Tour de France: Making New Memories

Jens Voigt in his element: media interviews. He earned the KOM jersey in Stage 1 2014.
Jens Voigt in his element: media interviews. He earned the KOM jersey in Stage 1 2014.

This time last year I was having an absolute ball in Yorkshire with Trek Travel. This year the Tour is in Holland for the first two stages and I am watching it from California. Today in Stage 2 the wind, rain and nerves resulted in a split in the Peloton with a group of a couple dozen riders about a minute ahead of the rest of the Peloton. Crashes and pressure created a third group that fell off the back of the race for awhile. It was exciting to watch. One additional bonus was hearing Jens Voigt’s commentary scattered throughout the broadcast on NBC Sports.

When I arrived in York and met my Trek Travel tour guides I had a mental list of my cycling heroes that I definitely wanted to meet and ask to sign my California state flag. 1. Greg LeMond, 2. Jens Voigt, and 3. Fabian Cancellera.  Just 24 hours later I had all three!  And Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara struck me as opposite personality types. Fabian seemed almost shy whereas Jens is an extreme extrovert.

Cancellara's nickname is Spartacus and his Trek bike is tricked out accordingly.
Cancellara’s nickname is Spartacus and his Trek bike is tricked out accordingly.

Whereas Jens retired, I am still following Fabian Cancellera’s career. He had a serious crash at the beginning of the season and it was uncertain if he would make the Tour team. He is definitely coming on form as he came in third in the Stage 1 Time Trial. As he started Stage 2 he said in an post-race interview that he had not been thinking about winning the yellow jersey for the 29th day in his career. I guess it is possible that it was not a conscious thought, but he is such a canny cyclist that I do not believe that he had not figured out the scenarios where he could win the yellow jersey (fastest time overall).

The Trek Team must have given him a free pass to do what he can as he was the only Trek team member to get into the breakaway group. The three great sprinters were also in the group: Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel. (Of the four favorite GC riders only two made it into the breakaway: Chris Froome and Alberto Contador.) If Cancellara placed third, the bonus time in the sprint would give him the yellow jersey. Tony Martin was in a similar situation and he also made the breakaway. However, there is a difference between theoretical opportunities and having the bike skills, experience and confidence to execute.

Cancellara preparing for Stage 2 in 2014
Cancellara preparing for Stage 2 in 2014

The sprint started at 500 m to the finish. It may have been too early for Mark Cavendish as he was out fast and first. The Peter Sagan broke wide and poured on the gas. Then Greipel’s huge engine kicked in and he surged forward. But who was the only rider with them at the finish? Fabian Cancellara. And he took advantage as Mark Cavendish faded to take third place and grab the yellow jersey.

I am delighted. This may be his last Tour and I am enjoying the new memories he is making!

One month until Tour de France

I pedaled to the Avid Reader in Sacramento–the only bookstore left between Arden Fair Mall and Elk Grove where new books and magazines are sold. I was looking for a specific book and browsing for new fiction to read this summer. Much to my surprise and delight the Velo Tour de France 2015 Official Guide was on the newsstand!

Ultimate 2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali heads to the starting line wearing the yellow jersey.
Ultimate 2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali heads to the starting line wearing the yellow jersey.

I read this issue from cover to cover every year. The Velo Guide cover traditionally features the winner from the previous year. Vincenzo Nibali dominated and ultimately won the 2014 Tour de France. The reporters had an irritating habit last year of saying “Nibali retains the yellow jersey…” and then adding “after Froome and Contador crashed out.” Ignoring that Nibali wore yellow before they crashed out. And that not crashing is one of the objectives of the race, essential to winning.

This year the sportswriters are salivating because Froome, Contador, and Nibali are all starting this year. I am excited because Nairo Quintana returns after a year off. He took the 2013 Tour de France by surprise placing second overall. His team Movistar bet on Alejandro Valverde last year and sent Quintana to win the Giro and was on his way to winning the Vuelta when he crashed out. It should be an exciting battle.

The race leaders run the gauntlet of news reporters after each stage.
The race leaders run the gauntlet of news reporters after each stage.

The Velo editors rank their favorites for the Tour each year. The magazine is written several months ago so it does not reflect the spring season. They rank the leaders in the following order: 1. Alberto Contador, 2. Chris Froome, 3. Vincenzo Nibali, 3. Nairo Quintana, 4. Thibaut Pinot, 5. Tejay Van Garderen, 6. Andrew Talansky. Contador just won the Giro. How will that impact his performance at Le Tour?

This issue also features profiles of each of the teams. For the first time, there will be an international team from Africa: MTN-QHUBEKA. It is helpful to track the changes in names as familiar teams change names as sponsors change. My favorite team is much easier to call out as their name is shorter: Etixx-Quick-Step.

Peter Sagan fine tunes his bike before a stage. He is wearing his "second skin" the green jersey.
Peter Sagan fine tunes his bike before a stage. He is wearing his “second skin” the green jersey.

They spend much less time handicapping the other jerseys. I was disappointed with the feature on the green jersey. At one time the green jersey point system made it the sprinter’s jersey. Then they changed the scoring system with more emphasis on intermediate sprints that perfectly suited new rider Peter Sagan. I love watching this exciting cyclist. He has completely dominated the green jersey in the last three years. The writers did not have the advantage of seeing Sagan win the Tour of California before they wrote this article and they cast a shadow on his chances. The bigger miss though was a clear explanation of how the green jersey point system has changed to reward sprinters more.

As Cyclingnews reported in October:

“The changes favour stage winners and will only be in place for the nine flat stages of the race. The winner of the stage will score 50 points, 20 more than the second placed rider, who will score 30 points, boosting the stage winner’s points total and rewarding stage winners more than rider who place consistently.

The jersey leaders at stage start.
The jersey leaders at stage start.

The first 15 riders to cross the finish line to be rewarded with 50, 30, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 points respectively on the nine flat stages. The remaining 12 stages will continue to award points in the same distribution from 2012 to 2014 when the classification was last changed with 45, 35, 30, 26, 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 points to the first 15 riders  across the line.”

I will be interested to watch how this changes the competition for this jersey. And I will be watching the continuing evolution of major talent Peter Sagan as a racer.

The issue also features a stage by stage description of the race. It changes ever year. This year it moves counter-clockwise around France after a time trial in Utrecht and a second stage in the Netherlands. If you look at the profiles of some of the stages you might think the Tour is not as hard as its reputation. Exhibit A. It is not the challenge of any one stage, it is the relentless pounding day after day, kilometer after kilometer. With hundreds of other nervous riders. On narrow European roads including cobblestones. Exhibit B. The mountains–Pyrenees and Alps. Just ask Secretary of State John Kerry who recently broke his leg riding one of the Tour de France routes.

Stage 10: Tour of Chiens in Mulhouse

IMG_1799IMG_1819We got up early, packed and dashed for the bus to le Gare (train station) in Mulhouse. The original plan was to stow our luggage in a lockers, go to the official “depart” or start. Alas, in France there are no lockers in train stations, so we adapted. I asked a policeman to show me on the map where the Tour route passed closest to the train station. We schlepped our bags about 5 blocks and found a great spot for viewing the caravan and the start.

 The first cute dog alert occurred just moments after we sat down at a café for a coffee. I ended up taking so many pictures of cute dogs that Hetta and I joked that today it was Le Tour of Chiens (dogs). IMG_1855IMG_1866 IMG_1868

We had a lot of fun and it was easier than going to the official start. We nipped back to the station and made our respective trains. So glad I had this time with the WatLoves and great to see Nora and Grace Julie growing into adventurous young women.

 I bought a first class ticket on the train to Lyon because it was only E3 difference. I am not sure what advantage there is to first class other than better padded chairs and a plug for recharging my computer. Noticing a lot of all white cows in fields. It is an unfamiliar breed and it is hard not to think of them as ghost cows.

 By the time I got to Lyon I was feeling truly rotten from this cold. It is a bank holiday weekend so no pharmacies open (not even the 24/7 emergency pharmacy!) No room service. Just one lonely desk clerk who filled two teapots with hot water.  Got to my room and turned on the Tour and watched the last 34 km.  Shock! Contador crashed out. So sad for him and for all fans. Thought the break would stay away and then Nibali decided to write his name all over that last climb and crushed it.  He deserves the yellow jersey.IMG_1891IMG_1859

 July 14 is Bastille Day and if you think it might be like Independence Day in the USA with decorations everywhere, you would be wrong. They put all their money toward fireworks. I woke up from my drugged sleep thinking that I was in Syria. Then I remembered my original intention was to stay close to old Lyon so I could see the Bastille Day fireworks. Oh well. I am in it for Paris and it another 2 weeks on the road.

Tomorrow I am meeting the Thomson Tour group at 8:30 a.m. and gladly letting them lead me for the second half of my adventure.  I will be the mysterioso member of the group if I still do not have my voice.  (P.S. I sound like Demi Moore today.)

Tough Day for Le Tour; Easy Day for Me

Blel Kadri won a very hard stage 8. Flat until the end and then some good climbs. The finish was up a 10% grade. It made me think of Yorkshire. Ouch. I loved watching him once he realized he had won. I bet you right now he is still walking a f

BF since 2nd Grade: we met in Mulhouse to watch the Tour
BF since 2nd Grade: we met in Mulhouse to watch the Tour

ew inches above the earth. He was transported. I watched it all on French television. Alberto Contador also clawed back a few seconds in the general classification.

My day was much easier. I rode the train from Nancy to Strasbourg and then changed to Mulhouse. Met up with Harriet, Brian, Grace and Nora Watson Lovell also known as the WatLoves. Great to hear of their adventures in Germany and to see Grace after an exchange year.

We are staying at Les Jardin du Temps. It is a beautiful lodge in a vast garden in a suburb of Mulhouse (Illzach). Very quiet and beautiful. We will watch the finish tomorrow afternoon and the start the following morning. Then they go on to Switzerland and I travel to Lyon to meet up with Thomson Tours for the Alps.

 

Survivor: Tour de France Stage 5

On the train from Lille to Arras I met up with a mother and daughter from Norway who are following the Tour de France from Leeds to the first rest day. Ashild is a huge Peter Sagan fan. She has been able to meet him and she shared her photos. She must be thrilled as he had a very good day today in spite of the cobbles and muck. 

My hotel, Chambres d’ hotes La Cour des Grands in St Nicolas-Arras, is lovely; however, I missed the small print that says check in from 5-7 p.m. I used the phone I got at Heathrow to call when I found the front door locked. The proprietor was gracious about coming over and letting me in, giving me a key, a map, the log in for wifi and the code for the front door. This is the first time I’ve stayed in a hotel that does not maintain staff at reception. Once I was in it was fine. I used my French phrase book to ask the maid where I might find a laundromat. She gave me excellent directions by pointing and waving her arms.

The plan was to do a load of laundry and then continue on with clean clothes in my pack and watch the Tour in an Irish pub in English. This worked well last year in Bergen and Lyon. Alas, the French manager at Dan Foyle’s Irish Pub in Arras is more interested in heavy metal music than sport. He turned the television to the Tour and then proceeded to block the view, even making out with his girlfriend. And to add insult to injury, the pub was out of Guinness. Revoke the Irish in the pub sign!

I hiked in the rain and muck to my hotel and tucked myself in bed to watch the last 78 km. What a day. I was cold and miserable walking around town. I cannot imagine how wretched the race course must have been. I watched rider after rider go down. I got teary watching Chris Froome abandon the race at about 66 km. Then I rooted for Fabian Cancellara to bridge to the yellow jersey trio and go for a win. It was not to be as Lars Boom was on fire. Tour GC leader Vincenzo Nibali earned more respect today by controlling the front all day. 

 

 

 

 

 

Viewing a Tour de France Start: Givors, 2013

July 14 is Bastille Day and I am in Lyon looking for signs of the holiday: flags, bunting, fireworks for sale. It is also Sunday and most shops are closed and celebrations appear to be confined to a community fireworks show after dark. Fortunately the trains are running on time and I was able to get up early and catch the 7:30 a.m. train to Givors to watch the start of Stage 15.

This is going to be a brutal day of cycling. At 7:30 I did not need any kind of jacket and it is likely to be 39 degrees (C) in 242.5 kilometers on the top of Mont Vonteux. When my blistered feet bark at me I tell them they could be pedalling up Mont Vonteux and they are silenced.

Too bad I don't read French!
Too bad I don’t read French!

I arrived at Givors Ville (zhee-vor vee) at 8:00 a.m. and went straight into the heart of the village for a chocolate croissant and coffee. I appreciated that every shop specializes and that they prize quality over convenience as I buy the croissant at the La Patisserie and then schlep across to the coffee bar.  At 8:20 I felt braced for the long wait to 10:45 start.  I scouted possible viewing sites and the crowd was still light but the railings were already full.

I climbed a low wall and decided my view was just right.  The parade started and I did not want to miss any of the fun while looking for a better spot.  Everyone around me spoke very little (no) English and my 3 French vocabulary words may have doubled in the last 24 hours but could not support conversation.

The sponsors entertain the waiting spectators with floats and decorated cars and by throwing free hats, energy bars, water, and other sponsor stuff at the crowd. Everyone was enjoying the morning. Thankfully the spot I choose stayed in the shade most of the morning.  Personal space means something different in France and my first squeeze in was a from an older man with a cane who sat on the wall (and on my foot). He was so cheerfully trying to talk to me in French even after I said, with a very bad accent “No parlez vous France.” He said “No parlez vous Englais” and happily continued to speak to me in French. The young woman on the other side of me did her best to translate but her English was very limited. No matter. Trying to catch prizes and hooting and hollering for favorite cycling stars is a universal language.

Stage 15 starting line in Givors on Bastille Day.
Stage 15 starting line in Givors on Bastille Day.

There were several French “artistes” that my next French interloper, who leaped on the wall where I swore there was no space, cheerfully pointed out to me (easy since he was right next to my right ear).  I was thrilled to see the great Eddy Merckx, 5 time winner of the TdeF and holder of record for most stage wins.  Also saw Bernard Hinault up close. You may have seen him on television. As the director of external affairs he is always managing the podium awards ceremony at the end of every stage. His nickname is “The Badger” and he is the author of our word of the trip: poleaxe.  My son Tevis and I watched the Tour in Norway and we saw a brief bio of Bernard Hinault. He is one tough cookie: he rode through a line of striking miners who attempted to block the Tour and leapt off his bike and started swinging. Then a few years ago some protestor thought he would make a statement by interrupting the presentation of the yellow jersey. Hinault did not hesitate and “poleaxed” the protestor (knocked him right off the stage).  Tevis liked the word so much that he has managed to use the word everyday so far.

At about 10:10 the bicyclists began lining up and signing in. Then they moved to the starting line. Earlier than expected, at our 10:30 the red light started flashing on the Program Director’s car and whoof! They began the controlled start and were away.  Just like that the air was out of the balloon and everyone started packing up, including the pros who are in charge of all of the logistics for this mega event.

With a glow of satisfaction I headed to the train station.  When I got there I noticed a group of 3 Canadians looking at signatures on a Canadian flag. Hoping they spoke English I went over and introduced myself and asked them how they got the signatures. One of the them, the young woman in the group, was following the tour for several weeks. She had the most success getting signatures by standing by the area where the riders sign in (and it helps to be a woman as there are few female fans). The guys where were from Manitoba and Ottawa said they had to wear team jerseys and hats to get riders attention. Today they got Dan Martin’s signature, the Irish rider who won an earlier stage.  They were so enthusiastic and were having such a good time without paying a bunch of money for special credentials.  Made me start thinking about future years…

Back in Lyon I wanted to find a place to watch the rest of the Tour with English commentary. So I asked the desk clerk if she could recommend an Irish Pub. She wanted to argue and say they would not be showing the Tour in English. I just asked her to mark the map and I would take my chances. Here I am at Johnny’s Kitchen (Irish pub restaurant) watching the Tour on BBC EuroSport sans air conditioning.

It is hot here so I cannot imagine what it is like on Mont Vonteux that looks like a moonscape and is known for its wind. Add a million CRAZY fans and Bastille Day. I pity the riders. The nasty part of the climb is the last 20 kilometers and the BBC announcers expect Chris Froome (UK, Team Sky)  to kick butt. I hope he does. I like his quiet modesty. There are not as many American fans here and fewer American riders. The drug scandal that rocked Lance Armstrong’s world took out most of the experienced American riders as well. They are out for the season or retired.

In preparation for the trip I started reading Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography. It is a demoralizing read and scary to see what people will do to their bodies (or ask their athletes to do) in pursuit of competitive victory and cash. Mt Ventoux has been mixed up with drugs historically. A Frenchman, Jean Mallejac, collapsed and later recovered in 1955 due to amphetamines.  And this is the mountain where Tom Simpson died due to drug use in 1967; the determined cause amphetamines and alcohol. In 2000, Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani raced to the top fueled by doped blood.

I suspect that this haunted finish did not dampen my enthusiasm because even with drugs this race is a brutal test of human endurance.  For example, today’s climb is 1512 meters over about 20 km. At 20 km marker, Sylvain Chavanel is the first of the breakaway to cross.  No one expects him to beat Froome, Quintana, Contador and Valverde.  The gap is already closing.

Oh my gosh, Chris Froome has thrown down the gauntlet at 7 km and pedaled away like he was on the flat. He is superhuman. Only Quintana is with him at 3 km. Contador has battled back to just 30 seconds behind but the rest of the GC rider are more than a minute back. The BBC announcers are over the moon. They say the toughest part is yet to come. What? Stairs?

Contador has fallen back to 51″ at 1.6 km.  Who will win the stage? Will Quintana and Froome battle for the finish?  No gifts today, Froome just took off at 1.3 km. Froome did it! He beat Quintara by 31″ and Contador by 1’40”.  It will take a lot longer for everyone to finish. EPIC day.

Post Script: The next day was a rest day and Chris Froome was buffeted by questions at the morning press conference about possible drug use. It seems a bit unfair to be accused without any evidence, such is the legacy of the cheaters.