The last day of my Europeds Tour de France adventure was a great one. The weather was fine, and we were only a few miles from the finish line of Stage 19, the individual time trial that would determine the outcome of the 2010 Tour. Everyone was excited to see the last day for the yellow jersey contenders (since the final stage into Paris is just for the sprinters), so we were up early to grab our petit dejeuner on the back porch of our hotel, the elegant Chateau Pomys (although calling it a back porch doesn’t quite do it justice, does it):
Before watching the excitement that was sure to come at the time trial finish in Pauillac, most folks broke up into groups to cruise the French countryside for one last ride. I headed out into the vineyards with TJ, and we were amazed that the roads were so free of any traffic while the pandemonium of a Tour de France stage finish was only a few miles away.
Did I mention that there are a few chateaux in this part of France?
After a nice 30 mile jaunt, we headed to the coast of the Gironde, where it was a straight shot down to Pauillac and the finish line village. While riding along the water, we got a little taste of the breeze that would devastate the Tour riders during the time trial itself.
When we arrived in Pauillac, the excitement level and crowds were already building. While not overwhelming at all, the crowd was definitely in full effect near the finish line (along with the press booths that are erected overnight for every stage). It’s pretty amazing how quickly this infrastructure is put up and taken down every day–just the night before none of these structures or signs were in place on this final stretch.
And soon after I arrived, I saw my first rider of the day (someone from the Cervelo Test Team). After a while watching the time trial, you kind of found a rhythm for watching the race, as riders came by every 1 minute (and later every 2 minutes). You could hang out and talk to people, and then, when you saw the lead motorcycles and officials’ cars zoom by, rush to the fence to see the next rider (or 2, if someone got passed on the road).
Here is Tony Martin, from Team HTC-Columbia, powering his way to nearly the fastest time of the day. The riders who went out early definitely had the advantage of not facing as bad a headwind as started blowing later in the afternoon.
But the man that almost everyone picked to win didn’t disappoint; reigning World Time Trial Champion Fabian Cancellara, of Team Saxo Bank, blistered the 52km time trial course in a time of 1 hour 56 seconds (that’s an average pace of 32 miles an hour, for those who didn’t do the conversion–insane!)
The setting for the last kilometer of the course was quite pretty, as it ran down a waterfront promenade, with shops and restaurants along one side and a stately line of trees along the other. Here’s a rider from Team Milram cruising by the marina on his Focus bike:
Some fans found a higher vantage point to watch the race, and the nationalities were pretty mixed judging by the flags on display.
But there’s no missing who this next rider is, with his Captain America attire. It’s none other than Dave Zabriskie, the American Time Trial Champion of Team Garmin-Transitions, who did the Stars and Stripes proud with a 5th place finish on the day.
As the afternoon wore on, I started to wander down the course a ways just for a change of pace. Here I am passing the flamme rouge, or the 1km to go banner, as a Team Katusha rider blurs past.
And here’s a rider from Team Astana, Bejamin Noval Gonzalez, barrelling around a corner, not even getting out of his aero tuck:
If you walked far enough along the race route, you reached the vineyards and open fields where the wind was blowing right into the riders’ faces. The only thing blocking the wind were the hundreds of camper vans parked along the side of the road, like this cluster shielding a BMC Racing Team rider:
I’m not sure what the theory was with the outfit, but this guy said he was a Contador fan (and he did match his dog, which was a nice touch):
Back in town, the fans were getting fired up for the final riders to appear on the home stretch:
One of the best places to get a better look at the riders (since they were moving so fast out on the road) was the stretch of road after the finish line and before the team buses. Here’s American Road Race Champion George Hincapie rolling along after finishing up the time trial (too bad he wasn’t wearing that cowboy hat, though, as that would have been a great picture).
And in case you didn’t think that this time trial was a totally draining experience, just look at the glazed expression on World Road Racing Champion Cadel Evans’ face as he was ushered back to the comfort of the team bus:
Lance Armstrong didn’t waste any time when he finished up his ride, slicing through the crowd to find the safety of a camper van, setting off a chase by fans and reporters alike:
Finally we were getting close to the big finale, as everything would be settled by the last few riders. The announcer was calling out updated split times all day long, so we definitely knew where things stood as the time trial was winding down. The energy in the crowd was building to a fever pitch as the last riders hurtled down the final hundred meters. Fans would start cheering and slapping the barricade signs as riders approached, like here with Robert Gesink of Team Rabobank:
By far the most impressive ride of the afternoon was thrown down by Denis Menchov, whose time of 1 hour 4 minutes 47 seconds was a good 3-4 minutes faster than the average time for the later finishers, and was easily enough to vault him into 3rd place overall.
But the duel that everyone was waiting for didn’t disappoint, as Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador battled back and forth all day long, just as they had for the rest of the race. As the split times rolled in, Schleck seemed to be closing in on Contador’s overall lead, at one point cutting the “on the road” gap down to 2 seconds. Alas, it was not to be (much to the dismay of most of the fans), as Schleck faded just a bit down the final few kilometers, and couldn’t close out those last 8 seconds, even though he turned in a fantastic time trial.
Then there was only one man left on the course, and, in a blaze of yellow (and the roar of the crowd plus a few helicopters), Contador went flying past. He finished in a time of 1 hour 6 minutes 39 seconds–31 seconds better than Schleck’s time, assuring him another Tour de France victory.
I hustled over to the awards’ podium to catch the winners’ presentation, braving the crush of fans who squeezed in with me. First up was Cancellera, who was awarded the stage winner’s bouquet by the PowerBar girls:
Then, without any preamble, it was time for the yellow jersey presentation. Contador was hamming it up a bit much, but it was undoubtedly a long 3 weeks of racing as the favorite, so the relief he felt after this stage was evident:
And what Contador victory would be complete without his “pistolero” salute (sorry, I only caught the recoil):
Next up was Alessandro Petacchi in his recently re-acquired Green Sprinters’ Jersey (which he held on to during the final stage in Paris):
Then Anthony Chartreau of French Team Bbox Bouygues Telecom did the host nation proud by donning the final polka-dot Climbers’ Jersey (and you’ve got to love those wacky umbrella dresses worn by the podium girls):
The final jersey awarded was the White Jersey for Best Young Rider, which of course went to Andy Schleck, who was oh-so-close to winning it all for the second year in a row (and quite possibly would have won if not for that untimely mechanical on Stage 15 when he was in the yellow jersey). But there’s little doubt that we’ll see a lot more of this duel in the next few years, as both Schleck and Contador are just hitting their prime years for racing!
With all the jerseys handed out, there was nothing to do but clean up and clear out. The Tour is always moving, and as soon as a stage is done, the barricades and temporary structures are disassembled and the thousands of fans start streaming home (luckily for me, this meant only a short ride through the vineyards back to my chateau!)
But the finish of this stage also meant that my adventure in France was at an end. It was an amzing experience, both watching the spectacle that is the Tour and riding the same roads and mountain passes as the racers, sometime just hours before the race passed by! It gave me a whole new level of respect for what these pro riders are capable of, plus it was a total blast to test myself on these famous and jaw-dropping roads. The experience was made even better by the camaraderie of everyone on my Europeds tour group, including my fellow riders and of course our guides David, Chris and Charly. I would be happy to go riding at any time with any of the people I met on this tour (or at least enjoy another fantastic meal).
It’s a bit of a shock to return back to your home roads after a trip like this (there are far fewer chateaux in North Carolina, for example), but I’ll never forget my week chasing the Tour through the Pyrenees. If you get the opportunity, this trip is definitely one you won’t regret if you are a true cycling fan (and having great guides doesn’t hurt). The other fans, the roads, the atmosphere… just being there is a magical experience. I hope you got a little sense of what it was like through my daily updates, and maybe next year we’ll see you on the roads in France!