When you get a media credential for the Tour, you receive a big, heavy stack of books, all of which, unfortunately, come in handy and have to be hauled around.
There's the priceless livre de route, or road book, that has the stage map for every day, diagrams of the start and finish, and the off-course route if you want to drive straight to the finish. There's the histoire book, with cumulative stats, facts and figures (this is the one that has now scrubbed Bjarne Riis and partially scrubbed Floyd Landis). There's the guide touristique, which has a textbook-like rundown of the history, economy, literature and gastronomic delights in each town and region the Tour passes through. There's a lodging book that lists the locations, names and phone numbers of all the team hotels. And there are two rulebooks -- one for the riders and race itself, and one that details all the stuff you should and shouldn't do to avoid having your car thrown off the course. These latter rules are mostly common sense, like not driving too fast and not talking on cell phones while driving, and they are widely ignored.
There are certain Tour rules that don't appear anywhere in print. Here are a few of them:
1) Eat whenever there is food available.
2) Buy gas whenever you see a station with no lines, as opposed to when you really need it.
3) Never leave the press room without grabbing several free bottles of water from the big tub.
4) If there's no parking space, improvise.
The above may sound trivial, but when you're driving a couple of hundred miles a day under severe time pressures, they become paramount. They become especially important when the Tour enters the mountains, as it did today. They become cardinal on a summer weekend, and critical on Bastille Day.
I broke rule No. 2 on the way to Le Grand Bornand, and wound up behind a long queue of clueless holiday travelers at a rest stop. Having a Tour sticker on your car tends to make you a little imperious, and I was out ranting at folks who pumped gas, then left their car next to the pump instead of getting it out of the way while they went inside le boutique and shopped for Cokes and cookies before paying.
Following rule No. 4, I stashed my car on the sidewalk in LGB, which the Tour passage had transformed from sleepy Alpine oasis to Woodstock, complete with a few guys standing around their trailer wearing '70s-sized Speedos and nothing else. Did I need to see that?
When I got to the press center at the finish, I obeyed rule No. 1 even though I wasn't hungry -- a good thing, considering what happened later -- and remembered rule no. 3 when I started out for the long trek to the finish line and the team buses. When it's hot and you're at altitude, you can dehydrate fast and that does not help interview technique. You have to think like a camel.
I wrote for a few hours and then took off for nearby Annecy, where I was staying the night. "Nearby Annecy" proved to be an oxymoron, as I completely spaced on Tour Rule No. 5:
5) Anytime you assume a drive during the Tour will be easy, it turns ugly on you.
Navigating the Alps or Pyrenees during the Tour is very much like listening to the old Allman Brothers number, "Mountain Jam,'' that occupied both sides of a 33 rpm record album (actually half of the double album "Eat a Peach"). It began as a riff on Donovan's "There Is A Mountain" and evolved into a freeform showcase for all the band members. You have to stay loose; you have to be ready for some psychedelic experiences; and you have to endure some long, pointless drum solos between great melodies. (My apologies to Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson, who actually combined for the drum duet.)
Annecy, where I'd been once before, has an old center and pedestrian area built around a lake, and more modern sprawl surrounding it. I remembered having a tough time finding my way through the maze of streets on my previous visit. Some French towns are just Bermuda triangles that swallow you whole no matter how ardently you study the map.
This time I stumbled into Dante's eighth or ninth circle of hell. Annecy apparently throws one of the biggest Bastille Day fireworks shows in the region, attracting tens of thousands of people, all of whom walked in front of my car at one point or another Saturday night. The other issue was that the very nice lady I phoned at the hotel, like most French folks, can't give directions. They tell you to follow signs for destinations like "downtown" or "the train station,'' and invariably, the signs run out and you're lost. (In Toulouse, the biggest directional black hole in France, people advise heading for particular parking structures.)
I drove in very, very slow circles for more than an hour, engulfed by mobs of people eating, drinking, blocking intersections and having a wonderful time until I stumbled on my hotel around 11:30 p.m., more by chance than skill. Then the charming side of French hoteliers kicked in. Very few of them will allow you to go hungry, and when I mentioned I hadn't eaten, the lovely night shift guy threw together an assiette froide, which has saved me from starvation many times. It's basically whatever is left in the hotel fridge -- greens, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, cold cuts, cheese, olives, etc. -- arranged like a work of art no matter what time it is.
Tomorrow is Tignes and the first gear-grinding trek through the delirious crowds. I have a full tank of gas, but I'll buy more on the way.