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.