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Any Questions?

Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2005

The Tour isn't over, not by a long shot, but Lance Armstrong answered any and all questions about his fitness today. His second place finish in the individual time trial puts him in the catbird seat to win his seventh and final Tour de France. "I was hungry today. I'm excited to be here. I wanted to show the world my commitment to this race, that I didn't come to run a retirement race, but to win this race."Two surprising things occurred during Armstrong's ride. First, he slipped out of his right pedal just after rolling down the starting ramp. An audible gasp went up from the crowd as he slipped it back in, pretty much right in front of where Sheryl Crow was standing. For some, such as my buddy Austin Murphy, it was a shocking reminder of a similar slip in the Dauphine' Libere three weeks ago. "I don't know what happened. I tightened the cleat – the pedal – but it came out. I got it back in faster than in the Dauphine," Armstrong explained afterward. He was standing just before me, surrounded by a crush of media and fans. And when I say a crush, I mean a crush. Bodies pressed against me on all sides (Lance, of course, was protected by a pair of rather large gendarmerie. Armstrong was bathed in sweat, but the white of his eyes were clear instead of having that bloodshot look they get after a long mountain stage. His aerodynamic jersey featured a yellow fabric LiveStrong bracelet sewn into the left sleeve. A fan was banging on the Discovery Team bus, screaming "Hook `em horns, Lance. Hook `em horns." It was all I could do to take notes, but Armstrong was composed and hardly out of breath, probably from having endured dozens of such scenes over his career.The second odd occurrence was passing Jan Ullrich during the time trial. Ullrich started the day one minute ahead of Armstrong. "He's one of the classiest riders of our generation," Armstrong noted. "It wasn't like passing your local training partner, and it wasn't like motor pacing, but it was nice to have someone to pace off of. But remember, he suffered a severe crash yesterday. He wasn't at his best.Armstrong finished two seconds behind American Dave Zabriskie, who now races for CSC, but who raced for Armstrong's U.S. Postal team until this year. Zabriskie's performance stunned race spectators (with the exception of former Armstrong domestique Kevin Livingston, who predicted the victory. It's all the more remarkable because Zabriskie suffered a severe injury during a 2003 training ride. An SUV pulled out in front of him, and the crash broke his leg and arm. In 2004, Zabriskie crashed very hard at the Tour of Redlands, skinning his shoulder very badly and nearly suffering permanent brain damage when he banged his head on the pavement. "The feeling is amazing. Unbelievable. I'm sure tonight it's going to be difficult for me to sleep," the stoic and unassuming Zabriskie marveled.Zabriskie was the 19th rider to roll down the starting ramp. He had to wait almost three hours for Armstrong's ride, sweating through the performances of 170 other riders. "It's becoming a common theme for me to wait around during time trials," he said, noting that his skills have improved since he began working under team manager Bjarne Riis at CSC.   He also won a time trial at the Giro d'Italia in May. "The hard part was that Lance was the last rider. I never thought this would happen to me. Never ever ever."When asked whether donning the yellow jersey made him feel the weight of expectation, Zabriskie just shrugged. "I'm just Dave Zabriskie. I do what I do, and that's all I can do."Like it or not, CSC is now in the position of having to defend the yellow jersey. The talented team features top climbers like Ivan Basso and Bobby Julich, who would have preferred to expend their energy the mountains next week, rather than breaking the wind for a team newcomer.Even though Lance went on and on about how he hoped to win today, there's a lot of speculation that he lost on purpose. Team manager Johann Bruyneel is known to be a cagey tactician, micro-managing the race down to the last possible strategic variation. Although he wants Lance in yellow on July 24th, having him chasing the jersey rather than defending means he'll be able to relax a little until the team trial three days hence. Zabriskie will start tomorrow in yellow, while Lance will wear the green jersey as top sprinter.As to whether Lance intentionally let up in the last hundred meters to avoid: a) the hours-long ordeal of press conference, yellow jersey ceremony, and mandatory drug testing; and, b) defending, Discovery Team media coordinator Dan Ossipow simply grinned. He would not, however, answer the question.I was standing just beyond the finish line when Armstrong and Ullrich whizzed through. This was stupid of me. The previous times I've stood there it's been after mountain stages. The riders were tired then, and stopped almost right away. Today, Lance was an aerodynamic, 30 mph blur, and immediately swallowed by a crowd of cameramen. Ullrich, unfortunately, lagged behind. As I worked my way up to Lance, Ullrich was slowly navigating through the crowd, head down. When it looked like he was about to get knocked over I put my hand on the small of his back to steady him. But I needn't have bothered. To the Tour riders, the bike is an extension of themselves. Ullrich merely flicked the handlebars left, then right, and was out of danger.Lance's warm-up music today? Not sure, but he's been listening to Coldplay recently. A random note: for those who think cycling is a skinny man's sport, take heart. Magnus Backstedt of Team Liquigas-Bianchi weighs over 190 pounds. He finished 57th today.Bob Babbitt from Competitor Magazine was an early supporter of Lance's, all the way from back in his triathlon days. It was Bob who predicted to me that Lance would win the Tour back in 1999, even when the rest of the world thought Lance was washed up after his battle with cancer. The two have grown apart over the years, and until now Bob had never attended the Tour. So it was touching to see Lance pause as he was walking up the steps to his trail and recognize Bob in the crowd and yell out a hello. I'm not saying they're going to be picking out curtains any time soon, but it was a nice gesture, nonetheless.Alright, so it's almost 8:30 here. There's only one road leading back to my hotel, and it's packed with several hundred thousand Frenchmen and their families. If I was smart I would have brought my running shorts and gone for a run up to the local castle for a look around before the sun goes down and the traffic dies. But I did not. All, however, is not lost. They're serving a chilled local Medoc over in   the media room. A glass of that, a slice of the local brioche, and a view of the sun setting off the French coast seems a fine way to pass the time. So until tomorrow...

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Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2005

Italy's Lorenzo Bernucci won today's sixth stage of the Tour de France, but the big story was the rise and fall of one Christophe Mengin. His daring breakaway at the 29 kilometer (out of 199) mark was a gutty day at the office. At one point his lead over the field was a fat eight minutes and thirty seconds. But riding so long without a break weakens the mind and the legs. With three kilometers left his lead had dwindled to just ten seconds. But the great thing was, it looked like Mengin just might win. The tight turns and short straights of the final kilometers favored a solo rider. Alas, Mengin was so eager to sprint for the line that he got sloppy. The Frenchmen crashed on the final turn, precipitating a tumultuous pileup that brought most of the peloton to a standstill. As Bernucci deftly steered clear of the carnage (bare-legged riders slamming into, and sliding across, rock solid pavement at 35 mph qualifies as some minor version thereof), Mengin found himself tangled in a steel barricade, unable to stand. He didn't even finish in the top 100. In fact, I'm not sure hard-luck Christophe Mengin finished at all.Just found out that Mengin did finish. "You must take risks to win," he said. "Today I took the risk and lost. I will not be afraid to take the same risks tomorrow or the next day, no matter what the cost." How can you not root for a guy like that?The statement of the day was made T-Mobile's Alexandre Vinokourov, and it was unspoken. He brazenly attacked the peloton with three kilometers to go. This bid for a stage victory came with Lance Armstrong close at hand. Vino gave Armstrong a scare in the mountains two years ago, and seems poised to do the same this year.Armstrong and Vino stood next to one another. When Armstrong asked what they said to one another about the breakaway, his answer was a terse "nothing."As Bjarne Riis predicted this morning, he longed to launch an expendable rider on a breakaway. It's the cycling equivalent of playing long ball. He mentioned Bobby Julich by name as the man who would go. So when Julich went off it came as no surprise. It also came as no surprise to Johann Bruyneel of Discovery Channel, who had George Hincapie poised to be Julich's shadow.  The attack fizzled.If you're wondering about those little square boxes on each rider's frame, they're Global Positioning Systems. Each rider's GPS carries his race number. The GPS can show a rider's exact location on the course at all times. That's how the Tour (and television screens) knows the exact distance and time gaps between athletes.Just so you know, only one rider has dropped out of the Tour thus far. That may change tomorrow. That crash was harsh, and a couple riders were seen clutching their collarbones.Craig Hummer and I go way back. We once weathered a hurricane together. If he told me that some aspect of my writing could use a polish, I'd listen. Maybe. Anyway, I stand close when he does most of his post-race Lance Armstrong interviews, and it's like Hummer is Armstrong's lap dog. There's no such thing as a tough question when they talk, and even less focus on some sort of gritty reportage. It would be one thing if Hummer were working for Channel 59 in Dubuque (or, for that matter,, but he represents the sole American broadcast outlet with exclusive access to the world's greatest bike racer.  I don't honestly believe the problem lies with Hummer, who is a solid journalist. Rather, I get the feeling the corporate guys at Outdoor Life Network are terrified of making Lance the slightest bit peevish. OLN needs Lance (Survivor isn't going to save that network, and neither is the regular menu of bull riding and bait fishing). He's their franchise. One wonders how they're going to troll for ratings once Lance has retired.Along those lines, I was thinking once again about Lance's curious maneuver of wearing his Discovery Channel jersey to the starting line when he should have worn the maillot jaune. As my colleague, Ric Lacivitas, pointed out, Lance has learned how to control the peloton. Day by day, no matter how greatly they dislike it, the entire Tour de France field knows that they either do Lance's bidding (if a rider, for instance, is passing through his hometown, he must ask permission to ride ahead and say hello before rejoining the peloton) or they will be punished (such as last year, when Lance personally quashed a breakaway which contained a man who had been unloyal. Such a maneuver is almost unheard of by a man wearing the yellow jersey). Now, riding his last year and having nothing to lose, Lance is exerting quiet control over not just the peloton, but the entire Tour.   Wearing the Discovery jersey was a way of quieting those who said Zabriskie wouldn't have crashed if a policeman hadn't gotten in his way. It not only shut them up, it had the advantage of making Lance appear selfless and it made people think he actually cared whether or not Dave Zabriskie likes him (there's been a lot of talk around here abot the conflicts between Lance and his former lieutenants like Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer, Tom Boonen, and Floyd Landis). The bottom line is that Lance came here to win. If he can control the tempo of events and minimize distractions, it only makes his job easier.The locals put on a strong showing for the pre- and post-race buffet today. This morning it was andouillet sausage in a champagne/sausage cream sauce (I was scared, because it looked like something the cat threw up. But after a plate I had to curb my longings to go back for seconds), gooey stinky Camembert, hard bread, and coffee. The food in Nancy was a weird combination of apple tarts and some sort of liver gelatin spread (no bread, strangely). It was all very fortifying.Tomorrow we go to Germany. I've never been, and am quite enthusiastic about the prospect. The start is in the French town of Luneville.   There will be a moment of silence for the London victims, then the racers begin a 228.5 km ride across the Rhine to Karlruhe. It all sounds very beautiful, historic, and faintly martial, but my Tour history book glosses over any uncomfortable aspects of the tetchy Alsace-Lorraine disputes between Germany and France that have led to three conflicts. All the book says is that Karlsruhe was built in the shape of a star, and that the local specialties are sausage, cold meats, game, and onion tart. Should be very interesting.Tomorrow's stage is flat, with the exception of a single climb up the Col Du Hantz. The climb is just 3.5 kilometers long and rises at a gradient of five percent. The rest of the ride is level. Now, I wonder how that works. It's gotten progressively hillier and more forested here the last couple days. Now we're heading into a flat. Must be some sort of prairie or plain between here and Germany. I'll let you know.Lance Armstrong, for one, is looking forward to tomorrow. "We've been keeping up a brutal pace," he said after today's stage. "I hear a lot of the guys talking about needing a rest." Sounds like the patron might order a rest day – or not. There are rumors that several teams are conspiring to work together against Discovery Channel. As it becomes more and more clear that Lance wants to wear yellow all the way to Paris, that act of hubris might prove his undoing. His team has worked very hard the past two days.   They can't afford to go into the mountains weak. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Bas On, Regardless

Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2005

In light of today's terrorist attacks, covering a bike race can seem a bit trivial. But I think it's times like these that races like the Tour become so vital. The attacks by those of who have willingly disenfranchised themselves from the rest of the world, choosing to see themselves as self-righteous victims instead of murderers, stand in stark contrast to an event where men push themselves each day to be their absolute mental, physical and emotional best. I just drove the course of today's stage, passing through literal throngs of people beaming with anticipation of watching the Tour in person. They didn't come to watch a freaking bike race. They came to watch mankind at his finest, and hope that maybe some of that excellence will rub off on them. So if they can stand in a driving rain to catch a glimpse of that, the least I can do is write about.Tour security has not changed thus far. We'll see what happens in the day to come.Once more on the bombings: The Brits have more backbone than they like to confess. If the bombings were meant to cow them, I'm afraid the perpetrators (I refuse to even type their names) will find that just the opposite is true.Today's 120-mile stage flows through some of the most hotly contested territory of the last two World Wars. I can understand why. Starting in Troyes, located in the heart of the Champagne region, the route passes through thick forests and steep country roads on its way to Nancy, in the Alsace region. Tuol, and its stunning, fortified cathedral (the ramparts surrounding it still look impenetrable 305 years after Louis XIV ordered their construction. I have used the world "beautiful" and "wondrous" to describe stages thus far. And the words have all been appropriate. But I am utterly enchanted by today's route. It is by far the most scenic we've seen to date.The weather at the start was cold, with black clouds threatening rain. The very instant the stage began, drops started hitting the ground. Now, just a hundred yards from the finish, it is coming down like cats and dogs.Spoke with Bjarne Riis, team manager for bedgraggled CSC. He's a tall, stoic Dane. His deep tan doesn't suit his Nordic personality. Riis lamented that his new race strategy is to launch a series of killer breakaways against Discovery Channel, and has the men to do them (American Bobby Julich was mentioned by name). "But they won't let me do it," he said of Discovery Channel.   That doesn't mean he's throwing in the towel after his squad's dispiriting performance in the last two stages. "We may have to wait a couple days, but we have plans."Riis is a gentle man, and speaks in the soft tones of a funeral director.   I felt like I was playing verbal chess with Max von Sydow's Death character from The Seventh Seal.Osipow. One S. Thanks, Austin.The course today is special for some fairly decent climbs. There are four in all, spread out evenly over the route. But let me tell you, the difficult part of the route will be the last 25 kilometers. The crowds pressing against the road are almost as thick as on mountain stages, and the riders will have to pray a child or rabid fan doesn't run out and knock them flat. Additionally, most of the roads have been repaved recently and are extremely slick from the weather. This might not be such an issue, except that those last 25k feature more than a dozen narrow, abrupt turns. There are two ninety-degree bends just before the finish. If someone doesn't hit the hay bales today it will be a miracle.The finish is a winding, treacherous sprint through Nancy. The barricades have been up all night, and snake through the town in very random fashion. Of course, it's lined with people (interesting, we're in France but the crowds all look and sound German because the border's so close. Even the houses have a dark, Teutonic look). If it comes down to a sprint finish, look out – due to several bends near the line, the riders can't see the finish arch until they're within a hundred yards.Interesting note: I was standing on the starting line in Troyes this morning. Behind me was the Tour's P.A. announcer, calling out each rider's name as they signed in ("Lance Arm-STRONG!!!). The starting line spanned a narrow street. On one side was a tobacconist. On the other was a bank, and a plaza in front of the train station. High up the bank wall I noticed a plaque that had been installed years ago. It pointed out that the bank building was once the deportation center for the more than 3,000 citizens of Troyes who were then marched to the train center and shipped to Nazi death camps. Gave me chills.Another World War II note, Nancy was liberated by George S. Patton's tanks, with help from the French resistance.   This land is so peaceful now, with its quaint canals and forest as thick as jungle. It's strange to think a war was once fought here. Then again, I walked the streets of London a few months ago, and it was pretty peaceful there, too.

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Vive LA France

Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2005

Robbie McEwen of Australia won today's fifth stage of the Tour de France. Despite the valiant efforts of a four-man breakaway, the peloton reeled them in 10k from the finish. McEwen edged Tom Boonen by half-a-wheel length for the victory. Lance Armstrong finished well back in the pack and remained in yellow.Two things made today unique: Armstrong showed up at the starting line wearing his Discovery Channel team jersey instead of the racer's yellow. It was a salute to Dave Zabriskie, who would still be wearing yellow if he hadn't crashed during the team time trial. It was also a calculated maneuver to repair his fractured relationship with Zabriskie (and perhaps other American riders like Floyd Landis who once rode alongside Armstrong) whom he has silently disparaged. Armstrong knew Tour organizers would change into yellow, but the symbolism was nonetheless powerful. Don't be surprised to see Zabriskie riding for Discovery Channel one day in the future.The other off occurrence was the sight of Team CSC crashing, then adding insult to injury by having a musette bag get tangled in a wheel during a feed zone. That's not saying the wheels are falling off at CSC, but their composure is certainly ruffled.My plan today, if you could call it a plan, was to give Bob Babbitt a lift to Charles de Gaulle Airport then drive into Paris to have some papers notarized. The timing was dicey -- with an early afternoon start, it would be a rush to dash into Paris, stand in line at the American Consulate (it had to be an American notary, I was told), and battle traffic back to Chambord. At the very least, I hoped to make it to Montargis for the finish. It was not to be.Spent the night at the de Gaulle Sheraton, a delicate building constructed between airport terminals. The design is taken from that of a ship, and from a distance it appears to be a great prow slicing the terminals' concrete wave. Frankly, I loved the place, and got up early for a sauna and run before striking off for Paris. Meanwhile, Babbitt's Tour adventure had come to an end, and it was a bit sad bidding him adieu. He's been in France for five days, which is a very long time to cover a normal event. But the Tour is so epic and Herculean -- so oversized compared to anything else out there (in size and organization it is literally like conducting a Super Bowl in a different town for 23 days staight) -- that his five days merely marked the beginning of a great adventure. One can only imagine how the riders find the strength to keep going, day after day.As I left the airport I watched the beginning of the American Tour onslaught: bike boxes from Miami, watched over protectively by two elderly men who've come as part of a tour group; college students wearing Discovery Channel team t-shirts; and, somewhat bothersome, a reed-thin fellow with gray hair and a weak chin who bragged to his companion about walking out of a restaurant because "I demand great service." Buddy, you've come to the wrong place. The service is fine, the food is excellent, but there's not a French waiter in the country who's likely to kiss anyone's butt anytime soon.Traffic was horrendous, so I took the Metro from the outskirts of Paris. Got off at the Place de l'Concorde (by the way, I've been mangling some of the French in my dispatches. Sorry about that. I'm trying. I'm really trying) and stood along the same stretch of roadway the riders will pass on the Tour's final days. I gazed upon that spot in the exact center of the Champs Elysees where the winner will hear his country's national anthem (sadly, today it was covered by a reviewing stand and bleachers, in anticipation of Paris being named host of the 2012 Games. London's victory saw those bleachers come down in a hurry). It was strange to be here when the Tour is not. I had been distant from the race for just a few hours, but already I longed to get back.Again, this was not to be. The line at the Consulate was long, a collection of lost passports, overstayed visas, and un-notarized documents. I didn't make any friends when I mistakenly hopped the line and skipped past a couple dozen people who'd been fuming about inefficient bureaucracy since the crack of dawn. Suffice to say, I went to the end of the line.OK. Two-thirty pm. Got the documents signed. A rather witty consular official who went by the name of Mr. Smith made the process surprisingly lighthearted. But it was too late to make Montargis, so I settled into a café to watch the European feed. I booked a room in a nearby hotel, with plans (NEW plans) to watch the race, write this piece, then take a morning run along the Seine tomorrow before striking out for the start. All went well. Watched the race, settled in to write, etc. That's when I discovered that I'd left those documents (those precious documents that compelled me to detour to Paris in the first place) back at the café.I should point out that I'm writing all this off French TV, trying to look flawless and smart while I crib quotes from riders 150 miles away. The process makes me long for the proximity of the Tour; the clamor of the crowds, the sweaty arrival of the peloton, that telltale gasp from the crowd when something wondrous or terrible happens in the peloton. Today was supposed to be a boring stage, one without drama or pizzazz. But really, there's no such thing at the Tour. It's an addictive narcotic to watch it in person. The hustle-bustle of Paris (Vespas, honking horns, cigarette smoke, fat sweating tourists of a hundred nations, and, trying to look like I belong when I know that I'm a tourist like everyone else) is more cosmopolitan than the Tour's rural routes. But it's nowhere near as cool.So I'm in the café, pretty much jumping up and down with joy when Lance Armstrong asks French TV if he can answer interview questions in English. They say yes, and I figure I'll get a unique take on events. But as soon as he begins speaking, they dub his comments into French. I didn't hear a word.Tomorrow's stage is a 100-miler from Troyes to Nancy. The route will be hillier than today, with the start of the Alsace forests. Look for more breakaway's like that four-man group of today, because now is the time at the Tour when anonymous men become heroes.Tomorrow also marks the peloton's entrance into the Champagne region, which will mean a rocking media buffet. On a more somber note, Nancy and nearby Verdun were the sites of pivotal battles in the two World Wars. I may never pass this way again, so I plan to take in all the history I can.As for the documents, I raced back to the café and found them, safe and secure.

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