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.

Tour de France Finale in Paris

It was a very emotional day: the final stage of the Tour de France. After 21 stages in 23 days I can hardly believe it is actually over. It was also an exhausting and hot day. It took some staying and recovering to appreciate that I was actually on the Champs Elysees watching the last eight laps of the 2014 Tour de France.

IMG_3206My favorite moments were actually trying to snap a picture of the lantern rouge, the only Chinese rider Jl Cheng of Giant Shimano.  At the start of the day he was almost 6 hours behind Vincenzo Nibali. Today he was lapped by the main peloton. Ouch.

We were about 150 feet from the finish line, but it was on the other side of the road so it was only on a distant large screen television that I could see Marcel Kittel just barely beat Andre Greipel. 

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The end of the race was a nice surprise. Much of the crowd stayed and cheered for the riders as they made their way to the team buses. Some even high-fived us as we reached over the barrier. The winner of Stage 19 stopped to speak to his friend. Families helped to celebrate the end. 

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Thomson Bike Tours went on a river cruise. I chose to walk slowly back and see the team buses and savor the last moments of this magnificent event. The Vittel water sponsors were peeling off the logo from the vehicle and I got a section of it. Sounds strange I know, but it looks really cool.

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I paused to see Jens Voigt, Frank Schleck and others at the Trek Racing Team bus. Then I spied Gabe, my Trek Travel guide. It was great to give him a big hug and bring my experience full circle. 

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Now I cannot wait to get the DVD from NBC Sports so I can hear about this year’s tour in English!

Stage 13: Carnival on the Col

IMG_2239Watching the Tour de France at about 3 km from a mountaintop finish surpassed all expectations. Thanks Thomson Tours for arranging a brilliant experience: getting us right to the tents on a bus, and providing food, drinks, and television coverage of the race in English. We had time to walk up to the Arrive Village and get a sense of what it will be like for the riders to go up, up, up to the finish line. The road was lined with camper vans, tents, and people who cycled up.

IMG_2203Happy coincidence the tents were set up across the road from Norwegian eye candy. These delightful group of fans from Bergen and Stavanger kept us amused all afternoon. We especially enjoyed watching them being interviewed by Norwegian television. Two of them danced almost all day, much of it in carrot and banana costumes. The people viewing was so fantastic that when the caravan went through it was almost a distraction.

The Thomson cyclists rode up the Col (the first HC or beyond categorization climb of the Tour) and met us at the tents. Chamrousse ski resort rests at the top of about a 20 km climb, with an average 7% incline. Our tour guide Jacinta heartily encouraged us to express ourselves, even stopping at the grocery store for us to pick up last minute costume supplies. My fellow spectators got into the spirit of mountainside viewing and dressed up: Patrick as Willie Nelson, James as Wolverine, and Kris as, um, an Aussie swimmer (?). I had my California flag, Tony and Sandy had their Melbourne football jerseys, and there were several Australian flags.

We all gathered at the tents put up and protected by Thomson Bike Tours for 4 days. We had Sky television race coverage in English! This attracted a big crowd of other fans. This helped us not forget that it is a bike race. We knew to expect the yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali to come up the road first. What was surprising is how much time passed before the next two riders. He added to his lead and now has a 4 minute cushion. Essentially only a catastrophe like a crash will keep him from the top of the podium in Paris. Tonight he collected the stage winner’s trophy, the yellow jersey and the polka dot jersey. His nickname is the Shark and we are seeing more inflatable sharks and other shark images popping up along the roadside. 

IMG_2248Fantastico!

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.