July 16: Climbing Alpe D'Huez and Tour Start at Romans

Today was about crossing things off our list. We woke up with a domestic and a foreign agenda, and we managed to wipe out all entries on each front. All around us, St. Antoine was gearing up for a weekend-long medieval festival. We couldn’t decide whether we were glad to be missing it because of congestion and noise, or sad because the kids would have loved all the pirate and wench action. We later found that the medieval festival means loud pop music all night long throughout the village, and that many of the locals actually leave for the duration.

First we needed to find a banque automatique that would dispense enough money to pay what we owed on the house. We had attempted at several different machines. Without knowing what all the symbols mean, and which machines will and won’t recognize your card, and which can only dispense 10 Euro bills and which can dispense 50s, it’s hard to stay in funds. I have no advice, having no clue what it all means, except that when you can get money out of a machine you should get a lot. We drove into St. Marcellin and found a machine attached to an actual bank – a good sign – and it gave us all the bills we needed.

Our next job was to find the market in St. Marcellin. We had been told that the market specialized in flowers, both cut and potted, and I wanted to buy some flowers to fill the pots outside our house in St. Antoine. Our host had not been able to break away from commitments in England to be able to come down and plant flowers this year, so I thought it would be nice if the house were spruced up for the medieval festival. The market was usually on Wednesdays, we knew, but had been moved due to Bastille Day. After driving around St. Marcellin fruitlessly, asking several women who were carrying empty baskets (and looking purposeful) and listening to streams of incomprehensible directions, we gave up and went to a garden store outside town. I bought geraniums and impatiens. Everybody likes those, right?

Back in St. Antoine, Dan went to check in with the neighbors who take care of the house, and I stuck the plants into the planters and gave them a drink. Then we were back into the car and on the road to Romans to see the start of the Tour de France.

One of the difficulties in following the tour is knowing exactly where, in a modern town the size of Romans, the race will be going through. If we had solid internet and an understanding of French, or if we could pick up the phone and ask the authorities, “Um, excuse me, on which road is the Tour de France travelling today?” then we would have a better chance of driving and parking intelligently. As it is, we knew in general that the tour was starting in Bourg de Peage, a suburb of Romans, so we put that into the GPS, drove as close to it as the local gendarmes would allow, and when we got stopped at a barricade, we got out and walked in the general direction that the other people were walking.

Turns out we were on the opposite side of the bridge from the start, but we found the race route and traced it back, a long long way toward the actual starting gate. We knew we had arrived when we heard the announcer over the loudspeaker, and saw the MASS of people. There was definitely a festival atmosphere, people walking around wearing tanks of frappucino and dispensing it with little nozzles into sample cups, balloons, banners, flags, and tons of TDF fans. As we learned yesterday, TDF fans are bloodthirsty, cutthroat individuals who will butcher their sainted grandmother to get a good spot on the railing. But in the absence of visible riders, they seemed to be just milling around having a nice time.

This lady had a bag on her head because it was hot:

Here's the Ricorre guy. Ricorre is like instant coffee but more milky:

We got as close as we could to the big stage, so that when the riders started signing in (they have to officially sign in to race at the beginning of each day, and it’s become a big ritual) we could sort of almost see. Each rider that signed in, the unintelligible announcer said his name, so we would hear the equivalent of this: “Oogly boogly woogly woggly ANDY SCHLECK! Boogly woogly!” And then the crowd would go nuts. At last the riders began to fill in the road behind the starting gate, and Benny (in typical Benny form) wormed his way to the front of the rail (sometimes on hands and knees) where we were standing, ending up next to a Cofidis rider. I passed him a Sharpie and my international driver’s license, and he (grudgingly) got the guy’s autograph. He wasn’t impressed with this rider because he wasn’t an American. I made myself a little pile of rocks to stand on, and as the riders filed in I saw Andy Schleck in yellow, Contador (not in yellow) and Mark Cavendish.

Then the riders moved up to the actual starting gate, and I lost all ability to see anything, being admittedly short, and the crowd on the rail was five deep. The last thing I heard was Benny saying “Wave your flag, mom, wave it like crazy!” So I stepped back, waved the American flag, and just tried not to get trampled. Dan had Sadie on his shoulders, so I could see her and knew where he was, but we both completely lost track of Benny. The riders stayed in this position for a while and then they were off, rolling off toward the city of Romans and the rest of the stage, and the crowd began to urgently mill about.

When we finally found Benny, he had an amazing tale to tell. He had poked his head over and seen Lance by the railing, then wormed and squirmed his way over to Lance Armstrong and had a conversation! According to Benny, he said, “I’m from America” and Lance said, “That’s cool,” and then they had a little chat about cycling. That’s all we could get out of him – I don’t know if he doesn’t remember or if it didn’t process accurately at the time, or what, but when we found him in the end he was very pumped! He’s very happy to have now met Barack Obama and Lance Armstrong. I told him Lance is probably more famous – after all, forty odd people have been President of the United States, but only one person has won the Tour de France seven times.

Back in the car, we got on the road to Grenoble and Alpe D’Huez. I had such a good time playing O Fortuna for Dan while he was climbing Mt. Ventoux that I wanted to find just the right song for the brutal, soul-crushing switchbacks of Alpe D’Huez. We considered trying to find the song that’s played by the band in the gazebo on Bugs Bunny when Yosemite Sam goes up the alp and back down and up and down. Then I had the idea to use the yodeling goatherd song from The Sound of Music, and MIRACULOUSLY Dan had the Gwen Stefani song that samples it on his iPod. Trust Dan to anticipate a good joke and get out in front of it.

We went back to Bourg d’Oisans and Dan got kitted out, ready to roll. After stopping by the DEPART sign to start his clock, he headed up to switchback 21. The turns are all numbered, and each named after a cyclist who won a stage on the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong’s turn is 19. We saw lots of people on the way up taking their pictures with the signs next to various turns. It was particularly poignant to me to see one pair of guys looking absolutely worn to a frazzle, taking their pictures next to turn 14. Having been up and down the mountain a couple of times now (in the car) I know that it really does seem like you’ve come an enormously long way, at turn 14. But I also know that it is still a long long way to the top!

Dan and I did the now familiar dance where I’d get ahead of him, he’d pass me, I’d get ahead of me, he’d pass me, etc. on up the mountain. At the last turn, I followed him up and tried to get video of him reaching the summit. Up on the top, there’s a charming little village with bike shops (in the winter they’re ski shops), restaurants, a post office and Mairie and everything, just a real little city way up in the sky. As Dan and the kids had some drinks in a restaurant with the Tour de France playing on a flatscreen, I snuck off to buy Dan an Alpe D’Huez jersey and shorts. His birthday is tomorrow, and I found one that’s skeletal and ironic enough that he might even wear it around town.

The kid were wearing their Celerity Cycling jerseys so we took a family picture by the summit. I have to say it was pretty fun to sit up there at an outdoor table and watch the people struggling up the mountain. A supreme effort, this climb, psychologically and physically. I’m impressed with anyone who even attempts it, but I’m particularly impressed with Dan who made it up in just under an hour. The world record is 36 minutes – I think he did awesome! For a guy who’s about to turn 38.

Back at home, we ate Friday night “clean out the fridge” dinner, and Sadie and I watered the flowers. Sadie had her turn to play her violin out in the street, with lots and lots of foot and car traffic as the medieval festival turned up the volume in preparation for the next day. She played all her favorite songs from book 1, sounding fantastic and huge. The acoustics just outside Maison St. Georges are so fantastic, with the sound echoing off the stone walls on each side. I think she really enjoyed playing, getting applause from the passersby and rocking out her tunes.

A fan, leaning out the kitchen window:

Dan walked the children up to the glacier by the abbey for ice cream, and when they got home it was time for bed. I spent the time packing and cleaning up the house, taking a quiet bath upstairs, hanging laundry, and getting ready to leave our awesome home in the mountains.

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