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Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive, and Dodge.

Posted by MDugard on Jul 9, 2005 6:42:53 PM

Today was not a good day for the Discovery Team. "If we have two more weeks like this," Lance Armstrong said afterward, "we're in trouble." He and his squad were unable to respond when Germany's Andreas Kloden launched an attack ten kilometers before final climb. The winding road was lined with a dense, damp pine forest and jammed with German spectators who crowded out into the center, leaving a scant path for the riders to travel through. They waved German flags and cheered Kloden on with a nationalistic fervor unseen at the Tour so far this year. Though Kloden would later get nipped at the line (the margin of victory was the slim width of a valve stem) by Rabobank's Pieter Weening, Kloden scored an enormous moral victory. After failing utterly in the opening stage one week ago, he now finds himself among a group of ten riders within two minutes of snatching the yellow jersey.What happened was that Discovery Channel stood flatfooted during those climbs. Their response, when it came, was clumsy and ineffective. Discovery Channel, in Armstrong's estimation, was overconfident. "It was definitely a crisis on our team. We need to evaluate it and not let it happen again." He blamed the difficulty on the relatively easy pitch, which made for quick speeds up the mountain. "It's not a true indication of what we're going to see in the Alps and the Pyrenees, which are much steeper. But the boys on the team are getting too confident. This is the Tour de France, you'd better show up to play and have both feet on the ground. Nothing's guaranteed." Nevertheless, Armstrong still remains in yellow, one minute ahead of CSC team's Jens Voigt.That bit of weakness, which nobody saw coming, will likely be put to the test again tomorrow. For those who wonder about evidence that others will be ganging up on Armstrong and company, the first glimpses came today. The rest should pour forth during stage nine. Now that the whole world sees a ***** in Armstrong's armor, look for his opponents' team managers to stay up into the wee hours looking for a way to make him bleed.Today's course followed the Rhine in Germany before crossing back into France and traveling into the low mountains along the border. The scenery was green and forested, lined with those small medieval towns and road furniture that are a Tour staple. The topography looked so simple on paper, but Armstrong admitted yesterday that he had never ridden it before. He didn't know what was coming. That went against his habit of pre-riding every stage of the course, and perhaps led to his team's disarray. Knowing Armstrong, he'll have better reconnaissance tomorrow.At this stage in the Tour, it's traditionally Lance Armstrong's habit to avoid crowds and press. But at this morning's start in Pforzheim he emerged from the bus and immediately conducted interviews. He wore a "Navy SEAL Team Ten" hat, out of respect for two SEAL commandos he met in his hotel lobby last night, who were about to ship out to Afghanistan. After changing into his helmet, he slipped away from the two bodyguards who traditionally lead him to the starting line. He veered toward the barricades and signed autographs for the large American crowd (particularly the children). Many were servicemen based in Germany. When he finally rode to the start, Lance made a point to take the long way, riding along the barricades before those Americans, much to their delight. There are still two weeks in this Tour. Win or lose he's retiring at the end. Much as he longs for victory to be decided, Armstrong seems to be savoring every last stage.A young military physician named Steven Brady was supposed to be with those two SEALS when they ventured into Armstrong's hotel. However, he was called into surgery to fix the eyes of a soldier wounded in Iraq. It seems that thirty percent of all injuries there are to the head and neck. Brady, however, was invited to the Discovery Team bus this morning so Lance could say hello.Drove the course today, just because I was curious about the climb. I learned the hard way that Saturday in Germany means the entire country indulges their passion for piling into the family car and taking to the autobahn. The roads were jammed, and I've never seen so many people inhabit rest stops. Combine that with a Tour course that paralleled the main highway, and the going was quite slow. Nothing, however, prepared me for the 16.7-kilometer climb just before the finish. From bottom to top, the crowds were five and six deep. The Alps and Pyrenees will be hard-pressed to match such numbers. I found myself scared for the small children along the course, whom I feared would dart in front of a Tour car or rider. The crowd was very, very German. The Discovery Channel team car riding behind me (not Johann Bruyneel's car, but one of the technical vehicles) was booed constantly. When I spotted two women waving an American flag and wearing Discovery jerseys, I slowed down to ask them where they were from. The women didn't understand the question. They only spoke German.I went for a short run through Karlsruhe this morning, past pastry shops whose tempting aromas spilled out onto the cobbled streets, down through a park lined with Renaissance statuary. But the Tour organizers must be concerned that myself and the other members of the press aren't getting enough of a workout. The press center is almost a mile from the start, and twice that from the parking lot. It would be a point of contention except that the view out the window is so serene. It is that of Lake Gerardmer, whose shores are lined with old hotels and vacation cottages. The lake is in a bowl formed by the surrounding mountains and pine forests. It's all very lovely, with gravel walking paths and park benches that face out to the water, inviting contemplation.On that note, following the Tour de France is a whole lot like competing in The Amazing Race. You wake up in the morning after a short night of rest, indulge in a brief workout and breakfast, then navigate to the start. This is never easy, and generally involves several U-turns, mangled cartographical translations, and stops for directions. Finally arrive. Park the car. Wander about. Interview the riders. Catch a glimpse of Lance getting off the bus and maybe grab a few quotes, because he's in the lead, he's the eminently newsworthy Lance, and it won't happen again after this year. Gulp coffee and the daily regional food in the media village (today: Fried cow stomach that tasted a lot like spam. Fried pineapple with maple syrup. Camembert and dark bread). Read Calvin and Hobbes and Doonesbury in the International Herald-Tribune (the Tribune still carries Calvin and Hobbes, which is reason enough to pick it up. That legendary cycling journalist Sam Abt writes for them too is even more incentive. By the way, before I came to my first Tour I somehow imagined Abt as a barrel-chested curmudgeon. Instead he is small like many of the riders, and chain smokes while typing his brilliant communiqués. Though getting on in the years, Abt is not quite old, and he works us all into the ground. Just when I think I've gotten the best interviews, I open the Tribune and find he's trumped us all). Race to the car and do a map study for the route to the finish. Get stuck in local traffic (the press stickers on the car only part the waters on the way in). Drive a roundabout hundred and fifty miles toward the finish, stopping to check the map and make a U-turn at least once. Fret that the rides will arrive first. Arrive. Get waved through the barricades and park in a grassy lot. Stride briskly to the press room. Find a spot with a view of the flat screen televisions. Watch the race. Jog out to the finish when the riders are 30 minutes out. Interview. Write. Get in the car at seven or eight and hope not to get lost on the way to the hotel (if you have a reservation). Find food, hoping the local restaurants serve after ten. Make notes before bed. And, as Jackson Browne said, "when the morning light comes streaming in, we get up and do it again. Ah-men." Anyplace else and it would all be a bit much. But this is the Tour de France, and it's the epicenter of the sporting world during the month of July. That makes it all an adventure. Besides, however much like Amazing Race it might be, none of the press are out there suffering in the saddle for five and six hours like the riders. But we all know how absurd if can sometimes feel. As Lance noted after today's stage, it's all part of being "a stranger in a strange land." I half expect someone to pop out of nowhere and tell me the order of my arrival.Not long ago I wrote a book about Columbus's fourth and final voyage. It was the boldest of his career, a swashbuckling adventure that saw him lose all four of his ships and spend a year shipwrecked (among other epic happenings). He returned to Spain in 1504 and died a year later. Shortly thereafter, a monk living in St. Die, France decided that Amerigo Vespucci had discovered the Novus Mundo (New World) instead of Columbus. So he named this land "America." Today the Tour route passed through St. Die. I had never been to that charming rural town at the base of today's final climb, and it took me a minute to remember how I knew the name. Suffice to say it is remote and surrounded by forest, both of which helped make it an intellectual hotbed so long ago. It felt cool to put a place with the name.I'm staying in T-Mobile's hotel tonight. You would imagine the teams all spend their rest hours in the lap of luxury, but it's just a two star. Not that I would do it, but one of the Tour's strangest habits is listing each rider's room number on a call sheet in the lobby. Getting ahold of them is as simple as knocking in the door. How strange that the Tour can be so big and so impersonal at times, and at other times recalling a more simple era.Lance Armstrong's summary of today's stage. "It was a bad day at the Tour."He wasn't the only one. David Zabriskie, who was experiencing the ultimate cycling high by winning the yellow jersey a week ago, had a wretched day today. He finished so far behind the field that Lance Armstrong had already changed out of his cycling shoes, answered preliminary interview questions, and completed the length podium ceremony. Zabriskie looked scared before the start today, as if he would rather be anywhere else in the world than here. A few more finishes like today, and he may be.Floyd Landis was the opposite of Zabriskie. He's one cool customer. "Our team is better than they looked," he said, referring to Phonak's disastrous performance in the team time trial. "A lot of guys had a bad day. We'll be ready when the mountains come." Five riders abandoned the Tour today, including Christophe Mengin and Isaac Galvez, who crashed hard in the last two days. Mengin now sports a black eye that has swollen his left eye shut. Attempting to ride in the peloton (where riders' wheels are just inches away, and the average pace is more than 30 mph) without his peripheral vision in one eyes would have been akin to begging for another crash.Yesterday marked the end of the west to east push across France. In one week we crossed the entire nation. Today marked the beginning of the move south. Tomorrow we push on toward Mulhouse. Like today, it features many short, quick climbs. But unlike today's downhill descent to the finish, the final kilometers slowly descend into town. It's a stage that Armsrong won in 2000. You can bet he'd like to win it again.Until then.

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