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Woke Last Night to the Sound of Thunder

Posted by MDugard on Jul 4, 2005 11:59:50 AM

Woke last night to the sound of thunder…Happy Fourth of July from Tours, scene of today's finish. This is the first rather large city the Tour will pass through this year. My hotel room is on the fifth floor of the Hotel de l'Univers. Once upon a time L'Univers was a majestic residence, hosting the likes of Hemingway and Hepburn. Now it has fallen, but still possesses a certain shabby beauty, and what it lacks in opulence it makes up in charm, like the view it provides me as I write. I look out through old-fashioned wood-pained windows, the kind that swing all the way open. Across the slanted black rooftops I can see the eight-story clock tower, with its bronze cupola and bell. Ornate stone carvings of Greek gods and lion-headed gargoyles line the block-wide tower, and a tolling bell marks the passing of each hour. The window is open and the curtains pulled back, letting in a chill morning breeze. The Tour, I am reminded, is not just about cycling. It is a literal tour of France, with all its subtle beauty and charm.The riders won't be here for six hours. I am impressed that the finish straightaway will be nearly two miles long, making for either a spectacular sprint finish or an agonizing final passage for some lone breakaway group. Out the window, in the distance, I can hear the amplified voice of the finish line announcer, already warmed up and broadcasting. He will be out there, announcing the daily carnival that defines a Tour finish, until late tonight.Oh. He just took a break. From the bombastic sound of swelling music, I can tell that the podium girls are practicing this afternoon's yellow jersey presentation. It will be this way each morning, all the way to Paris.The drive over from Les Essarts last night was longer than I expected, though the journey along the N160 was wondrous. I had the window rolled down and could smell fresh-cut alfalfa as I passed through the farmland and small towns, with their cobbled streets and brown exteriors (a sudden contrast to the whitewashed colors along the coast). I saw my first vineyards of this year's Tour; the first sunflowers and wheat).  As eight o'clock became nine o'clock became ten, it looked like making Tours before the restaurants closed would be an impossibility.So I bought a small pizza and an Orangina at a roadside stand, not quite sure what ingredients I was ordering, but pleasantly surprised to be greeted with anchovies, unpitted black olives, thin-sliced sausage and a rather zesty tomato/pimento sauce. Tres bien.Crossed the Loire River at Samour. It is as broad and sluggish as the Mississippi this time of year, laced with sand bars and dangerous eddies. Samour would have been a great place to stop had it been earlier. The bridge was old and made of stone, with arched supports like the bridges of Paris and London. I could see a huge castle jutting above the town, and the dome of a cathedral nestled in the sycamores along the water. Ah, well. Another time.The first Tour I covered was 1999, the year Lance Armstrong first won. I came to write a story about Greg LeMond's new bike touring company. LeMond was kind enough to loan me one of his personal bikes ("LeMond" was written in Sharpee on the front tire). On the day of the pivotal Sestriere Alpine stage, LeMond was eager to talk with Lance beforehand. I tagged along as LeMond tracked him down in a small trailer near the starting line. Lance was inside, talking strategy with Tyler Hamilton, then his top domestique. LeMond went in, while I stood outside with the guy holding Lance's bike. By the time they emerged, the past and future of American cycling arm in arm, the photographers had found them. Lance would go on to win the stage that day, donning the yellow jersey that he would wear to Paris.In reply to an email from Curious in Carlsbad: Yes, the Tour will go forth as scheduled today, despite the thunderstorms. There are no rainouts at the Tour.Those thunderstorms ripped through here at about 4 am. The windows were open (air conditiong, apparently, non-existent when l'Univers was built) and the sudden crackle of lightning and boom of thunder fairly lit up the room. I think it had something to do with that clock tower across the way being the tallest structure in town. I could smell the rain outside -- you know, the way it smells on grass and pavement on a warm summer evening. The storm raged for several hours. Now the sky is relatively calm, if covered in puffy grey clouds.So… to wrap up last night. Checked in at midnight. Walked down to the corner brasserie for a beer and the chance to write down my notes. Much to my surprise, it was loaded with Americans (as well as Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, Bob Babbitt, and Bob Roll).  When I think of the groups of people who make their way to the Tour each year, I think in nationalistic terms: the Americans, the Germans, the Spaniards, and on. But as I spoke with a young couple from the Bay Area, I was reminded that another group of individuals come: Cancer survivors whose lives have been touched by Armstrong. Thirty-year old Jordan Redner told me of the changes he's made in his life since beating Hodgkins, and about how he'd been inspired by the Armstrong Foundation information he obtained while undergoing treatment at Stanford. Since then he's lived every day to the fullest, much like Lance (when people wonder how Lance can often be so direct and confrontational, it seems there's a correlation between cancer and that inability to endure b.s.). Now Redner's in Tours, cheering on Armstrong.I wished Redner and his wife, Mary (who is fretting about the loss of her wedding ring; best of luck with that) good night. As I walked back to the room I couldn't help but wish that my little sister, Monique, who read Armstrong's book as she lay dying, could be here too. Kind of puts it all in perspective, you know?More later. Today's going to be a fantastic stage, loaded with scenery and challenge. Talk to you then.

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