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Bas On, Regardless

Posted by MDugard on Jul 7, 2005 7:22:00 AM

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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