Photos: Benepe (c)
Like Pilgrims to the Temple of Cycling
"Hats off to the Texan"
Yesterday's ascent to the ultimate climb of France, the bare-faced, hard rocked tempestuous top of Mont Ventoux was like pilgrims flocking to the temple of cycling.
According to media reports, about 600,000 people lined the route to the Ventoux, and more than a million in total sat along side the entire route that started in Pontarlier yesterday.
With its harsh rocky surface that made climbing difficult and dangerous--one slip and you could be down one of it's cliffs--and roads so narrow and winding with sheer drop offs that a single mistake would find you hurtling through the air into an abyss of terror; and winds so cold that they whipped your cheeks into submission.
Let's not forget the 18 km climb, which for most of the cycling fanatics--for that is the only way you could describe them, was accomplished either on foot, or by bicycle.
Some lucky people made it up towards the top with help from cars belonging to journalists, (more about that later,) but the majority had to climb, just like the Tour de France competitors whom they had come to see. If they will suffer, so shall we in making our way to the temple, just to show our devotion.
No one cared, no in fact, they wanted to enjoy the pain they experienced coming up here. BBB managed one half of the ascent in the tortourous sun, meeting all kinds of cyclists along the way, British, Spanish, American, French, and Australian.
One 65 year old man from Spain who climbed almost half of the distance up Le Ventoux said he had already ridden about 60 km on flat land, and that he had a heart irregularity.
When BBB expressed concern for his health climbing up 11 percent grades in the broiling sun, he said it was fine because he would know when he was having a heart attack, he wouldn't be able to breathe.
The Israeli Cycling.com group that I met in Annecy took a bus at 4:30 am to start the ascent from the Bedouin side, the same side that the riders took. They climbed almost to the top.
Other cyclists and trekkers, some with their children in tow either on foot or on bike, sat in the sun after their enormous effort. The unrelenting sun punished anyone who dared to come here on this day by frying their skin as if it were an egg white on a skillet.
Yet because of the cold winds that blew incessantly, the top was at times cold, and in the shade it was downright freezing. The thin air made staying awake difficult, especially for those who gotten up early to breach the summit. BBB became dizzy and lightheaded while perched atop a pile of broken stones. It was like being on the moon.
At the top bikes lay on the sidelines, hung on the temporary fencing, and everyone seemed to be carrying knapsacks full of provisions, just in case they should need food or water because there was little else than the rocks, the sky, and the wind, and about 18 km to the next meal. Okay that's somewhat of an exaggeration, but the truth is the one little cafe on top would never have been able to feed this profusion of humanity in case they should not be able to get down.
People sat on the hard rocks taking in the sun, many of them behind shelters from the wind. Some lay exhausted on the ground. Others shared picnics, waved flags, or found the best position to see the finish, hours before the cyclists were to arrive.
Even the gendarmes enjoyed watching the tour, as did the film and radio crews, as they watched the footage from their own trucks as the race took place below the mountain.
"Hats off to the Texan!"
Today the Tour de France will come and make a big show in Paris. The race course is largely symbolic though it is expected that Mark Cavendish will sprint to the finish line. Well, we told you he more or less threw down the gauntlet to Thor Hushovd the other day when he said the Green Jersey was "stained," but that he would beat Hushovd anyway in Paris. Quite likely he will.
The controversy between him and Hushovd is already an old story, and no one has yet to explain why the tour organizers ruled on behalf of Hushovd, deducting 15 points from Cavendish, and handing Hushovd the Green Jersey, including the organizers themselves who have changed their reasoning behind the ruling three times.
Their last ruling said that Cavendish had made an irregular sprint. Okay, so what is that exactly? I guess you have to now register the line you're going to take before you do a sprint. Anyway, that's a good one on me, because if all sprinters resorted to asking for infractions, racing would come to a standstill.
But what is most interesting is that not only is the Tour widely anticipated here in Paris, the TGV train from Avignon, the closest location to Mont Ventoux, to Paris this morning was packed with TDF fans, journalists, and cyclists.
Bike boxes clogged the doorways of the trains, they belonged to people who had used the tour as a way to spice up their cycling tour and were coming to see the symbolic end to what one French man described as "the greatest cycling race in the world."
This morning, L'Equipe newspaper which is all about sports had the front page headline, "Hats off to the Texan," with a huge front page photo of him sticking to Contador and Andy Schleck. Under the photo it read, "Lance Armstrong preserved his place on the podium of the Tour 2009."
Then below that the story read, " A similar performance realized by [a person] close to 38 years old and after four years of absence is simply exceptional." Further below, it read, " Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck turning around to verify that Lance Armstrong was always behind them. The American got away at the final 5 km of the stage and even dropped his principal rival for the 3rd place overall."
And they say the French don't like Armstrong? So I asked a barman around the corner from where I am staying, "Is it true that the French don't like Armstrong?" He looked at me confused. "Well no, of course they like Armstrong, everyone here likes Armstrong."
So then why have we heard the French don't like him? "Because they don't like it when only on person is winning," he said.
Well now that Armstrong is not only in third place but also apparently drug free (that is according to the French he wasn't drug free before, but now he is,) people are liking him again.
On the second page of l'Equipe the headline reads in bold letters, "Armstrong, with Experience." The photo caption reads, "On the old route [to Mont Ventoux] the American succeeded in giving his place on the podium symbolic value."
And then on the third page, another headline with Armstrong's name, "Climb to the third place: the Ventoux only interim to the podium where Lance Armstrong preserved his place."
So please unless the Equipe is totally out of it, my bet is that the French really like this guy.
Last Stage in Paris
Today the riders will come into Paris on the symbolic last stage. Millions of people will be here to watch. We'll keep you updated.