The main plaza of Trie-sur-Baise was closed to traffic, as it was being repaved and given an all-round facelift in preparation for its role as the starting point of the fourth to the last stage of The Tour in less than two months. The Yellow Jersey contenderswill be relatively relaxed as they assemble at the starting line, as this will be a stage for the sprinters—a 114-mile flat stage after two days in the Pyrenees with one more day in the mountains the next day followed by a time trial before the final ceremonial stage in Paris.
Shop owners and pedestrians were watching the construction crew give the tired plaza in front of the town cathedral its makeover. When I commented to one cluster, “Pour le Tour de France?,” they answered with a gleeful chorus of “Oui-oui.” Shop windows featured bicycles, but there was as yet no bike sculptures or edifices paying tribute to The Tour. There were a few signs advertising the town’s role as a Ville Étape, but it had yet to begin decorating itself in earnest.
It didn’t need to for me, as I could close my eyes and visualize its transformation and how thronged it will be, as never before, when The Tour, a circus unlike any other, takes over the town. It is beyond the imagining of anyone who has not experienced it. The dozens of electronic media outlets broadcasting the event all over the world with their miles of cables and satellite dishes alone will be unlike anything this town of 1,100 people has ever seen. If the town’s people can be captivated by a handful of construction workers and their graders, they will be utterly boggled by what is to come.
I arrived in Trie-sur-Baise with a healthy dose of Tour fever having just ridden over two of its legendary passes—the Col de Portet-d’Aspet and Col de Menté. Both had monuments commemorating a seminal Tour event. One of the three deaths of a racer during a Race occurred on the Col de Portet-d’Aspet. It was the last of the three in 1995 when the Italian Olympic gold medal winner Fabio Casartelli, riding on Lance Armstrong’s Motorola team, crashed into a wall on the descent back before helmets became mandatory. There is a small plaque where the crash occurred and a large sculpture in a wide space within sight of it up the road.
Signs warned of a couple stretches on the descent of a seventeen per cent grade. I was riding in the rain and didn’t need any reminder to be wary. I was squeezing my brakes so hard and going so slowly on the descent I lost all the warmth I had generated on the climb and was close to shivering. I gladly dismounted and ran along with my bike trying to hold it back to get the blood flowing and warm up..
The Col de Menté starts immediately after the three-mile, 1,400 foot descent from the summit of the Col de Portet-d’Aspet. It was seven miles and a 2,500 foot elevation gain to the next summit. It was after five pm and the rain was coming down hard. At first it felt good to be climbing and warming up, but I was dreading the long descent in the wet. After a mile when I came to a shuttered up vacation home with a chain across its driveway I opted to set up my tent behind it alongside a raging creek and tackle the climb with fresh legs and hopefully dry roads the next morning. The best part of my campsite was an overhang where I could hang my Goretex jacket and soaked shorts and let them drip their moisture off rather than soak my tent, which had moisture aplenty as I set it up and from the rest of my gear.
The night before I pulled into a campground in a light drizzle before another hard downpour. I was able to get into my tent before the deluge that time.. I was the only one in a tent, everyone else in camping vans. The friendly proprietor came to my tent half an hour later with an umbrella to rescue me and bring me to the commons area. He and his wife had acquired the campground three months earlier and were in that early phase of wanting to go out of their way to please their clients in anyway they could. They were both school teachers who had dreamed of running a campground. They had been searching on the internet for campgrounds for sale. They had fully transformed their life’s, moving from Normandy at the top of France to the Pyrenees at the bottom. The storm had knocked out WiFi so I read a novel by Zola I had downloaded from Gutenberg. When I told them I was reading Zola, they looked at me quizzically, as I didn’t realize the French give the emphasis on the second syllable of his name. While I was reading they brought me a cup of hot tea.
They were just twenty miles from Barjac where I was headed in the morning for the Anselm Kiefer sculpture garden. I was already looking forward to returning to their campground the next year with Janina, as I knew she’d truly win their favor with her French and being a fellow educator. I was disappointed they didn’t know anything about the Kiefer site, but that was easily explained by their being new to the area. But it was more disconcerting that the tourist office down the road didn’t know anything about it either.
I showed the two women tending to the tourist office the Wikipedia page on it. That baffled them enough for them to do a little searching of their own. They learned that the Barjac I was looking for was 200 miles away, north of Nimes. I had actually passed within twenty miles of it on my way to Cannes and would be near it once again in July during The Tour de France for a possible visit then if I’m not pressed for time. Fortunately I hadn’t gone out of my way to visit this Barjac, as it was on my way to scout out Ville Étapes. The tourist office just saved me a twenty mile side trip, allowing me to reach the Col de Menté a couple hours earlier than I would have otherwise.
My night in my soaking wet tent on the Col de Menté was the first in these travels where I didn’t have a mint syrup drink to please my pallet. I hadn’t come upon an open supermarket all day to restock my depleted bottle. I had to resort to one of my two emergency packs of ramen along with couscous for my dinner. I passed through the only town large enough to have a supermarket during its 90-minute lunch closure. It’s tourist office was closed as well, so I couldn’t inquire about the precise location of a plaque on the Col de Menté to the crash site of Luis Ocaña during the 1971 Tour, one of the most celebrated crashes in Tour history.
Ocaña was doing the impossible at the time, about to dethrone the two-time Tour winner and seemingly invincible Eddie Merckx. He had a seven-minute advantage on him thanks to an earlier dramatic eight-minute stage win. But he crashed on the Col de Menté in a downpour and was knocked out of The Race, allowing Merckx to claim the third of his five Tour victories. Merckx crashed on the same turn but was able to remount and resume riding. Ocaña had been chasing Merckx and was hit by two or three other riders while he was down, fully incapacitating him. Ocaña did manage to win a Tour in 1973, a year in which Merckx skipped The Race, doing the Vuelta and Giro instead. Merckx was such a nemesis of Ocaña that he named his dog Merckx so he’d have the pleasure of having a Merckx at his beck and call.
I knew the plaque was on the west side of the Col, but not how far down. Since I’d be descending myself I could easily miss it. And I would have if Ocaña hadn’t been painted in large letters on the roadway in front of it. I had been scanning cliff sides in hair pin turns, but it was hard to give them more than a glance trying to control my speed and watch the road. At least the road was dry. It was remarkable how much better my brakes were working in the dry conditions compared to how harrowing it had been in the wet of the day before.
The plaque would have been easy to spot if one were climbing rather than descending, as it was blocked by foliage and indentation to descending riders. It came a little over two miles after the summit.
The summit had a small monument to Serge Lapébie, a racer who died at the age of 43 in 1991. His father, Guy, was a well-known racer who won two gold medals and a silver in cycling events at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and won a stage of The Tour in 1949 and who outlived his son by nineteen years.
After these two long climbs with prolonged grades of ten per cent my thighs were burning the forty miles to Trie-sur-Baise, but I was able to push it up what lesser grades came along a gear or two bigger than I had before, as I could feel my legs strengthening from the considerable amount of climbing I have done since leaving Cannes ten days ago. I may not have the luxury of altitude-training, as the professionals will before The Tour, but the legs coming around. Now it’s on to Pau, frequent Ville Étape and the arrivée for the 18th stage.