Sunday, July 28, 2019

Stage Twenty-One

I anticipated watching the final stage in a bar in Montpellier or possibly at its hostel, but the hostel was full so I ended up in a campground outside the city not far from the Mediterranean.  It was four miles from the train station compared to less than a mile if I’d been able to stay at the hostel.  I had an eight a.m. train to Avignon, the first of three on the day that would get me to Paris for my flight home, so didn’t want to be too distant.

The campground was actually more expensive than the hostel during this the high season, but I certainly preferred sleeping in my tent than in a dorm. It was nice to have one last night in my cocoon and it also gave me a chance to dry it out after a night of heavy dew up in Le Caylar forty miles away.   And the campground had a television.  I was lucky to get the last campsite.  The campground was teeming with families, but I was the only one interested in watching the evening promenade into Paris, followed by several laps on the Champs Élysées past the Arc de Triomphe before the sprint.  The young manager of the campground, who turned on the television, had no interest in The Tour and didn’t even have any cognizance of Pinot or Alaphilippe, indicating they haven’t fully saturated the air waves.

The peloton rode at a leisurely pace entering the city allowing for many close-up shots of the riders in conversation.  The four Colombians in The Race, all on different teams, led for a spell, for a staged shot that appeared to have been forced on them.  Bernal, Uran and Quintana, team leaders who finished in the top eight, seemed to be less than enthusiastic about it.  The most ebullient by far was Henao, a domestique who finished way down the standings, who had a bursting smile that he couldn’t contain.

The seven remaining Ineos riders spanned the road framing Bernal in Yellow.  They too were rather reserved.  This has become old hat to them. If it had been Froome winning his fifth they might have been more celebratory.  Bernal almost seemed to be an interloper, a kid among all the hardened veterans of the road.  Not only was he the youngest member of the team at 22, but the youngest rider in The Tour. Oh, if only Pinot hadn’t had the misfortune to bruise his thigh, forcing him to abandon. He had dropped Bernal twice in the Pyrenees and would have done the same in the Alps.  If he were riding into Paris in Yellow it would have been an entirely different story.  His FDJ teammates would have been off the charts in a celebratory mood.  All the French riders in The Race would have been riding by with pats of congratulation as if the victory was theirs as well.  It dampened my mood being denied such joy.

Before entering the Champs the peloton rode through the courtyard in front of the Louvre, past the pyramid entry.  It was the lone segment of their route not lined with fans.  Colombian flags were everywhere except at the corner traditionally taken over by the Norwegians.  Their cheers weren’t enough to propel Boasson Hagen to better than fifth on the stage, as the Australian Ewan won his third stage of The Tour with an impressive surge up the right side past Groenewegen, a previous winner on the Champs.  It was a fine breakout Tour for Ewan.  It was his first.

Thomas crossed the line with Bernal again, his lone teammate as an escort, and hung out with him for the photographers.  He remained in the background looking a little forlorn as he hugged a succession of relatives.  Bernal is such a stoic figure, he seemed overwhelmed by the experience.  He’s got a huge weight to carry, as an entire nation awaits his return.  He’ll be greeted by the president and be given a parade of all parades.  The nation went bonkers over Quintana finishing second and winning the Giro.  Earthquakes could be set off by all the noise he will effect.

He is a strong candidate to join the exclusive club of five Tour winners.  The question that will hang over the cycling world for the next eleven months is if he will prevent Froome from joining it. After sewing up this year’s win on Stage Twenty Bernal said he was happy to win “my first” Tour, not simply “the” Tour, so he is thinking way ahead too.  Pinot will have something to say about it next year.  He ought to be returning with a vengeance.  As great as this year’s Tour was, next year’s Tour could be even better.  Two other of last year’s top four finishers along with Froome were absent—Dumoulin and Roglic.  They too will be inspired to return and make their mark.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Stage Twenty

When an older, bald-headed guy sat down in front of me before one of the films about bicycle touring in France I thought it might be Léo. I asked him if he was a Crazy Guy on a Bike, since Léo has made several contributions to the website. When the guy gave me a puzzled look, I realized he wasn’t Léo.

I had to wait until the next day to meet Lèo after we’d arranged to have lunch at the South Pole of the festival. I told him I’d be wearing a Tour red polka dot cap and clutching a Sky water bottle. We didn’t really need these accoutrements, as I immediately recognized him from the photos on his book jackets and photos that accompanied his crazyguyonabike travelogues.

Before we had a chance to take our seats at a long table under a tent for lunch Hubert, the director of the festival came along with Ted Simon, the author of “Jupiter’s Travels,” who I was hoping to meet. We only had time for a quick introduction, not even time for me to ask if he had arrived on his motorcycle. I was hoping he could join us for lunch but he had to be elsewhere. It would have been a dizzying conversation if he had, as both Léo and Ted have written books that sit prominently on my bookshelf that always gladden my heart when my gaze catches their spines.

Instead it was just Léo and me and his wife Steph jabbering away. Lèo and I have been corresponding for more than three years when I contacted him through his publisher asking about graves of Tour de France winners since he occasionally mentions them in his books. He is also on the selection committee for the Paris touring cyclist festival and has been trying to recruit me to participate, but it’s in January when I’m off touring in warmer climes.

He’d attended Hubert’s festival three times, once giving a presentation on biking across the US, which he has written a book about—“Sticky Buns Across America.”  He and Steph hadn’t planned on attending this year, as they were going to take a ride to Belgium, but when they learned I would be in attendance they decided to alter their plans and head to Belgium from Le Caylar.

He and Steph are ardent touring cyclists. Though they are English, they have lived in a small town north of Toulouse for a couple of decades. They are liable to go off for a few day tour in their vicinity whenever they can’t resist the ever-nagging impulse. We’d had such a wide-ranging correspondence, it felt like getting together with long-time friends.

I was surprised to learn that though he has written more than a dozen books on cycling, and wrote a monthly feature on cycling’s past for the magazine “Procycling” for more than a decade, he’d never subjected himself to the ordeal of covering The Tour as a journalist.  He was glad never having had to drive all over the country chasing after riders upon the completion of a stage. He preferred regarding the sport from a distance and didn’t even feel any compulsion to watch today’s climatic stage preferring to give priority to Hubert’s program.

So it was left to me to report back to him if Alaphiliippe could cling to the podium.  Léo gave preference to him and the Dutch rider in fourth over his fellow Brit Thomas.  But as all the prognosticators have been predicting, Alaphiliippe couldn’t keep up on the stage’s final 22-mile climb, finishing over three minutes back and dropping to fifth.  Besides losing the glory of the podium, there is a considerable difference in prize winnings from second to fifth, money that he would share with his teammates and would mean more to them since none have the hefty salary he does.

Thomas and Bernal finished together behind Nibali, Valverde and Landa, preserving their top two spots on the podium.  Bardet was probably the happiest man in the peloton that Bernal didn’t finish any higher on the stage, as it would have earned him an additional ten points in the climbing competition if he had finished second on the stage, enough to exceed  Bardet, taking that jersey along with Yellow and White for best young rider.  Bernal would have no doubt gained extra points too if three climbs hadn’t been eliminated because of the weather the past two stages. 

It will fuel another tirade from Armstrong over what a joke the climbing competition is, with the best climber rarely winning it, rather some opportunist who went out ahead of the peloton before crunch time and gathered up points on climbs.  Armstrong was belittling Bardet for being dropped by domestiques on yesterday’s climb, hardly the mark of the best climber of The Race, and todaynhe was lagging behind with Alaphilippe clinging to his wheel not enough able to support his fellow French rider in his bid for the podium.  Armstrong said the best climber never won the jersey in the seven Tours he won.  His co-host asked who that was.  Armstrong replied, “You’re looking at him.”

Colombia can now celebrate having a Tour winner and further celebrate that there were three Colombians in the top eight.  They’ve been waiting over thirty years for this moment since Luis Herrera justifiably won the best climber jersey in The Tour in 1985 and 1987 and became the second rider to win the jersey in all three Grand Tours.  Quintana, who had promised to be the first Tour winner after finishing second twice, came in 8th, fifteen seconds behind Uran, who also had a second place in The Tour riding for the predecessor of his American team Education First.   The German Buchmann was unable to overtake the Dutch rider Kruigswijke for a podium spot, as they both finished six seconds behind Bernal and Thomas, so it will be a Colombian/Welsh/Dutch podium.

Now it’s just the ceremonial stage into Paris with a final sprint showdown on the Champs Elysèes and Sky/Ineos prevails again. It is their seventh Tour win in eight years with four different winners. As Lance said, “That’s saying something.”  The team has a far bigger budget than any other team, but they are winning as much with expertise as money.  Bobby Julich, who rode and worked for quite a few teams in a period of twenty years including a few with Bjarne Riis, says he learned more from his tenure coaching at Sky than from anywhere else. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Stage Nineteen

My audience for The Tour today increased by twenty per cent with one extra person joining what had been four of us the day before.  It could plummet tomorrow with the two French hopes suffering a heartbreak of a day effectively ending the prospects of a French winner. The biggest catastrophe was Pinot abandoning after just 22 miles with a strained leg muscle.  He’d been surreptitiously nursing it for a stage or two, but truly exacerbated it yesterday, reducing him to a severe limp at his team’s hotel.  He made a go of it today, but was off the back soon with no teammates coming to his aid, knowing he was a lost cause.  His devastation was reflected with his tortured face and tears.  

And Alaphilippe finally relinquished the Yellow Jersey when Bernal made another solo break and the rest of the contenders shed Alaphilippe a short time later on the monstrous Col de l’Iseran, the highest road used by The Tour.  Alaphilippe was two minutes down on Bernal and one on Thomas and the others when he reached the summit of the day’s penultimate climb with an outside chance of catching them on the descent before the climb to the ski resort of Tignes, but a sudden storm that caused a mudslide across the road down in the valley resulting in the rest of the stage being cancelled, a very rare occurrence.  

Times for the stage were calculated at the summit of the Iseran meaning Bernal had inherited Yellow.  There were no protests from the riders or directors when they learned how perilous the conditions were ahead.  The riders began to be hit by the storm on the descent after they’d been informed that there day was done.  They could sit up and put on jackets from their team cars.  Alaphilippe knew he was doomed to lose the Jersey on the final climb even if he had caught up to Bernal, so he expressed no regrets, just pride in his effort to keep the Jersey as long as he did.  He is still in second ahead of Thomas by 28 seconds, but most likely will leak even more time tomorrow and will regrettably make it a French-free podium.  But the French can be happy for all his heroics and those too of Pinot in the preceding two weeks.

At least Bardet will bring the French some glory having taken the Polka Dot Jersey on the previous stage gobbling up 68 points to move ahead of Wellens by eight points, who had held it longer than Alaphilippe held his Jersey. Bardet said he could at last smile again after otherwise having a most dire Tour. 

Though Bernal has most likely secured the top spot with a 48 second cushion, the podium is still up for grabs.  Thomas in third is just 12 seconds ahead of Kruigswijke with Buchmann another 27 seconds back.  Thomas most likely will move up to second and Kruigswijke to third, unless Alaphilippe can overcome his long-climb defiencies and cling to second or third. The day’s downpour also wiped out portions of the upcoming stage, shortening it by more than half to a mere 59 kilometers, the final 34 of which are uphill.  

The crowd may have been sparse in the bar watching The Tour, but the Slow Travel venue a few blocks away was packed all day.  Nothing could speak more to the general French regard of The Tour than that there were 150 cyclists filling a theater down the street from the bar  watching a homemade movie about a guy traversing France on a donkey.  If the nation was truly swept up by the heroics of Alaphilippe and Pino this program would have been delayed and The Tour stage would have been shown on the large screen in this theater.  

Starting at ten, I squeezed in six programs, four about bike trips in France, another of a Belgian woman biking from Vancouver to Chile and the sixth about a guy traveling around France on a donkey.  Two were narrated on the spot as if they were slide shows, while the rest were all fully narrated films with the subject only having to introduce it then field all the questions afterwards. 

I couldn’t fully enjoy the slicker productions showing cyclists bicycling into the camera or past some site, as I imagined all the effort that went into setting up such shots.  It defeated the essence of being a tourist cyclist, just gliding along being at one with the moment.  I pitied the cyclist becoming preoccupied with making a production of their trip.  I much prefer the simple slide shows with cyclists reflecting back on their time on the bike.  One lose’s his independence and freedom when he becomes consumed with looking for a shot.  I was initially reluctant to carry a camera at all in my early travels, but now know I don’t have to look for telling shots, as I recognize them instantly.

Watching these travelogues I had to rely on the images to tell the story as my ear isn’t trained well enough to decipher much of the spoken French. If there’d been French subtitles I would have been fine.  I was at least able to laugh along with everyone in the audience when a map of one of the travelogues identified the various regions of France by their stereotypes—the northeast near Belgium was labeled “poor,” Brittany “alcoholics,” the Pyrenees “terrorists,” coastal regions “beaches,” and the Alps “skiing.”

The programs ranged in length from thirty to sixty minutes with Q & As that went on longer than there was time for, but could be continued in the courtyard outside the hall.  The audience, just as me, couldn’t seem to get enough of the French countryside—hay bales and rivers and canals and quiet narrow roads and camping wherever.  Even nuclear plants looked picturesque.  All gazed at the screen with rapt attention and no doubt pride in their country.  I could further marvel at how wonderful France is, as this festival is subsidized by government grants.  One didn’t need to bother with purchasing a ticket.  One could just walk right on in to the salle as if it were a public library.  

There were two main venues known as the North Pole and the South Pole.  The North Pole was an outdoor stage in the town center for musical acts and seminars such as bike repair and Raku.

The South Pole was the site of the 150-seat venue of plastic, stackable chairs and an open-sided tent with tables and chairs for dining and a friendly open space with couches

There was also a room that had dangling globes as decoration where vendors and bicycle organizations could spread out their wares on tables.  The atmosphere couldn’t have been more relaxed and friendly.  

This was a gathering of individualists.  Worn, tattered t-shirts was the garment of choice.  There was no Lycra to be seen. There was a wide range of bicycles and attachments.

The founder and director, Hubert, was a constant warm presence, introducing each program and thanking the presenter at its conclusion. He seemed to be ever bubbling with joy, happy to have this gathering in his village, where his wife is the town physician working out of their home in the lot beside the South Pole.  I met Hubert ten years ago when I was passing through Montpellier thirty miles to the south. He is drawn to touring cyclists and invited me to his home. I’ve camped in his back yard several times and could have done the same during the festival, but knowing all the demands on his time I opted to camp a mile out of town in a special wilderness camping area for attendees of the festival.  It adjoined the town campground, which was at capacity.  It was a biker’s paradise.

I regret I’ll only be able to attend the first two days of this five-day fest, especially since the program I’d most like to see isn’t until Monday afternoon.  It’s by Ted Simon, the Englishman who spent four years riding his motorcycle around the world in the ‘70s that resulted in the book “Jupiter’s Travels,” as fine a travel book as there is.  

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Stage Eighteen

During the World Cup when France is playing the bars are packed.  That is far from the case during this bike race, even with two French riders strong possibilities to end France’s 34-year drought of not winning their Race.  French fans flock to the road sides when The Tour passes near as an act of pride in their great national pageant, but as far as the outcome, there is no massive upheaval of interest.  Television ratings are up, but not to the roof as one would imagine.  

Devoted fans and the cycling press are certainly excited at the prospect of a French winner, but this rapture has not swept up the nation as a whole.  The French have become so accustomed to their racers being also-rans, they no longer embrace cyclists as universal sporting  heroes, and the two generations since Hinault’s win have not been ingrained with a passion for the sport.  A similar transformation has happened in the US with baseball.  A French person with some interest in baseball visiting the US during the World Series might expect an intense focus on what was once known as the country’s “national pastime” and be surprised that not all that many care.  

There were only four of us watching today’s first of three dramatic stages in the Alps at a bar in Le Caylar, while outside in front in the finally moderating temperatures the tables were packed with no one even peeking in to check on what was happening.

If they cared they would have been celebrating Alaphilippe clinging to the Yellow Jersey.  After being dropped in the final kilometer to the summit of the Galibier he overtook all but Bernal among those with a threat to him with a daredevil descent to the finish, retaining his margin of over a minute, but over Bernal now, who attacked three kilometers from the summit and gained 32 seconds on Alaphilippe and Thomas, moving into second five seconds ahead of his teammate.

It was a great day for Colombia.  Before Bernal made his attack, Quintana had attacked his breakaway companions who were five minutes up the road from the Bernal/Alaphilippe group on the Galibier and went on to win the stage and put himself back into podium consideration.  The last twenty minutes of the stage two Colombians were on center stage, each riding away from packs they had ridden with much of the day.  And not to be forgotten, Uran finished with the Pinot/Thomas group.  In the overall Colombians rank second, seventh and ninth.

Movistar took some heat for setting the pace with Quintana up the road and Thomas too for chasing after Bernal, but both acts were designed to crack Alaphilippe, priority number one.  They eventually succeeded, but not soon enough. They did wear down Alaphilippe, and each expenditure of energy adds up.  Before the stage Alaphilippe acknowledged, “I’m tired like everyone else is.  It’s not just that every minute of rest counts, it’s almost every second at this point.”  

Despite three big climbs the stage did not lend itself to delivering any knockout blows since it did not end at a summit, as the next two will.  Alaphilipe did not break but he did crack, losing twenty seconds in the final kilometer to the summit when Pinot took off and put him under pressure. All well know that Alaphilippe is a daredevil descender few can match, so they knew he would recoup time on the descent.  That knowledge no doubt made his competitors keep their powder dry until the next two stages that finish at the top of a climb when they can rid themselves of Alaphilipe and not worry about him catching up.  Alaphilippe being so dramatically dropped in that last kilometer will embolden his adversaries to attack much sooner on the next two stages and bring his reign in Yellow to an end.

This stage only heightens the suspense, as it did not emphatically answer the question of who is the strongest.  Bernal made a strong bid for that honor, but Thomas and Pinot both showed strength once they decided to accelerate two kilometers after he sped off.  Either of them could be capable of such a move in the two remaining stages in the mountains.  It could come down to the final 22-mile climb to Val Thorens to end Saturday’s stage, the day before Paris.  All could be on the line then.  If it is, every bar should be standing room only.

I’ll be watching the next two stages in the same bar in 
Le Caylar while I take a break from the travel presentations being given all day long by touring cyclists and others at this five-day Slow Travel Festival set to begin tomorrow.  I’m camped a mile out of town in a communal campground of fellow attendees.  It always gives the heart a lift to see a bike with a front rack, wondering where all it has been.  My heart has been soaring seeing so many, as cyclists from all over have begun gathering.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Stage Seventeen

A third straight day of triple digit temps.  I managed to lay low for six hours during the most intense heat after getting in a good morning ride, followed by an equally satisfying evening ride.  Though I was still riding in the 90s I didn’t feel as if I had suffered a day of being baked as I did the previous two days. After staying out of the sun mid-day and staying well-hydrated, I didn’t end the day in my tent feeling as if I needed to drink and drink.  I reached Ganges by eleven, a city I have some acquaintance with having passed through it a dozen times or more on the way to or from Craig. Two years ago Janina and I enjoyed the best campsite of our ride across France outside of Ganges along a river with an absolutely divine swimming hole.  It was hard not to return to it, but I needed to keep riding.

For the first time, I was able to sample the library in Ganges.   Unfortunately it’s summer hours were just nine to one.  I had hoped to make it my afternoon refuge until four when I would venture off to a bar for The Tour, but it was probably for the best that I was forced to go elsewhere, as it was stuffy and stifling without air conditioning nor any open windows, just a few fans stirring the fetid air. At first I thought the electricity was out, as no lights were on to contribute to the heat. This was ovenish in its own way, a slow simmer.  

I tried a park bench after it closed, but the pavement around it radiated heat.  I entered “cimetiére” into my GPS.  There was one just a few blocks away within fhe city.  It had the water I was looking for so I could periodically soak my head and shirt.  Pouring water over my head, as the racers have been doing the past two stages, makes surviving the heat considerably easier.  It also had a bench in the shade and a rare outlet adjoining its toilet.  This was a dramatic contrast to the mayhem of The Tour I was in the thick of less than 24 hours ago. Despite the heat, three others paid a visit to the cemetery during my time there.  Relatives regularly visit graves of a loved one in France, not bringing flowers, but rather a brush and rags and water to add a shine to a tombstone.  Those performing the ritual were an elderly man and later an elderly woman with her granddaughter, no doubt fulfilling a promise they made to a spouse.

I had a handful of bars to choose from.  I had verified that a less than glitzy one had a television earlier in the day, but it was rather small so I tried another.  On a hot day such as this no one was sitting out in the sun.  The Cafe de France had a larger television and it was tuned to The Race.  I had been monitoring the progress of the peloton before seeking out a television so knew there was a breakaway of more than thirty riders fifteen minutes up on all the significant players in The Race on this last benign stage before three monstrous days in the Alps.   But these thirty would be racing with vigor for the stage win while the rest conserved their energy for the Alps, when all hell will break loose.

I knew I had chosen the right bar when I saw the day’s “L’Equipe” laying on a table and when my menthe á l’eau was served with a carafe of cold water twice the size of the glass I was given with two fingers worth of mint syrup.  This was the traditional way, not very often observed.  My drink would start out strong and then get progressively thinner as I added more and more water to it.  The consistency might vary, but it would be fully refreshing from first sip to last.  

A category three climb before the plunge to the finish in Gap had nullified the aspirations of all the sprinters, otherwise their teams would not have allowed a break to have so much time.  Just before the climb the Italian Matteo Trenton riding for the Australian Michelton-Scott team made the winning move.  He had more energy left than anyone else and was able to hold everyone off and claim the fourth stage win for Mitchelton-Scott.  And there could be more to come in the Alps if Simon Yates infiltrates another break as he did twice in the Pyrenees.  They were almost gimme wins for him, as he is one of the top climbers in the sport and winner of last year’s Vuelta.  The peloton has only allowed him in the breaks because he purposely lost boatloads of time, over an hour, in the early stages so he would be no threat to the GC riders.  It’s enabled him to sneak off with the lesser lights in the peloton and then finish them off.  It’s what Nibali could be doing if he’d only lose more time.

Next up are some of the most notorious climbs in the Alps all in one stage, the cols de Var and Izoard and then the Galibier, which I crossed nearly two months ago having to push my bike through snow.  It will be the next great separator and test for Alaphilippe.  Matt White, former teammate of Armstrong and director of Mitchelton-Scott, predicts Alaphilippe will be over an hour down before Paris.  Tomorrow could be the first giant step in that direction.  The question then is who inherits Yellow.  Will Pinot continue to be the dominant climber and leave all behind again or will Bernal shine at the upper elevations that are his forté or will Thomas grind it out as he did last year in the Alps winning two stages or will the German or Dutch up-and-comers, Buchmann and Kruigswijke, fully assert themselves or will Landa launch a monumental attack.  Anything is possible.  It will be riveting and the stage couldn’t be more spectacular.  This is a day that fans of racing live for.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Stage Sixteen

It’s been ovenish 100-degree heat the last two days. Fortunately I haven’t been under pressure to get down the road so both days I retreated to the shade during the brunt of the heat. On Monday’s Rest Day I planned to ride fifty or sixty miles of the Stage Sixteen loop that began and ended in Nimes, similar to the Brussels Stage One I would cut off some of the loop and get back to Nimes the next day in ample time not to have to be at the mercy of the whims of the gendarmes. 

The neutralized zone went on for six kilometers ending with the double course marker indicating The Race was on.  I’d gotten a late start after my late night with Ralph so didn’t even get to the Pont du Gard, fifteen miles into the stage when the heat grew too oppressive to push on when I didn’t really need to. When I came to a cemetery with a spigot of cold water and a cluster of trees I made it my oasis for the next three hours until the temperature relented. I felt blessed to have cold water, as I’ve been at cemeteries where the water came out hot and stayed hot even after I had filled all the three-gallon containers clustered around the spigot.

Every twenty or thirty minutes I’d duck my head under the spigot once again and soak my shirt and neckerchief. The second time I disturbed some bees who gave me a couple of stings that led to a swollen wrist. They chased me out of the cemetery through its side entrance. The desperate need for water made me warily slip back in half an hour later.  I was quick about my business before they could mount an attack. When the thermometer on my cyclometer dipped to 96 degrees sometime after four, I could feel the temperature becoming more tolerable than when it had been in triple digits.  As I resumed my ride the breeze I created helped cool me down.  The sun was noticeably less intense not so high in the sky.

It felt good to be back riding and approaching the Pont du Gard, the ancient Roman aqueduct that the peloton will be riding over.  If the organizers had chosen to have the route ridden clockwise it would have come late in the stage and a lot more TV viewers around the world would have had the opportunity to see the spectacular image of men hell bent on their bikes crossing this World Heritage Site. But since the racers entered and exited it on narrow service roads. it may have been decided to have them ride those stretches early on when it wasn’t crunch time.  

There were course markers before and after the Pont, but none on it. I’m not sure if I was violating a taboo to be riding my bike over the Pont, as I hadn’t done it on two previous visits, including this spring on the way to Cannes, but no one stopped me as I glided past the masses on foot walking it. The Gard River below was full of swimmers. I opted cooling down in the air-conditioned visitor center where I knew of an outlet to charge my iPad.

By seven the temperature had fallen into the 80s and remained there until I stopped riding at nine. There weren’t a great many people stationed along the route as there usually are, though some had marked their spots for the next day. I had as fine a campsite as I’ve had off in an olive orchard down a dirt path well away from the road. It’d been a short day of riding but fifty miles in such heat fifty felt as draining as if I’d done a hundred.

The next morning I picked up the route back to Nimes in Uzès, eighteen miles from the finish. I arrived well before the heat had become overly suffocating. The fan park full of sponsors at the stage start was mobbed. One could earn a polka dot jersey and cap by riding a spell on a stationary bike staring at a screen of race footage emulating the racers.  

The start was by the Roman Coliseum, now used for concerts and bullfighting and other events. The team buses were lined up nearby. A steady trickle of riders pedaled down a fenced off stretch to a platform by the start line where they went through the ritual of signing in as they must do before each stage or suffered a fine. It gives the fans a chance to cheer their heroses.  After signing in they’d return to the cool of their team buses awaiting the start. Some were wearing ice packs on their backs. I sat in the cool of the tourist office overlooking the proceedings.  

After the racers set off I went over to scout out the finish area a mile away. There were no fans there yet claiming a spot along the finishing stretch as there would have been if it hadn’t been so beastly hot. No one was even passing out water yet. The Giant Screen was at the 200-meter mark and there were patches of shade to sit under. I continued on to the local Decathlon to replace my front tire, which I didn’t need to do in Brussels, and also my rear derailleur cable which was fraying at the lever, poking my hand if I gripped it too strongly.  

It’s bike department had The Tour on its television. There wasn’t any need to pay it any attention on this flat stage, as nothing was likely to happen, especially in this heat, until the final sprint. I then spent an hour in the cool of a nearby MacDonald’s taking advantage of its air conditioning, WIFI and electricity. An hour before the stage finish I returned to the Giant Screen. The entire finishing stretch was mobbed as if it was a pleasant fall day. I found some shade beside a police van until an officer ordered me to move my bike. I didn’t want to leave it in the sun, so sidled up against a building that still gave an adequate view of the screen. 

The five-man break that never was given much more than a minute leeway was reeled in a mile-and-a-half before the finish, ample time for the sprinters to get in position. The young Aussie Caleb Ewan became the first sprinter to win two stages this year, joining Simon Yates and Julian Alaphilipe as double stage winners. After twelve stages of a different winner each time, there have been three repeaters in the last four stages, and if Pinot can win a stage in the Alps to go along with his recent win in the Pyrenees, that will be four stages in a row of double winners.  

I had planned to head back to the Pont du Gard after the stage, where the next day’s stage would start, but since I’d be doubling back to Nimes afterwards and continuing to Le Caylar for the Slow Travel Festival, I opted to start riding to Le Caylar, eighty miles away, so I could avoid the mid-day heat the next day as well.  By riding in the relative cool of the morning and evening the next two days I could easily make  it to Le Caylar by Thursday evening to be in time for the first program at nine a.m. Friday.  So it was farewell to The Tour.  I’ll just have to make do with watching the final five stages on television.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Stage Fifteen

 I’ve become accustomed to not hearing the French commentary as I’ve watched The Tour in bars across France, so it was no big deal that  it was drowned out by heated non-stop verbal byplay in the bar I ended up at today, though it was a bit distracting when the words escalated into shoving from time to time by the cluster of scrawny older guys who must have been drinking all afternoon. I was in a working man’s bar on the outskirts of Montpellier full of guys who weren’t cycling fans. Jacques Audiard would have loved the place and would have been scribbling away trying to capture all the dialogue for his next script.

I had to ask to have The Tour put on the television.  Usually it attracts some interest once it’s put on, but here I was the only one who paid it any attention despite the prominence of that French dynamic duo Alaphilippe and Pinot who have lit up The Race day after day. It was purely the Pinot show today, though the camera still gave Alaphilippe plenty of exposure as he struggled for the first time, though still retaining the Yellow Jersey over Thomas by more than a minute.

But Pinot is coming on fast. He didn’t win the stage, as he did the day before, as Simon Yates was too far up the final climb for him to overtake, but he distanced himself from everyone else who had been in the cluster of contenders chasing the breakaway and claimed the bonus seconds for finishing second. He made his attack six kilometers from the summit. Only Bernal, Alaphilippe and Kruigswijke were able to match his acceleration. Alaphilippe fell off after a kilometer and was eventually passed by Thomas, who gained thirty seconds on him. Kruigswijke was the next to be shed and finally Bernal four kilometers from the finish. Pinot was rampaging and is certainly not done yet. At the finish he said, “When you have good legs, you have to enjoy them.”

He moved up to fourth, less than two minutes behind Alaphilippe, who he gained over a minute on today. With three stages to come in the Alps, that could disappear on any one of them. He’s just three seconds behind Kruigswijke and the podium. He’s almost an equal distance from the two Ineos contenders, fifteen seconds behind the fading Thomas and twelve seconds ahead of the not-as-strong-as-everyone-expected Bernal.  

Kruigswijke has two strong teammates and increasing confidence. He’s in the ascendancy and could round out the podium with Pinot and Bernal. Alaphilippe could soon be facing reality after a glimpse of it today and not even finish in the Top Ten. There is lots of racing to come and anything could still happen.

It was thirty-five miles from Montpellier to Nimes, where the peloton would be enjoying its second Rest Day and the proceedings would continue on Tuesday.  Ralph gave me the inducement of a spare bed at his hotel in Nimes to continue riding until after nine once again. I hadn't ridden so late after leaving The Tour route a couple nights ago, so wasn’t adverse to doing it again, though it had been a hot day and I was drained.  At least the terrain was flat.  

There was some very tempting camping in forests along the way, but I pushed on, partially thinking there would be considerably less traffic to contend with entering the metropolis of Nimes on a Sunday evening than Monday morning. But there was near bumper-to-bumper traffic even after nine of people returning from the Mediterranean or the countryside. And mixed in were various team cars, some with bikes on their roofs, the speed demons leading the massive pack of The Tour entourage making the transfer from the day’s stage finish in Foix 200 miles away.

Ralph awaited me at an outdoor cafe a block from his hotel. He was just finishing off his dinner. He’d had his first ride since his accident and was feeling ready to head to the Alps. He’d missed Pinot’s dramatics as none of the bars he ducked into outside of Nimes on his afternoon ride had The Tour on their televisions and he was reluctant to ask to have it put on, shocked that not every television in the country was tuned to The Race 
with Pinot and Alaphilippe bringing long-lost glory to la France. Getting the minute-by-minute updates of the stage on his phone was adequately exciting.  He continues to be infected by the thrill of The Race and changed his train reservation back to London so he could be there for the finish on fhe Champs-Élysées.  

I’ll be watching it in Montpellier after attending a Slow-Travel festival in Le Caylar while the peloton is immersed in the Alps.  Among those attending the festival will be Léo Woodland, author of over a dozen books on racing who’ve I’ve come to know.  It will be a thrill to watching the Alp stages with this great authority.  

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Stage Fourteen

The course marker crew had passed my campsite along the road before I started cycling at 7:45, so I didn’t get to see them in action marking Sunday’s stage starting in Limoux. I had no need of the markers as they faced the wrong way, plus it was a straight shot into Limoux on D118 anyway, but it would have been nice to let my pals know I was still at it, and to impress them with the stack of markers of my own atop my tent and sleeping bag. 

I did get to see two of the Day Ahead groups on my run-in to the city.  The five Dutch guys had heads directly forward grimly riveted to the wheel in front of them and didn’t seem to notice me.  The mass of thirty or forty women strung out in pairs were riding at a more relaxed pace looking as if they were actually enjoying their ride.   A few interrupted their happy chatter with a “bonjour” as we psssed a few feet apart.  They had all summitted the Tourmalet the day before and then had to drive over a hundred miles to Limoux.  I would have loved to have heard how they were holding up.  They were no doubt looking 
 forward to their day off the next day in Nimes.  

Limoux was twenty-four hours from being the center of the cycling universe, but all was calm with no indication whatsoever of the whirlwind that would soon converge upon it. It would be nice to stick around to witness the transformation, but even more enjoyable is riding my bike through the glorious French countryside. Today’s cycling took me through Carcassone and then through miles and miles of pristine vineyards.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was the day of the Tourmalet with the possibility of all sorts of fireworks and focus my attention on that and not just the serenity all about me.

Once again The Tour delivered an absolutely exhilarating day of racing, especially for the French, with an amazing one-two as Pinot blasted away from a group whittled down to a mere six in the final 500 meters to win the stage by six seconds with Alaphilippe remarkably taking second.  There is no doubting now that Alaphilippe is for real.  He extended his lead over Thomas for the second straight day, as the defending champ straggled in 36 seconds after Pinot, this time behind his teammate Bernal who finished fourth six seconds back, reviving the question of who is the best bet for Ineos to be putting all its weight behind.  

Pinot said he rode with anger today and that his team will continue to fight.  “The Tour isn’t finished yet,” he asserted.  Bernard Hinault has to be jumping up and down with delight, as he had decried for years that such an attitude has been gravely absent in French riders.  It is a spirit that Bardet, the other French hope the past few years, notably lacks.  He lost another twenty minutes today, putting a huge exclamation point on the disaster of his Tour.  He’s now in contention for the Cycling Tips podcast competition for the rider who finishes The Tour closest to one hour down.  It’s a joke of course, and not something a rider would be striving for.  

One of the big stories the past two days is speculation over why the Australian time-trial World Champion Rohan Dennis abandoned The Tour two days ago at the Feed Zone the day before the lone time trial of The Tour that he was favored to win.  He’s not talking and his team just says it is investigating the matter.  It could well be because Ruppert Guinness, a fellow Aussie who co-founded the one-hour back competition, told Dennis that he was right around the mark.  Dennis told Guinness he wished he’d known about the competition.  Guinness said he himself didn’t even know about it until a couple days before when he dreamed it up.  To be so far behind already when he had aspirations of one day transforming himself into a Grand Tour contender, just as Alaphilippe has done, may have shamed him to quitting.

Bardet was by far the day’s biggest loser, but there were plenty of others as well, not the least of whom was Quintana, who finished 3:24 back.  Colombians finished fifth and seventh on the day and are fourth and seventh overall, but he isn’t one of them.  They are Bernal and Uran.  But even worse than Quintana were Martin and the Yates twin going for the overall, who lost nearly twice as much time as Quintana, eliminating them too from podium and possibly even top ten consideration.  There are certainly story lines all over the place, but the greatest are French-centric with Alaphilippe fully taking hold of The Race extending his lead to over two minutes ahead of the faltering Thomas and Pinot riding with extreme aggression.  One can hardly wait to see them in action next on tomorrow’s mountain top finish.  Racing fans couldn’t ask for more than what this year’s Tour has been delivering.  It will be a thrill to be back in the maelstrom when I arrive in Nimes tomorrow. 

Stage Thirteen

I didn’t dare push on hoping to find another bar down the road when I came upon one in Puivert at 4:15, a full hour before Geraint Thomas then Julian Alaphilippe would be the last two riders to set out on the 18-mile time trial route in Pau. I wanted to see the entirety of their rides, especially after Alaphilippe promised to “hurt myself as much as possible” giving an all-out effort to keep the Yellow Jersey.

He fulfilled his promise with a stunning ride, besting Thomas by fourteen seconds and winning the stage, only the third time trial victory of his career. He became the first rider this year to win a second stage. With the effort he summoned on the time trial course, he is demonstrating nothing is out of the realm of possibility. The French May have their first winner in 34 years. I will have to get my hands on “L’Equipe” tomorrow. The front page headline will be one of unrestrained glee. There will be story after story further extolling this new French hero.  

For the sake of the French, and The Race, one has to hope Alaphilippe didn’t dig so deep today that he can’t recover for the next stage with its finish at the summit of the Tourmalet. Simon Yates suffered such a fate a year ago at the Giro when he gave too big of an effort in a time trial to maintain his lead in the race and outdo the time trial specialists. The Tourmalet will give Alaphilippe his next chance, as he did today, to prove he is for real and has transformed himself from a one-day specialist to a Grand Tour contender.  

He definitely has the conviction and could well will himself to another performance for the ages. He may be inspired by his failure to win the World Championship last year despite being a heavy favorite. Whenever he sees Valverde in the rainbow striped jersey that could have been his he may get a boost of energy. Once again he ended his ride with mighty hugs that could have crushed the less fit before collapsing to the pavement. He sat perched on a kerb guzzling a chilled bottle of Vittel water just as I had been hoping for myself in Toulouse two days ago. 

Alaphilippe’s incredible performance deflects all attention from what was anticipated to be the biggest story of the day—who was the stronger of the two Ineos riders, Thomas or Bernal. Many thought Bernal would win the stage, but he came in 22nd, losing 1:22 to his teammate, putting to rest for at least a day the contention of who should be the team leader. All could change on the climb up the Tourmalet, Bernal’s strength, but the time trial is “The Race of Truth.” If so, Pinot is still a strong threat, losing only 35 seconds to Thomas and riding with a grim determination that portends well in the days to come. It continues to be a humdinger of a race, largely thanks to Alaphilippe.

The young woman bartender asked if I was sticking around until Sunday when the peloton would pass through this small town. She could hardly believe that I had been following The Race from Belgium and was continuing on to Nimes for the two stages that will include the spectacular Pont de Gard. She said her brother and father were at their nearby home watching the stage, as they do every day. It would be the fourth time in her life that The Tour had passed through her village and when it didn’t she and her family went to see it somewhere in the vicinity. I asked her what her favorite item was from the caravan. She didn’t even have to think to say the tiny sausages.

I was a day early for the course markers to guide me, but official Tour plastic garbage bags with The Tour logo had already been set up along the route, confirming I was on course. I have brought such bags home as another Tour souvenir and once presented Christian Vande Velde with one.  Although he was quite aware of course markers, he didn’t know about the garbage bags mostly hidden by the crowds.  I didn’t quite reach Limoux, where Sunday’s stage will start, so I could well encounter the course marker crew setting out from Limoux in the morning as well as the Day Ahead riders. They’ll be giving me doubletakes not having seen me since Stage Four and going the “wrong way.”

For those concerned about how big of a dent Ralph’s thirty-five mile ride in an ambulance and several hours in the emergency room two days ago put in his pocketbook, they will be amazed to learn that there was no charge, even though he hails from Scotland. Such is the medical system in France.  

Friday, July 19, 2019

Stage Twelve

I was enjoying a tranquil, blissful early morning ride with more Tour followers parked along the road than driving it when at eight a.m. cops began taking up their posts at the intersections. My heart instantly sank knowing at any instant any of them could take it upon themselves to order me off the road even though the caravan wasn’t due along here until noon.  

I had anticipated a relaxed ride to Saint Gaudens, twenty miles away, where I intended to leave The Tour route and begin the long Monday transfer the peloton would be making to Nîmes from the Pyrenees. But my ride was ruined, as for the next hour-and-a-half the sight of every gendarme gave me a stab to the heart fearful they’d step out onto the road with arms crossed recklessly exerting their authority. Fortunately all resisted the urge I knew smoldered within and I made it to Saint Gaudens. I was very glad I had ridden until 9:30 the night before to get within a reasonable distance of my destination.

I did have to stop when the morning mist turned into a slight drizzle, not only to put on my rain coat but also to wrap my sleeping bag and sleeping pad in plastic. The mist added an eerie aura to an isolated cathedral on a hill that had been adorned with an over-sized decorated bicycle on its roof, a strong contender for the most audacious decoration of The Tour. There had been a couple other out-of-the-ordinary the evening before in Saint Elix Le Chateau. Ties on hay bale figures in the colors of The Tour was an inspired use of the hay bales.

The town displayed some more originality with its pike of mounted bikes

I nearly crossed paths with Ralph again in Saint Gaudens.  He had spent several hours in the hospital there the evening before when he crashed on the Col de Peyresourde and was brought in by ambulance as a precaution to see if he had suffered a concussion.  He was released too late to find a hotel, so ended ended up sleeping on a cot in a bar.  He left town the next morning via train to the stage finish in Bagnères-de-Bigorre.  He has become a master of taking advantage of the excellent network of French trains, making use of it nearly everyday to get where he wants to go.  He has certainly become infected with Tour fever to still be sticking at it.

After taking advantage of the WiFi at the tourist office to download all the podcasts commenting on yesterday’s stage I went to the Orange telephone store to get another SIM card so I could access the internet on my iPad wherever I might be.  I had used up the last one I bought in Belgium a little faster than anticipated and have been without for a couple of days.   Initially I was told I would have to sign up for a year’s plan, but eventually I was sold the same SIM card I had bought in Cannes and then in Belgium that gave me 5 Gs for fifteen euros.  

As at the first two, the young man helping me wanted to take a photocopy of my passport. He was as surprised and delighted as many campground proprietors are at the rare occurrence of encountering an American. He’d only met two others in the two years he’d been on the job. He was the lone English-speaker on staff and had dealt with quite a few Dutch and Brits, but Americans, hardly a one. He wondered what had brought me to his out-of-the-way town.  

I stuck around for the caravan frenzy and snagged a red wrist band that had eluded me up until now. I figured it would have The Tour logo on it, but it was actually branded with “CGT” and “Solidarté.” Janina will be even more thrilled by it than all the sunscreens I have collected for her car.  

From Saint Gaudens it was on to Foix, forty miles to the east. It will be Sunday’s Ville Arrivée. I will ride the stage from it’s finish to its start in Limoux and then continue another hundred miles to Nîmes, where the peloton will enjoy its second Rest Day on Monday. I should arrive the day before and can begin riding Tuesday’s stage on Monday. There will be no course markers for me the next three days, but there aren’t too many roads to choose from in this rugged terrain on the periphery of the Pyrenees.

For the first time since leaving Yvon I won’t have to ride late or get up early. Early and late makes for most tranquil cycling, but it will be nice not to be forcing the pace, concerned about getting as far down the road as I can before it becomes off-limits.  And I will be able to get a little more than the bare minimum of sleep.  

There is no escaping though the push to reach a town big enough to have a bar to watch the end of a stage. I knew there would be bars aplenty in Foix, a frequent Ville Étape I know well.  I chose the wrong one though, as the owner was an extortionist, demanding two euros sixty for my menthe á l’eau. Usually it’s only one-fifty. The day before it was a mere euro.

One of the British Yates twins, the one not vying for the overall, Simon, was allowed to get in the break over the day’s two Category One climbs and outsprinted two others for the victory, proving the fan with the “Yates You Can” sign I pass nearly every day on the road correct. It continues this Tour of non-multiple stage winners. Yesterday’s most telling stat was that it had been 25 years since there had been a different winner on each of the first eleven stages.  

None of the prime contenders put up a fight today, saving themselves for the next day’s time trial in Pau. That will shake up the standings and maybe even result in Thomas taking Yellow, unless Alaphilippe can time trial better than he is known for and stay within a minute of Thomas.  

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Stage Eleven

As I closed in on Toulouse and the stage finish I was really looking forward to a semi-cold bottle or two of Vittel water that crews for the sponsor hands out near the finish area to keep the fans around. It was just after 12:30 and I had been riding hard for five hours to reach the finish before the road was closed. The warm water in my water bottle was hardly appeasing my thirst.   

I made it once again to the three-kilometer arch before being ordered off the course. At least here it was possible to keep riding on sidewalks and then the other half of the closed-off wide boulevard under a canopy of shade provided by majestic plane trees. I kept waiting to see sponsors on the course handing out product but it was too early for fans to be lining up so far down the course.  

At the 500-meter mark I came to a bottleneck of fans as the way was blocked by a fence. To go further one had to pass through a phalanx of security guards checking bags. No bikes were allowed any further. There was nowhere to safely leave my bike with all its gear, so no refreshingly cold water for me on this hot day. At least a nearby park had a water spigot of semi-cool water.

I hadn’t been planning on sticking around to watch the stage on the Giant Screen, so the clamped-down security here, unlike at any other stage finish I’d been at this year, didn’t cause me any great consternation other than not being able to mingle with the early arriving fans and see how the grand finish line structures blended in with all the surrounding old buildings on this central boulevard. If I had spotted the water-distributors, I would have certainly left my bike for a few moments, and made a rush for the water, as if it were an oasis in a desert.

My next objective was to cross the Garonne River, that bisects the city, and start in on the next day’s stage. The Tour responded to critics who accused it of always staging its starts and finishes in some glamour section of a city, so for the first time it would be starting a stage in the working class section of a city. 

The several mile neutralized zone wound its way around very unpicturesque neighborhoods. I needed to re-up my SIM card at an Orange store, my French provider. There were several around Toulouse including one in this vicinity. Unfortunately it did not provide SIM cards. I would have to go back into the city to another store, something I did not care to do. I would go without Internet another day and hope there was an Orange store in Saint Gaudens on the next day’s route.

The legs were most grateful to be riding on relatively flat terrain once again after several days of non-stop climbing on the Massif Central. The last three stages each had had over 10,000 feet of climbing, as much as a stage in the Alps or Pyrenees. Christian Vande Velde had called this year’s route the toughest in his memory with all the early extra climbing in the Vosges and on the Massif Central. It took me nearly two days to complete the stage from Saint Flour to Albi along with the couple thousand extra feet of climbing on the transfer from Brioude to Saint Flour.  

It was three days straight of nine hours of saddle time and averaging less than ten miles per hour for the day. The legs were tiring, but never sore in the morning. That came earlier in my training for this. Sore legs brings to mind Mikel Landa of Movistar. When he rode for Sky he said he experienced sore legs for the first time in his career after training sessions, an indication of how Sky, now Ineos, prepares it riders and why they are the dominant team.  

The Cycling Tips podcast with long-time Australian journalist Rupert Guinness, author of several books and known for his collection of Hawaiian shirts and sense of humor, and Caley Fretz, formerly of the Velo News, noted that there are more than twice as many riders as usual already over an hour down, more than half of the remaining 169 of the original 176 starters. They are starting a second competition to see who can be the closest to an hour down when The Race is over.  

Last year’s winner would have been Greg Van Avermaet, who finished 28th overall. George Hincapie had coincidentally just mentioned him on the podcast he does with Armstrong. He said back when he was a teammate with Van Avermaet at BMC, when Van Avermaet joined the team he showed him a picture of himself as a 14-year old with Hincapie, which Hincapie had no memory of, but made him proud that he had been a hero to his young teammate who went on to win an Olympic gold, but also old.

It is podcast heaven for cycling fans during The Tour.  I listen to six of them as I’m pedaling along giving a daily recap on each stage.  Along with Cycling Tips, there is The Move, Armstrong’s podcast with George Hincapie (remarkably the most downloaded of all sports podcasts during The Tour), Johan Bruyneel’s sister podcast to Lance’s,  BBC’s Bespoke, the Telegraph Cycling Podcast and Bobby Julich’s Put Your Socks On.  And supplementing them is the always informative weekly Warren brothers podcast.  Unfortunately there is no Breakfast with Bos this year as Ian Boswell did not make his team’s roster. 

I arrived in Albi on the Rest Day shortly before four, nearly a full day after the peloton. It was a relief to catch up after falling so far behind, and even better to get back out ahead, immediately starting on the next day’s stage to Toulouse. Immediately after the neutralized zone was the first field of sunflowers of this year’s Tour with many more to follow. I left the route after a few miles to lop off a forty mile loop and rejoined it fifty miles from the finish, allowing me to easily arrive in Toulouse before the peloton.

As the afternoon wore on as I continued down the Stage Twelve route I began to eagerly look forward to my bar for the day to watch the end of Stage Eleven almost as much as for a cold menthe á l’eau as for the race action. Beginning at four I passed through three small villages that had prominent cathedrals, but not a bar. At last after five I found a bar, but feared the stage might be completed and I wouldn’t have reason for a drink. I had to ask for the television to be turned on. I cheered seeing there was 18 kilometers left in the stage and could sit and savor that cold mint flavored drink for the next half hour as I watched the peloton charge to the finish without having to gobble up anyone in a breakaway.  

At last the pint-sized Australian Caleb Ewan finally won a stage, the first of his career. He’s been close and Guinness and others keep predicting that he will win the next sprint stage. He just barely nipped Groenewegen. With no one dominating the sprints, a different winner each day, no one is piling up the 50 points that goes to each day’s winner with second place getting 30 and down to two for the 15th finisher, allowing Sagan, who is always in the top four, to keep a comfortable lead in the competition.