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Thundering Down

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2005

Whew. Just when I thought Dave Zabriskie was safely back in yellow…By now most of you have seen it on OLN, but Zabriskie's crash in the final kilometers of today's time trial was just the sort of providence Lance Armstrong needs to win his seventh straight Tour de France. The quirky, shy Zabriskie has a history of crashing, and it was painful to see him go down so hard once again. His face was drawn and pale as he rolled through the finish area. It was as if he had lost a loved one. And, in a way, he did.Funny how some guys always find a way to crash, and some guys always find a way to win.CSC was always the odds-on favorite to win the team time trial. They have the unity, talent, and confidence to beat almost anyone. Their lead through the early time checks was impressive enough to think that they were cruising. But Lance Armstrong made it clear in a post-race interview that it was all part of his plan. "We knew the race was going to come down to the last 20 kilometers," he said. "The newly paved road, flat course, and relatively straight path were signs that there would be no big time gaps. Our plan was to stay comfortable early, then push hard into the finish."Lance knows how to beat a guy when he's down. He dismissed Zabriskie as "a great young rider of the future." Daming praise, it pretty much means that Zabriskie will remain in his rear view mirror for the rest of the Tour.Lance is a straight shooter. He looks you in the eye when you ask him a question. His answers are blunt and straightforward, sometimes laced with wry humor. So when the question of strategy arose – namely, would he try to stay in yellow for the rest of the race? – his deflection was odd. He passed the question over to team manager Johann Bruyneel, who hemmed and hawed about the difficulty of protecting the yellow jersey for the next 17 stages. Then the old Lance returned. "I'm gonna' put a little pressure on him to let me keep it."Zabriskie started the day two seconds up on Armstrong. His team, CSC, finished just two seconds behind Armstrong's. During a team time trial, all team members get the exact same time as the first member to cross the line. Logically, Zabriskie and Armstrong should be tied for yellow. So why is Lance wearing the maillot jaune? Because Zabriskie crashed into the barricades before crossing under the triangular red banner denoting just one kilometer remaining. The rule states that a rider only gets the same time as his teammates if he has passed under the flame rouge. As it was, Zabriskie lost 30 more seconds and dropped to ninth.I like a good rivalry. It was – and remains – my fervent desire that Lance Armstrong go hammer and tongs with another rider this year. I was hoping it would be Floyd Landis or Levi Leipheimer (the great irony would be Bobby Julich, who was considered the great hope of American cycling until Lance's 1999 victory rendered him anonymous). But if someone's going to have a go, they need to make a move soon. The closest real threat is Alexandre Vinokourov, 81 seconds back in seventh place. Floyd Landis is a desultory 20th, apparently saddled with a team that looks stronger on paper than in reality. Ivan Basso is 10th, some 86 seconds back, but Armstrong can crush him in time trials (there's one left. It's a 32-miler on the penultimate day), so the affable Italian isn't really a factor. So who's going to take a chance at Armstrong? I'm betting on his old nemesis. Jan Ullrich, who's always good for a fight. That would be some battle if Ullrich could manage to make up the 1:36 deficit.The scene after today's finish was madness. Fans mingled in with the Tour procession, clutching pens and camcorders as they clamored to touch the riders. It was hard to watch as young children battled with grown adults for access. Actual, bona fide paparazzi were in attendance to snap Sheryl and Lance. Over at the CSC bus, a mournful Bjarne Riis spoke in hushed tones about Zabriskie's pratfall. The sky was cloudy and threatening rain, which only added to the ominous feel. This was the biggest crowd since the Tour began Saturday, though it will be dwarfed in the weeks to come. Crazy to think of what lies ahead.Don't have a place to sleep tonight. That's a common theme here, and I brought a sleeping bag just in case I need to bunk in a pasture. But the wind is howling outside the media tent, rain is going to come soon enough and I'd like to stay dry. It's interesting: When most people (me included) think of France, they think of Paris. Or maybe Provence. But not all of France has a cosmopolitan vibe. Most of the country is as undeveloped as the South Dakota prairie, and just as laced with farmland. There are no Marriott's or even Motel 6 off every freeway exit (and for the most part, there are no freeways). And Expedia doesn't take reservations for most of these small towns -- I checked. But I have hope that some quaint country inn will have a room and a hearty petit dejeuner with dark black coffee in the morning. And without hope we are nothing, right?I'm going to take a small break from the Tour tomorrow morning. I need to dash into Paris and wrap up some business. Then it's a sprint back down the A6 in time for the finish. Actually, if all goes well, I'll be back in time for the 1:15 start in Chambord. I had promised myself I wouldn't go into Paris until the Tour arrives July 23, but it will be a nice change of pace. Maybe I'll see Tom and Katie standing atop the Eiffel Tower.Tomorrow's stage travels 183 kilometers from Chambord to Montargis. The route is as level as the Bonneville Salt Flats. Lance predicts that Tom Boonen will win. "We know Boonen," he alluded to his former teammate. "And he can win six, seven, eight stages this year." We'll see. Those flat stages, with their sprint finishes and breakaways, are always a crapshoot. And now that Lance has a relatively cushy lead he might be more willing to extend some team a gift by allowing a successful breakaway. Lance is known as the patron of the peloton, which is a nice way of saying he's cycling's version of a godfather. Nothing happens without his blessing.  Speaking of gifts, the Tour souvenir stands are selling a t-shirt with "No Gifts" scrawled across the front. It's an allusion to a conversation between Lance and Bernard Hinault a few years back. The topic of discussion was crushing rivals and never giving them a single moment of hope. Seems appropriate right now. I read in my French history guide that the castle in Chambord is the largest in the Loire region, a landmark of the French renaissance known for it's turrets, spires, and double staircase. Sounds wonderful (I see ten castles a day and have yet to tire of them). From the description, however, I much prefer the finish in Montargis. It's a canal-lined medieval city known for its gastronomy. Given that four vineyards battled to have their wines tasted at today's media buffet (the food menu: foie gras, salade forestiere, fruit sorbet, and fresh local blueberries), I can't wait to see what a center of gastronomy will have to offer. Vive le France. If you look at a map, tomorrow's stage puts us halfway across France. The terrain has changed every day since leaving the Atlantic. I'm really not sure what tomorrow will bring, and that's OK. I find that's the best way to experience the Tour. Ah, there it is. The light patter of rain has been replaced by a steady downpour and distant flickers of thunder. Until tomorrow.

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Hot, Hot, Hot

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2005

It's hot. The temperature is a humid 85 degrees and the riders are going to be suffering on today's flat 181.5-kilometer stage. The route is loosely shaped like a "u", pushing south down the coast from Challons for the first 60 miles, then turning sharp left and north toward the finish in Les Essarts. The road along the Atlantic is scenic farmland dotted with acres of pine trees, which were planted in the late-19th century to stabilize the sand dunes. The turn inland is green, a continuum of hedgerows and rolling country roads that call to mind the farmland of eastern Nebraska. There's an uphill push to the finish, but nothing remotely mountainous. It is a ride through history, laced with cathedrals and ancient castles. And did I mention that it's hot?This is a day for the sprinters and attack groups. Lance Armstrong isn't going to do anything audacious, nor is yellow jersey guy David Zabriskie of Team CSC. They're a comfortable one-minute up on the field. Barring a crash or supernatural intervention, nothing's going to change.David Zabriskie is a strong climber, but will still work to put Ivan Basso in yellow during next week's mountain stages. It's felt that he's too unsure of himself and not enough of a leader. This is a pragmatic move by CSC team manager Bjarne Riis, but nonetheless curious. Zabriskie, though unknown, has the potential to wage a spectacular war against Armstrong. Basso is strong, but something of a head case, prone to snap under pressure.Phil Liggett and Chris Carmichael are picking Tom Boonen to win today. Paul Sherwen is picking Australia's Baden Cooke. Bob Roll was more interested in talking about the curious French reaction to yesterday's time trial. Instead of marveling at Lance Armstrong passing Jan Ullrich, they feel Armstrong is weak because he didn't win.   Either way, Roll feels vindicated that yesterday was a turning point for American cycling. Four of the top six finishers hailed from the U.S.Speaking of that, is there a better second-banana in cycling than George Hincapie? He's the Scottie Pippen to Armstrong's Michael Jordan. They complete each other, even though Hincapie's role is almost completely unsung. There were many on the Discovery Team who were rooting for Hincapie to win yesterday's time trial, just so that he might wear the yellow jersey for once in his career.Despite the sportsmanlike comments about Ullrich yesterday, Lance Armstrong was privately very happy about beating him. Their careers are inextricably woven together, and include some of the most epic Tour highlights in history: Ullrich going off road and Lance stopping to wait, the "look" on L'Alpe d'Huez in 2001, Ullrich's crash in the rain in 2003,   and now the "pass" of 2005. Ullrich has always come out on the losing end.Just walked over to the finish area. A local marching band wearing all red is parading up and down the streets, looking very much like the Disneyland band on Main Street U.S.A. The players are all of a certain advanced age, and looked most uncomfortable under the glaring sun (they were also a sharp contrast to the black-clad accordion band at the starting line, who looked like musical Mennonites). The Les Essarts marching band, however, sound great. Nothing like the martial sound of drums, cymbals and brass to beat the summer doldrums.Went for a run this morning, and inadvertently found myself in the midst of the local market day (this comes after last night's local bocce tournament, also well attended). Amid the stalls of fresh local berries, melons and modest bikinis (ironic, as French TV is currently showing a fishing show that features a topless model casually chatting with the anglers as she baits their hooks – no metaphor intended) were scads of freshly caught fish on ice. I didn't recognize the French names of them all –- though sole was easy enough – but the giant lobsters and live crabs were hard to miss. Pretty cool way to ease into a morning run.Speaking of souls, this coastal region is intriguing for its spirituality. The Roman Catholic influence is pronounced, with several towering roadside crucifixes that look to have been in place for centuries.   A grotto to the Virgin Mary is just across the park from today's finish. However, even though the church bells tolled outside my hotel room this morning, the old stone church was locked. So was every other church I've seen so far. It seems that the churches exist today as a building on which the locals can lean their bicycles while shopping at the market. Bob Babbitt from Competitor thinks it's all part of a French "what the hell" attitude towards life – no church, no helmets while cycling, and a constant infusion of cigarettes.OK, I know we're getting into red state territory here, but I was also intrigued that Aquarel water features an actor dressed as a priest on their float during the pre-race caravan. He pronounces to one and all that Aquarel is equivalent to holy water. It's all very unusual – and uniquely French. Call it the legacy of Cardinal Richelieu.The pre-race village in Challans featured heaping platters of oysters, two ballerinas on stilts (don't ask), the requisite copies of Le Monde and L'Equipe, those red-clad models from Paris who dole out free black coffee, and slices of soft, odiferous Normandy Camembert.   Thanks to the Tour I have developed a deep fondness for Camembert, but the Canadian-made stuff back at Trader Joe's is neither soft nor odiferous enough. Great to be back in France, eating the real thing.Team CSC's Bjarne Riis builds team unity in the off-season by putting his team through a wilderness survival course.   That unity figures to be a key ingredient in the Tour's next big stage, Tuesday's team time trial. Many feel the competition will be as much about the duel between CSC and the Disco Boys as between their two managers: Riis and Discovery's Johann Bruyneel.The Tour is funny. You work to the point of exhaustion, drive long hours, crawl into bed at midnight, and wonder how you'll ever manage the strength or enthusiasm for the next day. But the scenery changes with each stage, introducing new sights and smells, infusing each and every day with a wonder all its own. The sense of rejuvenation is organic and complete.Enjoy today's stage. More later.

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It Starts

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2005

It feels like all of France has descended on the tiny fishing village of Fromentine for the start of this year's Tour. During the five-hour drive down from Paris yesterday the roads were packed with cars towing small campers and lugging bicycles on racks. Now those same campers line the course from Fromentine here to the finish in Noirmoutier. It's still five hours before the start, but as I drove in from my hotel in Notre Dame de Mons this morning, spectators were already perched in their chairs along the roadside claiming their spots. Here and there, tables laden with wine bottles, plastic cups and fresh baguettes announce the start of the party. Cyclists wearing the colors of their favorite teams pedaled along the blustery roads, past the oyster farms and low salt marshes that define the topography. The air smells like low tide. Closer to the finish, fans of all ages from around the world line the barricades, waiting for the moments when the riders will pass and they can bang their palms on the metal signage covering the barricades for the last kilometer. The mood is, above, all, expectant, like the moments before the start of the Super Bowl, albeit it a Super Bowl that will contiue for the next 23 days. It feels good to be at the Tour, like the feeling that comes before the start of a great adventure.   Except this time the adventure will not be solitary, but shared with the other 20 million spectators who will watch the race between now and Paris.Today's start will be very late in the day – 3:40 pm local time. The winds are blowing lightly along the course right now, but if yesterday's weather was any indication, the gusts coming off the ocean to hit the riders broadside will greatly increase in power by late afternoon.The focus, of course, is on Lance Armstrong and his bid to win a seventh and final Tour de France. He has maintained a low profile, but his picture is in all the papers. Not even Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, a national hero after defending the jersey for more than a week last year, is more prevalent. Armstrong has been subdued in his discussions with the press, except to say that he didn't come here to lose. The bike crash last week (a bee flew into his glasses and stung him) hasn't left him the worse for wear and tear. Pre-race scuttlebutt is saying that Armstrong's team is the strongest in the field. They'll do their job protecting him from the wind and on the long climbs. The pressure will be on Lance to perform in the time trials (starting with today's) and during next week's pivotal mountain stages.The course today is a tough one. After a circuitous loop past the quaint streets of Fromentine, the riders head out to the island of Noirmoutier en L'ile. The road is protected from the winds by trees (and campers) for the first few miles. However, the bridge between the mainland and island is both steep and unsheltered. The winds should be particularly harsh there. After a screaming descent off the bridge (it will be a test of courage to stay in that aero tuck, given the combination of winds and angle of descent) the road stays level all the way to the finish. Salt marshes, freshly-mowed farmland, and oyster farms line the road. The riders wil make a sharp left at the roundabout once they reach town, then stand up in the pedals for that final short sprint to the finish.Last year Armstrong's team, U.S. Postal, was known as the Posties. This year his team has a new sponsor and a new nickname. Team Discovery Channel is also known as "The Disco Boys."The CBS television van parked next to me in the gravel car park near the finish. Armen Ketayan is over here doing their coverage this weekend (the daily feed will be handled by OLN, while CBS will continue the weekend reports they've been doing since the days of Ric Lacivita). It was nice to see the CBS guys and good to hear someone speaking English, but what I really liked was the guys carrying the extra bags of Brooks Brothers clothing just in case the weather turns. I need a guy like that.The Tour generally starts with a short prologue. This year is different. The first stage is a 19-kilometer individual time trial, meaning that gaps of seconds and even minutes will separate the field after the first day of competition. The Tour organizers (no dummies) are setting up a three-week drama between the top riders, instead of the usual quiet first week before a true leader emerges. Look for Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden, Alexandre Vinokourov, and, of course, Lance Armstrong, to separate themselves.Of that group, Vinokourov – "Vino" – goes off first. He starts 104th at 5:23 pm. The riders leave at one-minute intervals. Leipheimer goes off at 6:11. Armstrong heads down the ramp at 6:48, just a minute behind Jan Ullrich. You can bet Ullrich will be aware of that short gap, though his chances of getting caught are slim in such a short time trial.On a personal note, yesterday was a long one. After the overnight flight from L.A., I battled Paris traffic for several hours before breaking free for the drive to the coast. Paris doesn't have a single ring road, meaning a navigation challenge through the outskirts of the city to find the way from de Gaulle to the A11 highway. After a detour that almost led me onto the grounds of Euro Disney (I promised my son, Connor, I would try to make it there while I'm in France, but that will have to wait until the Tour brings us all back to Paris in three weeks time), I finally found the A11. The road was lined with pine trees and signs advertising turn-offs toward local castles and other historical spots. Beautiful, simply beautiful.All the local hotels were booked up (with every shake of the proprietor's heads I learned the hard way what "Voulez-vous reserve?" means), but after picking up the media credential in Challons and eating dinner at a small local restaurant (the standard menu was local oysters, steak au poivre, and chocolate mousse), I finally found a place down the coast from the start at 11 pm. The long day was done.Ran into Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen a few minutes ago. They're gearing up for six straight hours on the air. Liggett was proud to pass along the news that he was recently given an Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for his contributions to cycling.One key facet of pre-race preparation is the podium ceremony. I looked on this morning as a new flock of young podium models went through a dress rehearsal for this evening's presentations of flowers, stuffed lion (the symbol of a major sponsor), and yellow jersey to the day's winner. The women were shapely, well-coiffed and somewhat nervous as the Tour music swelled from a speaker to begin the practice presentations. A scruffy male production assistant in shorts and a t-shirt stood in for the winner. A producer knelt down front and used hand paddles to cue them on the proper order of presentation (always the same: bouquet, lion, two kisses on the cheek, and then the yellow jersey, which five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault personally zips).That's it for now. Still three hours before the start. Plenty of time to walk around and take it all in. Right now, all that's missing is the riders.

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