Monday, April 27, 2009

The Tour de Bretagne: Stages 2 and 3

Stage three (of the six) in the Tour de Bretagne took place today. I wrote a super long post yesterday only to find out that the internet cost 8 Euro/ hour at the Mercure Hotel in Rennes, France. Ripoff. So here it is, a combined effort from stages two and three, but still worthy!

I am the official post-race baguette sandwich maker (cream cheese, ham, and cheese usually). I also happen to be the only woman around the races and the hotels who is of a relatively young age. I guess I never realized how rare women bike mechanics are. But more than that, I think it’s for the sheer ease of having only men around since most of the riders strip down without thinking and pull it out to pee mid-race. At first I was startled at this, all of it, but now, I’ve come to embrace it. And I can confidently say I have peed more in public settings at least once a day for the past week or so. It’s still easier for the guys to do this, obviously, but I have made a game out of those times I have to pee so badly while riding for 4 hours in a team car – I call it “try to find the best hiding spots”.

I share a hotel room with Phil and his Russian teammate, a quiet yet expressive fellow we call Borisov. He and I communicate a lot with gestures and pieced together sentences from his Italian/Russian knowledge and my Spanish/English. But mostly, as I said, we shrug our shoulders, or shake our heads, or relate on a medical level since he got water in his ear the first day and has been deaf in the left ear since. Poor Boris, the guys on the team tell him that he looks like Jack Bauer on 24. No, not Kiefer. Jack.

So I sat in the back of the team car yesterday and today. It’s one of three vehicles that we have here, but the only one that drives behind the guys as they race the 150-170 km through Northern France. Riding with the team director, Roberto Gaggiolli, is really… interesting. It’s like a riding in a race car in a video game or something. The way he and every team car operates is absolutely beyond me. It’s like the same person is behind the wheel of each one since they magically know how to speed up to 120 kph and slow down perfectly behind bumpers and cyclists. Then they swerve around roundabouts excelerating the entire time and honk at every little thing. I was loving it even though I think I went into cardiac arrest on a few dozen occasions.

Normally, the mechanic accompanies the director to help the riders. But yesterday and today, it was a special case since we’re short-staffed and the huge bus vehicle thing (with washer/dryer, refrigerator, freezer, suitcases, and a back bike shop) had to get to our final destination: the hotel. I don’t drive a stick too well, so our poor Polish mechanic reluctantly sped it there and made it back to that feed zone by the time the tour arrived, including us - their stationwagon posse of over twenty team cars.

But let me back up by saying how surreal it is to become a part of this sport. In so many ways, I found myself relating my experience in the Amore & Vita team car to the Wizard of Oz. I know, it’s trippy, but let me explain. It began when I noticed the “Gendermerie”, or race officials, on the motorbikes as they ride up next to your car, staring straight ahead and not flinching when buzzing past cyclists and weaving between cars. Since the roads are narrow, they’re literally in line to take out the side mirrors if a rabbit were to hop in front of their wheel or something.

(Side note: they have so many rabbits in Northern France it is unbelievable. And they eat them after storing them in their freezer>fridge with entire body intact, including the head which has poked out eyes and a bloodied face. I was shown this at Franck & Steph’s place and lost my appetite. It hasn’t actually returned yet either, especially when we’re served boned animal meat.)

But back to the land of Oz: The brightest yellow fields of fluorescent flowers are everywhere. Not sure what they are used for… maybe mustard? But wow. My favorite part though is that the people who step outside of their farmyards and tiny town gates are in such awe - many are old men and women with thick french bellies, but entire schools of little kids come outside to watch too. They seem fascinated and mesmerized and you can tell they feel graced by the presence of the Tour outside of the windows in their sleepy towns. I have a feeling that most people in Minnesota, San Francisco, or anywhere in the U.S., might find the traffic noise, the blocking off of streets, the caravan of team cars to follow, and the fact that a sport that their tax dollars pay for some element of would come invade their routine lives a bit obnoxious. But here, as I’ve mentioned before, people live for cycling even if they’ve never gotten into it themselves. They could only hope that after 364 days or so, the Tour de Bretagne will choose to pass through again.

Yesterday, Amore & Vita’s Yuriy Metlushenko took 2nd place by only 6 seconds. This was astonishing as he had flatted about halfway into the race and had to catch up on a hill which seemed to be pretty difficult. Today, the German rider, Phillip Mamos, was in the lead group. I forgot to check which place he got, but he won each of the climbs and was rewarded heavily with many points for them. My Phil has been racing better each day, and I can tell that he’s feeling stronger because of it. It’s so fun to watch him race these grueling hills and understand why he’s been training so hard all of this time.

From this moment on, I think cycling is quite possibly the most mentally and physically challenging sport I've ever witnessed. But for these guys, it's like "another day at the office".

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