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It Starts

Posted by MDugard on Jul 6, 2005 9:31:29 AM

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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