Ride for the Day: 50+ Miles over the climbs in the middle section of the Tour route.
Major Difficulties: Col de la Faucille (Cat 2: 11.5 km at 6.2%), Côte de Lajour (Cat 3: 3.7 km at 5.4%), Côte de Crozets (Cat 3: 6.3 km at 3.7%).
iPod inspirational/appropriate song for the day: Iggy Pop, "Lust for Life"
When you've just gone over above category climbs like Mont Ventoux during the past week, Cat 2 and Cat 3 climbs seem fairly easy. The challenge today wasn't the hills, but rather the weather. We've been suffering in the 90+ degree heat since we got here, but today, after lulling us into a false sense of security, Mother Nature decided to give us the old switcharoo. As we were about ten miles into our ride and getting to the base of the Col de la Faucille, we looked to our left and saw a huge alpine thunder storm rushing towards us. The temperature dropped to the fifties, and of course, most of us had forgotten our arm warmers, rain jackets, and just about any other cold-weather gear back at the hotel. As I was still getting over that head cold, I did pack my light windbreaker, so it turned out that I was the best equipped for the day. As we began to make our way up, intermittent drops of rain turned into a torrential downpour and a minor breeze turned into a blustery gale. I pulled off about a quarter of the way up the climb to pull on that windbreaker, which mainly just kept me a bit warm (but certainly not dry). On the steeper portions of the climb, that wind blasted right into our faces. It started to push a lot of us all over the road, and slowed us to a crawl. Still, there were fans everywhere along the sides of the road. They were shouting encouragement at those of us who were brave enough to ride up that climb in such bad weather. I had a couple of older Frenchmen shout "Sortie! Sortie!" while raising their drinks to me. Several kids at different places on the climb jumped up and down and shouted "Allez! Allez!" as we passed. I would have tried to take pictures, but I forgot to put my camera in my shirt that morning. As it was so wet out there, that probably turned out to be a good thing… I'm not sure my camera would have survived such a drenching.
By the time we got to the top, we were all soaked to the bone. The guys in the van dug around looking for arm warmers, vests, and whatever else they could find to give us for the descent. Ben went into a store at the summit and bought a newspaper to stuff up his shirt and keep his chest warm. I headed off after Joe "Son" O'Flaherty, and we went rolling right along the road and missed the turnoff for the Tour route. We came across Rusty and Ray, who had also gone this way, and they finally told us that this was the wrong way. We turned around and headed back up until we found the right turn. The road was extremely wet and treacherous, so we just took it easy as we rolled down that descent. I'm just glad that my friend Noah had taught me how to handle my bike in conditions like this… as it turned out, the descent wasn't really that difficult, in spite of the weather. By the time we got to the bottom, though, our hands were aching and our teeth were chattering from the cold. As my dad would say, it was colder than a witch's brass tit on that descent. We assumed (correctly) that the others had passed us when we made that wrong turn, so rather than sit too long and continue to freeze, we pushed on to the next climb to warm up.
Once over the top of the next climb, the course got really fun. The rain cleared and it warmed up a little, making the long, long descent that followed much more enjoyable. It seemed like we descended a lot more than we climbed, as we were flying down this winding road for what seemed like about a half hour. We figured out that the Tour route, even where the fans are sparse, still has a gendarme on the side of the road every few hundreds meters. We just kept following the gendarmes and flying down the hill until we hit the bottom. We pulled over in a little town to shake some life back into our hands, and a French family who was sitting in their driveway waiting for the Tour offered Rusty and Joe a taste of this yellow drink they were making. Joe said it tasted like licorice, and he didn't have a good expression on his face when he said it. The sight of that yellow drink reminded a couple of us that we needed to hit the bushes after we cleared the village.
After chatting with these folks for a few more minutes, we found some friendly bushes and then headed on up our last climb to the lunch area. There, we ate lunch and got our massages while watching our TV in a little park along the route. As we were watching the race, it was really fascinating to see the riders on TV covering the same ground we had just gone over a couple of hours before. When the race hit the Col de la Faucille, Rusty noticed how good the weather was for them and joked, "Awww, those pansies. We did that in the rain."
Stage 19: The time trial
Major Difficulty: Getting three vans into the special "guest" area.
For the final time trial, we once again decided to ditch trying to ride as the gendarmes were sure to have the route shut down early. Instead, Igor had been able to get us a pass into the "back stage" area where the riders warm up from his old Euskaltel-Euskadi team. His brother rolled up in the Euskaltel team car just as we were coming in, and Igor got to introduce us to him.
The Big E-Z" Erik Zabel smiles at some of his many fans at the T-Mobile bus
Photo © Patrick Sharp
Strangely, many very important riders had absolutely nobody watching them. I walked right up to the tape and got a great picture of Erik Zabel during a rare lull at the T-Mobile camp. Vladimir Karpets was all by himself as he geared up to storm the White Jersey. For some reason, Fassa Bortolo has set up their bus in such a way that you could barely see their riders, and no good pictures of them were to be had.
Karpets took 8th on the stage to seal a win in the White Jersey competition for best young rider. But I seemed to be one of the few people who knew who he was.
Photo © Patrick Sharp
Eventually I camped out in front of the T-Mobile truck to get a good view of Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden as they warmed up. When big Jan rolled up on his bike, there was a huge ovation from the growing crowd. Klöden was the first to start to warm up, but unlike most of the other riders I saw that day, he never looked up. Once or twice he looked to the side, but otherwise it was face down and concentrating the whole time, so no good pictures for the fans. For his part, Ullrich was more relaxed and looked around a bit, though still clearly focused on the job at hand.
Big Jan lifts his head so that a young fan can take his picture.
Photo © Patrick Sharp
Other than one brief glance from Jan, both he and Klöden ignored each other completely despite the fact that they were only a few feet from each other. Maybe the fact that they were competing for the podium against each other was taking its toll. I then wandered over to the CSC van, which few fans were bothering to visit. The reason was that "El Jefe" had shown up and was warming up nearby at the US Postal bus. I had no desire to fight through that feeding frenzy, so I just contented myself with Basso and some of the other top GC guys who were still getting ready.
Ivan Basso looks up so that the father of a couple of his young fans can get a good picture.
Photo © Patrick Sharp
I also got a couple of shots of the new great French hero, Thomas Voeckler, on his last day in the White Jersey. The French press has really been playing up the "passing of the torch" narrative with the young Voeckler taking the reigns for old French favorite Richard Virenque. However, Voeckler has gotten louder cheers than Richard and drew a much bigger crowd as he was warming up.
Voeckler looks out over the swarm of French media and screaming young girls that surround the Brioches la Boulangere bus..
Photo © Patrick Sharp
I went over eventually to the start line to see the top fifteen on GC start the stage. We all then ran over to our vans, took a magic Basque short cut, and ended up right at the 1km banner in time to see those same top fifteen men fly up a short climb into the finishing straight. It was awesome: Virenque, Voeckler, Leipheimer, Mancebo, Ullrich, Klöden, Basso, Armstrong, and a few other besides went buzzing within a couple of feet of me at top speed. Ray was timing them, and it became clear that Klöden and Ullrich were having great rides, Basso was riding well but slipping, and Armstrong was dishing out another big whuppin'. By the time we all piled back into the vans for the long trek to Paris, we were geeking out like a bunch of little kids. It was another throroughly satisfying day at the Tour that we would never forget.