Thursday, July 19, 2012

Stage 15 Start - Samatan

The night before our first Tour stage (Stage 15), we looked at the map and realized that the way the course was laid out would make it pretty easy to see both the start in Samatan as well as the finish in Pau as originally planned. Therefore, we got up around 9:00 and packed up the car. Because of the kooky nature of the hotel, there was no checkout process; you just left and the locks stopped letting you in. Or at least I hope.
Believe it or not, we tried to go to another McDonald's for breakfast (much to Nathan's dismay, but a) it was on the way, and b) we didn't have to waste a bunch of time searching for it). We navigated directly to it (probably our best in town navigation of the trip) but it was closed. Therefore, we went to plan B: find a grocery store along the way and grab something to eat. This turned out to be a great idea as we found a nice Carrefour right off the highway and bought water bottles, orange juice, Coca-cola Light for me (I like my soda!) and a box of 12 chocolate croissants! The croissants were our best purchase of the trip: we at a couple each in the car and had several left over for carrying around and eating in Samatan and Pau.

We got back on the road to Samatan, and that's where things started to get weird. First, we were passed by a crazy red car with a big plastic bubble on the back containing what appeared to be a giant C cell battery. We didn't think much of it until a bit later we were passed by an AG2R team car. It turns out that the teams and the publicity caravan participants were all staying in Toulouse, and were making their way up to Samatan just like we were! In fact, there were signs at the highway exit and all along the route we were taking pointing the Tour people to the Depart (start line).

The area of France we were in (Gers) seems to produce two main products, one we saw everywhere we looked and one we just had to be told about. The product that was easy to spot was the sunflowers. Everywhere along the road were fields of sunflowers. They looked a bit like this:

Fields and fields of sunflowers

The product that we didn't see but had to be told about was foie gras. The town of Samatan apparently is very famous for their foie gras (fatty goose liver) prodution. In fact, as soon as we got to Samatan, we saw evidence of their goose heritage (along with some other Tour decorations):

Woohoo! Home of foie gras!

The locals made a nice bicycle for the affair!

Another vignette for our enjoyment!

A nice farmer flagged us over and let us park in his field. He didn't even charge us anything. I'm not sure if that is part of the agreement the Tour makes with the town (i.e., to not gouge people on stuff like parking) or if that's just the way people are in the south of France.

Either way, we parked and started walking toward the town center. As we walked along, we kept seeing Tour related vehicles making their way toward Samatan:

Those are publicity caravan vehicles

As we got closer to town, we began to see lots of staging areas, some already full of Tour vehicles and some waiting to be full:

The motorcycles of the video camaramen

The publicity caravan vehicles waiting to go

The parking lot where the team buses would park

The doctor's "Skoda" that's actually a VW Eos

As we crossed a small bridge and entered the town, we saw that it was decorated with little flags in the shape of geese, all in the colors of the jerseys of the Tour. I wonder if Flo could make some of those for me?!

Nice decorations for the Tour!

We wandered around the town and took in the pre-Tour sights. Some of the publicity caravan folks were already hard ad work handing out goodies, and four guys dressed as geese were wandering around, apparently excited that they were going to be turned into foie gras soon:

He looks pretty happy!

And dancing with a gendarme!

Soon the teams started to arrive in their caravans of cars and a giant coach:

Katusha's bus and bikes

Radio Shack and Lampre

A Katusha rider chatting with fans

Nathan with the Schleck-mobile

Me with the Jens-mobile

Here is the start line and the crowd that had already gathered about 2 hours before race time:

People are pretty excited!

Then the publicity caravan started in earnest. A few things about the publicity caravan: it is like a long parade, but it moves at high speed (probably 20 mph or so). As they pass by in their odd vehicles of all shapes and sizes, they hand out samples to the people lining the street. Well, maybe hand is a little gentle, it's more like fling or throw. Some of the flingers realize they are throwing potentially unsafe objects at people from a 20 mph vehicle and aim their trinkets low. Others just fling them willy nilly, and let the chips (or key chains as the case may be) fall where they may. If that is in your cornea, that's your problem!

Anyway, here are some photos from the publicity caravan:

Woot! Bread!

Nathan with our first swag: Bic pens!!!

After the caravan went by, the team cars started to line up, and the riders started to head to the starting line. It was absolute chaos on the road as cars, bikes, motorcycles, and pedestrians all mingled with one and other. It is hard to believe that there are not more injuries just from the craziness at the starting line, but I guess these guys are professionals.

A Liquigas rider heading to the line


Philip Gilbert (I believe) signing an autograph

Here's the girl who holds up the board with
the time difference on it!

Soon, riders were passing us in large groups, and the start was imminent. All the riders were standing in a giant group, chatting and waiting. I managed to get Chris Horner to give me a wave and Nathan did the same with Frank Schleck! Here are some photos of the start line:

Maxime Monfort waiting and chatting

Chris Horner was right by us

Frank giving us a look

Frank Schleck stands out in a crowd!

After a few minutes of sitting there, someone gave a signal and they all took off. The crowd went nuts, but then they all stopped again. Apparently, the riders don't initially line up right on the start line, and the signal they gave was just to move to the start line itself. I think they do this just to mess with the crowd, or possibly to let us get two shots at sending them off!

Finally, at 1:30 on the dot the race started. Of course, the first start is called the depart fictif, or false start. During this start, they ride as a big group through the town so people lining the streets can get a good look at them. (We were on the other side of the starting line, so we have no photos of this.) Ten minutes later, they have the real start and that's when the racing (and usually the breakaway attempts) start for real.

After the race leaves town, the team buses head out for the next town, and the Tour logistics team starts packing up:

On the way to Luchon!

And with our first Tour de France experience under our belts, we headed back to our car to make the drive to Pau.

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