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Thundering Down

Posted by MDugard on Jul 6, 2005 2:48:21 PM

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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