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.”

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