Almost-Daily Diary Almost Live from  the Tour de France

I seem to have made a habit of ditching the real world in favor of France for a week or two during July each year; this will be my 7th consecutive trip, beginning in 2000 when this guy named Lance was going after his 2nd TdF win. Who'd have known he'd keep it up and eventually get 7 wins? But Lance isn't the reason for going; perhaps he may have been an excuse that first trip, but it took very little time for me to fall in love with not just the Tour de France (an institution I'd pretty much ignored my entire cycling life, which seems a bit odd for an ex-racer) but with France itself. I'm hooked on the place. It's hard to explain why; I'm dreadful at foreign languages (not so tough to read the, but when it's spoken or, worse yet, when I try to speak it...
07/24/06- BUT DID I GET THE SHOT? I'll have to let others decide that one, but if it wasn't the shot, it was at least very close.

I'll have to fill in the details later; it's 1:48am and I have a shuttle that may, or may not, be arriving at 7am to take me to the airport. But that's yet another story.

If I can stay awake on the plane, I'll have plenty of time to work on things, and literally over a thousand photos to go through.

But yes, our group found its way to the right place, at the right time, after the race was over. We'd tell you where that was, but then everybody would know and we'd never get there again, would we? But what you're looking at is Floyd Landis immediately following the team's victory lap on the Champ Elysees. For Floyd, a pretty darned important moment.

--Mike-- (Who's hopefully returning from Paris shortly, but whose track record isn't perfect in that regard).


There was all manner of drama going on during the final TT at the Tour de France today, but people seem to care about only one thing.

"Did you get any good pictures of Floyd Lanids?"

So yes, I found a place on the outskirts of town, about 3k from the starting line, where there were very few people and pretty good sight lines (so only a few of my photos show hands clapping into the face of a rider). And I took a zillion photos, although this time I was a bit more methodical about things, reviewing them as I went along and modifying settings to see what worked.

And yes, to the several pros that came up to me and gave me some pointers, I'll probably use flash next time. But I'm a cyclist first, story-teller second, and photographer comes way down the list in terms of things I'm good at.

Tomorrow (Sunday) it's on to Paris and the finale on the Champ Elysees which, to tell you the truth, I'm not really looking forward to. It's crowded beyond belief, but this year I'm going to try a spot lower on the course. Film at 11, as they say.

And that Floyd Landis guy? Impressive. How US Postal (later to be Discovery) let him get away is a crime. --Mike--


07/22/06- A GREAT DAY IN FRANCE! Yes, Floyd Landis probably guaranteed his overall victory with a great time trial ride today, and yes, I've got lots of photos, but you'll have to wait a day or two for me to get to them. Things are heading to a close for both this tour and my trip, so there isn't enough time in the day to get everything done. But what I did get done was my best day on a bike while here. We had a great ride from our hotel in Beaune to the Time Trial course, probably around 40 miles, meadering through the hills & valleys of the Bourgogne wine region (called the Route des Grands Vins). Very nice area, with literally hundreds of wineries dotting the countryside. Too bad I know nothing about wines, but I do know something about nice people to ride with, great roads and, finally, cooler temperatures.

In fact, we had a thunderstorm in the morning and it didn't get about 80 degrees until 11am or so... and never got higher than 90 on the return. A bit humid, but so much nicer than days past. It finally felt like a day that I really enjoyed the entire time spent on a bike... and now it's time to hang the bike up and return. No fair!
07/21/06- THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM (Day before the big Time Trial)

Almost-live from the Tour de France! Yes, there was a stage today, yes, it was won by Matteo Tosatto  Italian sprinter that nobody really knows (or, sadly, cares about... he's a lead-out man for World Champion Tom Boonen). And yes, I was there on yet another scorchingly-hot day, getting the only picture anybody does care about right now... Floyd Landis.

Tomorrow the race will be decided, with a lengthy time trial that greatly favors Floyd Landis. He's just 30 seconds behind the Yellow Jersey (although in the photo above Landis is the guy holding the water bottle, directly in front of the Yellow Jersey), and should be able to make up that gap, and then some. Meantime, about the only thing really interesting watching this stage (in person) is to observe the spectators, like the French family in the photo above right, with the kid in the King of the Mountains jersey, holding an American flag. Let me say it one more time again- the French love heroes, period. They don't have to be French (although they'd love for a French hero to come along!). Right now, they're immensely impressed by the heroics of Floyd Landis, and the fact that he's an American isn't a problem.

Right now I'm charging up all manner of batteries, phones & computers, getting ready for another long, hot day taking photos. Hopefully I'll be able to find a good spot in the shade. In all seriousness, the heat here is oppressive, and it's just amazing that the riders can go on as they do, day after day. 7 days of this will have been enough for me, and I can ride whatever speed I want, stop whenever I want, and even not ride for a day if I want. But Floyd's heroics have made it worthwhile. This has suddenly become a Tour de France to remember.

People gather around the feed zone (the area where the cyclists are handed up food & water bottles), so naturally the Caravan, with its combination of freebies & stuff to buy, stops in for a visit.

Above right you see a guy who just missed out on snagging some worthless little trinket that he'd likely throw himself under the car's wheels to get (seriously!), and above left you see one of the official vendors selling their $20 Euro package of a hat, umbrella, and a couple other items.





George Hincapie, wondering what happened to a Tour de France that he was considered to be one of the favorites for. This has obviously not been the race the Discovery boys had been hoping for.

Two riders behind is Michael Boogerd, who always seems to be wearing a huge (but slightly funny-looking) smile. Or maybe he's just got strange teeth. Whatever the case, he had a much better Tour de France this outing than George.

I wasn't sure what I was looking at when I was looking over my photos... the shot to the left appears to be Cadel Evans, er, well, to heck with subtlety, it looks like he's blowing a snot rocket. In the middle of the feed zone!

Obviously not, I'm misinterpreting something. Until I look at the next shot and see him wiping his nose with his glove. Yep. That was one bona-fide snot rocket. This being a feed zone, I'd say Cadel has seriously-deficient table manners!

A larger shot of the photo shown earlier, with the kid wearing a Polka Dot (King of the Mountains) jersey and, in fact, looking to have a more-than-passing resemblance to Rasmussen, the actual King of the Mountains!
07/21/06 (8am)- A CIVILIAN TODAY as I pass on riding my bike from our hotel in Aix Les Bains to the feed zone on the course. Not a bad ride, at maybe 50-60 miles with no real climbs, but I need to get more work done on the photos I've taken so I can get the website updated, and take care of an ankle that's got some pretty good blisters around the heel caused by too many hours walking & standing in cycling shoes. Oh, and there's a side-benefit that I won't be all sticky after another very hot ride... making the 2.5 hour bus ride to Beaune a bit more tolerable! Yeah, wimp, that's me. But tomorrow will be a pretty big day (and the last chance to ride) as I head out from Beaune (by bike) to watch the time trial, then ride back to the hotel.

Did I mention that it's hot in France? I'm probably a bit more at odds with the weather than normal, given how mild a spring we had in the SF Bay Area. Plus, back home, if you want different weather, you don't have to drive very far to find it. Here, the heat is pervasive, pretty much across most of Europe. You get a different perspective on why Europe is so much more strongly aligned towards doing something about global warming; one gets the idea that doing something about global warming is already busting thermometers and that you're giving people hope... even if it were to be proven that it isn't from all the stuff we put into the air.

Almost-live from the Tour de France! From yesterday's total meltdown to today's resurrection, Floyd Landis is a story that outdoes anything Hollywood could possibly come up with.

Those danged arrogant bastard Americans are at it again! You can feel the frustration among the Europeans; for the past seven years, they've watched one of their favorite sporting events become dominated by an American, and this year, they feared it was possible again, especially after so many favorites were thrown out in the Spanish blood-doping scandal. But Discovery faltered (badly), and Landis looked poised to take up the slack... until his disastrous ride on Wednesday. That was then, this is now. Landis made up the lion's share of his losses from Wednesday's stage in a spectacular breakaway, and is now just 30 seconds out of first place. Nobody thought this could possibly happen! Including me, surprised as everyone else, when Landis heads up past me, way ahead of all other contenders, on the Col du Columbiere.

The photo on the right is of Chris Horner, who spend a year of so out here riding for Webcor, and is now living every racer's dream... and showing it on his face, every single day.

The details- I slept in this morning... until 7:30. Too bad I didn't get to bed until well past 1am. Some very loud music at the hotel that was bothering everyone else, but not much trouble for me since I was up anyway, working on photos and the website. I'm not the typical tourist, to say the least.

We took the bus out to Annecy (one of the most-beautiful parts of France) and rode from there to Grand Bournand, where we joined the TdF route. Thankfully not as challenging a ride as days past, since the Col de la Columbiere is a relatively-mild 12km climb at only 5.8% average grade. Overall, it's like climbing King's Mtn twice, both in length and grade. I can do that! And the weather was milder too, never getting over 95 degrees... and to say I'd learned to indulge in fluids is an understatement. Quart containers of orange juice are easily downed at one sitting, along with large amounts of Cytomax (which, I'll admit, doesn't taste quite so good when it's been baking in the sun for hours).

The crowds were heavy, but not oppressive where I chose to set up, about 1km below the summit. Of course, I first rode to the top, where a Jambon Fume Blanc (plain smoked ham on a not-so-tough roll of bread) and bottle of coke were one of the best 6 Euro buys yet.

Hauling the camera gear around by bike isn't the greatest; your mobility is limited by the fact that you're in cleated shoes and you kinda want to keep an eye on your bike! I thought I had a great place to get photos, with a nice bridge down the valley that the riders would be crossing, but as it turned out I would have been better off about two turns further down. I'm slowly learning about this picture thing, and sometimes even getting help from some of the pros working the course, who come by and make suggestions and wonder why I'm not using flash.

But what a great day to be at the Tour de France! I'd gotten an idea that Landis was doing something special from little bits & pieces I was picking up from someone's radio (in French, so the pieces I picked up were very little bits & pieces!), but was nevertheless surprised when Landis rounded the corner far below with only Sinkewitz with him, and nobody else for many minutes. This really is an odd tour; I wasn't familiar with Sinkewitz, and after several minutes a chase group (which had actually been part of the Landis group but came unglued when he stepped up the pace) containing Stuart O'Grady showed up. Stuart's a sprinter, not a climber! But the unusual is to be expected in this version of the Tour de France.

Almost-live from the Tour de France! This race is, frankly, a mess. With no team in control of the race, and Floyd Landis cracking on the final climb (actually, he's just about ready to drop out of the group shown in the photo above), it's not only up for grabs, but very confusing as well.

The photo on the left shows Michael Boogerd, Rabobank strongman but not a contender at almost 14 minutes down (which is still better than any Discovery rider), flanked on the right by Cadel Evans, the Aussie wonder who, at less than three minutes back, still has a shot at the top place on the podium.

The race remains hot, almost dreadfully so. We saw more people carted off in ambulances in St Jean, the city at the base of the final climb. An even 100 degrees was on my computer at the time, which should be manageable, but if you don't get enough water, things can go bad very quickly. One can only wonder what it's like to race 100 miles in such heat! Normally I'd be riding some of the climbs ahead of the riders straight-up (no stopping), but not this time. You don't pass a roadside stand selling cold drinks, you stop. Yes, I'll admit it, 100 degree Cytomax is no match for a cold Orangina or Coke!  

OK, now for the details that didn't make it into the front-page piece. Did I tell you it's hot out there? So hot that I had my first experience with melting asphalt. You know, the stuff that took down Beloki a few years ago, and forced Lance to ride across that field. Let me tell you, you do not want, ever, to experience melting asphalt. Your wheels act funny and your front tire does indeed act as if it's trying to bite into the pavement. So what causes it? There's plenty of asphalt in the world that doesn't melt at 100 degrees. Does France use the cheap stuff or what?

I took a whole lot of photos, experimenting with a bit different setup than normal, but basically few things work better than getting low. Real low. Down-on-the-pavement-on-your-side low. Which, of course, means almost-in-the-way-of-the-riders low, so you have to be careful.

I wonder if France has a "corking" fee if you bring your own water to dinner? Apparently it's relatively common in France that you can't get tap water (eau ordinaire) at restaurants, forcing you to buy their expensive bottled water for 3-4 Euro (about $5 these days). Same stuff you can buy down the street at the Champion Supermarket (down the street in France, that is) for less than 1 Euro.

I'd write more, but it's nearly 1am (again) after doing some more laundry in the sink, following another late dinner, which followed another couple-hour bus trip, which followed another hot ride to a place where you set up to do nothing more than wait (about 3 hours worth) for the riders to come through... in the hot sun. Thankfully I'm getting good about remembering to use sunscreen! But about now I think it's time I need a rest day! But not tomorrow. Tomorrow's the last Alpine stage, but thankfully we don't have to be on the road until about 8:15am.  --Mike--
07/18/06- Alpe d'Huez at the Tour de France! Does it get any better than this? Well, yes... but we'll get to that. First, some race photos.

Almost-live from the Tour de France! Today's Alpe d'Huez stage is one of the classic Tour-defining events and, as usual, the climb was packed with hundreds of thousands of spectators... plus me, trying to find a good place to get photos. Sometimes, I have to admit that a bike can get in the way. Today was one of those days; to get where I needed to go required hiking a very long distance across fields... in cycling shoes.

The stage was won by Frank Schleck, who's pictured riding up the mountain bike Damiano Cunego. But the real story was a totally-fractured field, coming across my part of the mountain (about 2km before the finish) in bits & spurts. The upper-right photo shows just how lonely a feeling that an be... a single rider against a wide road on a monster of a mountain. Kind of how I felt climbing it, not helped by the heat (up to 97 degrees).  --Mike--

OK, the stuff above was suitable as front-page news for the website. But you want the dirt. And that's what I got today... a lot of dirt, as the gendarmes refused to let people up the last 3k of the climb at the ridiculously-early hour of 2pm (with the riders expected to arrive around 5pm). And maybe I could have gotten there by 2pm, except that we got off to a bit of a late start (have you wondered what it's like trying to find a parking space for a huge bus with a bike trailer attached to it?). And my climb wasn't exactly lightning-fast either, with temps running as high as 97 degrees (ouch!), and I was feeling it big-time. This was not a fun day to climb Alpe d'Huez.

But just as I was beginning to feel sorry for myself, I come across a spectator surrounded by paramedics who are literally beating on the guy's chest. It didn't look good and no, I didn't take photos. But no matter how it turned out, that guy was having a much-worse day than I was (and for those who need to know, yes, he looked to be in his mid-50s, very overweight, and, since this is France, he probably smoked too).

Unlike other climbs up Alpe d'Huez, which I'd generally do without stopping, I made pit stops for an overpriced orange drink (although, at 2 euros, it's still a lot cheaper than a drink at the ballpark, and what's the better setting, a ballpark or Alpe d'Huez?) and a very interesting watering hole that required you to literally pump your water into your bottle. Pretty cool, I thought!

I still don't have this photo thing down quite right. It's obvious that I need to be right up front and down low to get decent shots, so why do I keep trying different things (that never work)?

Interesting day for me, bike-wise. My bike seemed to have survived the manhandling done by the TSA apes, but my stem pulled out of the tube this morning while being pumped, and then, at the top of Alpe d'Huez, as I was getting ready to head down the hill, I notice my front tire's flat. So I pull it out and patch it, only to find that I missed the hole and had to do it again. Not fun with a minipump, especially when you do it twice. I was getting worried that I was going to be the last person back to the bus (about 30 miles away), and that concern was intensified when a gendarme gave me incorrect directions back to Vizelle. Fortunately I'm not too proud to walk into a bar and ask, which I did (in French no less!) (poor, but functional French, for the benefit of my daughter who thinks I'm pathetic, yet I somehow get the job done). The reaction was "Vizelle???!! That's quarante kilometers!" (I honestly don't remember exactly what she said in French instead of "that's", but the meaning was perfectly clear... she thought I was far off the beaten track and would never make it back... while the truth was that I'd detoured only a mile or so out of my way, and even though dead tired and hungry, I was going to do that 40 kilometers faster than I'd ever done before!).

Fortunately, I jumped from one relatively-fast train to ever-faster trains ("trains" being groups of riders) and got back pretty darned quickly... a full hour ahead of several others.
  07/16/06 17:07 (5:07pm) DID WE JUST DO ONE BIG LOOP? For those who think the ubiquitous freeway rest stop with some combination of McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell (or relevant local chain)  and a couple of gas stations selling overpriced bottles of soda are unique to the United States, you are so very wrong! France is full of such places along their major highways, and unlike the US, where the combination of fast food & gas brands differs from place-to-place, they're identical in France. Seems strange that a place celebrated for its scenic diversity and cultural sophistication requires cookie-cutter freeway stops for people to feel comfortable pulling off the freeway. We stopped at one for lunch at noon, and then two hours later made a pit stop at one that could have been its clone. It was as if we drove 200km and ended up back at the same place. I'd first noticed this phenomenon a few years ago, remarking how sad it was that the French tourists don't bother with the little cafes just a mile or two off the main highway, where better food is served for the same (or less) $$$. Perhaps they get bored of the good stuff back home?
Trash-talk while at a lunch stop somewhere between Paris and Aix les Bains.  
07/16/06- WHAT DAY IS IT? Geez, only been gone for a bit over a day and already mixed up! Yesterday's diary entry originally listed the date as 7/01/06, and that would require reverse time-travel, which is the opposite of what happens when you fly east (you lose a day, a very long day at that!). But right now it's Monday morning, and getting ready to hit the road (on a bus, not a bike). Rest day for the TdF riders, travel day for us. By the end of today (which is tomorrow for most reading this) I'll have the France section broken out separately from the rest of this, with appropriate links.

07/15/06- ADDENDUM/I LIKE TO WATCH I enjoy watching people, all kinds of people, when I travel. So I'm eating my sandwich on the Champ Elysees, and hear these two girls yakking about, kinda yelling at each other in a playful way, in that loud, semi-obnoxious way that teen-age girls sometimes do. Well, not quite. Not realizing that I'm paying any attention, one says (loudly enough for me to hear) that essentially it's time to get back to work, approaches me, asks me if I speak English and tries handing me one of those sad little notes that if you bothered reading would tell you how they'd recently immigrated from some horrible country and live on the streets with their two babies and if I could only help them out it would prevent a horrible personal tragedy. You know, the sort of thing that, as a decent humanitarian, you imagine accurately portrays somebody's situation, but probably not that particular person, so you feel mildly bad about waving them off. Well, in this case, I can assure you the note's not accurate.

But it wasn't terribly easy getting here this time. I had thought the main toll was on my nerves... changing planes in Chicago, then in London (if you can avoid a BMI transfer, I'd recommend it... changing terminals at Heathrow isn't likely anybody's idea of a fun way to pass the time), but it turns out the real casualty was more nearly my bike! Those TSA guys really did a number on the contents of my bike case, destroying one of the latches (which was not locked!!!), and going through everything that was so-carefully tied down inside, managing to break the transmitter of my bike computer in the process. I haven't had a chance to ride the bike yet, nor look at it in daylight. Never had anything like this before.

Somehow things work out though, and the hassles in-between serve as reminders that one needs to be resilient and patient; that the world doesn't always want to revolve around the exact space you occupy, and always seems to have its own schedule that pays little attention to what you think is reasonable.

After getting settled into the hotel room (pretty nice Hotel; the Mercure Versailles Expo), I get a bit antsy so instead of going to sleep, I decide to hit the Metro and head into town. I quickly discovered how my "standard" tour (meaning very inexpensive) can afford such a nice hotel... it's a very long distance from the nearest Metro stop, further than I thought possible and still be in Paris! But you don't travel in Europe and not expect to put in quite a few miles of walking (it would just be nice if it could be done when there wasn't so much of a zombie effect from not sleeping for a day and a half).

But I'm a firm believer in the fact that things happen for a reason, and one of the things we're supposed to do in life is come up with a positive way of looking at something that originally seems to be not quite as you'd like it to be. And today, it was all about helping out three first-timers to Paris who were having one heck of a difficult time with the ticket agent at the Metro. I'm not sure if he was being deliberately obtuse or what, but it seemed like he was going out of his way to not understand what it was those three women wanted (Americans, who had zero grasp of "practical" french, and were trying to order a 7-day Metro pass). It could be that the guy had seen one-too-many American tourist with a Rick Steves travel book, pointing to a passage that said this is what you need to get, but without explaining the little details that help to get the job done.

The irony was that the mother of the two women (who looked college age) said she'd had three or four years of French in high school, but couldn't find a way of communicating with the ticket agent, because she wasn't thinking French. Not French the language, but rather a different system, a culture to bridge and perhaps even embrace. And worse, their experience was beginning to become a source of massive frustration rather than fun.

I helped out as best I could, explaining to them why using the word "carnet" was probably mixing the guy up (because you typically buy a carnet du billets, which is a set of 10 Metro tickets, while what they wanted was one of the Carte Orange passes, which also require a photo ID). Before leaving I also let them know a few basics, such as not trying to order coffee with your meal (it's considered an after-meal drink in France) and don't ever turn down the Frommage (cheese) plate when offered.

Paris is as busy as ever, with the Champ Elysees going strongly at 10:15pm, when I finally decided I'd better get back to the hotel room. Discovered a new way to commit a faux pas when I ordered a sandwich, they asked if it was for here (which I assumed meant eating at one of the tables inside) or to go... I said it was to go. As I left I sat down on an outside table, and was promptly told I couldn't do that, because I ordered it to go. I assume there's a different price for a to-go order than one you eat there, and it's probably pretty expensive maintaining any real estate on that street, so I guess I deserved to be treated like a deadbeat trying to get away with something. Didn't bother me anyway; I just apologized and moved on.

I did come across one shop already taking advantage of the Tour de France, even though it's not going to hit Paris for another week.




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