Journal 32 - August 3, 2003

Best for Last » Go Back

Journal 32
After waking up in a field of sunflowers we made our Nutella breakfasts, packed the salami and baguettes, and made our way to the finish of the Time Trial. We set up our makeshift camp near the jumbo-tron so we could see the stage unfold on television and watch the riders zip passed in person only 150 meters from the finish. Bryce and I waited and watched in the 105 degree heat enjoying every moment of the stage. A dominant performance by Jan Ullrich left Lance barely half a minute ahead in the overall standings for the race, setting the stage for the most competitive Tour in years. This meant we were guaranteed some dramatic stages in the final week of racing. Upon the completion of the time trial Bryce and I scurried back to the car looking for some relief from the scorching sun.

After roasting in the sun for several consecutive days we decided to take a day off, so we drove to Toulouse, camped at the start of the next day's stage, and the following day did laundry, caught up on emails and internet, enjoyed Toulouse, and made our rough plans for the rest of the race. From Toulouse we drove to Loudenvielle, jumped in the river for a swim, then drove to the top of the Col de Peyresourde and set up camp among thousands of Basques that crowded the road for miles and dotted the hills with their tents in every semi-flat spot available. We settled for a gently sloping hillside under the bright stars of the Pyrenees and got what sleep we could between the late night donkey neighs and early rising sun.

The next morning we were in no rush to get to the side of the road and fry, so we meandered down to a little ski town, found a cafe with a television, planted ourselves next to the TV and began ordering coffee and crepes. Comfortable and content, we watched and waited for the approach of the riders. Once we knew they were an hour away, we walked to the top of the Col, established position among the hoards, and reveled in the ensuing madness of the hilltop ascent. The top of the mountain was a controlled chaos of screaming and yelling, cheering and partying, singing and flag waving. The Col de Peyresourde is several kilometers from the finish of the stage, so the onlookers were free to crowd the street and take every free meter of space while the party raged and the riders approached. We waited until the last moment, and then pulled back leaving just enough space for the riders to pass with the motorcycles. This left us mere inches from the riders as they powered by. Lance, Jan, Tyler and others all in pursuit of Virenque, Dufaux and Simoni, the eventual stage winner.

Knowing that thousands of fans and the Tour caravan were all headed down the same small highway to the next stage, we attempted to avoid the traffic jam by taking what we thought would be a quick detour through Spain. Six hours later we returned to France, exhausted from the winding mountain roads and barely able to make it to our destination. We made it to the small town and collapsed in exhaustion as the sun began its ascent around 6:00 am.

We slept until noon in an attempt to make up for several restless nights, then in the morning did our usual river bath and shave before hiking up the mountain. We found a great spot along the route and settled for the day. While we waited for the approach of the riders we began making lunch. As the caravan of tour sponsors passed by in their endless procession of vehicles, I was nearly knocked off my feet by the flying blocks of Brie being tossed from a car driven by one of the Tour's title sponsors, I managed to catch a couple of slices out of mid-air and handed them to Bryce at the same moment he was making lunch. We wolfed down our baguettes and began listening to the speculation of the crowd, stopping frequently at the nearby satellite equipped RV to get updates on the action.

Sylvain Chavanel, a French rider, had broken away alone and had a group of the top riders chasing him. We choose our location on the climb because of the steepness of the grade, figuring the riders would pass slowly as they labored up the mountain. Rumors and speculation filled the air and we did our best to translate the mostly Spanish updates coming from the radios along the road. After Chavanel passed we knew it wouldn't be long before the chase group approached, so we established our position with cameras in hand. As the group of chasers including Lance, Ullrich and Tyler approached, we saw them at the bottom of the steep incline below. When the pack of riders rounded the hairpin corner at the bottom of the hill, Lance attacked, sprinting away from Ullrich and the others in the chase group, fueled by adrenaline and desperation (and anger about the crash we knew nothing about). After the group passed by we ran to the nearby TV and watched the drama unfold, trying not to get too excited in the presence of our German hosts. Lance went on to win the stage, earning back much of the time he had lost since the time trial, but working hard to do it. We couldn't have been luckier, and I was fortunate to get an incredible video clip of the attack that ended up being the pivotal moment of the entire 2003 Tour.

The next day was a rest day for the Tour, so Bryce and I decided to check out one of the most impressive sites of natural beauty in all of Europe, which happened to be just up the road from our hotel. Cirque de Gavarnie is an enormous amphitheatre shaped green valley surrounded by eleven 3000-meter peaks and dozens of waterfalls. The main attraction is the Gavarnie waterfall that plunges over thirteen hundred feet into a powerful spray that drenches anyone within fifty meters. We, along with seemingly every other spectator from the tour, hiked up the gorgeous valley high in the Pyrenees to get a closer look at the impressive falls. Gavarnie was astounding, an enormous fall that cascades down the vertical walls that make up Cirque de Gavarnie's natural amphitheater. Extremely content, we sat near the spraying mist of the falls while enjoying the spectacular views of the valley. So big and so impressive, the falls were almost too big to photograph, film and mega pixels could never do them justice.

After an epic day of hiking we set off, unbeknownst to us, on yet another all night driving marathon. No sooner did we arrive at the bottom of Col Bagarguy, at the very reasonable hour of midnight, were we turned away by the local police and their road-block. Fortunately though, the friendly officers handed us a map with an alternative route to the summit, allowing us to copy the names of the towns we needed to pass through to get there. Thus began our second all-night tour through the Basque farmlands of southern France. We made steady progress at first, but eventually the road signs stopped, and soon after the roads stopped too. Not to be denied, we followed what we hoped was the right path through endless sheep and cattle herds, up and down unnamed Cols and canyons, and into the depths of the night's fog. Delirious and spun, and with the EMPTY light flashing brightly on the dash, we finally met some Dutch guys who were convinced they knew the way. With no alternative we decided to follow, risking the empty tank for the opportunity to have prime viewing for the next day's stage. After several hours and no sign of the Tour, we gave up, not wanting to further risk being stranded with no gas. We pitched the our tent on a dirt side road, only to wake up the next morning to the familiar sounds of the tour, music from the tour caravan, the nearby road lined with cars, and a perfect position on the course only a ten minute walk from our tent. We ended up in prime position to watch Tyler Hamilton pass by during his solo break away, powering on his way to an eventual stage win with a broken collarbone. Shrouded by thick fog, we watched the riders and peloton pass, then hit the local pub and gathered around the television to see whether Tyler could hang on. As he crossed the line for his victory, the entire audience of mostly Basques cheered in applause.

After a great day in the Pyrenees we drove into the foothills and camped at the first campground we found, close to a gushing river with plot after plot of soft, flat camping space. We went to bed early and got up the next day for another day of hiking in the Pyrenees, this time to a lake high in the mountains. From Pyrenees National Park we drove to Bordeaux.

With a second consecutive flat day in the tour, we figured the action would be minimal, so we spent the next day wandering the streets of Bordeaux, loading pictures on the web, and doing our best to catch up in our respective journals. After a full day of internet and coffee cafes, we hit the road and drove to Nantes for the last time trial, and the defining day of the tour. The rain was coming down steadily as we approached Nantes, promising a suspenseful day of racing. As the second to last day of the Tour, the rainy time trial would be the last day for action. As it turned out, Ullrich was on pace to win his second time trial of the race, setting the fastest time at the first check. Unfortunately he crashed midway, losing precious time on the stage and dashing any hopes to pull an upset win over Armstrong. Lance rode cautiously, finishing third in the stage but securing his fifth consecutive yellow jersey in the process.

The final day in Paris at the Champs Elysees was a bit anticlimactic for us, after having seen the best of the competition during our two weeks; we were a bit turned off by the tens of thousands of people lining the Champs Elysees, most of whom knew nothing about cycling. By then the race was all but over, Lance had secured his spot in history, and Bryce and I weren't in the mood to fight the crowds for a glimpse of the riders as they flashed by at thirty miles per hour. We enjoyed the festive atmosphere and checked out the course as it wound around the famous boulevard. After purchasing our Tour schwag we headed for the nearest café and reflected on our adventure.

As with my entire trip, our two weeks of driving around France had a little bit of everything, from high mountains to beaches, to wonderful cities and great food. France is a gorgeous country, extremely diverse with endless possibilities for sightseeing. During our two week tour-chase we saw what we could of the countryside, beaches, and mountains, but would both love to come back sometime with more time. As with most countries, a visit to France would be infinitely better with a firm grasp of the language, which would allow us to gorge ourselves on countless dishes other than the daily èclairs and the few other things we could pronounce.

Bryce and I both flew home the day after the tour ended, entering yet another travel marathon that started with twelve hours at the airport in Paris, and ended thirty-something hours later in San Francisco, both of us having taken different routes home, yet arriving within and hour of each other.

It's nice to be back in California at the best time of year, summer is winding down, the weather is nice, and I have a few weeks to relax and make my plans for the next few months.

My trip was an amazing adventure that provided countless incredible experiences and opportunities to learn. Thank you to the dozens of people who helped along the way, I couldn't have done it without you. It was a privilege to travel to the places I traveled to, see the places I saw, and take the time I took to do this trip.

chao,

Justin