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Stand On It

Posted by MDugard Jul 12, 2005

Here's how it's going to shake out today: Discovery Team will ride in a tight scrum around Lance Armstrong. He's the obvious favorite to win this year's Tour, so other teams will try to wear them down by sending individual riders off on long breakaways. The primary stipulation is that the rider who goes off must be a threat to Armstrong's Tour hopes.Each squad has a team leader. The other eight riders all work for him, sacrificing their chances of victory so that the leader and the team will be victorious (this is the guiding philosophy behind all Tour teams, but especially Discovery Channel). Often the gap in ability between the team leader and the other members is vast. But several teams at this year's Tour have a second or third rider capable of not just being team leader, but winning the entire Tour de France. Those are the teams that will attack Lance Armstrong. The tactic they will use works like a bait and switch. A team like CSC, for example, will send a secondary rider like Bobby Julich on a breakaway. It will probably take place in the 25-mile valley between the day's two climbs (Cornet de Reselend and Courchevel). Because Julich is currently close to Lance Armstrong in the overall rankings (and a definite threat to win the entire Tour if he develops a three- or four-minute lead), Discovery Channel must chase him down. They have no choice. The extra effort will weaken the legs of Discovery and Lance. Meanwhile, CSC's top rider, Ivan Basso, will tuck in behind them and ride in Discovery's draft. So will all his teammates. The end result is that Discovery gets tired, Julich either wins or gets caught, and Basso's legs remain fresh for another day.CSC isn't the only team who's thinking like that. T-Mobile could send either Alexandre Vinokourov or Andreas Kloden (thereby protecting Jan Ullrich), and Phonak could send Botero (protecting Floyd Landis). All these attacks may fail. But Discovery must cover them all. The cumulative fatigue on their legs could prove overwhelming.Bjarne Riis, team manager of CSC, is known for his pragmatism. He's also known for being extremely traditional. And though it would be unwise for his team to help Jens Voigt keep the yellow jersey for another day (despite the fact that Voigt can't climb, is a modest time-trialist, and has absolutely zero chance of winning the Tour), Riis may do so, simply because Tour tradition mandates it. This would be the stupidest thing for CSC to do, but it may come to pass. Or not. Riis is aware that other team's known this weakness. He may change his tactics to exploit their knowledge.The start this morning was in Grenoble, a city of narrow streets that were laid out with utter disregard for logic. It is not as clean as the other cities I've seen so far this year. Even when I headed out of town for a trail run, the path was lined with broken beer bottles and smelled of fresh dog droppings.  I headed out of town before the start, almost getting run over by a trolley in the process. It's not that I didn't enjoy my time in Grenoble – I did – but I'm more comfortable in the coutryside. As Grenoble faded into my rearview mirror and I turned off the autoroute onto the smaller N90, it felt good to be driving through the Alps on a sunny July morning.I was eating dinner at a bistro across the street from my hotel last night, when I ran into Matt Ford. He's the owner of Rock `n' Road Cyclery, my hometown bike shop. Matt had flown in for the next three days as a guest of Look (I think). Great to see Matt, who's an exceptional cyclist in his own right.Turns out the press center in Grenoble was famous for more than just housing the city velodrome. During the 1968 Olympics, the building hosted the figure skating competition. That was the year Peggy Fleming won. Kinda' cool to be at the scene of that bit of history.Flash forward a few Olympics, to the 1992 Winter Games. They took place in Albertville, which lies at the base of the climb up here to Courchevel. The same jagged Alpine peaks the riders will ascend were the scene of the skiing and ski jumping competitions. The press center was the scene of hockey.  Again, great history.Spectator mania has increased every day. That trend continued today. Just a phenomenal number of national flags, cycling tour groups, beer-drinking Germans, and generally rabid individuals in all manner of dress. The sun is out but the air is cold, and rain is forecast for the finish. This is one of those mountains that never seems to end, and more than once on the drive (dodging bikes and people the whole way) up, I thought I had reached the summit. But then I would round a curve and see that the actual summit was still five miles higher.  The final push is steep and near the tree line, a demanding pitch that will see some very tired riders battle wind, weather and mountain before the cross the line It's a cliché, but today the race will go the rider who wants it most. If you want a dark horse candidate for stage winner, think Levi Leipheimer or Floyd Landis. I know I keep flogging the Landis bandwagon, but he seems to fit and mentally sharpTalk to you later. The race is about to start.

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Rest Day

Posted by MDugard Jul 12, 2005

Ah... Rest Day at the Tour. I'm in Grenoble, in a press center set up on the inner section of the town velodrome. The banked wooden track circles us all, filling the arena with the faint scent of pine. There's a simmering, anxious vibe in the air. It's nice to have a day to regroup (forget Rest Day, I need Laundry Day; it's getting so that I'm scared to open my luggage), but everyone here is looking ahead to the six vital stages that will take place from tomorrow through Sunday. All I have to do is step outside to be reminded of how difficult life is about to get for the peloton. The Alps watch over Grenoble like a brooding, malevolent presence. It is up their narrow roads and over their tree-less summits that the race will now travel. The spectator throngs are already in place. Their campers and pup tents line the roads. The smell of grilling sausage from their portable barbecues rivals the relaxing aroma of wild lavender as the prevalent roadside fragrance. So, yeah, it's a day of rest. But it feels a whole lot more like a prelude to some great drama. The stage is set, now all we need is the actors.Can't wait to see what will happen next. Everyone took note of Lance Armstrong's show of force yesterday, deliberately giving away the yellow jersey so his Disco Boys could get some mental and physical down time. But he made sure they rode like a juggernaut in the process so there would be absolutely no mistake of their power. Why do that? To get inside the heads of every single rider who even dreams of wearing yellow in Paris. He is the patron, after all.Lance is a stud. He's whippet thin, his jaw is firmly set, there's not a trace of fear in his mien. And yet… he's displaying a newfangled bit of emotion: nostalgia. Every stage makes his retirement one day closer. He rode his last Stage Nine yesterday, and tomorrow will ride his last Stage Ten (and on and on to that last stage in Paris). And like we all behave as nostalgia creeps in (he can be so superhuman at times that it seems odd for Lance to have emotions in common with the rest of us), Lance is clinging to every last poignant memory. Until yesterday, it was his Achilles heel. That's why he wanted to wear yellow for almost the entire Tour when the more pragmatic move would have been giving it away. Until yesterday, his proprietary emotions toward the maillot jaune got in the way of being his usual smart, deliberate self. It remains to be seen if that nostalgia will once again bubble to the surface between now and Paris. I think that's the only way he'll lose.Funny when you think of it: The Tour isn't about some vague notion of winning anymore. It's about beating Lance.So who can do it? The list of favorites would have to include Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Alexander Vinokourov, Floyd Landis, and maybe even Bobby Julich.  Mickael Rasmussen was so emboldened by his victory yesterday that he was talking about riding for yellow, but he was just talking crazy.So let's break it down. Ivan Basso has beaten Lance in the mountains before (last year at La Mongie), but has broken down under pressure at last year's Tour and at this year's Giro d'Italia. So the young Italian has a considerable monkey to get off his back if he's to win this year. Call him a longshot.Ullrich crashed yesterday, and is being x-rayed for a broken rib today. But he won't pull out. Big Jan has been quietly biding his time, waiting for the exact right moment to make his move. Unless that rib slows him (he did just fine after getting back on his bike yesterday) look for Ullrich to make a sudden, explosive move when we all least expect it. But will he win? No. But he might make it a race.Bobby Julich rides for Team CSC, and will work for Ivan Basso. But if Basso falters, look for Julich to take charge. He won at Paris-Nice this year and he's got that edgy, competitive aura of someone looking to make a stand. Another longshot, but one worth rooting for.Floyd Landis' coach says he's ready to do great stuff, and Landis couldn't be more loose and confident (of all the top riders, he's the easiest to talk to. Floyd doesn't edit his answers and generally has a smile on his face). But could Floyd Landis win the Tour de France? I'd really like to think so, but the answer is no.Finally, Alexandre Vinokourov. Nickname: Vino. Wily, strong, smart, and afraid of nothing, the T-Mobile rider could very well do it. Really. I'm not even racing the Tour, and I'm scared of his ability to make things happen.  However, when it comes right down to it, the only person who's going to beat Lance this year is Lance.Having said that, Basso, Ullrich, Julich and Landis have all played their cards close to the vest so far. No one can tell how strong or weak they might be. We'll find out soon enough. All it takes is a crash, an ill-timed puncture or a bad food day to ruin Lance's race.The week shapes up like so: Two stages in the Alps, two relatively flat stages through warm southern region of France, then two stages in the Pyrenees. There's a nice dramatic buildup to the action. Tomorrow will be the easiest day of climbing and Sunday will be the toughest. "Easy," however, is relative. Tomorrow is 192.5 kilometers long and features two lengthy climbs that will scatter the peloton. The first is a 20-kilometer ascent of Col de Roselend. The second is 22.2 kilometers to the finish atop the mountain in Courcheval. Average gradient is 6.2%. Race start is noon local time, with a projected winner's finish of 5:04 pm.I left the finish line in Mulhouse early yesterday. Had a hotel reservation in Geneva and wanted to make it there before midnight. Following the French autoroute would have meant a long roundabout path, so I took the rhumb line by following the A35 through Switzerland. Right from the start, it seemed like the wrong decision. The Swiss border was more backed up than the U.S.-Mexico line on a summer Sunday afternoon. There was no way to turn around, so I gritted it out, fuming the whole while. All I kept thinking of was a hot meal, a warm bed, and a very long night's sleep after yet another nonstop day. It was as if the Swiss border guards were trying to deprive me of that right. After a half-hour or so, I realized my negative attitude was building on itself, so I tried to stay calm. The fellow in front of me was videotaping some nearby apartment buildings, which I thought strange. Because I had nothing better to do, I became convinced he was a terrorist, and began imagining ways to quietly alert the Swiss. But I soon realized my paranoia was silly and fueled by low blood sugar. Finally, I made it to the border, paid 30 euros for the privilege of driving Switzerland's highways, then promptly got stuck in another traffic mess in Basel.   Things weren't looking good.But the Tour is like that. Just when you think you can't manage one more freaking minute of the latest crisis, something unexpected makes everything OK. Outside Pforzheim on Saturday it was the Coca-Cola rep handing out ice-cold cokes. Yesterday's turning point was the unexpectedly lush and manicured Swiss countryside (lots of tunnels and hillside farms). That, and a Snicker's bar purchased at a roadside kiosk. Made it to Geneva by about 9, splurged on a filet mignon smeared in seven spices and marrow sauce, and called it a night.Breakfast was instant in-room coffee, two bite-sized biscuits, and the Toblerone chocolate left by the turn-down service. I wanted to save my appetite for the sumptuous media buffet that would be waiting in Grenoble. Only problem, there is no buffet on rest days. My stomach has become used to the daily local spreads provided for the Tour. This feels like a severe and draconian change of pace. However, I've eaten a bit too well during my time in France. Perhaps a day of restraint is in order. Or perhaps I'll head out and find a quiet café along the local riverfront where I can jot notes and watch evening shade the Alps.A note on CNN: I don't watch it much at home, preferring the network and local news when I can wrest the remote away from the kids (and my wife, who has a deep passion for all things CSI). But whenever I travel, either CNN or the BBC makes my room feel like home. When I think of CNN's international broadcast I think of past nights in Asia, Europe, South America and Australia. They show American sports scores and news, which is often hard to find in foreign countries. I feel a bit lost when I check into a hotel and they don't have CNN. The other night, for instance, my hotel in Cornimont had channels in German, French, and some language I couldn't understand. The best I could do was a "Different Strokes" rerun dubbed in German.Perhaps that's a roundabout way of saying I'm getting the slightest bit homesick. Rest days do that to me. Too much time to think. Best to work hard and bash on.There were three levels to the parking garage beneath my hotel in Geneva. Level One was also the home of the Swiss Institute of Massage. Level Two was reserved for parking. Level Three housed the Dancing Millardaire Erotic Club and Gentlemen's Cabaret. It's not often you find a parking garage of such diversity.I've gotten a few emails about the Lance/Sheryl Crow thing. I'll admit that last year I thought he handled it poorly, maybe even flaunting her presence while working through a divorce. From the notes I've received, others thought so too – not that it's any of our business. However, this year Lance is handling things differently. The Lance/Sheryl thing is much more low-key, not so in-your-face. She was around for the first few stages but has been missing of late.And on a final note: The security level in France was increased to its highest level today. My bag was searched as I walked into the press center, and the whole country is clamping down. Short of stopping the Tour, there is no way to defend against a terrorist attack on the course. What a comforting thought as we enter the most highly-attended week.

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