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"Now the race is about to start."

Posted by MDugard on Jul 8, 2005 6:34:58 PM

I've watched sprint finishes for years on television. And I've watched them in person, head-on, beyond the finish line, at the end of the straightaway. But today I wanted to feel the speed as the riders passed. So I posted myself along the barricades, 35 meters from the finish. I squeezed into a spot along the rail and pressed my body into the unpainted metal, leaning forward to gaze down the road and watch the final approach. The sprinters seemed spread across the road, but I knew the aerial shot would show them carefully aligned off one another as they prepared for the final charge. Then came the crash. Isaac Galvez of Illes Balears-Caisse D'Epargne and Angelo Furlan of Dominica Vacanze went caterwauling into the barricades. The lay there, dazed and bleeding as the field left them behind.And still the sprint continued. A sudden whoosh of speed and air and bright colors and bike frames and helmets passed me by, just inches away. It felt like standing along a flight line as a fighter jet takes off. The sensation was terrifying and primal, and I stood in awe of the sprinter's fearlessness and utter disregard for personal safety.By the way, these sprinters look large and muscular on television. But in person, Australia's Robbie McEwen is small and borderline petite. It's amazing the power he can generate with that little body.Of the two riders who went down hardest, Furlan got up first. His jersey hung from his body in rags and his flesh was pink but not bleeding after sliding across the new pavement. He pounded his fist forlornly on the handlebars as he pedaled slowly to the finish line (every rider must finish, or they cannot continue the Tour).   His path was not straight. Rather, he wobbled down the final straightaway, knowing better than to ask for help.Galvez was the exact opposite. His front wheel was broken, so he walked the final 150 meters. He strode close to the barricades, chest out and head held high. His eyes looked straight forward. Galvez carried the bike by the handlebars and held it up and down, so that it rode on the back wheel and the useless front rim was up near his eyes. The left side of his shorts was torn away. He ignored the sympathy applause and te fans reaching out to pat him on the back. Looking very much like a rooster who has been badly wounded in a cockfight, the proud Galvez finally crossed the line and handed the bike to a handler.McEwen's victory means little in the overall standings. Lance Armstrong is in first. George Hincapie, his teammate and loyal enforcer, is 55 seconds back in second place. Alexandre Vinokourov is 1:02 behind, in third. In all, 20 riders are now currently within 20 seconds of Lance. It's Vinokourov – Vino – that concerns Armstrong the most. The tanned, burly Kazak is powerful and unpredictable. His sudden attack yesterday decreased the time differential between him and Armstrong by 19 seconds. Not that Armstrong's worried, but this afternoon he noted "I'll have to keep him in check."Typically, the cramped interview room is overflowing with journalists. But no one expected Armstrong to make an appearance today, so I pretty much had the place to myself. "Nice crowd," Armstrong joked when he walked in. We got to talking about the pressure of the yellow jersey, and whether or not he will defend his lead for the rest of the race. Remember, it would be much easier on his teammates if Lance let go of the jersey for a couple days, then maybe took it back sometime a week from now. "We might be defending it," he noted, "but we're also getting a lot of help. Three or four other teams are finding it in their interest to chase down each breakaway so we have a field sprint.  But we've been through the first week. Now the race is about to start."   In other words, he's not letting it go, except maybe to Hincapie.Armstrong, who looks relaxed, composed and completely unafraid after the end of each stage (he has a wary, slightly haunted look before the start, as if girding for unexpected calamity), also says that the pressure is something he can handle. "It's nothing like last year when I was going for six wins. This is definitely something I can deal with."All the other top teams – CSC, T-Mobile, Phonak – have been playing possum the last few days. They're using these pre-mountain stages to rest and prepare for some sort of attack on Armstrong. As popular as Lance may be in the States (and France), and despite his accomplishments, none of those teams are even remotely close to letting him win. There will be attacks and counterattacks, and the forging of unlikely alliances with also-ran teams looking for a dose of glory. Really, it's a lot like Survivor.Tomorrow should be a treat. It's another long stage, some 231.5 kilometers (about 122 miles) from the German city of Pforzheim back into the France and the city of Gerardmer. The weather sheet on the desk next to my iBook shows rain in the early stages, then thundershowers over the last half of the course. There are four third-category climbs in the early going, and a 16.8-kilometer climb just before the finish. Bobby Julich says it's the day he might make a breakaway. How cool would that be?Today is Friday. That means that right now, all around Europe and America, people are wrapping up their last day of work and preparing to board a plane to the Tour. Statistics show that between 8 and 10 million people will be here next week. I always marvel that the first week is the Tour's quietest, because it's so incredibly crazy. Between the crowds and the racing action, next week will be intense.For those of you making the journey, here are a few travel notes you might want to bear in mind: 1) rent a car: the train doesn't stop on top of the mountains, and cars give you more leeway to pull over in a small café and eat a nice lunch; 2) Make reservations or bring a sleeping bag: Campers line the road side and last-minute hotel rooms are very hard to come by, particularly atop the mountain; and 3) be flexible. That's all part of the adventure -- or least, that's what I tell myself.Until tomorrow.

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