Thursday, July 31, 2008

Victory Lap

21 days, 88+ hours and more than 3,500 kilometers in the saddle. This is what I was thinking about as I watched the man who was in last place during the laps around Champs-Élysées. My inner dialogue went like this… “Dude, you are in last place in the most intense, brutal sporting event in the world. Last place guy, you are a bad ass!!!”

Watching the riders race around the course was thrilling and we were privy to the absolutely best seat in the house. We watched the final eight laps with our new friends from the Versus crew and tried to revel in those final moments. After the race is done and the awards have been doled out, each team takes a victory lap around the Champs, watching these teams of men, these bands of brothers who must have been so exhausted and excited and overwhelmed and numb, watching them was an inspiration.
After everyone was gone and we were taking group photos on the Champs-Élysées the full enormity and scope of the past week’s events hit me. I just saw the Tour de France from deep within it. I had Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, who together have over 65 years of Tour experience, there to answer every ignorant question I could come up with. I had Johan Bruyneel drive me down L’Alpe-d”Huez. And I was there sharing this moment with two of my dearest friends.

Just when I thought I had expunged all the privilege and opportunity one could wring out of such an experience Roberto said the six most amazing words to me… “Hey Raquel, want to meet George?” And just like that, I turned around and there was George Hincapie, somehow my hand had found his and he was shaking it and in super slow motion he was saying, “p…l…e…a...s…u…r…e to meet you R…a…c…h…e…l.” And somehow I managed to respond appropriately. On top of all of this I just got to meet my favorite TDF rider. I was in heaven.
Hours later I would meet George again and his charming, beautiful, young French wife - it was then that any girlish crush I had vanished, but by that time I was already 3 champagnes into the Team Columbia after-party and resigned to drooling over Christian Vandavelde instead.

That night Beth and I danced in a fountain while staring up at the Eiffel Tower. We charmed Paul and Phil and partied with cyclists. We ate a fantastic dinner and drank fine wine. I’m not sure anyone has ever had a better night in Paris.

When I finally stumbled home the calendar had claimed another day and my liver and kidneys were devising an exit strategy, as clearly their current residence was no longer a hospitable home for them. Around noon, Beth, Roberto and I ventured into the daylight for a short-lived meal and stroll about town. Roberto being wiser than Beth and I, opted to immediately go back to bed after lunch. Beth and I did some perfunctory touristing and after nearly passing out in the fountain in front of the Louvre and lighting a candle for the rejuvenation of my organs at Notre Dame we too threw in the towel and let our hangovers take the wheel. A five-hour nap later and we were off to our last meal together in France.
My time here has been beyond any expectation a sane person could possibly have. I cannot believe my good fortune, sheer luck and the immense gratitude I feel for all who aided Beth and I during our time on the Tour. By name you are Paul, Phil, Johan, Craig, Jen, Anne, Audrey, Annie, Scott, Greg, Matt, Teebo, Hans, Thierry, Henri, Christof, Hector, and of course Robert Francis Roll. Sincerely, thank you for the time of my life.

And finally thanks to Lara Beth Mitchell for being my partner in crime since I was 11 and for the photos she has contributed to the Tour posts.







Trialing Times

Friday night we all reconvened after the stage for dinner in the Château. A four-course meal was laid out for us by the innkeeper and the entertainment was provided by all. I ate so much and laughed so hard that my stomach still hurts! It ended up being my favorite night thus far.

The next day was the time trial stage and once again the keys to the kingdom delivered us directly to the finish line where Beth and I took full advantage of our credentials to watch the top GC contenders cross the line. Then we managed to sneak right up to the awards ceremony with all of the photographers. Andy Schleck threw his flowers to the crowd and Beth and I started throwing elbows like we were single girls trying to catch the bridal bouquet. Unfortunately Andy threw the flowers towards the crowd and not in the photo pit, so all we got was an up close look at him and the other day’s winners.
Everything was going so smoothly for us. Even the drama of having the car confiscated and getting the rental had proven relatively easy and mostly entertaining. Life was charmed, easy-breezy, smooth sailing and then I lost the key to the rental car somewhere between the 500 meter mark and the finish line in the midst of 50,000 spectators. This was catastrophic.

I don’t speak French, our luggage and Roberto’s was locked securely in the car as was our French phrase book and our computers. Beth, Roberto and I spent at least ten minutes each tearing apart my bag in search of the key and none of us could find it in any pocket, crease or corner.

Roberto kindly offered to stay and help us sort this out, but he had to get to Paris and cover the final stage of the Tour in the morning so Beth and I gently yet swiftly kicked his butt into Craig and Jen’s car and sent him off. I have never in my life lost my keys. Never! Beth and I walked back to our parking spot praying I had somehow dropped the key near the car, which would be our only hope of stumbling across a lone key in the aftermath of a Tour stage.

My mind was racing… Alright I’ll call Hertz and see if there is any way they can get a locksmith here to open the car. Then Beth can catch a train to Paris so Roberto has his clothes for tomorrow’s coverage. I’ll stay here and try to figure out how to get a new key made… And then somehow I will navigated the streets of Paris alone and find everyone again before the finale.

No keys at the car. So I called the Hertz emergency line. As I was navigating the press #1 for English, and #2 if you are an idiot who has lost your key, prompts I reached into my bag for a pen and came out with the key.

I have no idea how we all missed it. I must assume that the universe decided at that moment to substitute my previous wish for a leprechaun and a pot of gold with something far more valuable. I screamed and ran off skipping down the road, Beth ran after me overjoyed, we hugged and spun in circles and skipped together. And celerated with a swig of hot vin rougue.

Now back in the car, we headed towards Paris. I called Roberto to tell him that we were back on track and as it turns out he was behind us caught in traffic, so a few blocks later he jumped out of Hummer’s car and in with us. We rolled into Paris around 10pm.

Driving around Paris has never been a dream of mine, but it seems that my penance for getting to ride Roberto’s coattails was that I would have to chauffer him through Paris on a super busy Saturday night. Not to tell a nation how to run it’s roads, but I’m just saying that rather than all those years spent trying to conquer and convert… the French could have dedicated their energies to instigating a serious of lane dividers, decipherable signage and traffic signals. And rather than using the public squares for guillotining so-called heretics, you could have made them into real roundabouts not the free-for-all melees they are now. I mean… I’m just saying…

We arrived finally at our hotel and I retired to a bar stool where my shaking hands were calmed by my first glass of champagne in Paris. Ahhhh Paris.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Vallon-en-Sully

Today we took a rest day. Maybe the riders can keep up this fever-pace but not me. Beth and I took Roberto to the finish area this morning, and that was as close to watching the tour as we got for stage 19. In fact I learned who won the stage from Dan way back in Colorado, rather than from anyone on this end of the action. Instead we opted for a day of pure touristic pleasures.
Now that we have our own car the open road called and we ventured out to find some scenic and hedonistic endeavors. As we drove along the countryside we came upon a field of wildflowers so big and plentiful that I couldn’t believe it could have happened naturally. After that delight, I called out to the gods of travel for a field of sunflowers to photograph as we had passed dozens on various drives, but had never had a chance to take pictures of them. Not only was a field delivered but so was some amazing sunlight to make sure the bright yellow flowers blinded us with their brightness and contrast to the green fields around them.

Beth made some snarky (but apt) comment on how I always get whatever I want so I decided to test this theory and called out for a vineyard for us to visit. About ten clicks down the road a sign pointing us to a vigne indépendante appear alongside the road. So we followed it and sure enough we ended up at a vineyard. Unfortunately I was not specific enough in my request and thus we were unable to drink any wine at the vineyard. No problem, I know how this works now. “I want a café in a cute little French country-side town with wine to drink and some fantastic lunch offering for a reasonable price within the next ten kilometers… Please.” And again my wishes were granted.

For 11.50 Euros I got four courses of heaven. A meat and salad platter, a plate of fish and vegetables smothered in a sauce made I think only of cream and buttery goodness, a cheese plate and finally dessert. When our bill came we saw that the jug of wine we had ordered cost a mere 1.75 Euro. Proof that it is in fact cheaper to drink wine in France than water.
On the drive home I asked for a leprechaun with a pot of gold, but apparently I had used up my three wishes for the day. I’ll start with that one tomorrow.



Note: I put up two posts today - check the archives for the post about Stage 18 - What does confisquez mean?

What does confisquez mean?

I wrote the last post in a sort of tongue in cheek manner when I said I was not disclosing the name of our driver for fear of French legal retribution. Well that was naïve of me apparently, as Thursday morning upon arriving at the finish we were met by a Tour official and learned that our vehicle’s press credential was being revoked and then that the car had been confiscated. Uh….oops.

Roberto and our driver had a bit of a rough day dealing with the Tour officials and we were left with a perplexing problem… short of commandeering bicycles and riding to the next stage, we had no transportation. This is how I came to almost miss stage 18 of Le Tour.

Beth and I were blissfully unaware of the full extent of our transport issues until we arrived at the set with a picnic lunch for everyone, only to find that no one was around. After a while Roberto joined us and filled us in on the happenings of the morning as well as several of his theories as to why they were picking on our group. His most consistent theory is that because of their affiliation with that cyclist from Texas that I mentioned in my last post… certain powers-that-be like messing with them.

Not to in anyway discount Roberto’s theory, but someone (not me of course) might find it possible that racing past about 700 cars including a few police cars, while illegally in the left lane and screaming about the lack of an escort for the press, could possibly, in some small way have contributed. But again, I am naïve in the ways of the Tour and it’s political ins and outs.

Not to fear, Beth and I could surely procure a car after all we were in the bustling metropolis of Saint-Etienne.
The day before Roberto told us that everyone suffers during the tour. Obviously the riders do, and the workers who daily build a village to make the race possible, and not even we, the mooches, are spared it seems. So yesterday Beth and I suffered through Saint-Etienne. We were in our own race. A race to find a rental car in a town where we were told NONE were available and we had between the hours of 1:30 and 5pm to get this done. Miraculously, we completed this task… it was something right out of The Amazing Race and in the end I literally sprinted to the finish the very same moment that Burghardt crossed the line.
Roberto is now forced to ride with me behind the wheel, which is far less adventurous than he is used to. That night we were treated to a fine dinner alfresco with all of the ‘talent’ on the terrace of a lovely chalet where we also spent the night. The drama of the day melted away as we drank bordeaux and enjoyed each other's company.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

L’Alpe d’Huez


The original catalyst for this entire trip came when they released the 2008 Tour route and I saw that L’Alpe-d’Huez was on it. While their may be harder, longer, more brutal climbs in France, none holds the mystique for me of L’Alpe and I knew that if I was ever going to take Roberto up on his offer to mooch, this would be the year and this would be the stage.

It was everything I dreamed it would be. From the drive up the 21 switchbacks with Paul and Phil the night before, to walking down a couple kilometers to experience for myself the steepness, to seeing the crazed fans – men in nothing but loin cloths and flags, or devil costumes – to standing at the 50 meter mark and watching the stage finish and all topped off with my getting to see George Hincapie after the race. L’Alpe lived up to every bit of the hype!
After the stage we had to make our way to the next finish line along with the thousands of spectators, which resulted in one of the most terrifying and exhilarating rides of my life. Without disclosing the name of our driver, (for fear of French legal consequences), let me just say that it is no wonder he has had such success telling others how to ride a stage. His knowledge of just when to accelerate, or drop back into the queue is the stuff of legend.

I mean seriously no professional rally car driver can hold a candle to this man and if the gave jerseys to people in cars, we would have had the pink polka dot, green and yellow ones for sure! To make it even more exciting, through all the switchbacks and off-roading, he was sending text messages to this little known bike racer from Texas who was asking about the stage - that cyclist apparently made some 'move' on L'Alpe years before and wanted to know if this year's crop had run it as fast as he did.

During the decent and thanks to the bounty of sheer cliffs and oncoming cars, I got the pleasure of seeing my whole life flash before my eyes on multiple occasions. It was the ride of a lifetime. All the while my inner-voice was busying itself dictating the article that would run in Velo News...

"Famed commentators lost in fiery plummet while descending cycling's most legendary climb. The cycling world today lost three of it's heaviest hitters and their two unknown female companions..."
The road to the finish


Nice to see a reminder of home.

There were no less than four helicopters flying above us at any moment.


video
The finish line.