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Lost in the Scrum

Posted by MDugard on Jul 4, 2005 5:14:08 PM

Today's La Chatagineraie-Tours stage is deceptively grueling. The riders will see their first real uphill of the Tour, with three fourth-category climbs in the first 100 miles. The wind is blowing hard enough that the finish corridor had to be rebuilt after several morning gusts knocked the barricades flat. It's also a very good possibility that we'll see thunder and lightning sometime soon. But perhaps the biggest obstacle will be the nature of the rural town's along the route. Houses and buildings press right up to the roadway, spilling spectators onto the roads. Add in the many abrupt turns, and an abundance of roundabouts and medians ("road furniture" in Tour parlance) and the riders will have to pay close attention to avoid a crash.The finish straightaway is spectacular. Used annually as the final stretch of the Paris-Tours Classic, it's 3,000 meters right into the gut of the city. The boulevard is wide enough to accommodate a dozen cyclists abreast. Fans were already lining the route by early morning. It is expected that they will pack the barricades ten-deep as the riders charge for home this afternoon.Though it's a longshot (I'm watching the feed right now, and the three-man breakaway group led by Erik Dekker is slowly being reeled in), I'm hoping for a successful breakaway. Barring that, the final sprint will be a long furious hammer to the line. Should make for great drama.Speaking of sprint finishes, Lance Armstrong watched a videotape of yesterday's finish in his hotel room last night. He marveled at the daredevil nature of the sprinters, and said he was glad not to be among them. It's worth pointing out that his Discovery Team is one of the few squads not to use a dedicated sprinter at the Tour. They're not willing to risk the loss of a rider due to a crash.It's hard not to notice that many of this year's top riders once worked for Lance. Among them are Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, yesterday's winner Tom Boonen, and current wearer of the yellow jersey Dave Zabriskie. Dan Ossipow of the Discovery Team points out that their departures were all amicable, and it's true that these men were all very talented riders who could make more money and have a better chance of winning elsewhere. However, it's worth pointing out that Landis often chafed aloud at team manager Johann Bruyneel's authoritarian leadership and that Dave Zabriskie's quirky sense of humor went unappreciated. When it came time for contract renewal last fall, Zabriskie wasn't booted from the team. Instead, he was offered an amount of money so small as to be laughable. He had no difficulty leaving to sign with CSC.To Discovery's credit, they stuck through Zabriskie during two trying years of injury (unlike Cofidis, which dropped Lance in the midst of his cancer recovery). After the crash at Redlands last year which shredded the skin on his upper body and knocked him senseless, a tearful Zabriskie lay in his hospital bed and wondered aloud whether he had the strength to make a comeback.At last year's Tour, I noticed quite a few Capri pants on men. It seemed a whimsical fashion statement. Like day-glo and baggy cotton weightlifting pants, the trend seemed sure to die a quick death. Sadly, this has not come to pass. Richard Virenque – a mercurial former rider who never lived up to his country's expectations of a Tour victory – was even wearing a pair while taping a segment on French TV. Hey, I'm not saying the guy was wearing a skirt (not that there's anything wrong with that) but it just didn't look right.For the curious among you, today's media buffet was perhaps the best yet. Each town sponsors a dish highlighting their local specialties, and Tours put forth a spectacular effort. The appetizer was some sort of creamy pork spread that tasted like carnitas ("what is this?" I asked the woman behind the table. She was wearing a flowing green robe that looked very much like a Notre Dame graduation gown. "Mmmm…. How you say? Pig," she replied). So I ate the pig (very good) a slice of local brie, passed on the vegetable pate and roast beef (I'll go back for that later), and finished it all off with a china demitasse of coffee. All of it was good, but I'd have to say that the pig was the highlight.After the stage...Here's what it's like to cover a sprint finish: squeeze through a crowd of spectators through the small press entrance into the finish area. I go straight out into the middle of the road, into a crowd of TV camera men. The official shakes a finger at me and order me to stand in an enclosed area reserved for print journalists. Except the enclosed area is as crowded as a cattle stall on market day, and the journalists will be held in there until the TV guys have had a crack at the riders. I wait until the official turns away, then escape the holding pen and squeeze into a crowd of TV guys. By now the race announcer is going crazy on the P.A.   Straight ahead, I can see the entire peloton passing under the one-kilometer to go archway (the "flame rouge").   Tom Boonen throws up his arms straight up in ecstasy after winning the sprint. Then things get a little crazy. The rides whiz up to where I am standing, not bothering to touch their breaks until they're almost on the crowd. The street becomes a sea of riders and journalists. The cyclists have one foot in the pedals and the other unclipped to steady themselves. Lance comes up to me. I tell him congratulations, then make a note to get to his team bus as quickly as possible.   He's upset about getting cut off and nearly crashing with three kilometers remaining.George Hincapie rides past, tall and lean and tanned, with a gruesome set of varicose veins bulging from his left calf. Ivan Basso stops to do an interview with a Spanish broadcaster.   It seems strange to see him so eloquent, because he looks so tortured when trying out his English. A Belgian domestique sees his mother behind the barricades and smiles broadly as he pedals over.  I am now complexly surrounded by bikes. The riders bump off of me and each other, always moving toward their team bus. Floyd Landis pedals alongside and slows to my pace. His red hair and goatee are trim and it looks like he has not broken a sweat all day. He rides while I walk and ask questions. Landis is witty and humble, already looking past this week into the mountains. After a block I run out of things to ask and he pedals away. I'll save the extended interview for another day.  By now the streets are a scrum of riders, press and team buses revving up and driving out of town. The race has been over for five minutes. It all happens that fast. Jan Ullrich pedals past, his body pressed against the AG2M bus as it rolls away. And then the riders are gone, off for a night of eating, massage and sleep.Boonen's victory means that every stage thus far has been won by a former teammate of Lance Armstrong's. This is significant because he handpicked each one. It's as if Lance has personally shaped modern cycling.Tomorrow's a pivotal day. I was going to say it's going to be a "very big" day, but there will be so many of those in weeks to come that I don't want to overuse the phrase now. It's to be a 67.5-kilometer team time trial from Tours to Blois (a city whose name means "wolf", given by the Celts, who ruled the area until 584 and feared the many wolves in its thick forests). The first 15 miles are flat. It will be easy for teams to stay together and maintain top speeds. But a series of climbs soon make the route extremely daunting, particularly the climb at Carrefour in the 58th kilometer. Look for CSC, Discovery, Phonak, and T-Mobile to battle it out. Dave Zabriskie's slim two second lead is definitely not safe.I bounced that assessment off Floyd Landis this afternoon. He says that the profile is misleading, and that it's actually very flat tomorrow. The route runs along the banks of   the Loire River. Those hills shown in the pre-race profiles are actually a very slight gradient. Landis says CSC is the obvious favorite, but points out that they've been working hard the past two days and are vulnerable. Blois, which has been rebuilt after being almost entirely destroyed by World War II bombing, is also the birth place of Harry Houdini. It's also the place where Joan of Arc also rallied her army against the British in 1429.Speaking of history, the French are a funny people. The local history of Tours takes pains to point out that it was devastated by German bombing between June 19-21, 1940. However, it points, the Allied raid of May 20, 1944 caused far more damage. Maybe if they'd repelled the invasion in the first place the French wouldn't have had that problem.Lance, by the way, had a few things to say about tomorrow. "The Maillot Jaune is something to be cherished," he said while standing in front of his team bus. "You can bet I'll be fighting for it tomorrow. CSC is a tough team and tomorrow's a big day."Looking forward to it.

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