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Goat Roads

Posted by MDugard on Jul 13, 2006 10:21:47 AM

Greetings from Pau....Just took a drive along the course, having my first look at the Pyrenees of this year's Tour. I'd forgotten how charming they can be, with stone farm houses, great valleys and forest, and pastures full of white dairy cows and freshly-sheared sheep. The villages are so small that the entrance sign and exit sign are often just a few hundred yards apart. But the Pyrenees are also a very daunting mountain range, justas steep and long from a cyclist's point of view as the more acclaimed Alps. The course may be beautiful, and the drive may have been one postcard view after another (I'm told that the road is also known as the "route de fromage" for all the cheesemakers along the way), but the peloton will be sorely tested as they climb up and down those great mountains in the next few days.There are two major climbs today, the Col de Soudet and the Col de Marie Blanque. Right now, both of them are shrouded in warm fog. The first is a somewhat spartan road that labors for the almost 8 miles upward at a nearly 8% incline. The second is shorter, just five miles high and a 7.7% gradient. Just the fact that the peloton will be climbing after ten days on flats means that some riders will quit the race, while others will fall very far behind. But in terms of action, their positioning along the course means there will be some odd strategy choices today.The riders begin climbing the Col de Soudet just 60 miles into the 119-mile stage. But that's only halfway to the finish. That makes it almost impossible for a rider to break away on the first climb without getting caught by the peloton before the finish. There's too much downhill and flat space for the peloton to not utilize its superior speed to restore order by reeling in the rebels. Look for the eventualstage winner to make his move on the Col de Marie Blanque, which is just twenty-five miles from the finish.Even then, it's a long way into Pau, where the race will end near the city center (which is currently under reconstruction after being heavily damaged in the nationwide riots a few months back). It will be difficult for a breakaway so succeed.Look for T-Mobile and Phonak to ride at the front of the peloton, controlling the pace. Discovery Channel (whose waning glory but powerful sense of purpose inspired those lines from "Ulysses" yesterday) have quietly made it clear that they will do their attacking in the Alps.If Levi Leipheimer drops any further back, look for him to quietly exit the race.Also, look for a shakeup in the overall rankings, but only among the lesser riders. Tomorrow is the day when guys like Landis and Australia's Evans want to be dominant.I stayed in Dax last night, in an odd little Best Western next to a large lake and a small casino. Oddly, there was a small Tex-Mex place nearby. Scenes from the American West lined the walls, including pictures of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. I was inspired to try their fajitas and guacamole, which were both done rather well (the guacamole was served with exactly six tortilla chips, all dusted in paprika). The meal got points for presentation and historical intention, but I sure would have loved some refried beans.The plan this morning was simple: dash through the course to better appreciate what the riders would endure (I love driving through the Pyrenees. The Basque crowds with their orange shirts are always plentiful and crazed, and I am slowly coming to the realization that the Pyrenees, not Provence, are my favorite part of this country. Ihave images of buying a small farmhouse on a mountainside, with a stream running across the green fields, and a forest behind the place. I would come here with my family to write my books and slow down each summer. This fantasy, by the way, is still in the works and nothing I really put into words until just this moment, but the Pyrenees are the Montana of France -- the last best place).But the drive got a tad complicated when the advertising caravan left the start area a half-hour early, effectively blocking the narrow road the riders would follow up and over the mountains. Obviously, a detour was in order. My traveling buddy Austin Murphy and I took a quick look at the Michelin Atlas in search of this grand detour, knowing that it would likely be a gravel farm road or one of the notorious "goat roads" -- barely marked, clinging to the side of a cliff, likely to dead-end in a Basque pig farm.The Michelin (a 420-page cartographic behemoth that should be required of any serious traveler to France) displays every nook and cranny of the country. Sure enough, we soon came upon a faint gray squiggle parallel to the course. We would leapfrog ahead of the caravan on that mystery road, and then hook up with the course at the base of the Col de Soudet. But we had to drive fast. If the caravan got to the Col de Soudet first, we would be stuck behind them once again.That narrow gray line turned out to be a twisting one-lane farm road. Our impromptu "hors couse" (off course) journey was done at a high rate of speed, music playing loudly, with a stop only for diesel and Orangina. The route was all forests and farms, snaking past a landscape so green that it reminded me of the jungles of Borneo. We slowed down through the small village squares, with their towering stone churches and war memorial fountains, then raced on over more hills and valleys.Then we picked up the pace once again, desperate to beat the caravan, slowed only by the occasional tractor hauling a wagonload of fresh manure.Scenes from the road: a young boy stroking his pony's mane as the animal nuzzles his shoulder; a stone farmhouse three stories tall; the Col de Marie Blanque jutting above the foothills like a shark's tooth, summit in the clouds, reminding me very much of the Grand Teton.The village of Oloron had signs plastered on storefronts advertising an upcoming half-marathon. OK, the village was tiny. Really small. All I could wonder was where they were going to get the runners.The village stores were closed and the streets were empty everywhere along our drive. Almost everyone within fifty miles of the course was off to the Tour (along the same note, I have been wanting to buy more running socks. Problem is, all the sporting goods stores along the course for the last week have been closed due to the Tour. I thought that was a nice bit of irony).That drive was the best two hours I've spent at the Tour so far this year. It's a shame that most visitors to France will never follow the same path (there are no great monuments or hotels, just simple and sublime beauty), because it was simply marvelous. Having said that, we never forgot about the caravan.We arrived back at the course, triumphant, waiting for the gendarme to remove the barricade and wave us through. He held up one hand, motioning for us to turn around and go back the way we came. Behind him on the course, the first vehicles of the advertising caravan began their snail-like ascent of the Col de Soudet.Talk to you after the stage.

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