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.

Viewing a Tour de France Finish: Lyon, 2013

I began taking an interest in the Tour de France when Greg LeMond won his first of three Tour de France races in 1986. He was from the Sacramento area and the Sacramento Bee dedicated lots of column inches to his racing. After a few years I began watching it from morning till night–each stage several times–on Versus cable channel. In the fall of 2012, the 100th Tour de France route was announced and I realized that I had the means to see it in person. I called a friend who knows France and determined to focus on a City that offered a finish and a start and settled on Lyon. And that is how I found myself in Lyon France on July 13 to witness the finish of Stage 14.

It was thrilling! We walked a couple of kilometers towards the finish line near the Stade de Gerland (soccer stadium). We were only 1.5 hours before the expected arrival of cyclists. We spent the morning seeing historic Lyon and watched the middle of the race on television. The race route in Lyon was a challenge with one section that looked like Lombard Street in San Francisco, and several hard turns into the last kilometer.  When we left the television we knew there was a breakaway (a group of riders that rides away from the Peleton or the main group of riders), but we did not know if they would be caught. In anticipation of a possible sprint, we picked a spot at the 1 kilometer marker where sprints often get serious and began our vigil.

I learned later from some seasoned Tour followers from Canada, to see the finish near the finish you need to camp out at about 8 a.m. and wait. We missed a lot of the parade (goes by about 2 hours before the finish). The announcers spoke in French, of course. Our neighbor at the barrier spoke a little English and translated. Then we learned he was from Bulgaria and spoke only a little French as well. Still better than our limited vocabulary.

Our Bulgarian friend said that the announcer was mainly telling us to keep our arms and bags behind the barrier and other safety warnings.  Gradually the announcer became more excited and began shouting his announcements with the name “Julien Simon” repeated frequently.  The official cars stopped roaring by and we began to only see gendarmes, then photographers, then we could hear the crowd roar let us know that they were seconds away.

The breakaway was still away! The first couple of riders came on our side of the street and periously close to us. Then there were a few stragglers (still going VERY fast) including American Teejay Van Garderen of BMC.  Several minutes passed and then the crowd roar sounded again and we say the police motor bikes and suddenly, boom: the peleton led by Team Sky and the yellow jersey on Chris Froome. Wow.

I did not learn the actual winner until we got back to the hotel.  Matteo Trentin of Omega Pharma-Quickstep (Mark Cavendish’s team) won the stage.  Julien Simon was close and said in an interview that if there had been a few more turns in the course it might have been a different result. Meanwhile all of the other standings remained the same.

If you are not familiar with the classifications: Overall leader of the Tour with the lowest time wears the Yellow jersey and is currently Chris Froome with a 2’35” lead; the sprinters compete for the green jersey and because there are points along the route and not just for top finishing, Peter Sagan is in green; the King of the Mountains wears red polkadots on a white jersey and Pierre Rolland is KofM; the best young rider, Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma-Quickstep, must be under 23 and wears white.

After the excitement of the peleton, we walked to the actual finish line to see the set up. I bought souvenirs. My son Tevis had work to do so he peeled back to the hotel. I walked back along the course and stopped for a cold Diet Coke. I relaxed at an outside table and enjoyed a interesting conversation with a couple from Britain who earn a living transporting bicycles for tour groups and follow le Tour on their motorbikes.

I was hooked and wanted more Tour, so when I got back to the hotel I figured out the options for taking the train to Givors in the morning to view the start of Stage 15.

Post Script: Velo reported in the September issue: “It was Trentin’s first win of the Tour –the fourth for OPQS, following Cav’s pair of sprint wins and Martin’s TT victory– and his first win, period, since 2008. Trentin was considering going back to university, but instead opted to race for another year; it turns out he secured a different education, this one at the Tour.’

“When you work alongside a rider like Cavendish, you learn a thing or two,” Trentin said, “I just waited patiently and unleashed my sprint with 100 (meters) to go.”