Cognac, le depart; a famous name, but first we need to find the ‘sticker-guy’. No yellow authorisation sticker means ‘pas de chrono, pour les hommes des PEZ!’ We find him, he digs in his pocket and the vital piece of sticky-backed vinyl is passed-over. The game-plan is to get out on the course, follow a rider, then stop-off and have ‘le picnic Pez’ whilst watching the GC guys have their cage-fight.
We go ‘lucky-dip’ on a rider to start, it’s Iker Camano (Saunier & Spain) he’s no tester, but makes the twisty bits which come early, look easy. We decide to follow a ‘home-boy’, and pull-in to wait for Englishman, Charly Wegelius (Liquigas). He’s no ‘chrono-man’ with those skinny thighs, but even so, he drops us on the S bends through Luchat, 13 K out.
Charly doesn’t even have a team car following today, just a Tour car with his mechanic and a pair of wheels in the back, but he has a job to do and he has good form on the bike as he pedals that Cannondale through some of the most famous vineyards in the world. The parcours isn’t technical, long straights rolling very gently; at 20 K the camper vans start, an endless row of them, Charly switches from one gutter to the next, searching for shelter, the crowd, a hedge, trees, anything to hide from that cross wind.
A long, long drag and he’s sitting at 42 kph, the ‘beasts’ will be nearer 50. He dances over the top, as the crowd spills-out into the road, this for the guy who is 45th, what will it be like for the top three? We begin to drop, 70 kph at 105 rpm into Roulliac at half distance and he makes a wee mistake, off line but maybe it looks worse from the car. Pan-flat now and 60 kph; still the camper vans line the road.
Cognac is behind us and there are less vineyards; maize and sunflower fields to the left and right as he skiffs the crowd. Many fans won’t know who he is but they cheer and clap him – Le Tour at it’s best. 25 k to go and the official car let’s us up to take pics, we can’t go level or pass, but we’re real close to him. Tree-lined now, dragging, huge crowds and the helicopter above us – it’s wonderful. Martin has to blast the horn, the fans are hyper.
You didn’t think we were looking at Chaz the whole time did you?
Roller coaster now, Charly revs it, still in the crouch, he drinks, it drifts right into another long straight. We’re back among vineyards, beautifully tended, a treat for the eye. Colombian flags, I shout from the window; “Colombia!” a huge cheer goes-up. He’s catching his two minute man, Florencio of Bouyges, it’s always a buzz for a rider when he sees a man ahead. Florencio’s cadence is high, he’s not killing his legs on a big one – he just wants to get round, get back for a massage, see his family tomorrow in Paris.
Ten to go, we have to leave Charly before he passes Florencio, ‘bon route, Charly’ – time to set-up ‘le picnic’.
We’ve just stopped, and Bruseghin (Lampre & Italy) whistles past, he started four minutes behind our boy, but is three minutes up on him now.
Turpin, Tankink, Barredo – he punctures; “mierde” he roars at the heavens – translate that one yourself.
Vino time – no, not that one – the one you drink, Bergerac, and the locals think it’s just fine.
Moreau, just a little tongue showing, so he’s simply riding round.
Gusev, those blond curls spill-out from his crash hat; that’s costing you time, dude.
Voigt, he’s caught and dropped Halgand and is blasting that Cervelo up the drag.
George, but no stars and bars, that’s ‘seulement pour le course en ligne’, but he’s moving and those tubs rasp on the tar.
Le picnic is going well, the locals like the wine and I’ve just been over with the cheese, they like that too, the bread is good and so is the ham. One of our “guests” produces a melon and I’ve started on the cidre.
There’s Cobo, it’s three minute intervals now. Karpets is going well and we hear on Radio Tour that he’s gone top by the finish. It’s a day for big, strong guys and Karpets has both of those qualities. Number 15, Chris Horner, ‘biplane’ forks on the Ridley, he must be serious. We’re starting the watch on Pereiro, he’s number eleven, but if he’s only 25 seconds back on Astarloza in tenth, 36 seconds back on Soler in ninth and 1-20 back on Popo in eigth. Going top ten is possible for the man who may, or may not have won last year’s Tour.
The watch plays-up and we miss Pereiro, or maybe it was the cidre?
Top ten time:
Astarloza: start the watch, it looks like he’s enjoying being top ten and he’s showing his teeth as he blasts that Orbea along with that cross/tailwind on his right shoulder.
Soler: No it’s not, it’s Popovych first, he’s just caught and dropped Soler. Popo is up 38 seconds on Astarloza but it looks like Soler is saying ‘goodbye’ to the top ten.
Kirchen: Down 10 seconds on Astarloza and the wind is rising, so much so that the 10 k to go banner just blew away, the direction has changed too, a screaming tail wind.
Valverde: Not great but, not disastrous. He’s certainly driving hard.
Zubeldia: Down 1-06 on companero Astarloza, young Mikel has done a ride, only Popo is up on him so far.
Sastre: Or will it be Levi? No, it’s Carlos, but only just, Levi is a mere 17 seconds behind him on the road. Levi sits low, back flat, hands-up, (you-know-who-style), he’s 100% ‘on-message’ and the gear is huge; his cadence is low but he’s rocket-powered today.
Cadel: He’s 46 second down on Levi, he only had 59 seconds at the start, it could be a Disco one-two. The Australian is ‘tout a droite’ – all to the right; top gear in other words, the cadence is low, his head is to one side, the shoulder movement isn’t bad and he’s rolling well despite the deficit on Levi.
Bert: His gear is much lower than Levi’s and he’s puffing, moving in the saddle, he looks like a roadman who can ride a good test, rather than a pure ‘chrono-man’ like Levi. Bert is 1-10 down on Cadel and almost two miutes down on Levi, this is going to be close.
Pack-away the grub, say ‘goodbye’ to our friends, give the baby a PEZ cap and hustle the Renault or we’ll never see the press room – the traffic will be crazy.
Radio Tour tells us that Leipheimer wins the stage, Contador fifth, but what about the GC. The radio commentary is ‘flat’, no one seems excited about the race and the GC isn’t mentioned.
I ring the boys back in Scotland, “what’s happening?” Viktor tells me; “Leipheimer won the stage, but Contador hung-on and so did Cadel, it’s the same 1-2-3.
Martin drives along the course, packed at some stretches, deserted in others and we get to the press room. Levi’s voice is in our ears, but we can’t see him, there are no screens in the photo area where we are. We’ve gone hard wire rather than wi-fi, which has been a pain for both of us this whole Tour. There is zilch atmosphere in the place. Our ‘high’ from following Charly and our little soiree with the natives fades a little; there’s Bert’s press conference.
What’s that, more Puerto questions?
Was Bert a Puerto man?
We don’t know, but we had fun with Charly, met more nice folks and enjoyed our day – isn’t that what it’s meant to be like?