Sunday, July 27, 2014

Stage Twenty-One

Early in the afternoon I realized the quiet road I was biking, along the fringe of the Massif Central, was only taking me through small villages, none large enough to have bars that would have a television for The Tour's final stage on the Champs Élysées.  I'd have to make a detour at some point to a larger town.

It was an early evening finish, around seven p.m., so at six p.m. I turned east to la Souterraine, six miles away.  I knew by the distant towering cathedral that it was large enough to have restaurants and bars.  None were open, though, on this Sunday evening in the center of the town.  I kept riding and hoping until I came to a kebab restaurant a few blocks further with a few occupied tables out front.  I ducked in and cheered at the sight of a television, and cheered again that it wasn't showing soccer, something that is not always easy to switch from.  It was only a music show and no one was watching.  

Thirty-two kilometers remained in The Race.  Richie Porte and two others were the token breakaway, twenty-three seconds ahead, no threat whatsoever.  They were easily gobbled up and the sprint trains began their torrid rush to the finish early in the final four mile lap that included the Arc de Triomphe and the ultimate of round-abouts. No bikes were dangling from it.

Kittel reminded everyone he was still in The Race, after being pretty much absent for more than two weeks, just barely overtaking Kristoff to win his third stage this year, in a much less dramatic fashion than last year when he propelled himself past Cavendish and Gripel, all three riding as if their hair was on fire.  Gripel again was a non-factor, finishing fourth.

The standings remained the same as after the time trial.  There was no shuffling of the Top Ten as a few years ago when Vinokourov attacked and moved up to sixth from seventh, overtaking the non-plussed Levi Leipheimer, caught off-guard by Vinokourov violating the gentleman's agreement that the final stage was ceremonial and just a final showcase for the sprinters.   Leipheirmer said he didn't care, seventh or sixth did not matter, only the podium slots.  But it was another example of the slippery and shady ways of Vinokourov.  

Being the front man for Nibali's Astana team does cast a shadow on his victory.  Vinokourov is notorious for doing whatever it takes to win, not unlike Lance.  He remains unrepentant over his two-year suspension for blood doping during The Tour in 2007. He was accused of paying off a breakaway companion to let him win Liege-Bastogne-Liege.  The story only came out when the rider who Vinokourov made the deal with leaked emails between the two of them when Vinokourov wouldn't send him the money he agreed to pay him.  Vinokourov has now so desperately wanted a Tour victory for Astana, he reportedly offered Nibali a million euro bonus for winning The Tour.  

Money does motivate.  Van Garderen said he was not disappointed withhold fifth place fifth even though he came into The Race with podium aspirations.  His teammates and team staff certainly had to be, as they would have shared in those winnings, as much as twenty-five thousand euros each if he had finished second.  One of Laurent Fignon's teammates admitted to wanting to wring Fignon's neck when Greg LeMond overcame a fifty second deficit on the final stage of the 1989 Tour knocking Fignon from first to second, costing him twenty-five thousand euros.  He had been excitedly to be able to buy his dream car, and then he couldn't.  

At least Van Garderen said he still wants to win The Tour, something he hopes to accomplish within the next ten years of his career. He did rebound significantly from last year when he was perhaps the year's biggest disappointment, falling considerably short of the promise he had shown the year before when he finished fifth and won the White Jersey.  A true competitor would have been saying that he was disappointed in not making the podium, or even winning The Race this year.  That would have been the fighting spirit of a Hinault or a Merckx.  

Neither he nor Talanksy have done much to capture the fancy of American race fans.  There were virtually none to be seen along The Tour route, unlike the Lance years when there were legions.  There was a three year dry spell, but when Lance made his comeback in 2009, they were back.  The Race experience is so sensational, attending shouldn't hinge on needing one's countryman to be contending, but that is the case.  The Australian contingent has dried up after hoards lined the race course when Evans was a factor.  The different flags flying along the course adds to the festivity.  There were a few Japanese the year there were two of their countrymen in The Race.  I didn't notice any Chinese flags this year to celebrate the first Chinese entrant ever.  He held on to the Lantern Rouge, though he did finish ahead of two others in the time trial.  Anyone who completes The Tour can be proud.  He must certainly feel so, though whether he will be celebrated in China, considering he finished last, is another question.

My usual fare for sitting and watching The Tour is the price of a menth a l'eau.  The kebab place served no such drink.  Instead, my item of purchase to sit and watch the television was some solid calories, if frites can be considered such, plus my choice of sauces--mayonnaise or ketchup.  The restaurant also had a self-serve cold water dispenser, the first I've encountered in France.  I drank glass after glass and felt lucky that none of the bars in the center of the city were open.  The food and drink and my final dose of The Tour kept me riding for two more hours until dark.  I felt as if I could have kept going all the way to Paris, two hundred miles further.  My minimal miles yesterday had rejuvenated my legs.  No worries about having the energy now to make my flight home.

Stage Twenty

My first order of business for the day was to find the Big Screen and determine where I wished to sit and watch it for the last couple of hours of the time trial that would be going on for nearly six hours.  It wasn't even noon, but the race course was mobbed and the first riders were on their way.

The caravan had already done its business and a good many people were wearing the yellow and the red polka hats that it distributes.  I had slept in, prizing a few extra hours of much needed sleep over the spectacle of grown men and children of all ages scrambling for the caravan goodies.

It was hard to tell where the shade would be in front of the Big Screen.  If there wasn't any to be found, I had the possibility of three smaller screens all between the 50 meter and the 150 meter signs to the finish, with the Big Screen at the 200 meter to go mark.  No grassy field to plop down in here, just concrete sidewalks and side streets.  At least I would have a quick getaway less than a block from the road I wanted north out of the city to Limoges.

With several hours of free time I went in search of a supermarket and then a place to do some charging.  The library was two blocks from the finish line, so was closed for the day.  Second choice was a cathedral.  That was easy enough to find, just a couple of blocks from the vast fenced-in complex catering to the media and sponsors and VIPs.  As I was circling around it, I noticed someone through the fence in a grey t-shirt and jeans holding a sheaf of papers who bore a resemblance to Christian.  Before I could get closer to see, his face lit up, recognizing me before I could confirm that was what he looked like in his new profession as an NBC commentator without his make-up.

"I was hoping I'd see you before The Tour ended," he said.

"Me too.  Usually we've had an encounter long before now.  I thought I might see you out on the course.  I heard you were riding some."

"That was early on.  I had to give it up.  You know how hard it is."

"Your credentials didn't help with the gendarmes?"

"Not much."

"Its a shame Van Garderen had that jour sans the first day in the Pyrenees.  If he'd been in contention for the podium today, that would have been good for your ratings."

"He can still do it.  I was talking to him this morning and told him in '08 I took four minutes out of someone who was ahead of me."

"Its not impossible.  Two years ago he caught his three-minute man, Basso, in the final time trial."

We talked a bit more about Talansky and Garmin's great win yesterday before Christian gestured to the giant fold-out truck behind him and said, "That's my office.  I've got to get back to work.  Good to see you."


When I returned to the Big Screen a few hours later I was able to find a patch of shade by slipping in between two bikes that were leaning against a railing.  The owner of one of them snapped at me for touching his bike.  He was an English dude with tattoos on his arms and a tight Lycra jersey accentuating his protruding belly.  He and his two friends were showing no consideration for others by placing their bikes where they did, blocking a ledge where people could sit.

"You could move your bikes over there with those others so people could sit here," I said.  

"I've been here for hours.  This is our spot," was his nasty response.  

That he preferred to stand for hours in his cycling shoes when he could be sitting said all one needed to know about his sense.  It was a somewhat welcome hot, sunny day and shade was at a premium.  People sought it wherever they could find it.

Many were wilting from their long day at The Tour.

But they were still persevering until the end when the French trio of rides vying for the podium would be among the last five riders to leave the starting gate thirty-four miles away.

The riders passed one by one at intervals of a minute or two or three depending on how well they were doing with the fans cheering and  pounding the boards lining the course.

It took the riders a little over an hour to complete the course.  There would be fifteen or so on the course at any given time, each preceded by a gendarme on a motorcycle and followed by a cameraman on a motorcycle and a team car.  The action on the screen was continually switching from rider to rider, while trying to show each rider leave the starting gate and cross the finish line.  When the Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin of Germany, and favorite to win the stage, was on the course, he was on the screen for nearly his entire ride, allowing the fans to get the full flavor of the course.  It was packed the whole way with cheering fans.  

The vast majority of riders had nothing at stake, nor had more than a glimmer of a chance of a high placing.  Their only concern was riding hard enough to make the time cut.  I was hoping they didn't have to suffer too much pushing themselves and could enjoy their Saturday ride through the beautiful rolling and wooded countryside and small towns, and appreciate how well it had been decorated by  everyone along the route and also have their hearts warmed by the thousands of people who had come out to cheer them.

Other than Martin's ride about an hour before the six main contenders took to the course there really wasn't much at stake.   The only reason to be paying the screen any attention was simply to glory in the beauty and grandeur of this event so deeply ingrained in French culture.  It was a joy to gaze upon the thousands of people on the screen and all around me each playing their part.

For fifteen minutes from 4:12 to 4:27 when the six main contenders (Van  Garderen, Bardot, Valverde, Peraud, Pinot and Nibali) took to the course in three minute intervals, the screen focused primarily on each rider as he entered the starting ramp with a look of intensity on his face and was given the countdown before being released.  Each began with grim determination.  Much was at stake for all of them, though Nibali with a seven minute lead shouldered the least amount of pressure.  He just needed not to embarrass himself with a half-hearted effort unworthy of a champion, or lose concentration and take a spill.  There were four significant climbs on the course, each followed by high-speed descents that could spell disaster if one's attention wavered.

Nibali fully honored the Yellow Jersey, or skin suit that clung to his body.  He only had the fourth fastest time, beaten by three time trial specialists, including Martin, who won the stage, but he had the best time of the six main contenders.  Second best time of the contenders was turned in by Van Garderen, good enough to move from sixth to fifth overall by just two seconds, thanks in part to a flat tire by Bardot, who began the day two minutes and eleven seconds ahead of Van Garderen.  The second and third place riders also swapped positions, but they were both French, who rode better than Valverde, who had the worst time of the six, but remained in fourth.  

It would have been a different race of Moviestar had brought back their young Colombian climbing sensation, Quintana, who finished second last year, preferring to give their Spanish veteran Valverde a chance and not put Quintana under pressure with heavy expectations, which he did not have last year.  But he proved by winning the Giro this year, he can handle pressure.  Wait 'til next year.  It will be a doozy if Froome, Contador, Nibali and Quintana are in top form. 

There was no superhighway near Perigueux heading north, so the entire Tour entourage had to take the two-lane highway that was my route for sixty miles to Limoges, where it could pick up the Autoroute for the final three hundred miles to Paris for the next day's stage.  It gave me a continual jolt of pleasure to be part of this mass migration, though I wouldn't complete it until Wednesday, while everyone else would be done by midnight.  We were quite a grand parade of Tour-decaled trucks, vans and cars.  People along the way sat out in lawn chairs to watch us go by, some waving and eliciting horn toots.

As I climbed a hill a car slowed alongside me and I heard a voice I recognized ask if I'd like some water.  It was Christian sitting in the back seat of a car with Bob Roll at the wheel and two others filling the car, leaving no room for me.  It was seven p.m., ninety minutes after the stage had been completed.  They had done a quick wrap to be on their way already, but they had a long drive ahead of them.

"You're not flying up with the riders?" I asked in surprise.

"No, we get to make the drive.  Do you need anything?"

"You don't happen to have a spare water bottle.  Look at this.  Its got a crack in it rubbing against the water bottle cage."

"All I have is this," he said, showing me a large plastic Vittel bottle.  "Come by the house when you get back.  I'll fix you up."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Stage Nineteen

It was the wettest day so far of a very wet Tour, but it was still a most glorious day.  Though it was overcast and threatening from the start, I began my day in great spirits knowing I was only forty miles from the finish and could ride at an unstressed pace, unconcerned about having the course slammed shut on me.  The first of many downpours hit just after I'd been cycling an hour and had stopped at a supermarket for my day's food.  I could wait it out as I had a second breakfast.

By the time I resumed riding the final twenty-five miles of the course, the roadside was filling with locals already lining the road despite the rain and the peloton not due for over six hours.  But that is the French tradition, devoting one's day to the Tour and making it family outing.  One of the many sounds I associate with The Tour is the pounding of stakes, as people erect awnings and other shelters, usually to provide shade from the sun, but today, it was for protection from the rain.  Besides setting up their encampments and picnic sites, many people were putting the final touches on their Tour decorations.

They is always in extra abundance in the final miles when people know they are assured air time.  A  town hall just off the course adorned itself with huge swaths of yellow to honor the passing of the peloton.

The course marker crew must have been under quota when they reached a roundabout in the closing miles of the stage.

Just as I reached Bergerac and the finish I was hit by another deluge.  I took shelter at a bakery after already being thoroughly soaked.  This onslaught included pebble-sized hail.  As I dripped water I also dissipated body heat and felt quite chilled.  When it finally subsided to a mere drizzle I finished off the stage, which ended at a large sporting complex on the outskirts of the city.  Then I headed to the city center.  From my May reconnaissance I knew that's where I could find the library.  It was 12:30, so no doubt closed for lunch, but nearby was the city's large cathedral right where the next day's time trial would start.  The library was just two blocks from it.  I confirmed it was open today, but not until two.  

It was still raining.  I had noticed a crowd of people taking shelter at the entry to the cathedral, so I joined them and went inside where others were not only keeping dry, but also warming up.  Usually the cathedrals offer cool on hot day, but today that cool was actually warmer than how cold it had become outside.  A janitor was circulating around the cathedral mopping up water that was dripping from its high roof.  He did not object to my plugging in my iPad and checking on the start of the stage 130 miles away.  It was dry there, but they knew they were headed into rain.

There was a lull in the rain when I headed to the library.  It was too early to return to the finish line and the Big Screen, so I spent an hour  drying and warming up some more and glancing at the local newspaper Tour coverage, all speculating on the next day's time trial starting right there in Bergerac--a rare Ville Arriveé and Ville Départ. The rain was still holding off at three when I joined a tide of people walking and biking to the course over a mile away.

A few scattered drops began falling, but that discouraged no one.  Umbrellas were up as people looked up at the Big Screen and lined the race course. 

It was a pleasure just to wander around and be amongst the throngs who wouldn't let a little rain deny them their Tour de France ritual.

Not only did they bring chairs and umbrellas, but also canines.

And some identified their nationality with their flag, most notably the Norwegians, though they hardly needed do to so as their Nordic features were so distinguishing. 

Before long the few drops turned into a bunch and many retreated under a large open-sided complex.  It was quite a ways from the Big Screen, but it is so huge, we could could keep up with the action, other than reading the small print telling us how many kilometers to the finish and the time the breakaway had on the peloton.

And that's where I saw Garmin steal a stage from the sprinters with a brilliantly executed plan of placing one of their two Dutch riders, Tom-Jelte Slagter, in the day's five-man breakaway group and then breaking away from them and then having his Lithuanian teammate Ramunas Navardauskas, a time trial specialist,  bridge up to him on the stage's lone categorized climb eight miles from the finish and then launch himself alone for the rest of the way, holding off the peloton by seven seconds, aided by some blocking by his teammates and a crash caused by Sagan with less than two miles to the finish.  

Since I was in no rush to get to the next stage start, since it was just a mile away, or plagued by the usual necessity of being in a rush to get started on the next day's stage, since it was a mere thirty-four mile time trial, I could linger.  I headed over to the team buses.  There was a crush of reporters at the Garmin bus interviewing riders, though not the winner as he had podium duties first.  The Belgian Johan Van Summeren had a cluster of microphones in his face.

His American teammate Alex Howes was beaming into the cameras.

I could have popped a question myself.  Riders were still streaming in behind us after their long day in the rain looking quite done in.  One rider was asked how tired he felt on a scale of one to ten.  He said "twelve."  I can related, but it is still a fabulous joy to be doing this.  I'd had a good five hour break in the middle of the day and felt fully energized to knock off the time trial course before dark.  I knew it was exactly thirty-four miles.  There is no neutralized zone of an indeterminate number of miles tacked on to the stage.  The riders 

The course was a hive of activity, with all the Tour followers in their camping vans seeking a spot along the course for the night.  There were a handful of large open fields for parking along with the stretches wide enough for parking right along the road.  Three small town cemeteries were on the route.  Decorations and banners lined the course.  

Nearly every home had a tribute to The Tour.

It was like passing through one of those neighborhoods at Christmas-time where everyone one goes overboard lavishing their homes with lights and decorations.

I reached the finish in the center of Perigueux at nine p.m.  A huge crew was already at work with detailed plans in hand of setting up the vast finishing complex.  Then I headed out on Rue Victor Hugo to the outskirts of the city where I found a place to camp in a wooded sea beside a golf course.  For the first time in weeks I could sleep in.  Tomorrow I would spend all day in one place, though once the stage ended I would immediately begin riding back to Paris.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Stage Eighteen

Today I had a double dose of yellow riding the first ninety miles of tomorrow's one hundred and thirty mile Stage Nineteen--more sunflowers and the just mounted course markers.  I was briefly ahead of the crew that has the privilege of putting them in place, but they zoomed by me during my first break of the day, marking the way for me and making the rest of my day an extra joy.

The first forty-five miles were on undulating, narrow, unlined roads with climbs that could go on for a couple of miles that had me wondering, "How much more of this can I take."  If these savage hills had come at the end of the stage, Sagan would have had his team pounding on the front to shed the sprinters.  But coming at the start, it will just make it easier for a determined handful of riders to shed the peloton and be the breakaway of the day that the sprinters' teams will reel in, unless they've been done in by their three days in the Pyrenees.

I didn't even go into the Pyrenees and I'm close to being done in by all the hills of the past week.  I was actually nodding off as I was watching today's finish on television.  Today was the first day in a week that I've had an average speed over eleven miles per hour thanks to the last half of my day being on flat terrain.  The headwinds and all the climbing the past week have held by average speed under ten miles per hour nearly every day.  They've been taxing and draining.  I've felt like those in the peloton who've been saying if they could only survive the Pyrenees, they'd make it to Paris.  I just needed to have a good mileage day today, then I could have two relatively easy, recovery days before my final 350-mile push to Paris after Saturday's time trial.

Last year there were two groups riding the course a day ahead of the peloton--Czechs on kick-bikes and a group of French riders sponsored by one of the  teams, both with support vehicles so they didn't need to carry any gear.  I have yet to encounter or hear of anyone doing it this year.  Today would have been the day I would have seen any who might be doing it, but I didn't. There were a few camping vans with course markers in their windows already encamped along the route, skipping the final stage in the Pyrenees.  Otherwise it was a quiet, tranquil day on the usual minor secondary roads of The Tour  route passing through small villages, not even taking the main road around one ancient walled town, but barging right through its arched entry, subjecting the peloton to a couple of brief patches of cobbles.

The peloton will also pass by a wonderfully painted tower.  It might have been done by the same artist who painted a baby on a cooling tower at a nuclear plant along the Rhone.  If I were writing a book on Discovering France, I would devote a chapter to the circumstances of this tower being painted.  As with all the round-about art, it is another example of the French beautifying their environment putting something along the road to please the eye and the soul whether it be flowers or art of some sort.

And it being The Tour route, there were the usual decorated bikes and homages to The Bike and The Tour. 

And the usual homage to Raymond Poulidor as well.

I had no problem finding a bar with a television today.  I could actually hear the broadcast of The Race half a block from a bar so its patrons sitting out front could hear what was going on.  If they were French, they were thrilled with the day's result.  Valverde finally faded and the French riders Pinot and Peraud finished just enough ahead of him to take over the bottom two steps of the podium. If they can hold off Valverde in Saturday's time trial, it will be the first podium photograph since 1985 that will be worthy of hanging in French homes.  The three of them are all within fifteen seconds of one another, so it will be a tense day.  

And if Van Garderen hadn't lost over three minutes on the first stage in the Pyrenees, he would have been right there with them.  He looked strong  and was riding smoothly today, as if at any moment he would power away from the French riders clinging to him, but they held firm.  They won't have that luxury though in Saturday's time trial.  It will be every man for himself.  For the first time in years there are French riders who can stick with the leaders on the climbs.  Its a remarkable sight.  The French riders are no longer battling to be the top French rider in The Race, but actually contesting for a significant finish higher than a mere Top Ten.  There are no post-stage excuses to French television why the leading French riders couldn't keep up, but rather congratulations for doing so well.

Its fortunate there is such an exciting duel for second and third as there has been no suspense over the top spot.  Nibali further displayed his dominance just casually riding away from the small group of contenders six miles from the finish at the top of Hautacam after first jumping on the wheel of Horner who decided to be aggressive jumping away from the Yellow Jersey group.  It took Nibali just a couple of minutes to blow by the lead rider, and easily win his fourth stage and extend his lead to seven minutes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Stage Seventeen

When I arrived at Sansan at 4:15 this afternoon I could tell it was a big enough town to have a bar or two.  My pulse quickened in anticipation of that glorious moment when I would gaze upon a screen televising The Tour. Sansan did indeed have a couple of bars, but it was a rare town so sleepy that the bars did not keep afternoon hours, neither opening until five, even the PMU bar broadcasting horse races.

The next town was too distant to reach before the stage would be completed.  Both bars had tables and chairs out front.  I plopped down outside the non-PMU bar and followed the action on my iPad, until five p.m. when the bar opened and I was able to watch the final fifteen minutes of the action.  Once again Nibali had allowed a twenty rider bunch of non-threats to go up the road.  His group chasing after them had been whittled down to ten riders as they began the final Beyond Category climb of Pla d'Adet to the finish.  Neither Porte nor Horner, former podium and top ten hopefuls, were among them.  Both are still in the top twenty, but more than fifteen minutes from the elite ten.  Van Garderen was the only one among them whose first language was English.

Nibali remained in full control, in a class unto himself, riding without strain and then pushing on ahead with two miles to go to pad his lead by another minute without having to dig deep to do it.  He acknowledged that he has not approached his limit, as there is no need to.  Everyone else reaches the finish in relief, having to give it their all to maintain or improve on their placing.  Nibali hasn't been greedy about stage wins, letting Majka claim his second and Tinkoff-Saxo its third.  Majka also secured the King of the mountain jersey, gaining a whopping fifty points for the stage victory, considerably more than the ten each that Rodriguez picked off by being first over a couple of preceding Category One climbs.  Tomorrow it will be decided for good with the final day in the mountains.  

If Nibali wanted that jersey too, he could have it.  But he is taking no chances in overextending himself.  He is known as the best descender in the peloton, swooping so sharply in the turns that he can reach down and touch the pavement.  I was hoping to see his skills on display the day before when a long descent preceded the finish, but he just stuck with the five guys he was with letting them set the pace, as their was no point in gaining time and taking any kind of risk.

Van Garderen remained in sixth but fell a minute further from the podium.  Just as he suffered a heart-breaking loss last year to a much more inspired French rider on L'Alpe d'Huez after riding alone ahead of everyone else on much of the two climbs up it, he can't match the culturally deep motivation of the three French riders ahead of him seeking the podium.  They also have the impetus of an entire nation that cares deeply how they finish.  The nation will be overcome with ecstasy if they can overcome the fading Valverde, barely clinging to second place, and claim the other two spots on the podium behind Nibali.   I'm doing my best to will Van Garderen on, but its not enough.  He needed Talansky here.  A battle for the top American in The Race would have inspired him to find further strength and will than what he is presently finding.

Though I had no yellow backgrounded course markers to follow, it was still a day of yellow for me--the bright yellow of fields of sunflowers going on for acres and acres up and down the rolling countryside.

It was a hot day, so I welcomed every shady arcade of plane trees, even though they somewhat blocked my view of the sunflowers.

Today I was reliving the 2012 Tour de France through the filter of Chris Froome.  He finished second in The Race to his teammate Wiggins.  He dealt squarely with his rivalry with Wiggins.  Though Wiggins was the designated team leader, Froome didn't consider him so.  He had finished ahead of him at the Vuelta d'Espagne the previous fall, when he was also supposed to be at his service.  He hadn't even been on the original team to ride in the race.  He was a last minute addition when one of the Sky riders became ill.  

Froome had had a lackluster season up till then and was in the final year of a two-year contract that paid him 100,000 euros a year.  Sky wasn't sure if they wanted him back, even though they knew he had tremendous potential.  When Bobby Julich became his coach at the start of the 2011 season, he was  so taken aback by the power meter numbers from his training rides, he thought there had to be something wrong with the meter.  But his previous coach assured him that Froome did produce numbers that only the ultra-elite can, though it was only rarely glimpsed in a race.

Froome was prepared to take a pay cut.  But then he had an explosive Vuelta finishing second, just ahead of Wiggins.  He probably  would have won it if he hadn't had to expend extra energy fetching water bottles earlier in the race and doing other domestique chores before he proved his strength. After his second place finish he was in great demand.  He met with Bjarne Riis at a nightclub, making negotiations difficult, but a reflection on what he considered Riis, a symbol of the dark side.  Astana offered him more than twice what Sky finally offered to keep him.  He wanted to stay with Sky, but it had to come closer to what other teams were willing to pay him and also include a clause in his contract that they team would support his ambitions at the 2012 Tour de France, which were to win The Race. Sky buckled to his demands, after initially refusing them.

But when the 2012 Race began it was all Wiggins, and Froome wasn't happy about that at all.  He didn't care to be a loyal teammate helping Wiggins, when he thought he was the superior rider, or at least climber, where The Race would be won.  When he was ordered back from an attack he made on Wiggins  in the mountains, he was quite distraught.  He couldn't sleep and was up til four a.m. several nights afterwards texting his girl friend.  Wiggins didn't care for Froome upstaging him, and didn't invite him to a party to celebrate his win that all his other teammates and Sky personnel were invited to, nor did he give him the bonus that he gave all his other teammates.  

It is no wonder that Froome wouldn't have wanted him as a teammate at this year's Tour.  He called Wiggins a loner who dampened team spirit.  They had been roommates at the Vuelta and rarely spoke except to say goodnight.  The following year Froome was finally able to realize his ambitions winning The Tour with relative ease and was the favorite to do it again this year.  He will have a chance to prove himself once again next month at the Vuelta after his minor broken bones from his crashes at The Tour have healed.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Stage Sixteen

It was an early 10:45 a.m. start for the peloton this morning for the year's longest stage, just under 150 miles. It was about an hour too early for me to make it in to Carcassone to see their departure for the Pyrenees. Although I spent the night just fifteen miles to the north in the tiny village of  Labastide Esparbairenque up in the mountains, where Janina has spent the past three weeks at an artist's retreat, I didn't arrive until eight p.m. the night before and couldn't exactly leave first thing in the morning after not having seen Janina in nearly a month.  

She had a group outing at 10:30, so that made for my departure time, arriving in Carcassone while various Race festivities were still going on, even though the peloton was long gone.  Before I bid farewell to Janina we managed a short hike in the rugged terrain of her remote location to a lookout point down into Carcassone.  If we'd had a telescope we could have spied on the racers getting ready for their day of labor.

Janina's retreat was truly in an idyllic setting with no distractions, enabling her and the handful of other residents to concentrate on their work in a collegial atmosphere.  The village was too small to have a bakery or a store.  It was a two mile walk to the next village with a store providing bare essentials.  It was like going back several centuries in time.  The town mayor greeted Janina with kisses on both cheeks whenever they met.

Janina had been enticed to La Muse by an ad she had seen in the "London Review of Books" several years ago.  It was all she could hope for.  Most had rooms in a magnificent stone building constructed in 1630, and had been there previously, a poet from Ireland, painters from Finland and Germany, an opera singer from Holland, two working working on novels, a Belgian and an American.  The American, Artis Henderson, had written a good portion of her well-received book "Unremarried Widow," about losing her husband in Iraq, at La Muse a couple of years ago.  It can be found at the Chicago Public Library.

The region, Montagne Noire, is a rare little visited nook of France.  It provided refuge for the Cathars, whose forts can still be seen, in the 1200s, and also for the Resistance during WWII.  It had been an arduous ten-mile climb, then a steep thirteen per cent descent to reach La Muse from Mazamet, fifteen miles to the north. I had made a special trip to Mazamet several years ago, as it is home of retired cycling star Laurent Jalabert. That climb out of Mazamet had to have been one of his favorite training rides, making it more pleasant than it might otherwise have been.  Jalabert is presently one of the television announcers covering The Tour.  He missed last year's Race as just before it started he was implicated in the avalanche of doping scandals after the Armstrong revelations, and he didn't want to address the issue.  But Mazamet is still proud to claim him.  The plaza behind the town hall is named for him.

There is also a banner of him over the main street leading into the city.

I only followed the peloton's route out of Carcassone a few miles, turning away from the Pyrenees.  No water bottles were to be found discarded this early in the stage.  This is the first Tour where I have yet to scavenge one.  I'm doing fine on course markers though, having reached my quota of six a while ago.  

I easily found a bar in the town plaza of Castelnaudany with The Tour on its television.  The peloton had reached the day's prime obstacle, the Beyond Category climb up the Port de Balés before a long descent to the finish.  Nibali had let a large breakaway group get well up the road allowing them to battle for the stage win.  He and those contending for the overall were nearly ten minutes back.  Tinkoff-Saxo had the strongest rider in the group, former world time trial champion Michael Rogers of Australia.  He powered away from Voeckler, who is having a noteworthy Tour after a disappointing one last year, after the descent to easily take the win.  It was an emotional win, as he collapsed over his handlebars in tears at the end.  It was his first Tour stage victory, even though he is s veteran and early in his career was thought to be a potential contender for the Yellow Jersey.  Its the second mountain stage victory for Tinkoff-Saxo, showing how strongly the team would have been able to support Contador if he hadn't crashed out.

Though the stage followed a Rest Day, Van Garderen did not have the strength of those he is competing with for the second spot on the podium, losing over three minutes to his rivals and dropping to sixth.  He has his work cut out for him the next two days in the mountains if he wishes to overcome the four minutes between him and third place and improve on his fifth place finish of two years ago.  The French trio vying for the podium all held firm and are now third through fifth, just behind Valverde.  The French papers are bursting with stories on this French resurgence.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Stage Fifteen

With a 125-mile Rest Day transfer from Nimes to Carcassone, almost as long as today's 139-mile stage, my game of playing tag with The Tour strictly under pedal power couldn't include lingering in Nimes for today's stage finish.  I was, in fact, some forty miles down the road, trying to negotiate my way through Montpelier, as the peloton wrapped up its day in Nimes. I was so focused on my business at hand, aided considerably by having made a reconnaissance of Montpelier at the end of May, that I wasn't paying attention to the time and missed it. I was partially distracted at how well I remembered the way, avoiding the two crucial mistakes I made the time before, and only needing to resort to my GPS device twice this time, compared to about twenty before.

My subconscious could be to blame as well, as it knew this was an utterly inconsequential stage that some sprinter would win and without Cavendish chasing Merckx's career record of stage wins and with Kittel having lost his early mastery of the sprint and Greipel not being in form and the points jersey not being an issue, the sprint stages had become somewhat meaningless with no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of The Race.  

That is not an entirely fair statement to make, as every stage of The Tour carries the magnitude of a Classic, but my own personal race, at least for this stage, had assumed more importance to me.  I had no moments to spare if I wished to have more than a quick hello and goodbye with Janina at the small village north of Carcassone she has spent the last month at with a handful of other writers and artists working on projects of their own at a retreat called La Muse.

So I missed Kristoff winning his second sprint.  He's the only Norwegian in The Race this year.  There has been a strong Norwegian fan contingency waving their flag at The Race the past few years, going back to Thor Hushovd, a Green Jersey winner and wearer of the Yellow for over a week with Garmin one year. The Norwegians love coming to France and always express great enthusiasm for being at The Tour, so it is good for The Race to have one of their countrymen doing well and to keep them coming.

But the fast-charging peloton left another Garmin rider utterly shattered and in tears.  Jack Bauer of New Zealand, riding in his first Tour, was just caught at the line after being in a day-long breakaway.  He couldn't have been more devastated.  I'm sure Christian had some very sympathetic words for him.

I was lucky to miss the deluge that hit the peloton, as I was happened to be passing through a town and could seek shelter as the sky turned pitch black and then let loose.  Back down on the flats, after a couple of days on the Massif Central, and approaching the Mediterranean, I was once again cycling through wine country.  One town even transformed one of its roundabouts into a mini-vineyard.

I had a fine Sunday ride on quiet country roads, allowing me some more book-listening time.  Chris Froome's autobiography, "The Climb," written with the assistance of David Walsh, author of several books on Armstrong's doping, just became available as an audible book.  The book itself was released 
shortly before The Tour and had some harsh comments on Wiggins, some saying that contributed to Wiggins being left off the Sky team.  Its a fourteen-hour book and is told in chronological order, so the 2012 Tour and the Wiggins issue has yet to come up.  The first few chapters are devoted to growing up in Kenya and South Africa, raised by divorced parents who live in the two countries.  Froome had a preference for Kenya, partially because that is where his bicycling mentor, a dread-locked black African racer, lived and where he was born.  When his father told him when he was fourteen that he would have to join him in South Africa to go to a boarding school, there were tears.  Leaving his two pet pythons behind was one of his sorrows.

Froome wasn't an instant success as a racer, but he had great ambition and loved to train hard.  He didn't receive much support from the Kenyan cycling federation though he represented them at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006 and caught the eye of Brailsford and others for his seventeenth place finish in the time trial on sub-standard equipment.  Listening to his story kept me going right up to dark at ten p.m. and could have kept me going even longer.  I'm only eighty miles from Janina, so am hoping to make it in time for dinner tomorrow.  The only question is will I be surprised by David again on this Rest Day too.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Stage Fourteen

For the first time in the two-and-a-half months of these travels I did not put the rain fly on my last night.  Rain didn't seem likely and there was no threat of a dew in the forest I was camped in.  Without the rainfly I was able to shine my headlamp on a fox that came snooping around in the middle of the night, waking me as he circled my tent.  He didn't immediately flee when the light caught his eyes, but that did put an end to his curiosity.

A couple hours later my sleep was interrupted again by leaves falling on the tent.  I awoke in a panic thinking that it was rain, but I could still see stars through the forest canopy, and realized I had no need for alarm.  A strong wind had blown up and the rustling of the tree limbs was knocking off a few stray leaves.  I couldn't tell what direction the wind was from, but I was hoping it was from the north, cooling the temperatures and giving me a tail wind.  

The wind had lost none of its strength when I awoke for good several hours later.  When I emerged from the forest I had the disheartening news that the wind was lashing up from the south and it was no gentle breeze.  It had the full fury of a gale.  My legs were weary to begin with after several days of lots of climbing.  I put it in my lowest gear and pushed into this monster.  Though it was from the south it cooled the temperatures enough that I needed my long sleeve short, its sole consolation.  It had to be part of a huge upheaval in the weather, as Janina reported she too was woken in the night by the wind 250 miles away.

I also opted for my cyclometer that is set to kilometers that I ordinarily only use for riding The Tour course, as the route sheets are all in kilometers.  I knew I would be going painfully slow today and I didn't want to be further discouraged by looking at my cyclometer and seeing I was only managing 4.5 miles per hour.  With the kilometer cyclometer I could look down and see a seven and not feel so bad.  And my distance traveled would add up to a larger number as well.  As it measures distance to the hundredth, that last digit when it kilometers doesn't remain the same for long, even when I'm plodding along as if I were half-lame.

I needed all the motivation I could find.  I couldn't remember the last time I had experienced such a wind, maybe not since Iceland.  It was gusty and had me struggling to stay on the road and to maintain a straight line. Motorists were regularly tooting their horn at me, either to get off the road or out of sympathy and encouragement.   

It was howling so loud in my ears I couldn't distract myself by finishing off the book I had been listening to, "Mud, Sweat and Gears, Cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats via the Pub" by Ellie Bennett.  She and a male companion, somewhat novice cyclists whose previous longest trip had been 250 miles, about a quarter of what this trip would be, undertake the British equivalent of Americans biking coast-to-coast across their country.  It is written with a self-deprecating sense of humor and has many interesting side stories.  She recounts their trip day by day, ending each day with the stats for the day--miles traveled, beers drunk, hills they pushed their bikes up, and a few odd miscellaneous stats such as number of times she cries, cereal bars pilfered from bed and breakfasts, unrequited love affairs.  It was pleasantly diverting.

But without that to transport me from my day's hard labor, my day was largely spent with head down plowing into the unrelenting wind. I had to keep my breaks short to do the mileage I needed to do to meet up with the peloton the next day.  By noon I had scratched out thirty-seven kilometers, a measly twenty-three miles.  Not long afterwards I crested a 4,000 foot pass and descended to more forested terrain that somewhat blunted the wind. The hay rolls and forest offered the ultimate in camping but I had to push on.

I could only allow myself the final half hour of the day's stage.  I timed it just right arriving in a town at five p.m. large enough I presumed to have a bar with a television.  It was a close call, as neither bar in the town had a television, but one adjoined a hotel and it had a tea salon with a television.  No one was using it, preferring to sit out in the outdoor cafe.  But once word spread that the guy on the loaded bike had asked to watch The Tour, I was soon joined by a handful of others.  

There wasn't much to cheer about as the riders rode steadily up the final seven-mile climb to the finish. No one seemed to care to take on Nibali, who was riding with the least stressed face of anyone, And Nibali seemed willing to let the lone rider  less than a minute up the road, Rafal Majka of Poland and the Tinkoff-Saxo team, have the victory.  But with two miles to the summit, Nibali had had enough of the prevailing non-aggression pact and powered up the road.  Only Peraud, one of the three French contenders, could stay with him.  Nibali didn't catch Majka, but he extended his lead over Valverde to a nearly insurmountable four-and-a-half minutes. 

And Valverde showed himself to be vulnerable, unable to keep up with Van Garderen and several others, just narrowly holding on to second place.  Back-to-back summit finishes were tougher on his older legs than those of his younger competitors.  The second through sixth riders are all now within ninety seconds of one another.  Van Garderen is by far the strongest time trialist.  He could take two or three minutes out of any of them on the lone  time trial of this year's race on the penultimate stage.  He looks now to be a good bet for second overall, improving on his fifth place finish two years ago.  And Porte continued his slide backwards.  Last year he likewise plummeted dramatically in the standing when he was second to Froome early on and looked as if Sky could have back-to-back years with the top two racers.  Brailsford has to being having second thoughts now about his exclusion of Wiggins, whether or not he chooses to admit it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Stage Thirteen

The peloton headed east today out of St. Etienne into the Alps, opposite to the direction it will be going in two days across the bottom of France to the Pyrenees.  Rather than having to double back, I elected to begin that southern westward trek immediately, letting the peloton be for two days before joining back up on the stage into Nimes on Sunday.

It will allow be a couple of tranquil days out of the frantic whirlwind that is The Tour de France swallowing up all is it makes its swath around the country.  The local newspapers of each region 
The Tour passes through treat its arrival as the greatest event of the year, which it may well be.  The papers are particularly agog over three French riders in the top ten, asking "Why Not a French Victory?"  Even the curmudgeonly five-time winner Hinault, who for years has bemoaned the passivity of the French riders, is excited about what he sees as a new attacking mentality this year. Maybe that's why the bar I watched The Tour in yesterday had such avid interest.

Today I had the television all to myself in a much smaller town bar/cafe up on the Massif Central.  The only others patronizing the bar sat outside sipping cold fruit drinks, their treat for the day on this hot day.  The cafe was somewhat of a community gathering place with notices of local events, including its Vide Grenier, posted under the television.

All the newspapers since the Rest Day on have had features on Richie Porte, sitting second to Nibali.  Tomorrow's papers will all be carrying his obituary, as he was the day's big loser, totally falling out of contention to sixteenth place, just behind Horner.  He was woeful on the eleven-mile climb to the finish.  When he began fading off the back of the Yellow Jersey group containing all the contenders three miles into the climb, the announcers politely said he was in difficulty.  As he began losing hunks of time, it was as if he was going backwards.  He finished nine minutes behind Nibali, who easily won his third stage and further put his stamp of authority on The Race.  He barely smiled as he crossed the line, an uncharacteristically stoical Italian, just taking care of business.  Froome and Contador were missed more than ever today.  There was no one else to make a battle of it.  Valverde tried attacking, but Nibali was right there with him and then off on his own. Valverde may have shown enough strength to put a permanent claim on second place, which he took over today after Porte's abdication. 

The battle for the final podium spot will be between three French riders, a Belgian, and the American Van Garderen, who is a solid fifth, less than a minute from third. He lagged behind Nibali and Valverde, but still had a strong showing.  Here too Talansky is missed.  He's a great battler on the long climbs and would have certainly enlivened the racing.  Another mountain top finish tomorrow will further sort out matters, all the contenders hoping they don't have a Richie Porte day.

The Race enters its third week tomorrow.  I must be looking a bit haggard as I've had three people offer me food in the last twenty-four hours.  The first was a young couple last night while I sat on the sidewalk down from their house having a snack before my final push before dark.  They walked over to me and said they were about to leave on a vacation and had some food they didn't need--half a loaf of home made chocolate bread and some cookies.  I gladly accepted them, and also let them fill my water bottles.

Today while I sat outside a cathedral eating a cheese sandwich, a white-haired lady offered me a tomato, a perfect supplement to my sandwich.  And late in the afternoon outside the bar where I had just watched The Tour, as I inflated my tires, a gentleman said he had just bought a bag of cookies at the bakery and wondered if I'd like a few.  Such is how it is how in small-town France, la France Profonde.  The people are as homespun as the scenery is pristine. I hardly missed the euphoria of being on The Tour route.  I will be riding hard though to rejoin it on Sunday, and then even harder to meet up with Janina just north of Carcassone, the stage start after Nimes, a long Rest Day transfer.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Stage Twelve

Today I learned a way to keep riding the course after it has been closed down, and even in that hour lull between the passing of the caravan and the arrival of the racers--one need only become a team owner.  About fifteen minutes after all the hoopla of the caravan had ended I was startled to see two cyclists speeding by me.  "How in the hell are they getting away with that?," was my immediate reaction.  Then it registered with me that they were decked out in full Tinkoff-Saxo kit and were being followed by a team car.  It was their madman owner Oleg at it again.  He must have been infuriating all the gendarmes who were conditioned to leap out in front of cyclists ordering them to a halt.

They have been particularly assertive this year.  Evidently an edict has been passed down not to let cyclists go through towns, as twice today, after it happening to me once before, I was told if I wanted to continue on the course I would have to take a detour around the town.  I wasn't even trusted to walk my bike though.  One of those dressed as a gendarme barely looked twenty.  I asked if he was an authentic gendarme.  He admitted he was in the military.  He was so ornery I asked him for his name.  He said he wasn't allowed to give it, nor would he allow me to take his photo.  This mercenary-wannabe with a pistol in his hip belonged in the French Foreign Legion or in Iraq, not at The Tour de France.

I had been resolved to simply have a three-hour break today.  It was in a tiny village of just a handful of families.  I was happy to have a quiet place in the shade and an opportunity to gather up a few madeleines and syrup packages without having to be quick to pounce.

The peloton began the stage passing the largest Yellow Jersey I've seen so far this year.  No surprise that Talansky's lingering injuries forced him to abandon.  Five of the twenty-two teams have lost their team leader.  Besides the high-profile Cavendish, Froome and Contador, the Swiss champion Matthias Fränk of the IAM also left The Race.

It proceeded through wine country for a good part of its day.  Wineries advertised themselves with human-sized bottles and clusters of purple balloons.

The terrain was largely up and down and it was a scorcher of a day.  The peloton flashed by me with a non-stop crackling of tires bursting bubbles of tar, a noise the caravan didn't create, nor even the many gendarmes on motorcycles that precede the racers.  It was a tough day.

I ended up in a classic neighborhood bar in the city of l'Abresle for the final hour of racing.  Half a dozen of its patrons were watching The Race on the least up-graded television I've encountered this year mounted up in a corner, but it was plenty adequate.  Everyone seemed to know each other and there was non-stop chatter.  When someone new joined us he shook everyone's hand, including mine.

There was great excitement when two French riders on the French Europcar team escaped the peloton and joined up with the last of the breakaway riders.  It looked like a bold move, but it was a futile effort, as they were all swallowed up well before the finish, by the lead group of  sixty riders of the 177 riders still in The Race.  Kristoff of Norway blasted from the bunch, looking like Cavendish and held off Sagan to earn his first Tour win ever.  He ecstatically beat his chest as he crossed the line.  The cameras did not catch whatever frustrated look Sagan might have had finishing second for the fourth time this year, still looking for a win after one last year and three the year before.  He may just have to be content with being the Green Jersey victor for The Tour, no small achievement.

When I paid for my menthe a l'eau, the bartender responded with a "Danke shoen."  It was the second time today I was taken for being German.  I hadn't even spent two full days with David, but he had managed to rub off on me, or else the prominence of the Germans in this year's Race makes people figure it had drawn German cyclists.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Stage Eleven

Not long after France's Tony Gallopin added a dramatic stage victory today to his day in Yellow on Monday, the "Bravo Gallopin" signs were already going up on the next day's route.  I came upon a gentleman in Neuville-les-Dames, nine miles into the route, putting the finishing touches to such a sign on a decorated bike stationed at a corner in the town less than two hours after he had held off the fast charging peloton by one second after boldly attacking on the final climb of the stage less than thee miles from the finish.  If a day in Yellow hadn't fully made this twenty-six year old a national hero, his first Tour stage win certainly has.

I wasn't there at the finish to hear the crowd erupt in joy, as I pushed on after reaching the finish line at two p.m.  With a thirty-five mile jump to the next day's start in Bourg-en-Bresse, if I had waited until the stage finish to continue riding, I would have barely made it there by dark through the hilly terrain.  It would have been an eventful thirty-five miles accompanied by the hundreds of vehicles that comprise The Tour entourage--team buses and cars, official vehicles and all the fans in their campers--but also a very hectic one.  I was able to make the ride in relative calm while The Race was going full tilt and luckless Talansky, nursing his injuries, was off the back, struggling to make the time cut, which he narrowly did.

When I arrived at the finish the Big Screen had yet to start giving Race coverage, still devoted to the show of features about the Ville Départ and the surrounding area that precedes The Race and overlaps  its first hour or so.  But the distribution of goodies to the hundreds already lining the barriers the final five hundred meters to the finish was in full swing.  A padded mitt for handling hot pots and pans came flying through the air and landed at my feet.  Its about the last thing I need, but I couldn't help but grab it, even though it didn't have a Tour emblem on it or anything that made it a Tour souvenir other than my word for it.  Everyone was being handed a Credit Lyonnaise yellow hat, something people needed today.

A sampler of some of the giveaways that I have not consumed or redistributed.

Though it is always hard to tear myself away from the Big Screen, it isn't so hard to resume riding.  The Buddhists say that when one reaches the summit of a mountain to keeping climbing.  Velocio no doubt said somewhere when one reaches the end of a stage to keep riding.  It would especially be so in French, as the literal translation for the French word "Ètape" is not "stage," but rather "part of a journey."  That certainly sums up The Tour de France, and my efforts to follow it.

The final roundabout the peloton passed when it turned down the mile-long straightaway to the finish was adorned with a magnificent globe of bicycles.

"L'Equipe" a few days ago reported there are 446 roundabouts in this year's Tour, of the 30,000 or so that saturate the country.  It did not have a figure of how many of them had a bicycle theme.  I can attest that a great many of them do. The most popular is a yellow bike of some sort.

Some though offer a genuine artistic interpretation of the bike or its components, such as these wicker saddles amongst a robust array of flowers.

Random bikes of a unique design turn up.

Communities are constantly trying to outdo one another with gargantuan bikes, in and the out of roundabouts.

The Tour's 446 roundabouts may seem like a lot, and it is, probably more than are in the entire United States, but it amounts to only twenty-two per stage, or one every six miles. The roundabouts though aren't marked on the official course itinerary, just each intersection where the peloton makes a turn and the climbs and also railroad crossings, maybe to let riders know where they might be able to catch a train if they wish to abandon, as in the legendary photo of Tour winner and climber extraordinaire  Bahamontes, looking forlorn, sitting on his suitcase waiting for a train after quitting The Race.   

The course log ought to also also designate cemeteries so everyone knows where they can get water.  Today was the first truly hot day where I was in need of cold water not only to pour down my throat but to pour over my head. It was also the first day where I was happy topsoil my jersey and let it dry on my back.  It ought to be a prerequisite of The Tour route to pass a cemetery at least once every twenty-five miles. During one long stretch today without a cemetery, I stopped at a garage to fill my bottles.  I also filled a bottle at a bar where I stopped looking for a television.  The bar tap water always comes out super-frigid, another of the joys of touring France.  Ice may be in short supply, but one doesn't need ice with such arctic fluid.

I made certain I camped well away from any Tour followers parked along the road, as the night before I camped near a camping van, as they are called, shielded from it by a row of trees in a meadow.  It was virtual dark when I stopped and they had already turned in.  During the night twice I was awoken by jokers driving by tooting their horn at the sleeping Tour followers.  Someone else was parked a little further down the road, as I could hear their sleep being interrupted too.