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Posted by MDugard on Jul 8, 2005 7:24:00 AM

Today's stage sees the Tour leave France for the first time this year. Organizers aren't saying as much, but they're big fans of the subtle gesture, for better of worse. This being the 60th anniversary of World War II's end, it's no mistake that the route now follows the post D-Day Allied advance into Germany. Today it passes through the Black Forest, crosses the Rhine, and suddenly leaves the world of roundabouts and roadside wine picnics for four-way stoplights and bottles of beer. This is not to say the Germans aren't charming. They didn't wave at the Tour cars (like other cars allowed to drive the course, my gray Citroen has the requisite orange press stickers across the windshield) the way the French did, but they were animated in other ways. A man in cycling shorts and Charlie Chaplin makeup stood at one crossroads; an entire spin class was conducting a workout on stationary bikes just five kilometers before the finish; a father and son wearing sombreros (?) rode stationary bikes atop a van next to a field of wheat (I can only imagine what family life must be like on that farm); and, my personal favorite, the guy who rode his bike along the course until he found an empty spot. Then he set out a folding chair, stripped off his shirt and cycling cleats, lit up a smoke, and lay back to get a tan while he waited for the race to pass by.The last portion of this stage is flat, which I found strange after days of increasing gradient. It seems that this part of Alsace-Lorraine is something like Kansas, a wheat field-covered breadbasket that nestles just this side of the Alps.After yesterday's stage I drove through the rain, thinking I'd stop at the first hotel I came to. But the places just off the autoroute had a dispiriting strip mall quality that contrasted sharply to the tranquil countryside. Surely, in that land of meandering rivers and endless green hills and forests, there had to have been a more scenic play to stay. So I pushed up the road a piece and landed in Metz (I've gone on and on about the WWII stuff, so I'll leave you to Google Metz's significance to Patton's eastward push). The stone of its old city is amber like a sunset, and when I came around the cobbled street corner and caught sight of the cathedral (a truly massive and graceful assemblage of spires and stained glass), it took my breath away. I stayed the night in a funky little room, ate a dinner of pork stomach and sausage at a similarly offbeat bistro, then pushed on in the morning for Luneville. I can't help but say that I'm emboldened to try the same adventurous tactic tonight, as I once again find myself without a reservation.About the pork stomach thing: I've made a Supersize Me personal promise. Between now and the end of the race I will eat whatever they serve at the media gatherings, no matter odd it may look. Same for restaurants, only it means that I ask the specialty of the house and dig in. Consider me your culinary travel guide.The starting line in Luneville was made of stainless steel with a galvanically applied gold coating.Lance Armstrong signed in thirty minutes before the stage, wearing black Nike wet weather booties. But just before the start he thought better of it and went back to the bus for a quick bathroom break. When he came out of the bus, the booties were gone.Everyone on the Discovery Team is hoping against hope that George Hincapie can wear the yellow jersey this year. His job right now is to mark all the top threats to Lance Armstrong. Should they stage a breakaway, he chases them down and stops them. But there's a good chance Hincapie will launch one of his own tomorrow (yesterday's fizzled). If he wins by more than 55 seconds, he wears yellow for a few days. Johann Bruyneel this is the best possible way to thank a quiet, loyal rider for his many years of service to Lance Armstrong.By the way, Hincapie will keep riding, long after Armstrong retires, Discovery plans to help him win the big spring classic races next year.The most unsung American at this year's Tour is Chris Horner of Saunier Duval. The 34-year old Tour rookie wasn't even on his team's official roster until his breakout performance at last month's Tour de Suisse. His presence is pretty much the same as a guy playing minor league baseball for a dozen years then finally making it to The Show. I can't say that Horner is dazzled by it all, nor is he blasé. He's got a blue collar ethic that comes from having to work at his craft to achieve success. That doesn't mean he's a passive participant. He's looking for a chance to attack when the mountains come. "That's what I do best: Try to find a spot to attack so I can win a stage."I've always wondered whether the riders make such attacks on their own volition, or only go when team managers tell them. "Of course they have their say, but they can't see everything from inside the car," Horner said. We were standing next to his team car. He had the hatchback open as he rummaged around for his gear bag, then doffed his wet weather cycling booties because the rain had stopped. "Sometimes they get stuck behind other cars and the peloton and can't see the action. That's when I have to go if I see an opening. You gotta go when you can go."Bjarne Riis of Team CSC told me that he sees American Bobby Julich as his top candidate to lead a breakaway in the next couple days. This was news to Julich, but he did concede that if he made such a move, it would be tomorrow. "Today's too long," Julich noted of the 228.5 kilometer stage. We were standing in the courtyard of the ancient Chateau de Luneville. Five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault was jabbing me with an umbrella for slowing a rider down on his way to the start. "It's a day for the sprinters."After driving the course, I agree with Julich. This is definitely a day for the sprinters. The inconsistent weather will make a breakaway difficult during the early miles. That will only get worse once the course crosses into Germany. The course actually shifts from narrow village to streets onto a highway, something that was unheard of when the race was in France. Such a wide expanse offers a rider no place to hide from the wind.The Tour de France is a tour for everyone, even the riders. "I don't know the course," Julich noted. "We can't pre-ride every course in the world we race. It's impossible. You've got to take it as it comes. That way you get to see new things."OK. We're in Germany. Look for Gerolsteiner or T-Mobile to make a breakaway.Talk to you after the stage.

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