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Tour de Tour, Part III
Filed under: General, TdF 2008
Posted by: Todd @ 7:46 pm

Stage 13,  Narbonne to Nimes


My last day at the Tour was a bittersweet one, for sure. We were finished with the Pyrenees, so this last day would be a flat stage running parallel to the Mediterranean coast. We arrived at the village, per usual, and relaxed with coffee and pastry under our tent. Lionel was in a particularly giddy mood and was really hamming it up. We would have a French TV reporter as our VIP in Car 3, and Lionel was either excited, or nervous, or likely a bit of both.


Niki Terpstra and Florent Brard attacked inside the first kilometer to get their day in the sun. As Car 3 for the day, and with a single, early break that quickly grew to about 10 minutes we found ourselves in a fairly relaxed position where Lionel could go about filling-in the reporter in on all the ins and outs of neutral service and on the History of MAVIC, including a stop on the roadside to get some footage of the car and all its rooftop kit. For our race leaders, a day in the sun, which was literally just that, turned out to be their ultimate undoing as they each succumbed to the heat, with Terpstra finally getting swallowed up by the group with 10k to go. After a handful of late attacks, the day ended in an inevitable bunch sprint and with the Manx phenom, Cavendish taking his fourth stage win.


On this day, though, I had become much more interested in taking in as much of the French countryside as I could manage. It had been a fantastic trip to this point and I was disappointed to think I would be boarding the TGV the next morning to make my departure. I had made fast friends with my French Service Courses counterparts and was finally getting the hang of reading a menu and not making a complete fool of myself when trying to order dinner.


On arrival at our hotel in Nimes, I met up with Petar, who would be taking my place in the car for the next week through the Alps. Pete was still a bit jet lagged and sleeping when I got to the room, but immediately snapped up, grilling me for every detail of my trip and frequently interrupting my responses with, “DUDE! We’re in FRANCE!” It was almost more than either one of us could handle, on our own - put both of us in the same room, and we became downright adolescent. Before long (like, within minutes) we were both speaking a mad gibberish, each statement punctuated with, “DUDE! We’re in FRANCE!” or, “DUDE! We’re at the TOUR!”


I was mid-sentence explaining to Pete how outrageous the dinners had been all week when there was a knock at the door. It was Denis, gently reminding us, “Il est vingt heures moins le quart! Allez! Dinner! Let’s go!” That’s 7:45… we were supposed to meet at 7:30. We got our shit together quick and started walking to the cars, assuming we were driving to dinner. Wrong again, Denis alerted us, “No. Walking,” motioning toward the road.


Pete turned to me, pointing out that he had been asleep for most of the drive to the hotel, but didn’t recall anything that resembled a restaurant on the way to our hotel on the outskirts of Nimes. I didn’t notice anything either. The hotel was about half a kilometer down a lonely road from a traffic circle with an Esso station and nothing else as far as I could see. I quipped, “It’s been a long week, maybe we’re just going to the gas station for Slurpees and HoHos and calling it a night.” We continued to march down the road toward the circle, bantering on about the trip and the absurdity of it all. “DUDE! We’re in FRANCE!”


At the circle, we found ourselves walking straight into the Esso’s lot, at which point I nudged Pete and muttered, half amused and half bewildered, ”Dude. We ARE eating at a fucking gas station.”


We marched past the front of the station that was a very nondescript, very Mediterranean, stucco building with a tile roof, and around the side where a small window and door could be found. Through the window, a bar with about six stools could be seen, and once in the door we found a small dining room of about ten tables, six of which were put together for our group. Georgie, the Swiss, got up from the table, walked over to us, and firmly stated, “We meet for dinner at seven-thirty, not eight o’clock. It’s hard enough getting the fucking French to keep to a schedule. If they had their way, we’d be here all fucking night!” His words trailed off into a giggle, so we knew he wasn’t genuinely upset. Even the French, among us, found it funny. Funny ’cause it’s true.


Dinner became more surreal as the aperetifs arrived along with the menus - a four-course dinner at an Esso station. Four bottles of table wine to start, salads with fresh, local goat cheese, roast duck, a cheese course, coffee, and a sweet, soupy yogurt concoction for dessert that was just amazing. It’s a dinner story I’ve told a hundred times since I’ve come home, and there’s no end in sight. I couldn’t have dreamt up a more perfectly over-the-top way to cap-off my first trip to the Tour.




Tour de Tour, Part II
Filed under: General, TdF 2008
Posted by: Todd @ 6:23 pm

An internet connection is something I’ve taken for granted in most of my travels, but in the smaller villages in the South of France, and I’m sure throughout most of Europe, one is a rarity [apparently, the Adirondacks aren’t much better]. Mid-way through my stint with the French SSC gang, I grew more and more comfortable with the schedule and arrangement of the program, and also got to know each of my French counterparts a bit better. I’ve learned that Neutral Service in Europe is quite a different animal than in North America; they really are only there to pick up the slack when the team cars aren’t present. Still, when that gap exists, they’re all-business.


Short-lived as it was, I enjoyed the experience, immensely; it’s something I’ll always carry with me. To be a part of an event as grand as the Tour de France is reserved for only the most elite, and as a mechanic, I’m proud to have been accepted into that group.


Stage 11, Lannemezan to Foix


This stage features a section of road a few kilometers long that is so narrow that Tour organizers have declared that teams will not be allowed to service their own riders on that stretch. As a remedy, they have asked MAVIC to provide more two-wheeled support. A group of corporate employees (all of whom also have extensive race service experience, of course) bring three dual-sport motorcycles, normally reserved for Paris-Roubaix, to bolster the efforts of Freddy and Denis on the scooter. So it’s with a caravan of four cars and four motos that we roll into Lannemezan. Our reserved tent in the Start Village is a bit more crowded and more lively than it was during the first two stages, making our time there pass quickly and, before I even knew it, we were walking to our vehicles to make our final preparations for the start.


Lionel and I were car 3 on this day and enjoyed the luxury of not carrying a VIP in the front seat. With our out-front position in mind, we made a fast break with the first Gendarmes and began our leisurely afternoon drive, patiently awaiting a fracture in the field.

The first break to stick was well-in-hand with car 2 and plenty of motor-support, so we continued on our merry way, stopping to greet a friend of Lionel’s who gifted us with a foil container of the most amazing home made sugar crepes I’ve ever tasted. I snapped photos of scenery while Lionel tortured me with a 70’s radio station, turning it way up any time a song in English would come on, which was more often than not. I remember some Foreigner, some ELO, Kansas… you get the picture. Like I said – torture.


Finally, after more than two hours of this, it was business time again. Moinard had created enough of a gap with his solo effort that we were called back to cover him. We followed closely behind Moinard until the Cofidis team car arrived, but his lead over the chase group was still tight enough that we needed to keep close. That lead continued to dwindle, and so, ultimately, we chose to drop back and cover an unsupported Oscar Pereiro who was riding a surprisingly successful solo bridge for the time-being. I say time-being, because not long after we fell in behind the Spaniard, we could see the peloton all-too-clearly through the rear window. Once Oscar took full notice of this too, we bee-lined it to the front again, leaving the race to its own devices, once more.



Stage 12, Lavelanet to Narbonne


We’re officially out of the Pyrenees, and racing down toward the Mediterranean coast. Incredible as it’s been traveling along with the event up to this point, it’s beginning to feel a lot like any other bike race. At first I wonder if the magic is fading, but then I realize that it’s comfort sinking in; I’m feeling less and less like “U.S.”, who’s been invited to tag along for a few days, and more and more and more like one of the team.


It was predicted that stage 12 would end in a bunch sprint because of the prevailing downward direction of the race, with only one categorized climb along the way (a Category 4 climb… hardly a sprinter-breaker). What hadn’t been predicted? The race would make its way to Narbonne, one team slimmer than it had arrived in Lavelanet. The Ricco/Saunier Duval scandal was all over the airwaves from the moment the caravan began to lead the race out.


Between newscasts and speculation over the two-way, Lionel and I took note of the fact that there was, in fact, a bicycle race happening. More to the point, two French riders, Arnaud Gerard and Samuel Dumoulin, had made their attack stick. So with four eyes on the Francaise de Jeux and Cofidis riders, and two-and-a-half ears on the radio reports (I’ve got to face it; my French isn’t that great) we plodded away in the bright yellow Skoda.


The gap to the peloton maxed out at about four minutes and was steadily falling when a fresh-looking Juan Jose Oroz bridged and nearly left the two Frenchmen dazed in his contrail. Dumoulin and Gerard woke up, though, and managed to match the Spaniard’s pace, breathing new life into what had been a dying breakaway. This infusion of energy that briefly stretched the split in a positive direction was still too little, too late. The day would, after all, end with the spectacle of a mass sprint for the line, and the 23-year-old Manx, Mark Cavendish would make it his third time atop the podium in his first ever Tour de France.



One more to go: Narbonne to Nimes.

1 comment
Tour de Tour, Part I
Filed under: General, TdF 2008
Posted by: Todd @ 8:53 am

Today is a rest-day at our race hotel in Tarbes and my first chance to catch up on some much needed sleep and to get some photos uploaded from the last two days of the Tour.

My arrival on Saturday afternoon was mostly uneventful, though bus service in Toulouse was a mess because of race-related road closures. Nonetheless, I made it to the hotel, found the French SSC crew, and got checked into the hotel. We had dinner at a Tapas restaurant that night, in grand fashion, with the French TV organization. Wine flowed late into the night, making me nervous about the next day… 6:30am in the lobby… ugh.


Stage 9, Toulouse to Bagneres-de-Bigorre


As predicted, my 6:00am alarm rang much too soon, but I managed (despite the fact that my internal clock insisted that it was midnight). The French SSC crew insist on arriving on course 3 hours before race-start, presumably because if they arrive any later, they would never get the cars in position where they want them for roll-out. There is, however, a bustling, restricted-access race village with coffee and food waiting for the race organization… and real bathrooms… the lap of luxury.

Once underway, I managed to doze off for a bit while Lionel and I made our way in the forward caravan, ahead of the race, until the first break formed and we dropped in to cover the leaders, Seabstian Lang of Gerolsteiner, Aleksandr Kuschynski of Liquigas, and Nicolas Jalabert of Agritubel. Jalabert was dropped after the first Cat 1 climb, and we went with him to cover the chase group that also included de la Fuente, Sanchez, and Monforte while car 3 took over our position behind the leaders. We were ultimately pushed forward as things began to come back together and finished up ahead of the race.

The day ended at the hotel-restaurant in Tarbes where I had the worst meal of my life (note to self: avoid ordering beef in France, though the frites were good). Another long day, another short night, but tomorrow: Tourmalet.



Stage 10, Pau to Hautacam


The big day. Today, we ascend the Col du Tourmalet and Hautacam. The start is later than it was yesterday, but it was still a chore to get out of bed. On our way into Pau, we drive through what is the Start/Finish line of the famed Formula 3 circuit – very cool. Another morning spent in the Village, relaxing before the stage begins; I could get used to this kind of treatment. How would we go about making this happen in the States?


Lionel and I, this time as car 3, begin our race with a leisurely drive through the French countryside again, taking in the scenery along the way. A break forms and car 2 is there to fill the void, so we continue along our way, moving far ahead in the caravan to allow time for occasional stops to greet friends of Lionel on the route.


A crackle comes over the radio, followed by something in French (go figure), and Lionel turns to me to say we’re swapping places with car 2. A Gerolsteiner rider, Markus Fothen, is having trouble with his transceiver, which has come loose, and they’re going to let me handle the service. But no. I’m seconds away from my first service in the Tour de France… and out the window, no less, when the Gerolsteiner car arrives from the main caravan and we have to hang back. C’est la vie.


The road began to go up, in earnest, and one of two Francaise des Jeux riders in the break of seven, Remy di Gregorio, takes advantage and solos off toward the Torumalet summit. Lionel and I move up and back, trading places on several occasions with the Francaise des Jeux team car to make certain both riders are covered, finish off the climb with Remy, and then do our level best to keep up with him as he tops 80km/h on the way down through the hairpin switchbacks of Tourmalet. (I learned later that a motorcycle went down, hard, on that same descent, behind the peloton. Unfortunately, it didn’t come as a surprise.)


The way to Hautacam, once again, opened a chink in the breakaway’s armor, slowly ending those fleeting moments of glory for the seven. With no place to go but forward, we carried on in the yellow Skoda, leaving the race to its own devices until the finish.

At the top, I spied a diversion that only later (much later) did I realize that I had time to partake while we waited in a queue to be allowed back down the mountain. They were four-wheeled buggies, like go-karts, sans motor, that were towed up the slope on a modified ski lift. Dumb fun – it’s the best kind.


Dinner was better on this night, at a restaurant just a short hop from the hotel. Salmon with pasta marinara – not your typical French fare, but I wasn’t complaining.


Which brings us back to today: relaxing at a hotel in the South of France. Okay, so it’s a hotel in the middle of an industrial park. I’ll still take it.