away, which no longer put seeing the final Category One climb in jeopardy.

Although there was some climbing, including a killer climb into Montrèjeaux, I made it to Lannemezan in ample time.  The first bar I come to had The Race on its large television though no one was watching, all sitting out front with their drinks, though a handful came in when the climb began and word spread that French rider Alaphilippe was on the attack for King of the Mountain points.  But Adam Yates, a  Brit riding for the lone Australian-sponsored team, powered away, crossing the summit first beginning the six-mike descent to the finish with a fifteen second advantage on Alaphilippe.  A mile down Yates wiped out on a corner.  He was back on his bike quick just as Alaphilippe passed him.  

Alaphilippe opened a gap that only widened.  He could begin celebrating shortly after the One-Kilometer-To-Go arch.  He is a rider with personality.  On another stage he handed the television cameraman beside him on a motorcycle a can of coke from his musette bag.  Lance talked to his director, an old friend, on his podcast and he said Alaphilippe could walk upside down on his hands.  Lance has been trying to get video footage of him doing that in his Polka Dot Jersey ever since.

It has been a Tour of double stage winners. He joins the club of Gaviria and Groenewegen, who are both out of The Race, and Thomas, along with  Sagan, who has two plus one.  French television was so excited by Alaphilippe’s second win, it ignored all the contenders eight minutes back making the climb.  They were interviewing Alaphilippe while they were on the descent other than a quick glimpse to show no one was attacking and then as they were finishing in mass as they had in Carcassone.  

It makes sense as tomorrow’s stage is so demanding,  everyone was happy to save themselves for the big showdown.  It is only forty miles long, but mostly climbing.  The Tour has never had such a short all-climbing stage.  No one knows what to expect.  It could be a two-hour climbing time trial.  The gaps between riders could be huge.  This is what Froome may have been saving himself for.  The tactics will be fascinating.  Froome could pull off something dramatic as he did at the Giro this past May, stunning everyone by going off on his own on a long mountain stage near the end of the race and winning it when everyone had written him off.  This is also the chance that Bardet and Quintana and Roglic, as well,  have been waiting for to show what they’ve got.  This will be epic. 

This is a stage to be seen from the moment it starts.  I’ve got a town all picked out 50 miles from where I camped several miles past Trie-sur-Base.  Things were deadly quiet in .tire-sur-Base when I passed through at eight p.m., the calm before the The Tour storm hits it.  Every shop window had a Tour theme.


The course markers wouldn’t go up until the next morning, so I was on my own finding my way out of this not-so-big town.  I pushed on til 8:30 with hopes of catching the Tour de Pants squadron of women riding the course, as I had missed them two days before out of Carcassone.  I camped in a pasture with a view of the road in case they passed while I was breaking camp.


Ian Boswell mentioned on his podcast that he was also blogging on the Cyclingtips website.  When I went in search of it, I discovered Cyclingtips also has a daily podcast from The Tour.  One of the journalists is Rupert Guinness, an Australian with a very heavy accent, who has been covering The Tour for years and has written several books on cycling I’ve read.  He offers an entertaining insight into what’s been going on.  It made me wonder how many Tour podcasts there are in addition to the other five I’ve been listening to.  

I unearthed one from the BBC with Jeremy Whittle, another author whose books I’ve read, including ghost writing Geraint Thomas’ book. The British television crew broadcasting The Race also has a daily podcast.  The wealth of material is amazing.  I now have several hours of listening pleasure recounting the previous stage every day.  I’ve never had such immersion. And it is topped off with reports from Robert in Chicago on NBC’s coverage. I will be going through severe withdrawal when this is over in five days.  

Though they all cover the same ground, they off differing nuggets of information.  One mentioned that Froome and Thomas turned professional at the same time with the second-tier Barloworld team and that Froome was still in his hippy phase with long hair and beads and an African kilt he liked to wear.  François Thomazeau, the lone French voice on them all, provides all sorts of information on France. His French accent carries the stamp of authority.    When one of his podcasters partners, the Scot Richard Moore, was trying to find a place to park at their hotel and was reluctant to park under a tree in fear the car would be speckled with bird droppings in the morning, Thomazeau assured him that birds don’t nest in plane trees. When he was explaining some Byzantine aspect of The Tour, he ended by saying, “I may not be French, as I’m too logical.”













Monday, July 23, 2018

Stage Fifteen


At last, for the first time since Stage One I was able to watch the action, what there was, on the Giant Screen at the stage finish.  For once I didn’t have to immediately keep riding when I reached the stage finish, as tomorrow is a Rest Day for the peloton.  I can set out on the next stage at my leisure, as the peloton won’t be breathing down my neck as it was today.  I managed to get to just before the Five-Kilometer-To-Go arch before I was evicted from the course.  It was only 3:30 so I could take alternate roads to reach downtown Carcassone and the stage finish.  I had enough time to even duck into the train station just after the One-Kilometer-To-Go arch for half an hour to take advantage of its WiFi and to give my iPad a charge.  Having not found a bar the last two days to watch the end of the stage I had fallen behind on my charging. Ordinarily the bars get me up to 100%.  I hadn’t been above 60% for a while and near empty on occasion. What I can generate on the bike was just barely keeping me above water.

Urban train stations are a hive of activity this time of year in France with so many people traveling.  And there are always a few cyclists, some with loaded bikes and others traveling light.  Whether I speak to them or not, they are an invigorating site, all looking as if they are in the midst of a great adventure.  I was totally spent having ridden hard since a little after seven, trying to get as far down the road as I could.   I didn’t anticipate making it all the way to Carcassone until well after the stage had been completed, but as I approached the turn up the Category One climb 33 miles from the stage finish after a several mile climb out of Mazamet, I saw a sign for an alternate route for the caravan around the steep six-mile climb over an out-of-the-way peak on a very narrow road.  I stopped to study my map.  The alternate route was no shorter, in fact a little longer, but the climb wasn’t as severe or as high.  The bypass saved my legs and maybe an hour of riding-time.  It was likely I would have been stopped before the summit and been stranded on the mountain for three hours until all The Race entourage had passed.

If time hadn’t been an issue I would have lingered in Mazamet as a large screen along the route in a plaza was showing the last twenty miles of yesterday’s stage. It was very tempting, but the only time I had to spare in Mazamet was going a couple blocks off course to the City Hall to see the Place de Jalabert beside it, named for the local retired Tour de France star who is now a commentator. No one was in the Place, as The Tour route was the place to be, so I could pay no mind to the “No Bikes” sign to get a close look at his plaque.


As hoped, I at last got to say hello to The Devil.  He was stationed just past the Fifteen-Kilometer-To-Go arch.  No time for a photo.  I had the road pretty much to myself at this point.  The anxious crowds lining the road were happy to have something to cheer.  A few idiots even felt aroused to run alongside me.  It was a little disconcerting to have a guy in his underwire come charging after me and then sprint alongside for a few moments with arms pumping hard.  I was too focused to look over and peer into their eyes to see if there was anything beyond them.  Others would surge from curbside to get close to me, bending down then quickly raising their arms as I passed, a gesture I hadn’t noticed inflicted on the riders, but evidently it is a thing, maybe a mock act of devotion.

I  was playing tag with a trio of Vittel vans that were handing out bottles of water an hour or so ahead of the caravan where another trio of vans would do the same thing.  When there was a gap of fans they would speed up and pass me, then slow for the next batch.  They never slowed to hand me one, but an older guy who had just gotten one held it out for me to grab as I passed.  That was a gesture I appreciated.  Earlier out of Mazamet on the climb I was the recipient of another act of benevolence when cyclist put his arm on my back and pushed me along for a few pedal strokes.  Since I do that for others, I wasn’t startled by the hand on my bsck, and gratefully accepted his assist.  I just wish it had been for more than a few token moments.  But the legs were good, surprisingly good, as on slight inclines with a cheering crowd, rather than gearing down I’d stand on the pedals and power up, which I probably wouldn’t have done without an audience.

But the biggest bonus of the day was my first opportunity for a course marker.  There was a pair behind the Giant Screen that no one was interested in, or wasn’t equipped to cut the wire holding them up.  I kept my eye on them as I gazed up at the Screen expecting someone of the hundreds in the vicinity and passing by to appropriate them.  But when the stage was done and they were still there, I was there happy liberator.


I was equally happy when I found the Giant Screen that I could sit in the shade to watch it.  The heat has abated to just 80, but the sun is still intense.  The storm of two nights ago brought deliciously cool 70 temperatures for a day, cool enough that I could scavenge a roasted chicken and cheese and sardines from a dumpster I had visited before with Craig and Andrew on a Sunday, as this was, when it is hard to find an open supermarket.  The dumpster fare saved me a few minutes of supermarket time as well, besides providing me with some quality calories. 

As I was walking to the Giant Screen along the barricaded final few hundred meters of the course behind the three deep crowd the caravan was passing.  I wasn’t paying it any attention.  I should have been glancing over to see when the Madeleine sponsor was coming, as it always sprays handfuls of them. I was actually hit in the back by one, but with two hands pushing the bike I couldn’t react in time to reach down and grab it before another hand beat me to it.  

I reached the Screen just as the breakaway group was beginning the Category One climb.  As yesterday, it was over ten minutes ahead of the group of contenders.  With a twenty-six mile descent from the summit to Carcassone, none of the contenders cared to exert themselves to attack on the climb even though tomorrow is a Rest Day.  Dan Martin did go up the road, but he is no longer a threat, so no one responded.  It turned out to be a pre-day of rest for the Top Ten as they were observing a full-on truce, before the real Rest Day.  It was not undeserved.  The top riders have been treating us to aggressive, animated racing.  The racing will be even better in the Pyrenees for this opportunity to rest the legs a bit more.

Before the contender group rode across the line with no one accelerating, a trio of riders broke away from a group of eight several kilometers from the finish.  They had to continue riding hard and working together to stay away, all the while trying to save a few molecules of extra energy to outsprint their temporary allies.  Magnus Cort Nielsen of Denmark riding for the Astana team was the anointed one to claim the day’s glory and the immortality of a Tour Stage Win.

I was in need of water before I could camp.  The road the peloton will take out of Carcassone to the Pyrenees took me past the airport, a rare source of water I have been able to take advantage of.  The terminal of this minor airport was  right along the road, so it was no effort to stop in and fill up. I continued riding for half an hour, not needing to push it, and camped between a vineyard and a strip of trees far enough from the road to blunt the noise of traffic. I had a fine dinner of chicken and couscous.  For the first time in days I have a couple of easy days ahead of me.  The course markers will go up first thing in the morning allowing me to ride with no concerns of finding my way.  I am eager to see what cyclists will be on the road with the possibility of some of the Tour teams getting in a couple of Rest Day hours pedaling the route.  It will be another day of bliss and with no need of finding a bar.



Sunday, July 22, 2018

Stage Fourteen

 

The Massif Central stymied me once again from seeing the day’s action. I was confident I’d find a bar in Belmont-sur-Rance.  I had passed through it two months ago and knew it had a large cathedral and a tourist office, indicators of a decent-sized town with amenities.  I was riding hard, as if I were Bernal on L’Alpe d’Huez leading Froome and Thomas with such vigor that he managed to drop his fellow Colombian Quintana.  I just needed to average twelve miles per hour for an hour to make it, but over uncertain terrain.

I had tried for a bar in Vabres-l’Abbaye at 4;15 with no luck.  My choice was to double back two miles to the large city of Saint-Afrique that had loads of bars or continue on to Belmont-sur-Rance thirteen miles away.  If it weren’t essential for me to get in the miles, I would have stopped in Saint-Afriwue to begin with, so I chose to push on, which would put me in great position, though at the sacrifice of some race viewing..  I had been averaging twelve miles per hour and the terrain looked as if it would permit me to continue that pace. A couple of big hills threatened to derail me, but I remembered there was a good descent to Belmont-sur-Rance that would save me. 

I arrived a few minutes before 5:30, close to the possible finishing time. Just past the tourist office was a Bar des Sports, but it was closed.  Another bar a couple blocks further was also closed, though the door was unlocked.  I snooped around but saw no television.  When I returned to my bike a cyclist had stopped to give it a look.  He told me there was an auberge around the corner from the tourist office that had a television. Unfortunately it didn’t have the cable station that showed The Tour.  So I was reduced to sitting outside the closed tourist office and using its WiFi for the minute-by-minute updates of the action on the Cyclingnews website.  

That wasn’t all bad, as it brought back fond memories of how I used to follow The Tour a couple decades ago before I started actually attending it.  It can be quite exciting as a stage reaches its climax and there are reports of riders attacking and being dropped.  And so it was today on the two-mile Category Two climb of ten per cent, tougher than the Mur de Bretagne, to the finish at an airfield outside of Mende.  A breakaway group eighteen minutes ahead of the main contenders was just approaching the climb.  It had splintered.  The Spaniard Omar Fraile after chasing down the lead rider managed to hold off the new French darling Alaphilippe, the lone French stage winner so far,  charging after him.  

This was a prelude to the main bout of the top ten contingent, all that really mattered.  And it played to form with Thomas, Froome and Dumoulin, the top three overall, unable to shed one another, but leaving Quintana ten seconds behind and Bardet fourteen.  Roglic, who has quietly been in the top five and had moved up to fourth with Nibali’s knocked out with an injury, was the first to attack on the climb and managed to come in eight seconds of the Big Three.  It would have been exciting to see them battling it out for the several minutes of the climb, but I had to settle for simply visualizing it as the reports came in as if by telegraph.  The pecking order seems to be fully established.  Any of the principals could have a bad day and be eliminated, so there will be no lack of suspense in the days to come.  

Froome and company didn’t cross the line until 6:11.  The tables outside the sports bar were filled as I left town.  If I had known it opened at six I could have seen the finish.  I didn’t feel too bad about missing it, as my main priority is getting a certain distance down the road each day, and I could feel good about having gotten to Belmont-sur-Rance when I did.  A couple miles out of town began an eight-mile Category Two climb, a nice way to end the day.  It averaged just five per cent.  Compared to climbs of seven and eight per cent I could almost glide up this.  I had been over it two months ago when I was early in my training.  It was a strain then.  It was enjoyable this time with an extra 3,500 miles on my legs, especially with all the camping vans parked along the road.  One had posted a sign thanking the just-retired Tom Voeckler for his career.  It listed his chief achievements, including highlighting in yellow his two ten-day spells in the Yellow Jersey in 2004 and 2011.


I had begun my day with the super steep Col de Perjuret on my fifty mile transfer between stages.  Two miles from the summit is a monument to Roger Rivière at the spot where he suffered a crash in the 1960 Tour breaking two vertebrae, ending his career.  He had won two stages in that Tour and was a threat to win it.   He was a three-time World Champion in the pursuit and also the holder of the hour record before Merckx.


One side of the monument listed all his achievements on the road and on the track.



From the summit it was mostly downhill for thirty some miles to Millau, start of Stage Fifteen.  The bridge over the Tarn that the peloton will cross while still in the neutralized zone was decorated as if for the return of Napoleon.


I was catching up on Tour podcasts as I pedaled along, a good way to be in the moment.  I heard Lance take another potshot at Jonathon Vaughters.  Lance has been joined by George Hincapie on his last few podcasts.  Having ridden seventeen Tours he makes the podcasts all the more interesting.  They were commenting on up-and-coming riders they knew who had come up through the junior program and reminisced about their day’s as juniors together.  Lance commented that today’s juniors are regular guys, as the sport is now attracting mainstream athletes.  In his time it was mostly outsiders and social misfits.  He said he and George were the only normal guys in his group.  “Everyone else was weird,” he said,  “Just look at Vaughters and Julich.” 

George replied, “Come on, Bobby is a good guy.”  

Lance said, “You’re right.  I like Bobby.  He’s become a good friend, but at the time I hated him.”

On Breakfast with Bos I had confirmed the Devil is here.  I had yet to see him in person or on the road.  Ian Boswell’s friend, who is following along in his car watching The Tour and doing the podcast with him, said he saw the Devil riding a bike around Lake Annecy on the Rest Day.  Boswell said he is such a fixture with The Tour that The Tour flew him over to Japan on a charter with a bunch of Tour riders for some post-season racing.  And he was in costume on the flight.

I hope to see him tomorrow if I can make it over the Category One climb twenty-five miles from the stage finish before the road is closed.  He is always somewhere near the end or at the top of a significant climb.








Saturday, July 21, 2018

Stage Thirteen


The bike decorations on the Massif Central reflected the isolation of this relatively uninhabited and undeveloped region of France, the bikes old and rusted and the even the flags from eras ago. The roads through this thickly forested, mountainous region were narrow and rough and untrafficked.  I was having a fine ride, though it was hard to predict when I could reach a town with a bar, because most towns were too small for such a thing, and all the climbing was slowing me considerably.  

At least I had the yellow markers to once again guide me as I was now just one stage ahead of the peloton rather than two.  Camping vans were once again parked along the road and a few other cyclists, though none with panniers, were also riding the route.  I had joined up with the stage route after my detour to Barjac late in the morning too late to cross paths with any of the supported groups who ride the route a day ahead of the peloton, as they leave very early in the morning in their attempt to ride the entirety of each stage.
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I was hoping to encounter a group of women called Tour de Pants, because The Tour is a men’s only event.  I’ll have no chance to see them tomorrow, as I ended the day forty miles from the Stage Fifteen start in Millau.  With luck I’ll reach Carcsssone and the Rest  Day by Sunday night.  If I get a ways down the route Sunday night and get  an early start Monday morning on Stage Sixteen, I ought to see who all has been riding The Tour besides me and Skippy.  So far I’ve seen none.



A six-mile Category Two climb had me worried about making it to Florac in time for the end of today’s stage.  It was twenty miles from the summit to Florac, which I hoped was all downhill.  After the climb I passed through the small tourist town of Le Pont-de-Montvert.  There were clusters of cyclists hanging out in the shade of the plane trees through the town above the river that had carved out this gorge.  Along one stretch were a couple of outdoor cafes.  I could see The Tour on a large screen in one of them.  I checked to see that there were 57 kilometers left in the stage and the break had just a 54 second advantage on the peloton.  

It appeared to be the anticipated uneventful flat recovery stage for the peloton after three hard days  in the Alps.  Not much would happen in the next hour until the sprint, and with all the top sprinters out of The Race, it wasn’t must viewing, as Sagan would no doubt gain his third stage win against the remaining pretenders. It would be a pleasure and sit and watch the peloton riding roads I had ridden two days before, but tie was becoming precious if I wished to accomplishnall I wished.  So I risked riding the thirteen miles to Floric hoping to make it in time to watch the final few minutes of the stage.  After an initial climb out of the town, the road turned downhill.  If it continued, as it looked it would following a river, I would arrive in Floric with ample time.  

And I would have if I hadn’t been hit by a sudden downpour that came out of nowhere after I was within nine miles of my destination.  The road was a sudden river of water.  I had to squeeze my brakes hard to keep my speed to six miles per hour.  I feared going much faster and gaining more speed than my brakes could handle on the drenched steep road.  The road was steep enough that I had to at times unclip my left shoe and use it to stomp on the road to control my speed. A great descent was being ruined.  The rain wasn’t letting up and my sprint-viewing was history.  I was just glad this hadn’t happened any of the previous three days, though with them I had made allowances to see the final two hours of action.

I hadn’t passed a supermarket all day, so was happy when I saw a Carrefour on the outskirts of Florac.  It was still pouring down rain.  A handful of people were clustered inside its entrance, including a guy on a motorcycle and a couple of backpackers.  After I bought my food I stood with them waiting for the rain to abate.  A woman pulled up in a car and asked me if I was the one who called.  It was the backpackers who had contacted her for a place to stay for the night.  It had been raining for better than an hour. It had to stop.  

The sky was lightening, though one could not be certain what storms more might be lurking behind the mountain ridges in all directions.  As the rain dwindled I made a dash for the tourist office a few blocks away, arriving just before it closed at six.  The attendant couldn’t tell me who had won the day’s stage, but I could use it’s WiFi to find out.  Unfortunately I couldn’t sit in the warmth of the tourist office, so put on my sweater while I sat outside.  No surprise at The Tour other than the news that Sagan revealed that he was in the midst of a divorce, and not from his team, but his wife.

I learned from the tourist office that the rain would abate by eight.  I had to keep riding as I was nearly fifty miles from Millau and the start of Stage Fifteen.  I needed to get an early start on this second demanding stage on the Massif Central, as I couldn’t manage it in one day.  It would be a slight climb out of Florac following a river upstream, so the exertion would keep me warm and the incline wouldn’t necessitate braking.  The rain was a mere drizzle.  I hadn’t had much to eat all day, so I ate some yogurt and cornflakes before resuming my ride.  

When the rain stopped shortly after eight I rode another fifteen minutes to let the wind dry my legs and shorts and rain jacket before finding a place to camp up an unused Jeep trail that led to a row of bee hives.  As I was erecting my tent the rain resumed, though not as hard as it had.  It had been another nine plus hours on the bike, but only an eighty mile day.  I was in position to reach Millau by noon,  several hours after the course markers had been put in place.  I had a good day of riding ahead.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Stage Twelve


My forty-five mile transfer from the end of Stage Thirteen in Valence to Stage Fourteen took me past a recently erected statue of Johnny Hallyday at a restaurant outside of Viviers along the Rhône.  I have Skippy to thank for alerting me to it.  He was invited to the sculptor’s studio as he was putting the finishing touches on it in May when Skippy was in Valence for the Dauphiné.  Former president François Hollande happened to be visiting the sculptor at the same time.  He was front and center at his funeral along with Sarkozy and Macron, his predecessor and successor, further emphasizing Hallyday’s status.

I thought the statue had been erected in Valence. When I asked a young intern at the tourist office where the Johnny statue was, as he is generally known by his first name, she couldn’t understand my pronunciation, or even when I gave his full name.  She pulled out a map of the city that had a list of all its statues.  It was new enough I doubted it was on that list.  After several more attempts at making myself understood, she at last realized this 
American with the butchered accent was interested in their singer Johnny Hallyday.  She summoned an older colleague.  She knew all about the Johnny statue and that it was in a town over thirty miles away.  It was erected there as that was where Johnny’s mother had lived and was buried.  She printed out a sheet showing where the cemetery was and also where the statue was at the La Tennessee grill two miles out of Viviers.

It was erected last month and has already turned into a shrine akin to the Jim Morrison grave in Paris with devotees leaving mementoes and notes. Not everyone is happy with the head of the statue and there is talk of having it redone.  


I picked up Stage Fourteen in Bourg-Saint-Andèol, six miles into the stage from its start in Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux, which I had visited in May on my way to Cannes.  Six miles further the route will take the peloton through Bidon, which may inspire riders to toss their water bottles to fans as they occasionally see signs from fans of  “Bidon s’il vous plait.”


From Bidon the peloton will venture into the spectacular L’Ardeche Gorge and will climb over the Col du Serre de Tourre.  The river far below that the peloton will descend to was a traffic jam of rafts and canoes.  This stretch involved more climbing than I anticipated and I began to grow concerned about making it to Barjac before today’s peloton began its ascent to L’Alpe d’Huez.  But I made it with enough time to spare to stop in at the tourist office to inquire about the Anselm Kiefer sculptures that had brought me to Barjac.  I was given the bad news that his complex is off limits to the public, though the town is working on making it a museum, hopefully by next year.  One could see a painting of his though at the town library.  

I found a bar across the street with a small crowd in front of its television watching The Tour.  The riders were on their descent of the Col de la Croix de Fer just before their final climb of the day.  I knew the long, Beyond Category Col almost as well as the Alpe having ridden it several times.  I was craving the ice cold water at the many natural springs on the Col that had been spigotted, as there were none along the route I was on today.  It was a hot, hot day.  I drank several bottles of water while I watched the final hour of the day’s action sitting in front of a fan.

I had been on L’Alpe d’Huez the last six times the peloton had tackled it and I wasn’t missing it at all.  It is a very stressful day climbing the beast and then contending with the crowds watching the action on the Giant Screen at the finish and then biking down the mountain with hundreds of other cyclists riding one’s brakes through the maze of the thousands walking down.  It is supremely exciting to be part of it, but a very mentally, as well as physically, taxing  day.  The guys running along with the racers seemed more raucous and threatening than ever. 

I could fully understand why Froome waited until the barriers on both sides of the road began four kilometers from the summit to get out from behind the protection of his teammate Thomas and go it alone.  This was the attack everyone had been waiting for when Froome would speed away and put his stamp on The Race.  But it didn’t happen like that at all.  Thomas didn’t chase after him, but Bardet did, with Thomas on his wheel, and he brought Froome back in less than half a kilometer.  

There was parrying between the three of them and Dumoulin, the only other left at the front until Landau caught up with them as they actually slowed and jockeyed around rather than continuing pell mell trying to put as much time into Quintana and Nibali and all the others who had been dropped as they normally would have done.  They were acknowledging they didn’t consider any of them a threat any longer and they were just concerned about the glory of winning the stage.  

And Thomas proved to be the strongest of the lot, sprinting away from the others less than half a kilometer from the finish winning by two seconds over Dumoulin.  Bardet came in a second later with Froome.  Thomas is proving he’s for real.  He’s never sustained his efforts for the three weeks of a Grand Tour, as Froome has done multiple times, so Sky won’t be ready to fully anoint him team leader, but they will be happy to fully support him. He has always had a bad day in a Grand Tour and bungled his opportunity to be the team leader for the Giro one year, so that remains a concern.  He understands all this, so there is no great friction between he and Froome. Froome remains in second but an additional eleven seconds behind thanks in part to the eight second bonus Thomas earned for winning the stage.  

When the stage ended before it was learned Nibali sustained an injury that will knock him out of The Race, the cast of the Top Ten surprisingly remained the same from the day before, but with Bardet moving up to sixth from eighth.  Froome is now 1:39 back just eleven seconds ahead of Dumoulin.  He once again today proved he is someone to be reckoned with.  There will be no reckoning on tomorrow’s flat stage, but the two stages afterwards on the Massif Central could be dangerous for all the contenders.  It is turning into a dandy race, as the top four today separated themselves from everyone else, and they demonstrate they aren’t afraid to assert themselves.  Quintana finally put in an attack today 8.5 kilometers from the finish.  It didn’t last and two kilometers later he was floundering off the back of the leaders, demonstrating why he doesn’t attack.

It was another hard day with double stage winner Groenewegen missing the time cut and double stage winner Gaviria quiting The Race along with Greipel, Zabel and Gallopin.  Uran didn’t start and Nibali fractured his vertebra in a crash with a motorcycle policeman near the finish. He still came in fifth, but won’t be starting tomorrow.  Craddock is hanging in there, his cushion on last diminishing every day.  It’s down to six minutes. 





Thursday, July 19, 2018

Stage Eleven


I rode along the Isère River for another twenty-five miles this morning sticking to the Stage Thirteen route and then turned away from the river for the final twenty-five miles of the stage into Valence. I didn’t have any course markers to guide me as I was two days ahead of the peloton.  The only evidence that The Tour was imminent were the occasional signs warning the road would be closed for The Tour on the 20th and a few barriers already dropped off at minor intersections awaiting to be placed on race day.  All was quiet through the fields of corn and grains.  It was hard to imagine the transformation this scene would undergo in two days, during into a maelstrom of activity with fans lining the road for hours and then the madness of the caravan passing and finally the masters of the road on their bikes.

The city of Valence also didn’t seem to have any cognizance of the frenzy soon to be unleashed upon it, though I don’t know what measures it could take.  The Tour would swoop in for a day and be gone, bringing a jolt of energy and leaving a vast array of impressions.  I didn’t mind at all being ahead of The Tour circus for a few days.  I was having a fine, calm ride, unpressured by the threat of being evicted from the road by the gendarmes.  I still had deadlines to push me, arriving in a big enough town to have a bar to watch the end of the day’s stage and also reaching supermarkets and tourist offices before their  ninety-minute lunch closing.

 Being two days ahead I’ll have time to make a slight detour to Barjac to visit Anselm Keifer’s sculpture park that I missed over a month ago when I went to the wrong Barjac.  It will also be nice to have this extra time to get a head start on the two very demanding up-and-down stages through the Massif Central. The second on Sunday includes a Category One climb after passing through Mazamet, home town of the popular Jalabert (Ja-Ja),  now a commentator.  If I don’t make it over it before the peloton, it won’t set me back, as it comes near the end of the stage and the day before Rest Day number two in Carcassone.  I’ll be able to set out on the first stage into the Pyrenees ahead of the peloton on the Rest Day, even if I arrive a little behind.

The Race could be decided by then if Thomas and Froome continue the dominance they showed today, Thomas riding away from the small pack of contenders two-thirds the way up the stage’s final eleven mile Category One climb, chasing down the few riders up the road, winning the stage and the. Yellow  Jersey. Froome didn’t immediately chase after him, waiting for others in the group to expend the energy so he could latch on to their wheels.  Finally after several failed attacks Froome sped away from everyone else on the wheel of Dan Martin.  After they’d established a good gap on Quintana and Nibali and Bardet, Froome left Martin behind and nearly caught Thomas.  It was riveting racing at his best.

Froome finished 20 seconds behind his teammate, just nipped at the line by Dumoulin, thus collecting third place bonus seconds rather than those of second place.  He still moved up to second place overall, 1:25 behind Thomas.  It will fuel all sorts of debate regarding who is now the team leader and what their tactics should be.  It will make tomorrow’s stage finishing on L’Alpe d’Huez all the more exciting.  One couldn’t necessarily say one was stronger than the other today.  Their tactics were just different.  If they remain within two minutes of one another, that is easily within Froome’s range on the demanding penultimate stage time trial, and world champion time trialist Dumoulin too, who moved up to third 1:44 back.  Froome and Dumoulin finished one-two at the Giro.  They are defying all who claimed they’d be done in by the Giro and not a factor here.



As the day before I had a television all to myself in a bar whose patrons preferred  to sit outside.  It was easily the most exciting stage yet, with the most aggressive riding one could ask for.  Valverde made a bold attack trying to bridge up to the breakaway.  He gained two minutes on the contenders, helped by his teammate Soler up the road who dropped back to help him.  But it was ill-fated.  He was caught and then dropped, losing 3:30.  He’s in eleventh over a minute behind his passive teammate Quintana, who is ninth overall.  But Valverde deserves great plaudits for the bold attack.  If it had worked, he would have been in Yellow and his teammates Quintana and Landa would have been at his service to protect it, which they might have been able to do.  It was his best chance, since he’s not a pure climber like others going for the overall.

Van Avermaet made no attempt to squeeze another day in Yellow, finishing 22:23 behind.  That was still better than yesterday’s stage winner Alaphilippe, who barely retained the Polka Dot Jersey thanks to going out hard and getting over the first climb first before fading away.  Ten days ago back in the Vendée when The Race began there were maybe fifteen riders in contention for the podium.  After today that has been whittled down to maybe ten with Yates among those eliminated finishing 4:42 back.  He’s not going to emulate his twin who led the Giro for much of it before running out of gas.  Of further note Cavendish and Kittel missed the time cut and are out of The Race.  Cavendish’s lead-out man and shadow Renshaw also missed out and was sent home, but Kittel’s escort Zabel was allowed to continue as he sprinted at the end to try to make the cut.  He fell short, but the commissares recognized he was sacrificing himself trying to help his teammate and his last second burst of energy trying to save himself deserved to be rewarded.  Another example of the arbitrariness of the rules, which no one would dispute on this one.

As riveting as the racing was I had one eye on the clock hoping it would be finished by its usual 5:30 rather than after six as the day before as I was eager to get back on my bike.  Not that I was in a rush to get anywhere, just that the riding was so good.  My legs are fully rejuvenated from the Rest Day and they want to be riding.  I’d lose some time having to stop at a supermarket, as I hadn’t passed one all day and hadn’t bought my dinner yet.  I finished off my bread to make peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.  The supermarket on the way out of town was out of the generic one-euro cassoulet I normally buy, so I had to buy a slightly more expensive brand.  I misread the price, as it rang up a 6.71 price, way more than I was prepared to pay.  I was shocked anyone would pay that for a can of stew.  I know the French have sensitive taste buds and are happy to pay extra for fine food, but this I couldn’t imagine.  It is so unimaginable it makes me want to pay that much to see if it could possible be that much better. So my dinner ended up being apple sauce and couscous, still adequate to replenish me.