I was standing beside two Colombians 250 meters from the finish line watching the sprinters charging towards us on the Giant Screen overlooking the home stretch of Stage One. The Colombians were repeating with increasing fervor, almost as if it were a chant, “Gaviria, Gaviria, Gaviria,” a name we will be hearing a lot of in the coming weeks and years, as their countryman closed in on us and handily won the stage, the first he had ever ridden in The Tour. The Colombians were jumping up and down with glee and pounding each other on the back even though Gaviria had been one of the favorites and was not a surprise winner. Still he delivered, thanks in part to his veteran Belgian Quick Step team bringing him to the final meters with clinical efficiency. He led all the way, holding off Sagan and Kittel. Cavendish and Greipel, other former kings of the sprint, were not a factor, finishing a distant 36th and 26th.
It had been a long wait in the hot sun for the sprint on this bland stage except for a crash involving Froome and a Quintana mechanical that cost them and a couple other of the favorites nearly a minute or more. Porte, Yates and Froome finished 51 seconds behind the first group of 63 riders which included Nibali, Valverde, Landa, Bardet, Dumoulin, Uran, Thomas and VanGarderan, who could all vye for the Podium. Quintana was the 112th to cross the line, 1:15 back, the first to buckle of Movistar’s mighty three with Valverde and Landa avoiding the carnage. The Spanish team had controversially brought three leaders on its eight man team. Even two is unusual. How this experiment plays out is one of the leading stories of The Tour. If BMC wins the team time trial on Monday, the American Van Garderen has the possibly of taking the Yellow Jersey rather than the team’s designated leader Porte, whose usual mishap came early this year. And if Sky, another of the time trial favorites, should win it, Yellow could go to Thomas, recent winner of the Dauphiné, often a harbinger of Tour success. As always, plenty of drama.
The only other significant crash of the day was American Lawson Craddock of Education First wearing the number 13, though upside down to thwart its curse. He fell in the feed zone. He got a free tow from the medic car for a few miles as his facial wounds were tended to. He eventually caught back up to the peloton on his own, but fell off when the chase to the three French riders in the breakaway heated up. He finished last 7:50 back. Hopefully he can heal up and fulfill his domestique duties in the mountains.
In the two-and-a-half hours I hung out at the finish the only outburst from the crowd until the end came when the Sky bus passed, the only bus to receive a reaction of any sort. It elicited a loud mix of cheers and boos, the cheers not entirely from the small handful of English fans, but a strong French contingent wishing to curb the hostility stirring in some fans. They recognize that Froome is an honorable character and he should be left alone now that his doping case has been resolved. Two home-made signs along the route said otherwise. One, that misspelled his name, bluntly said the equivalent of “get out of here.”
Another sign called Froome, Sky and the UCI cheaters. I’m drinking from a blue Sky water bottle and not trying to hide it. I hoped it wouldn’t be vandalized when I left it on my bike in the shade against a building when I submerged myself amongst the masses at the finish. But with the squadrons of police and military with AK47s milling about, there was little concern of hanky-panky. The whole finish area had been fenced off for blocks and one had to pass through a security check, the first I’d ever experienced other than in Paris on the Champs Élysées. I was turned away when the burly African guard spotted my tiny scissors. I went several blocks to another check and a more kindly guard let me pass without checking any of my panniers, recognizing me as a harmless touring cyclist. He just wanted to know if I had a knife or alcohol. Since I had no intent of using my Swiss Army knife or letting anyone else get their hands on it, I replied in the negative
Not all the signs related to cycling. The French were thrilled by their soccer team beating Uruguay 2-0 the day before, advancing to the semi-finals, two wins from being World Champions for the first time since 1998.
I watched the game, which started at four pm, in a village bar along the Stage One route. The audience consisted of twelve very jolly, big-bellied guys, three teen-aged boys all wearing jerseys of players on the team and a twenty-year old guy accompanied by the only woman in the bar. They celebrated the goals vociferously and happily shook each other’s hands when the game was over. Towards the end the town mayor dropped in and greeted everyone in the bar, including me, with a handshake. He kissed the woman on the cheeks and a couple of the men too. The bartender was so happy to have me he only charged me a euro for my menthe á l’eau. I’m still only seeing one or two cars a day with a French flag, about the same number I see of the vintage Deux Chevaux driving about, except on race day when invariably there is a gathering of all Deux Chevaux in the area.
It was a day of giant Yellow Jerseys along the route, the most distinctive remembering Robic’s 1947 win.
But the best fan offering was a remembrance of red-haired Yvette Horner, the renowned accordionist who wowed the crowds along the route riding in the caravan for eleven Tours in the ‘50s and ‘60s, who died a month ago.
“Merci” is as common as “Vive” on signs along the route. One sign included “Bravo” along with a “Merci” to Chavanel riding for the Direct Energy team for his eighteen Tours. The fans of French sprinter Arnaud Démare cheers him on with his nickname of “No-No.” Just up the road was a sign announcing the fan “Jo-Jo the Clown,” a rival of The Devil. There was a “Merci” to the caravan and another sign that said nothing more than “Merci,” taking in everyone. The French are truly thankful and grateful to The Tour when it comes through their town, sometimes just a once in a generation event. I rode about half of the route the day before. Most of the signs don’t go up until the day of The Race, so I try to ride as many miles as I can when the course is lined with fans.
I was gliding along much smoother than the previous few days. The day before I discovered one of the pulleys on my rear derailleur had seized up and only turned with great effort. I had been fighting a mystery resistance. It had begun the day after I replaced my chain and tires. I couldn’t figure out what it could be. Both my wheels still spun easily and so did my cranks. I thought maybe my new tires were excessively heavy or that I had a slow leak or that the pound of honey and pound of sports drink powder I had just bought we’re slowing me down. But I knew none of those factors could make as much difference as I was feeling. One hint to the mystery was that whenever I needed to push my bike backwards to maneuver it the derailleur would buckle. Likewise I couldn’t pedal backwards a quarter or half turn if I needed to move the crank arms to an easier position to clip into the pedals.
I suspected that maybe the chain I had bought had a defect or was too wide. It said it was compatible with three to eight rings on the cassette. I only had seven, but looking at it there wasn’t much leeway between the chain and the teeth on the rings. So I went to the Decathalon in La Roche-sur-Yon and bought a thinner chain for nine speeds. As I started to remove my chain I discovered I could barely move the lower pulley. I removed it and discovered several of the tiny bearings inside had crumbled and clogged it. It was a monumental relief to discover the problem, and a genuine shock to realize how that little pulley could provide so much resistance. I went back in the store, returned the chain I had just bought and hadn’t even removed from the package and bought a package of Shimano sealed bearing pulleys. For two days now I have been feeling lucky to have solved this problem before The Tour started, but I have also been worrying a bit about what else could go wrong on my fourteen year old bike. I’ve never had a pulley do this to me. But all has been good otherwise except for my charging woes. I haven’t even had a flat tire in two months and nearly 3,500 miles. I was glad I didn’t have the worries of Cavendish and Greipel, whose days of triumph may be at an end. It’s going to be a long, humbling Tour for them if they do no better than they did on Stage One.