Journal 31 - July 19, 2003

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Journal 31

Trés magnifique, the Tour has been an incredible way to top off the trip of a lifetime. So far it's been a highlight among highlights. What a pleasure it was to see a familiar face at the airport, albeit with a few more grey hairs on his head than the last time I saw him. It was a relief to pick up Bryce and get in our rental car. What a strange sensation to go from ten months of solo travel and the familiar feeling of traveling through foreign lands alone, to a similarly familiar feeling of doing a road trip with Bryce. Something we've done dozens of times in California, Utah, Nevada, and other parts of the west, but now in a completely different context, which seemed odd at first, but familiar in a strange way. Ten months didn't feel any longer than ten days, the laughs and smiles flowed with ease, and we were quickly in the car unsure about what direction we were going or how long it would take us to get to L'Alpe D'Huez, one of the most famous and difficult mountains stages of the Tour.

With the French radio blasting, and our maps and baguettes crowding the front seat, we sped south along the highway while the urban sprawl of Paris faded to rolling fields sprinkled with occasional chateaus and castles. We talked for hours, did some catching up and discussed the tour and possible routes and strategies, both for the riders and ourselves. We marveled at the prospect of a sixteen-day road trip around the French countryside, especially considering that none of our previous roadies had been longer than a week, while each had provided years of memories. So far it's been a blast, and we still have eight more days to go.

After ten hours of driving on Saturday we arrived at L'Alpe D'Huez and an enormous party with campers, RV's, cars, bikes and motorcycles, all occupying every free inch of space along the mountain road that switches back and forth twenty-one times as it ascends impossible L'Alpe D'Huez. Even at 1:30 am scores of people were up and about, partying, singing, eating, drinking, and painting the streets in anticipation of the following day's mountain battle. We squeezed our vehicle into a small space on the side of the road, propped the tent on top of a retaining wall opposite the car, and managed a few hours sleep between the blaring car horns and semi trucks.

The next morning we woke up early, rolled off our rocks, made some Nutella sandwiches for breakfast, threw the baguettes and salami in the pack, and began our hike up L'Alpe D'Huez among hundreds of cyclists, dozens of automobiles, trucks, and hundreds of other hikers. Gallons of paint decorated the road, each displaying encouragement for favorite riders or teams. Hundreds of people parked and partied with music, color-coded costumes, flags, and entire stretches of pavement displayed a given team or rider's colors, it was an incredible spectacle. We hiked up for a couple of hours among the display, then reached the top to get a view of the massive jumbo-tron showing the day's action live for the crowd. We dunked our heads in an ice-cold spring in the middle of town, and began hunting for some shade to take refuge under and await the ascent of the peloton. Thanks to Bryce's creativity, we were both sporting official postal worker's uniforms, and Bryce a Star-Spangled Banner around his neck, which drew loads of attention from the crowds, many friendly jeers, and yells of support from the scores of yanks.

We found some bushes and crawled under them about 2 km from the finish. There we sat for hours waiting for the riders, chatting with other fans, running our smak, and having an all around great time. The anticipation was stupendous, all we had to rely on was speculation and rough translation from the French fans with radios. Everyone waited, and as the helicopters approached the crowd began to buzz. Roars of encouragement began snaking their way up the crowd as the rider, or would it be riders, powered up only a few hundred meters below. The crowd yelled cheers of encouragement for each participant, happy to see the action approach, and appreciative of the effort being made by the racers.

Finally a patch of bright orange appeared below, Iban Mayo, one of the riders from the Basque team Euskaltel-Euskadi, a team made up exclusively of riders from the Basque region of Spain, a region known for producing great climbers. Mayo hammered by and the seconds began to tick, yet no chasers followed, it was obvious that Mayo was on his way to a stage victory, encouraged by the crowd and the 1 kilometer sign just ahead. Shortly the chasers approached, with Lance and fellow American Tyler Hamilton in the group, an astonishing display of grit by the CSC leader riding with a fractured collarbone. Mayo took the stage for the day, and Lance the yellow jersey, signifying the overall lead for the race. But two weeks of racing remained, and Lance himself was quick to point out that anything could happen.

It took hours for the hundreds of thousands of people, a crowd that is said to be the largest ever to have viewed a race at Alpe D'Huez, to make their way off the mountain. We eventually made it to the car, slowly made our way down the winding pass, and headed for the next stage. Along the way we were treated to several hours of windy Alpine roads and gorgeous scenery highlighted by the moon rising over the peaks of the Alps. Finally we arrived exhausted at the next stage, hundreds more campers, tents and RV's crowding the mountain town. Relieved to see more fans and revelers camping in the streets, we grabbed our tent and headed into a nearby field, surrounded by soaring peaks and bathing in cool mountain air. Bright sunshine and eager fans woke us up in the morning, we took a quick bath in the icy stream, and hiked up the Col d'Izoard to watch yet another painfully steep and critical mountain stage. Again the crowds were huge, the party atmosphere phenomenal, the people friendly, and the competition compelling. In the midst of pine trees and crackling dry mountain air, we hiked up the winding mountain route, garnering more attention for the patriotic postal gear and Star-Spangled Banner wrapped around Bryce's neck.

After another great day in the mountains we got in the car and drove several hundred kilometers to Gap, yet another in a series of charming, quaint French towns, this one being one of the largest in the region, thus host to an enormous Bastille day celebration with an outstanding fireworks display in honor of France's most important holiday. While stuffing ourselves with Brie, salami and baguettes, we watched the show and then wandered around town to admire the festival. Afterwards we wearily stumbled back to the car on our way to a campsite. We caught the next day's start in Gap, featuring loads of fanfare and merriment. After the riders took off Bryce and I meandered around the quaint old town, had our daily éclair, baguette, and for me a cup of coffee before setting off to take advantage of the following day's Tour rest day.

After a few days of baking in the sun at high altitude, we were ready for the cool sea breeze and ocean water. We began our long drive through the gorgeous country towards the sea, stopping for pictures, fruit stands, a swim in a lake, a rock-throwing competition by a stream, whatever we felt like. France's beautiful countryside offers great variety in scenery, from huge mountains, rolling agricultural fields and great cities, all complimented by stunning historical buildings, chateaus, castles and citadels, sunflower fields and cheese factories. While shoveling Brie and baguettes down by the mouthful we drove into Nice, past Monaco and Monte Carlo before getting settled in the seaside town of Menton under the olive trees of a hillside campground. It's now so obvious to me where the Riviera in Santa Barbara gets its name, the similarities to the Cote d'Azur and French Riviera are so striking that at times I felt I was winding my way up an APS side street. Olive trees abound, with the sea breeze blowing yucca leaves onto the Spanish tile roofs of the buildings. The whole setting makes for some confusing hallucinations after an eight-hour-sleep-deprived-drive. As if we took a wrong turn on Milpas street. But here it's older, more beautiful, on a larger scale, and more impressive. Like a five hundred year old Montecito grabbing onto the hills that slope into the Mediterranean, the French Riviera's gorgeous homes and real estate make it an obvious destination for the rich and famous.

We spent two fantastic days camping by the ultra-rich beach towns, did some swimming in the Mediterranean, and enjoyed the sea for a couple of days before getting back into the routine of tour chasing. From the beach we did another marathon eight-hour drive to the little town of Albi. Right on schedule, we arrived at 1:00 am and began our search for a place to sleep. As usual, an unmarked country road offered exactly what we were looking for, few houses if any, and lots of foliage. Again we went to sleep in anticipation of the following day, looking forward to the race and finding out what our surroundings would look like when we woke up. So far we've been treated several times by going to bed in a new place at night, then waking up to spectacular scenery in the morning. Waking up the next day in the middle of a sunflower field provided yet another brilliant surprise among the dozens we've experienced so far. The day's stage was important too, with Ullrich gaining precious time on Lance in the time trial, setting the stage for some compelling competition in the Pyrenees.

We're having a blast, and hoping to get some pictures on the net soon, we've been rushing from town to town and have been technologically challenged along the way, not to mention the added challenge of typing on the French keyboards, which will help explain some of the grammatical and spelling errors in this email. Bryce's five years of French have been very helpful on the trip, most of the French people are much nicer once you leave Paris, the cheese is great, not sure about the cholesterol, haven't splurged on a great meal yet, the French countryside is gorgeous, and the race is excellent. I'm behind on my email replies, but will have more time for that when I get home and am not paying by the hour or chasing Lance.

I hope all is well back home.

Au revoir,

Justin