I've been going out for a few bicycle rides lately, but I don't own any lycra, helmet or gloves or water bottle holder. The logo-jerzied pelotons wiz by me acknowledging me with a nodding bonjour and I'm okeydoke. Doug bought a used mountain bike from Velomondo, the seasonal rental outfit out at Lac Montbel, but its frame was too small for his frame and I inherited it. He probably got the better end of the deal anyway, as David and Louise across the street just received their lorry shipment from New Zealand and traded a bottle of red wine for one of their many toys. So now we've added two bikes to our furniture allotment in the rez-de-chaussee. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)
To say that France is fanatic about bicycle racing is an understatement. Narrow winding mountain road give way to packs of weekend warriors. The only other population segment I've ever seen wearing more logo-laden primary-colored clothing is NASCAR racers. Their participation spans a wide age group, and I swear it's mostly silver sprigs I see poking out from under the helmets. What I do find disturbingly curious, however, is that probably 95% of the serious cyclists I see are male. The Tour de France is male only. I've no intention politicize the issue, but did anybody know that there is actually a women's Tour de France counterpart, called "Le Grande Boucle Feminine Internationale"? I never heard of it, and there's some years it hasn't been held because of poor sponsorship. Maybe they need a drug scandal to get them on the map.
Le Tour de France is big stuff here. Roads are closed, groupies plan a long time in advance what hillside they will stake claim to in order to await the pack---all for a few minutes of watching the elite of the elite fly by. We decided to drive the route that will be a flurry of activity next Sunday, July 22. It is Stage 14 of Le Tour, 197 km from Mazamet to the Plateau de Beille. This route goes through Carcassonne, Limoux, , Esperaza and Quillan, all relatively flat before beginning the monumental hill climb. Logistically from Leran, this is due south of us. The photo of the map and timetable is from a local brochure, and you can access more information at the website: www.letour.fr/2007/TDF/COURSE/us, and click on information for Stage 14.
The Gorges de St. Georges would have been impossible for two American-sized motorhomes to have passed each other without one taking a dip in the river. There were huge overhangs limiting the height of vehicles, and the limestone cliff walls rose high enough to tell me this was not a friendly place in winter. Old Smokey started to feel right at home as we began the climb up to Port de Pailheres at 2001 metres (@ 6000'). I know that 6000' feet doesn't seem like much to us in the states, but it reminded me of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks as well as the Beartooth Plateau all rolled into one. The terrain at top was stark, high alpine, and wind-blown, although today it couldn't have been better.
The haul up to Port de Pailheres is 17 km of grueling 8.0 - 9.5% incline of pure punishment. The road narrows to a single track but I imagine by this time the pack will be slimmed down anyway. All along the way, names have been painted on the roadway, and I have read that they are those of French racers. Who has painted them I don't know, but it is like a tickertape delineating the history of the sport.
By the time Stage 14 begins, there will be alot of crashes, alot of injuries, several shining stars probably dropped out, and numerous dreams shattered. They will all be tired. It must weigh very heavy on all the riders to know that last year's winner is still up in the air. Not to mention how Floyd Landis must feel. On the way up to Port de Pailheres, on the side of a limestone cliff, someone expressed the same disillusionment I feel about the sport by linking a hypodermic needle with a famous racer's name. Or is it that all elite athletes will always be scrutinized? Are the endurance mountain stages the pivotal events that separate the men from the men that need drugs? Will we ever know?
We parked at the top of the Port de Pailheres and waited as a few cyclists sweated their way to the top. I snapped a photo of one and congratulated him on his "trop du travail" and Doug walked over and asked me a question. The cyclist responded "now you're talking a language I can understand" and discovered he was from California and had recently been to Moab mountain-bike riding. The next cyclist was an older Frenchman who came over to inquire about the "Americains" (having seen Smokey's license plate) and wanted to tell us that he had "deux fille---une fille dans Florida et une fille dans Wyoming". We told him we had worked at Yellowstone and he commented "petit monde". We came to the top of the world to figure this out.