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Against the Wind

Posted by MDugard on Jul 5, 2005 12:37:40 PM

Today's 67.5-kilometer team time trial from Tours-Blois is deceptively tough. The course follows the Loire River's meandering path on its southern shore. The route is green and lush, passing through an area Leonardo da Vinci once called home. Like most waterways, the Loire seems to have a weather system all its own. The official race feed reports a "slight breeze" blowing at the backs of riders, but that's because the starting chute in Tours is protected by tall buildings and a spectator throng. I'm here to tell you that the wind along the river is anything but slight; a swirling, gusting force that is sure to play havoc with the riders.The rules of a team time trial: All nine members of a team start side-by-side today, atop a Tour-yellow starting ramp. They will ride in a single pace line throughout. The clock stops when a team's top six riders cross the finish line. A special jury watches each finish from a reviewing stand along President Wilson Avenue, which lies at the end of a 1200-meter straight finish. Look for teams like Euskatel-Euskadi -- which consists of several tiny, spider-armed, farmer-tanned Spanish climbers – to lose members en route. Their specialty is climbing, not time trialing. However, look for all nine members of today's favorites to finish together. A team is always stronger with more men to take turns pulling at the front of the pace line.Those favorites, by the way, are Discovery Channel, Phonak, T-Mobile, and CSC. The last squad, led by race leader Dave Zabriskie, is perhaps the strongest overall team in the field. But this is a stage where riders will pedal as close to one another as possible. Too close and they clip wheels and crash. An inch too far apart and the added speed of the draft is minimized. A good team leader keeps his troops in line and encourages them to work in synch during the time trial's early moments, when too much adrenaline can scuttle organization. A good leader also shows how its done, motivating them by taking extended pulls up front when his teammates are tired late in the stage. So who wins and loses today is just as much a matter of team leadership as athletic potential. An example of how a poor team leader can cause mayhem during a time trial is Team Phonak's wretched showing in last year's team time trial. Hamilton, a man prone to daydreaming and note:  It seems that Martin had a Tyler Hamilton moment of his own here.It's worth noting that Luke Roberts from CSC is perhaps the best qualified, though most overlooked, member of their squad for this stage. He was part of the Australian team winning the gold medal in the 4,000-meter team pursuit at last year's Olympics. Team pursuit is a shorter sort of team time trial. Another member of that Aussie team was Brad McGee of the Francaise de Jeux squad.Shared a small elevator with Tour CEO Jean Marie LeBlanc last night. He was in good spirits, explaining that he was on his way from his second cocktail party of the night to his third, which would be followed by two dinners. I took his upbeat attitude to mean the Tour is proceeding according to his plan. In those years when the Tour descends into chaos, LeBlanc can either be a curmudgeon or downright dismissive.In case any of you are wondering, 189 riders started this year's Tour. That's 21 teams, with nine riders per team. The team leader's number always ends in "1" and the rest of his teammates' numbers end in 2 through 9. No one's number ends in zero. The entire Tour will be 3,608 kilometers. I'll let you do the math, but let's just say it's about 2,000 miles.Took a leisurely run around Tours this morning. I'm so immersed in the Tour de France that I forget it's workday, and was surprised at first to be dodging pedestrian commuters on the sidewalks. The Boulevard Nationale is the same wide thoroughfare where yesterday's stage finished and today's begins. It is a broad, if rather unspectacular, collection of apartments, hotels, brasseries, and shops. The most interesting facet is the alleyways and side streets, with their quaint café's and patisseries. It's all so very French.By the way, I'm here to tell you that, despite what the bestselling book says, French women do get fat. So do French men. And they smoke like swimsuit models. However, everyone seems to either walk or ride a bike (those old three-speeds with the basket on the handlerbars and panniers hanging over the back fender). I haven't seen a single morbidly obese person since I arrived. After my run I took a long walk down through the starting area. All the team busses were in place five hours before the stage would begin. Discovery's wind trainers were all in a precise line, awaiting the time for group warm-up. Team mechanics were checking and polishing each bike. Disc wheels (made by Bontrager) and tri-spokes (Hed.3) were attached. Everything was set to go by 11:30, and a crowd packed the surrounding barricades, awaiting Lance and the crew to emerge from the bus. What no one was telling them was that Discovery wasn't on the bus. They weren't planning to leave their hotel in Nantes until 1:30, and wouldn't arrive until almost 3. Call it G8 fever (from what I read in the papers, it seems America can, and will, ignore African poverty and global warming at the upcoming Edinburgh summit. How very Karl Rove of us), or maybe just the ultimate Sideways getaway, but more and more American flags can be seen at the Tour. The groups are almost all men, traveling in small wolf packs. I have the feeling that the Tour has become like Augusta or the Super Bowl, a place where men of a certain age and financial status travel for their sporting jones and indulge in the local vintages. The phenomenon obviously has a lot to do with Lance, and seems singularly American at this point. I haven't seen Germans or Spaniards waving their flags or wearing their team colors. I need to talk with some of these guys and find out more. A quick hey to the Bongo Boys – Devin, Connor, and Liam. I'll be back after the stage. Just looked up at the feed and saw that T-Mobile's about to go off, and that Euskatel-Euskadi finished. I can hear the cheers outside as Liquigas-Bianchi charge home. Discovery goes off in 25 minutes. Hope Lance doesn't pull his foot out.

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