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Vive LA France

Posted by MDugard on Jul 7, 2005 7:14:54 AM

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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