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The Tour Life

I wrote four days ago about the opening five days of this year’s Tour de France and my attachment to Manx sprinting great Mark Cavendish. What I failed to point out are the sacrifices a fan must make in order to devote 23 consecutive mornings to following the Tour. Following it live, that is (and what’s the point of following it any other way?). The last few days are a case in point.

Months ago, I scheduled a routine dentist visit for this past Thursday at 8:30 AM. A week ago I realized my folly. The stage start times are set in anticipation of a finish at around 5:15 to 5:30 PM in France, or 8:15 to 8:30 AM in these parts. The peloton may decide to push a faster pace, or take it easy, so these are always guesses, but generally good ones. For the first few days last week, the finish was generally a little after 8:30 AM, but not much. An 8:30 dentist appointment meant I would miss the finish for sure.

Last Monday, the 4th, the dentist office was closed for the holiday, but I contemplated calling Tuesday to change Thursday’s appointment. Come Tuesday, I forgot, but Wednesday the Tour gods were looking out for me. I got the day-ahead reminder call and was asked if I could come in an hour later. Heck yes. So it was that I could watch Thursday’s stage to conclusion, with Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen winning the sprint finish and fellow Norwegian Thor Hushovd finishing two spots back in the same time to retain the yellow jersey. Cavendish and Farrar were way back, essentially taking a breather and waiting for the next day.

I didn’t get so lucky that next day. It set up to be a good one for Cavendish, but not for me. I had a 10:00 AM meeting in my office. No problem there. But I also needed to schedule a blood test appointment that I put off all week, so when I called Thursday afternoon to make it and was offered a variety of Friday morning times, I didn’t want to pass them all up. I chose 9:15. Any later and I might get to my office after 10:00. Any earlier and I might miss the end of the day’s stage. I thought I had chosen the optimal time.

When I turned on the stage in progress Friday morning, I was stunned to see how late it was running. It was relatively flat. I didn’t expect it to be so slow. But from what I could see, a finish before 9:00 AM wasn’t likely. I absolutely had to be out of the house at 8:55 AM if I were to be on time for the blood test. Or, I could be late and then risk being late for my 10:00 AM meeting. As the minutes passed, I thought I might have a chance, but then I knew I didn’t. I left dutifully at 8:55 AM, as with 5K left in the stage. Cavendish was well placed, the end would surely be dramatic, and I was going to miss it.

Well, that’s life, but not the life of a true Tour fan. I had failed to organize my life properly and I was very disappointed in myself.

I read about the stage when I got to my office. Later, I watched a replay of the finish online, but it was only of the final seconds, so I had no sense of how it was set up. Finally, around 8:30 Friday night, I got to replay those final 5K.

I missed something special. Team HTC was totally in control, the whole team, or maybe 8 of them, with Cavendish at the end of the line. One by one they dropped off until, in the final kilometer, teammate and leadouter extraordinaire Mark Renshaw took over. From the camera angle in front, which isn’t the best, as it shortens distances, you could see someone trying to break out to the left of the field (right of the picture), then back off and charge around to the right. It turned out to be Romain Feillu, who couldn’t make up the ground he lost trying to get clear and finished fourth. At around this point, Renshaw dropped off and left Cavendish to do the final work on his own. But that’s when the German sprinter André Greipel made a surprising move, perhaps even taking the lead. It was difficult to tell. He was moving fast, though, and Cavendish’s lead was in danger. That’s when Cavendish — take your pick of clichés — found another gear, or turned on the afterburners, or dug deep, or whatever he did — but whatever it was, he surged back into the lead, assuming he had ever lost it, and crossed the line in first for Tour stage victory #2, career stage victory #17. Closing fast, the great Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi edged Greipel for second in a photo finish.

A thrill. But not so thrilling 11 1/2 hours later, when I knew the result. Next time I’ll schedule my life better.

Yesterday I overslept a bit, and for some reason the riders chose yesterday as the day to finish way ahead of schedule. I missed a lot of the stage. Another bad day. Still, it was a day of drama, with Rui Costa the lone survivor of a breakaway as the peloton caught the others on a difficult final climb. Philippe Gilbert finished 12 seconds behind Costa (and earned the green jersey) while another couple of dozen riders were 3 seconds behind Gilbert.

The pity is, I missed a lot of the scenery on the day they rode into the heart of the Auvergne, a region I (undeservedly) think of as my own. It is, after all, my brother-in-law’s home region, the region where my sister lived for three years, the region where my niece was born. Home of the chain of puys, those eroded cinder cones and lava domes, and home too of Volvic, the best of all French waters.

I learned to drink Volvic while visiting my sister in Clermont-Ferrand in the summer of 1981. Jacques would come home from work at lunchtime with a baguette in one hand and Volvic in the other. On that same visit, we drove to nearby Puy-de-Dôme, tallest of the volcanic peaks and itself part of Tour lore — the site in 1964 of the famed duel between ultimate overall winner Jacques Anquetil and runner-up Raymond Poulidor (less than a minute behind). It was great at the end of yesterday’s finish to see Poulidor on the podium, shaking hands with the various daily honorees.

Today’s stage had some competition for attention, what with the US-Brazil women’s World Cup soccer quarter-final starting at 8:00 AM. And the finish of the men’s Scottish Open, a prelude to this coming week’s British Open. I figured out a good way to handle it. I watched the Tour. I was able to switch over to the soccer for the second half, and I caught up with the golf during Tour ads.

The stage started just south of Clermont-Ferrand in Issoire, heading mostly south over a long sequence of climbs and descents. I missed the massive and devastating crash halfway through that eliminated some dozen riders. And later, thanks to some bad luck with the timing of the ad break, I and everyone else following the coverage missed one of the most bizarre incidents I can remember. There had been a big breakaway, one that looked likely to succeed for all five of its riders, who would fight it out for the stage victory. But not after a French television car moved up to pass them with 35K to go. The driver swerved toward the center of the road to avoid a tree at the side, thereby knocking Juan Antonio Flecha straight over, with Johnny Hoogerland, lying fourth in the group, sent flying sideways off the road into barbed wire. (See video above.)

Incroyable. The other three riders, Luis-Leon Sanchez, Thomas Voeckler, and Sandy Casar, managed to stay upright and kept going. Once they realized that they had dropped the others, they slowed down to let Flecha catch up, but he wasn’t going to make it, so they sped up again. Hoogerland got patched up and back on his bike, but was in visible pain, and soon swept up (and spit out the back) by the peloton. Flecha tried futilely to reach the breakaway threesome, but he too had to give up, and he too was caught by, then spit out the back of, the peloton. There’s nothing to be done, but it was an enormous injustice.

And that was that. The stage ended with a climb. Sanchez, Voeckler, and Casar maneuvered for a while, but when Sanchez finally broke away in the final 200 or 300 meters, with Casar fading, Voeckler couldn’t keep up. Voeckler finished 5 seconds back, Casar 13 seconds back, and then in came the peloton, 3 minutes and 59 seconds behind. This allowed Voeckler to take the yellow jersey. He won’t keep it long, but it’s well deserved, with the breakaway earning Sanchez second place overall. Well back in third, fourth, and fifth are some of the major figures in the tour, Cadel Evans, Frank Schleck, and brother Andy Schleck. One happy result for the day was that Hoogerland, before being sent flying into the barbed wire, had amassed enough points on the climbs to earn the polka-dot jersey, provided of course that he managed to finish, which he did.

One puzzle is what to make of Contador’s form. He’s had a lot of bad luck so far in getting caught up in various crashes, including a bizarre one today involving him alone, the result being that he is about a minute and a half back of Evans and the Schlecks. Evans and Andy Schleck look strong so far. Contador will have to round into top form to catch them. The Pyrenees will tell us more. We must wait until Thursday. I’ll be watching.

I won’t be watching Tuesday or Wednesday though, thanks to more bad planning. I agreed weeks ago to teach a class Wednesday morning, when I could have taken the afternoon instead. I wasn’t thinking. And Tuesday morning I have to make a run to the airport. I will have to watch later on the DVR.

I will be sure to schedule my life better next year.

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