Albi kindly dropped us off at the train station in Merzig, a town we would fail to navigate through error-free every time hereafter. Neither Scott nor Peter had travelled on a commuter train with bikes and gear. Peter had ridden with a trailer before, but never had to load into a train or hike-a-bike up and down stairs. After some rather heart-wrenching rushing to get onto our first train, the thoughts about just how efficient trailers were compared to panniers tended to be depressing! The procedure was eventually figured out, but the growing pains were evident and probably a source of mirth for many a German commuter! The stairs were such a pain with a trailer that at one point Peter used an available suitcase slide. It was a wild ride for the bike and trailer with Peter barely hanging on, flailing his way down the stairs. Scott did far better with his rear panniers, as heavy as they were. We had a long enough stopover in Chalons-en-Champange to ride into town for lunch. The spin was relaxing, energizing, and exciting. Seeing French architecture, boulangeries, and riding instead of struggling and pushing was a pleasure! The train from Chalons-en-Champagne through Vitry and to St.-Dizier (destination of the day) provided our first chance to use the famous French phrase "I don't know" (shjun say pa!) and the accompanying effortless Gallic shrug. We 'accidentally' didn't get of the train at Vitry, even though our tickets ended there. The conductor wasn't exactly happy, but didn't collect any extra money and just said, "Next stop." Grin! Into St.-Dizier we went. Scotty navigated us to the local Tourist Office who suggested a local technical college as a decent supplier of bargain beds. Done, and especially in a town starting to hop with Tour traffic. We met two people there who represented the extremes of traveling in foreign societies. Mathew is a photography, bike and Formula 1 nut and he spends a lot of time travelling in Europe and North America. He was nice, non-abrasive, spoke French and seemed to work with whatever he was given at various places. Jim, on the other hand, was the classic tourist who has no patience for another society (much less bike mechanics) and even after following the Tour twice before, still didn't speak a word of French. Not pleasant to be around, and something to learn from!
Our first Tour day! Tour stage 2: 204.5km from Charleville-Mézières to St.-Dizier. Let the mayhem begin! We spun along the last few kilometres of the course and into the finish area to get an idea about where we wanted to be later in the day. It was amazing to watch the equipment being set up. Cameras, trailers full of railing, grandstand seating, double-decker semi-trailers with roof-top decks and small pine trees for decoration, blow up finish line arches and even a blow-up podium backdrop!
And all for 30 seconds of riders! The money was mind-blowing. A grocery store stop yielded the surprise of the week: a 2.39 Euro bottle of wine. We were mildly concerned, but we tried it anyway during our relaxing baguette and brie lunch under the trees and were pleasantly surprised! The fence line was already filling up with fans. Scott wandered in the finish area while Peter walked back along the course and found a fence to stand on.
We had expected the Caravan to be the support cars, team cars, and whatever other vehicles were included in making the Tour run. What we didn't expect was the string of advertising: huge plastic shapes wrapped around cars and 4-wheelers; 10-foot tall lions with fuzzy hair waving in the breeze; cars with loudspeakers on top loudly proclaiming brand names; gals leaning from sunroofs and sitting on convertibles handing out little cheeses, waters, plastic signs, and even handkerchiefs.
The Caravan lasted for a half hour, people jumping and grasping for loot. And then we waited. Suddenly, the roar of a far-away crowd sped towards us and then the peloton was there, flitting past, then racing away in a stream of noise and colour. 15 seconds of fame? Repeat as necessary along the whole course?
We wandered back to downtown St.-Dizier for food at a restaurant where a harried husband carried on an extended argument with his harri-ing wife right in the dining room. "I don't know. I don't know!"
Second Tour day! Tour stage 3: 69km team time trial from Joinville to St.-Dizier. This day would be the first real test ride for all of our touring equipment. The day before had been too much train-swapping and not enough distance to give us a good feel for how the bikes would work. We strapped the baguettes and another bottle of cheap wine into the trailer (thank goodness for bungee cords!), pedaled through the finish area pandemonium, backwards along the time trial course and past more Tour groupies, some decked out in full gear (including booties for reducing wind resistance) and others easily 60 years old and probably capable of dropping us! Impressive! We headed for Wassey, a town early in the course and on a downhill, promising good form and energy from the riders. Finally, we were able to drink in the French countryside without an impeding window. More cornfields swept by, but also wide arcs of sunflower fields, heads reaching for the sun.
As we stopped to admire the fields, we were also required to admire the French Air Force. A several ton hunk of metal, plastic, fabric and encapsulated human careening through the air at speeds most people don't even dream about is always a little captivating. We finished our hot pedal to Wassey and settled in to drink our water, recover from the unanticipated heat and dryness, and watch the Caravan come through, jingles blaring, girls tossing loot and lots of crazed fans jumping around.
The teams came through one at a time in reverse order; the slower teams first and the fastest last. We watched several teams rush through Wassey, surprisingly looser grouped than expected (it seems the TV angles are slightly different than sitting on the ground!). Peter found a few spots on the pavement that were a little hot to sit on, sort of a grin-and-bear-it, but worth the shots.
We realized if we were fast enough getting home, that we could watch the last couple teams finish and gathered ourselves for the dry ride home. Drinking, wilting, drinking, wilting, drinking. It is amazing how much water one person can ingest in an hour. We were slightly dehydrated! Scott spotted the USPS team bus in St.-Dizier and Peter fought his way into the crowd,. camera held high, to catch a few teams and fans.
We wandered out to dinner at a very local restaurant (40 feet from the college) and a last tour of town.