Monday, July 16, 2018

Stage Nine

I had a doubleheader day of watching major sporting events on big screens in the out-of-doors.  Does it get better than that?  The first was The Tour’s cobble stage on a screen in a park in downtown Annecy along its spectacular high alpine lake.  It was followed by the World Cup championship game on a screen in a sports stadium a mile away.  It was almost too much for one day.

The soccer game started forty-five minutes after former Paris Roubaix winner German John Degenkolb of the American-registered TrekSegafredo team outsprinted the Belgians Greg Van Avermaet of the American-registered BMC team still wearing the  the Yellow Jersey and Yves Lampaert of the dominant Belgian Quick Step team.  They had shed themselves of the peloton ten miles from the finish.  Any of the three would have been a deserving winner of this exciting hard-fought stage that included fourteen miles of cobbles in fifteen sections. 

The riders passed through an arch entering and exiting each. Riders were regularly wiping out and crashing, but the only one to be knocked out of the race was Richie Porte, who suffered a broken collarbone just six miles into the stage well before the onslaught of cobbles..  That meant the leadership of his BMC team fell to Tejay Van Garderen, who was third overall going into the stage, but he destroyed his chances finishing 85th nearly six minutes back.  Both these potential contenders lived up to their reputations of sabatgoong themselves either with a crash or a bad stage.  Porte crashed out of last year’s Tour on the ninth stage as well, when many had picked him to win The Race, just as many had this year.  

Otherwise all the contenders survived the stage unscathed other than Rigoberto Uran of the American team Education First-Drapac powered by Cannondale, who lost 1:28 after entering the stage in sixth.  He falls to 22nd. His teammate Lawson Craddock persevered with his broken shoulder, which means he contributes another $100 to the velodrome in Houston named for him.  After a rest day it is the Alps for three days and the question will be answered of how seriously should Geraint Thomas of Sky be taken.  He is in second 43 seconds back, 59 seconds ahead of his team leader Froome, who moved up to eighth today.  Froome could easily make that up on the first stage and assume Yellow.  Thomas has hung at the top of the standings before in The Tour, but hasn’t been able to sustain it. Though Thomas may have secret aspirations of winning The Race, just as Froome did the year Wiggins won it and he finished second, Sky knows Froome is the man.

For the last hour of the stage there was a background cacaphony of cars driving past the screen tooting their horns and passengers sticking their heads out of windows shouting and waving flags.  No one seemed to mind as all watching the cycling had their heart in two places at once with the biggest sporting event involving France in years imminent.  I had been warned I should get to the stadium an hour ahead of time if I wanted to get in, but that  wasn’t an option for me.  Fans were still streaming towards it when I arrived fifteen minutes before the game began.  The seats were packed but there was still room to sit on the grassy field.

As I cycled out to the stadium I passed outdoor cafes with crowds gathered watching the pre-game festivities.  The sidewalks were thronged with people wearing goofy tricolor hats or wigs.  Many had red, white and blue stripes painted on their faces, or flags draped on their backs or wore some garment showing their support.  In the US the dominant garb would have been jerseys of one’s favorite player, past or present, but here they were a rarity.  A saw a couple of fans wearing the jersey of Zidane, the star of France’s last World Cup winner in 1998, and just a couple of the present star, 19-year old Mhappe, the next great of the sport.

One had to pass through security to enter the stadium, but it was very perfunctory.  I locked my loaded bike near a security guard and just brought in my handlebar bag with some food and a water bottle.  By far the most popular beverage of fans bringing a drink was Coca-Cola, many with a large bottle and a bunch of plastic cups.  After the game the field was littered with empty bottles of coke and little else, though I was able to finally scavenge a couple of flags with broken antennas meant for mounting on car windows..

The crowd was in a non-stop roar even before the game began.  I could hear it from several blocks away.  Music blared to keep everyone revved.  When La Marseillaise came up everyone stood and sang with gusto.  This wasn’t standing at attention during a national anthem and perfunctorily mouthing the words, but a genuinely fervored belting out of the lyrics as if to inspire themselves before going to war. The passion and commitment of these fans was off the charts.

When the game began the crowd grew silent as they gave the game their rapt attention.  A cheer rang out whenever France made a good play, though Croatia dominated the early action.  All hell broke loose when France scored the first goal with people leaping as high as they could and falling into cluster hugs and waving flags.

There wasn’t a peep when Croatia scored to tie the game.  France’s second goal on a penalty kick brought more bedlam, allowing France to go into halftime with a 2-1 lead, sparing the fans of too much concern.  France scored twice more to go ahead 4-1 the last by Mhappe, making him the youngest player to score in a final since Pele in 1958.  France’s goalie mishandled a pass nudging the ball into the net scoring for Croatia, a monumental blunder, giving Croatia a modicum of hope, but France held on for a glorious 4-2 triumph.  As the minutes wound down I thought the crowd would begin cheering, but they respectfully held their emotions until the game ended and then let loose with abandon.  No one wanted to leave as they cheered and jumped up and down and hugged and broke into La Marseillaise once again.  After an appropriate interlude “We Are the Champions” came over the speakers and the crowd all joined in at the top of their lungs with extra emphasis on “of the world.”  It was a great day for France that will be remembered by all.

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