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The New Kournikova?

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2005

Want to see the future leader of the Discovery Channel team? You may have gotten your chance today. Alexandre Vinokourov, who won today's eleventh stage of the Tour in a sprint finish over Colombia's Santiago Botero (Lance Armstrong finished 1:15 back) is in the final year of his T-Mobile contract. The Discovery Channel still plans on grooming Ukrainian Yaroslav Popvych as the future peloton patron. (The term, by the way, is used sparingly. Just because a rider wears yellow doesn't make him the patron, that most exalted of all Tour titles. This godfather-like figure is the conduit through which all peloton power flows. The title is reserved for great riders like Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, and Armstrong, all of whom possessed a strong team and will to extract vengeance on those who cross him. Greg LeMond, for example, was considered too forgiving to be honored as patron, despite his three Tour victories).Discovery Channel has been in talks with Vinokourov to replace Lance Armstrong as team leader. Vino's strong, unpredictable, and explosive. He's capable of winning a Tour or three, and openly chafes that T-Mobile still considers Jan Ullrich their team leader. But will a U.S. cable channel allow a native of Kazakhstan to be team leader? Discovery invested in this team to advertise their product. So far, the $15 million-plus advertising fee paid to Tailwind Sports has paid off in spades. But I have a feeling they'd be a whole lot happier if the Disco Boys were led by someone a tad more American. The Cold War wasn't so long ago. Anna Kournikova comparisons aside, it would still seem weird to have a native of the former Soviet Union to be the standard-bearer for an American cable channel. Vino is dynamic in his own reticent way. He is a handsome if smallish, man. As a cyclist, he has as much potential as anyone in the peloton. But will America tune in to watch him lead the Disco Boys from Strasbourg to Paris next July? I would, but it won't feel like an American team, which is the product Discovery Channel desperately wants to sell.Having said all that, Vino is the Disco Boys' second choice. The man they really want is Ivan Basso, currently of Team CSC. Basso and Armstrong are friends. The bond strengthened when the Italian's mother was dying of cancer. At the daily sign-in, Lance often makes it a point to shake hands with Basso.The Tour de France gives, and the Tour de France takes away: First it was American Dave Zabriskie of Team CSC winning the yellow jersey and dropping out exactly one week later. Today it was Sunday's yellow jersey winner Jens Voigt who finished outside the mandatory time cutoff. He was unceremoniously sent home. To quote Philadelphia Story, How are the mighty fallen.Everyone makes nice about this, but there is no love lost between Lance Armstrong and fellow American riders Bobby Julich, Floyd Landis, and the suspended Tyler Hamilton. Private comments have so far been off the record, which is OK, because they're unfit to print anyway.Though it seems impossible, OLN commentator Phil Liggett has lost his voice. We'll see if he recovers in time for tomorrow's start.Though Lance Armstrong has a public "no gifts" policy, it's within his power to extend goodwill to other riders. It's all a part of being the patron. Sometimes that even means letting someone win a stage. Armstrong swears that he rode his hardest yesterday, and didn't intentionally allow Alejandro Valverde to win (I stood next to Lance as he said it, and the exhausted look on his face pretty much confirmed the denial). But it is likely that he allowed Vino to win today. With the T-Mobile rider more than six minutes back in the standings, it served Armstrong's purposes to let Vino's breakaway succeed.The rider posing the most immediate threat to Armstrong is second-place Mickael Rasmussen. The bony Dane (I swear that the man has an eating disorder) is only 38 seconds behind Armstrong. But Lance can't be too concerned. When Rasmussen sprinted away from the field to breast the summit of le Galibier first, Armstrong let him go. He knew Rasmussen was only chasing King of the Mountain points. And even if Rasmussen got cocky and tried to hie away permanently, he's just too skinny to downhill effectively. As it was, Lance and the peloton reeled him in shortly after the summit.Last on Vino: that Sea Foam Green jersey he wears symbolizes his title as Kazak national champion. Every national champion is accorded the same privilege.I don't know if this came across on the OLN feed, but Christophe Moreau was seen clutching a cardboard promotional item given to him by a fan as he topped the Col du Galibiere. Shaped like a giant hand and distributed by French company PMU, it was not something Moreau grabbed frivolously. Temperatures were so cold at the summit that riders were stuffing newspapers and even giant cardboard hands into the front of their shirts to keep their chest and lungs warm on the descent. If they hadn't, the combination of sweat-soaked clothing, the cold, and rapid downhill speeds could lead to mild hypothermia.This is obviously not the space to discuss U.S. economic policy, but let me just take a second to say that it sucks that the dollar is so weak. With the euro so strong (and don't get me started on the pound) Europe is a very expensive place to be an American nowadays. I know how it feels to be Canadian.In other nationalistic issues, tomorrow is Bastille Day, France's version of the Fourth of July. It's not always the case, but every now and then a Frenchman gets a wild hair and does everything within his power to win the stage. Lance Armstrong is beloved in France, despite the actions of a few malcontents. If he wanted to give the ideal gift – and, this being his last Tour, nothing would make the French love him more – he would pass the word to let a Frenchman win. You ought to see what it's like when that happens. This place goes nuts. Lots of tricolored flags, lots of La Marseillaise and exuberant French people blowing trumpets and playing accordions. It's all quite crazed.On the subject of tomorrow's stage, it's flat compared to today's soaring climbs, but there's still quite a lot of uphill. Sunshine is forecast for the start here in Briançon (soft "s", so it sounds sort of like "Brian's Song"), but the clouds are supposed to make an appearance by early afternoon. At 187 kilometers the distance has the transitional quality between mountains and flat stages the riders crave.In my ongoing attempt to sample all that France has to offer (in a culinary sense, of course) I should tell you that the media buffet here in Briançon invoked the area's rural charm. Cold chicken topped with a dollop of hard butter was served with couscous, shredded carrots in some sort of bland cream sauce, and a second salad made with pig jowls known as salade de museau. It was gamey but palatable, the sort of food you eat once, just to say you did -- and I did.Austin and I are pushing out of Briançon tonight, headed for a hotel down one of the five local valleys. Today has been more relaxed than other days, and I particularly loved driving the entire course (we didn't find out until later that the press was not supposed to be on the course due to heavy spectator congestion). We have one more day with the legendary photographer Neil Leifer and his stories about shooting Muhammad Ali and Steve Prefontaine, who pushes on to the British Open after tomorrow. Anyway, I'm saddened that tomorrow also marks our exit from the Alps. The sadness is tempered by the realization that we enter my most favorite region of France, Provence, the day after. Not to get ahead of myself (as I've said, every day at the Tour is a new start and new adventure unto itself) but I'm really looking forward to a couple days in the South of France. The weather is warm, the sunsets have a serene pastel quality, and the roads are lined with endless fields of lavender.Until tomorrow.

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Lunar Landscape

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2005

Pulled into Brides les Bains and the Gold Hotel just after the kitchen closed last night. It was only nine miles down the mountain from the finish in Courcheval, but mountaintop finishes always mean bumper to bumper traffic back down the mountain, and it took us almost two hours from the time we left the press center.It's something of a Tour tradition for cars bearing press stickers to bypass the traffic by driving in the left lane. But it was very dark and the roads were very narrow, and after nearly crashing head-on into a gendarme, Austin and I stuck to the more time, but safer, right lane. Thankfully, they reopened the kitchen for us, putting together a salad plate (beets, olives, shredded carrots, chilled asparagus) and a simple yogurt desert. It was perhaps the finest midnight snack I have ever eaten, and I went to bed and slept so well I blew off the six a.m. run in favor of a couple more hours sack time.As for this Tour de France thing, I'm not going to make any predictions today. Yesterday, after speaking with all the race experts, I was absolutely positive about how the stage would shake out. Boy was I wrong. I had no clue Lance would make such a bold statement, and I even thought Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis could possibly steal the win. But though Leipheimer and Landis rode well, this is not a place where average is good enough. Both Americans were unable to hang with Armstrong's pace during the last ten kilometers up to Courchevel. A visibly annoyed Landis gave a brief interview to OLN afterward, then snapped a brusque "no" when Swiss TV (a bold blow-of as his sponsor, Phonak, is Swiss) asked for time. Leipheimer was selected for random drug screening after the stage and I never even saw him. Bottom line is, I'm through playing Carnak. Predicting the Tour reminds me of that old quote about Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything." Especially, on certain days, me.Today's 173-kilometer push from Courchevel to Briancon is the second of two Alpine climbing stages. The road passes through a region of the Alpine crescent that contains the highest altitude in France. The climbs are steep and the downhills extremely perilous. This stage, appropriately, is very much like the stage which saw Lance don yellow for good in 1999, the first year he won.The finish line that day (I was there; it was cold and wet, and Lance attacked with a ferocity that no one knew he possessed) was across the Italian border in Sestriere. Today the route is slightly different, and finishes in the French village of Briancon. It is the highest village in all France, located at the crossroads of five valleys in the form of a star. The ancient historian Pliny traced the town's creation to Greeks who had been chased out of an Italian stronghold. The Celts and Romans later fortified the town. Briancon has two distinct areas: the old town – high town, built of stone on a lofty promontory – which hasn't changed much since Louis XIV. It has a citadel and rustic quality. The other area is a more modern section near the train station. This is where today's stage finishes.I have mixed emotions about Lance's position right now. Someone asked me before the race if it would be a tragedy if Lance lost. I responded that the tragedy would be Lance blowing the race wide open, robbing it of all its drama (obviously, if I was Lance that would be no tragedy of all. He wants the biggest, most comfortable cushion he can procure). What I want is a race. I want to see capable, deserving riders like Landis, Leipheimer or Chris Horner have a day of glory. Wouldn't it be great to see if one of them had the courage to show their potential? When I spoke with Landis' coach before yesterday's stage he was extremely nervous. "Physically, he's in ideal shape," Allen told me. "But the Tour is a mental competition, too. That's the unpredictable part."I'm writing this in the car, descending the backside of the Col de la Madeleine. I've traded in the Citroen (which I came to view with great sentiment. I logged more than 2,000 in her and she came to be something of a security blanket, a place I could retreat when the Tour's confusion felt overwhelming) for a gun-metal gray Passat. I'm riding with my buddy Austin, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. This marks our third Tour together and we have fallen into our usual rhythm of riffs and observations. We even have a guest in the car today, legendary photographer Neil Leifer. He rides in the back, waiting to be dropped off when we climb the Cold de Galibier. It is a gorgeous morning here in the Alps, sunny and warm. Wildflowers blossom on the steep hillsides and raging whitewater creeks tumble down the mountain. The road is extremely narrow on both the ascent and descent of la Madeleine, and it has not been resurfaced for today's stage. What scares me most are the lack of guardrails – several times we've driven perilously close to the edge of a cliff in our efforts to get around the spectator throng. Despite that, once again I'm stunned by the majesty of the Alps. Their jagged beauty (peaks like sharks's teeth sprawl across the horizon) is breathtaking.The riders will have a strong tailwind pushing them through the valley linking today's major climbs. You would think that would be a good thing, but a tailwind ratchets the pace higher and higher, making it just as tough on the field as a headwind.Stopped for lunch in Seant-Jeanne-de-Maurienne. An umbrella over the table protects me from the harsh noon sun. Twenty-five meters to my right workers are erecting the green banner denoting a sprint bonus (first riders under the banner receive points toward the green jersey signifying overall top sprinter). Austin is writing a postcard, and the rest of the café L'Encas is packed with Americans and Brits. After a light breakfast of coffee and fresh croissant this morning, I'm having a most simple chicken salad (grilled chicken breasts served over romained lettuce and sliced tomatos). Served with with a bottle of cold still water, it seems like the perfect meal for a hot day.Speaking of the weather, the mornings tend to be sunny in the Alps and the afternoons cold and gray. I don't know if that trend will hold, but clouds are forming around all the local peaks right now.OK. So we finished lunch and pushed up the two final climbs – Telegraphe and Galibier. Telegraphe is nice enough, a scenic climb up forested roads. The Galibier is something else entirely. The weather turned instantly cold. The terrain became a treeless moonscape, all boulders and screed. The climb goes up for 15 numbing kilometers, through hordes of spectators perched on the very edge of the cliffs, so intent on watching the bike race up close that they disregard the fact that one bad step could send them plummeting hundreds of feet. The roads are exceptionally skinny and the riders may see more fan interference than usual.Now we're descending to Briancon. A thick white tongue of glacial snow rises before us, up to a peak in the clouds. I can't imagine the nerve it takes to descend this stretch of road at full speed on a bicycle – the potential for miscalculating one of the tight hairpin turns and flying off the edge is very great. I don't usually get spooked by stuff like this, but my stomach's in knots as we drive so very close to the edge of this narrow road.But this is the road that leads to the finish. If some solo rider comes over the Galibier in first, you can bet he's going to take a whole bunch of chances. I'm scared for him.Sights along the road: A man dressed as Sylvester the Cat, two women dressed as clowns, and a road sign leading to a French city bearing the same name as a specific part of the female anatomy (hint: it's also the name of a large, now-deceased character on the Sopranos). English-speaking tourists (male) were standing in line to have their picture taken before it. The French who lived there didn't quite understand all the sophomoric clamor. They smoked their unfiltered cigarettes and watched it all, not knowing whether to be amused or offended.A smell from the road: The Passat's burning clutch as we ascended the Galibier.Sounds from the road: A dozen languages, French TV guys impatiently honking their horns, and the mix CD in the car, played just loud enough so we can hear the music and the spectator commotion outside the open window at the same time.So back to the race. Can Lance push himself hard today? Let's face it, the guys who want to beat him are running out of time to knock him down a peg. Floyd or Levi or Roberto Heras or Alexandre Vinokourov need to do something. Let's see if Vino's got what it takes to battle right back.Pulling into Briancon. Can see the citadel of the old city high above. Talk to you later.

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Bottle of Smoke

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2005

The theory of cognitive dissonance defines me right now. Got the Pogues blasting through the iPod headphones (has there ever been a better song about hope than "Fairytale of New York" or a more pointed use of the F-bomb when describing personal success than "Bottle of Smoke"?), as I sit down to process what I witnessed this afternoon. Lance Armstrong absolutely, freaking destroyed the pretenders to his throne. Has he won his seventh straight Tour de France? Undoubtedly. Barring calamity, nothing can stop him. The way he rode today was wondrous and vengeant, My spell check screams that "vengeant" is not a word, but I believe that it is. If not, it should be. Last Tuesday Bjarne Riis of the CSC team went on record as saying Armstrong was lucky to be wearing the yellow jersey. Lucky? Armstrong is driven by quotes like that. They don't cow him, they make him stronger. When he chooses to enter politics that drive will make him an L.B.J.-type machine, badgering foes and forging awkward alliances to ramrod his goals down the throat of a reluctant Texas Assembly. But for now that means Lance Armstrong is driven to make Bjarne Riis look like a fool. Today, without a shadow of a doubt, he did.   There is a peak that maps refer to as a mountain rising within running distance from the lavender in my backyard. I love Saddleback, and have poured sweat on her trails for years, but she's not a mountain. Courchevel is a mountain, a stark and hungry peak rising abruptly from a valley floor. Saddleback looks so comforting in comparison. Standing at the finish atop Courchevel on this hard, gray afternoon, I found my eyes sweeping over the horizon, marveling at all I saw. The Alps soared all around me. The air was cold and chilled me to the bone despite a fleece and two other layers. There's a hulking, forbidding quality to the Alps. It's not hard to imagine some monstrous glacier sluicing down the valley thousands of years ago, breaking off chunks of stone like so many fragile branches from a withered bough. Courchevel does not tower above the peaks ringing both sides of the valley, but it comes close. This where the Tour climbed today. Switched over to Springsteen's "Devils and Dust," then to a bootleg from Milan.I wrote earlier today that CSC could beat Discovery Channel through a bait-and-switch tactic. They (or some other team) might send a Bobby Julich or Alexandre Vinokourov on a Quixotic breakaway in the deep valley between today's climbs, trying to wrest the Tour from Lance. The common wisdom held that the Disco Boys would be broken down, attack by attack. But Discovery saw it coming. Team director Johann Bruyneel demanded that Pavel Padros, Benjamin Noval Gonzales, and Manuel "Tricky" Beltran lead the entire peloton through an apocalyptic pace. The rest of the Discovery Team rested in their draft as they rotated the lead. It was a marvel to witness, particularly because the three of them rode into a fierce headwind. The pace was so hard and fast that a Bobby Julich or Alexandre Vinokourov would have looked like a complete rookie trying to attack. The Disco Boys would have reeled in the attack and spit it out.So after the stage – after the moment when the entire cycling world was waiting for, when Lance Armstrong attacked like a champion on the long climb up Courchevel (his entire career's arsenal of retribution was on display: the look back to see who was strong and who was about to crack, the dropping back to get a visual glance at his foes, his taking the hands off the bars to arch his tight back before the last ten decisive kilometers, the sudden stand in the pedals and burst of speed; all that, and then the handshake of congratulations when Spain's Alejandro Velverde outsprinted him to the line, making the exuberant young rider an instant Spanish national hero) he finally let Bjarne Riis know that the insults had been a mistake. With Sheryl Crow clutching a bouquet of sunflowers to one side, Armstrong said what had been on his mind for a full week. "When someone says that a person who's won the Tour de France six times is lucky to win the yellow jersey... that's not respect. That's not honest. That's not true. That's not reality. The riders on that team," he said, referring to CSC, "are some of the classiest in cycling." And here he took a stab at Riis. "We race the team, not the team directors. I saved that comment on the hard drive when I read it." In other words, each and every day when Lance opened his omnipresent laptop, he vowed to get back at Riis. Today he did. Discovery Team's unity actually grew stronger after their awful performance last Saturday. "They felt humiliated," Armstrong said of his teammates. So on a day when the other squads splintered, the Disco Boys saw some superhuman performances. In addition to Lance's pacing through the valley, Chechu Rubiera led a charge up the Courchevel that split an 80-rider pack into just 25 – this while battling a chest cold. And Yaroslav Popovych ("Popo," Discovery's rider of the future) crashed early in the stage, then was paced back into the peloton and led the charge up the mountain. "It wasn't an acceleration," Armstrong noted afterward. "It was a sprint. To come back from a crash and do something like that is remarkable."Whose hopes of Tour victory, barring miraculous intervention, ended today? Alexandre Vinokourov, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, Jan Ullrich, and Ivan Basso. When it gets to the point that Lance is talking about Mickael Rasmussen as a serious contender, you know the Tour is as good as done. Armstrong gave his team an "A" for their performance today. The Tour is down to just 173 riders. Look for dozens more to exit before week's end. Polka-dotted bracelets are all the rage at the Tour. The organizers have taken a cue from Lance's yellow LiveStrongs to sell a polka-dotted version "that symbolizes the amazing victory of the human body and the courage discovered in each of the winners." I always thought that the LiveStrong bracelet was celebrating the same thing. Proceeds from the polka-dotted band, by the way, are not targeted for charity. But I bought one anyway. They look pretty cool.By the way, you can't (so far) buy LiveStrong bracelets at the Tour this year. Last year they were everywhere. Not that it matters, but Lance didn't shave today. Thought you'd want to know. The press center's paltry buffet today was a sure sign that we're in the Alps. It's like that every year. Today it was just peanuts , applesauce, and apple brioche. There's only so many peanuts you can eat before you need a regular meal. Know what I mean? So I drank a bunch of water, ate some applesauce and hoped it would tide me over to dinner. There are guys who actually plan their yearly weight loss programs around the Tour. Given the schedule and the pace (and today's buffet), I can see why.The press center was five kilometers downhill from the finish. Courchevel being a ski area, however, getting to the top of the mountain was as simple as hopping a gondola. The weather at the top felt like November in Mammoth: cold, threatening, bleak. After watching the finish and interviewing Lance I decided to walk back down. Instead of the gondola I chose a path through a narrow field of wildflowers. The walk was steep. Most of my fellow hikers (we looked like pilgrims descending from some greater awakening) were Americans. I listened to their stories of why they'd come, and found that it always boiled down to that single word: Lance. Made it back to the village, feeling a serious blood sugar low coming on. Ducked into a café and ordered a chicken burger and Carlsberg beer, which turned out to be surprisingly reviving. The chicken had a sauce that I've never tasted before, combining garlic and tarragon in a most interesting way. It's 8:30 now and I'm thinking ahead to tomorrow. Stage Eleven will be even more daunting. The riders travel from here atop Courchevel, to Briancon, which is three passes over. It will be a downhill finish, meaning less finish-line drama but more derring-do than today. The distance is 173 kilometers, which clocks in at just over 100 miles. Local start is 12:15 and the finish is supposed to occur at 16:53 (the Tour actually plots this out). There will be two hors category (beyond categorization), including the legendary Col du Galibier. This is the same peak where Lance claimed yellow back in 1999, then wore it to victory. I was there then, and am glad to be back to see him climb it one last time. The increase in spectators has meant more morons running alongside the riders. Today they waved flags of America and some sovereign nation I could not recognize, and wore silly Superman outfits. Is this about personal validation? Getting on television? Though this sounds like heresy, I might actually have to go down and hang with these guys to get inside their heads. Tonight, my buddy Austin and I are staying down the mountain. Couldn't find anyplace up here, and I didn't much feel like rolling out the sleeping bag because it looks to be a night of rain. I'd almost rather sleep in the car than get into that endless line of motorcycles, bicycles and campers (don't get me started on campers. Any outdoor occasion where you can watch satellite TV has nothing to do with camping) snaking down to Albertville. But the warm bed will be welcome, no matter how late I tuck in. Just looked out the big picture window overlooking the press room. The Alps are wreathed in clouds and the peaks have been painted pink by the sunset. It's truly remarkable. What a great place to be. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Letting It Go

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2005

Stood at the finish line as Mickael Rasmussen crossed in first. He broke away at the very beginning of today's 171.5-kilometer stage from Gerardmer to Mulhouse and rode like a champion. Though the climbs were not difficult by Tour standards the descents were a series of tortuous hairpins overlooking long drop-offs. And the final stretches of the race left him exposed to a gusting crosswind. Rasmussen is 31 – aging by Tour standards. He is also a former mountain biker who made the daunting leap to road riding. So as he charged down the final straightaway here in storm-tossed Mulhouse, the fans banging their palms atop the metal barricade signage to bring him home, there was a feeling that some change had taken over the Tour. It was not business as usual, with the sprinters and Discovery Team controlling the action. Rasmussen had taken a bold risk and succeeded. One can only imagine his utter sense of satisfaction. "It felt very good from the very beginning," is how he described it. "As the day progressed I just felt better and better."Jens Voigt of Team CSC fulfilled team manager Bjarne Riis's recent declaration that his team had specific plans to prevent Lance Armstrong from winning the Tour. Voight and Frenchman Christophe Moreau also escaped successfully from the peloton. They beat Lance Armstrong and the other Tour favorites to the line by exactly three minutes. Voigt now wears the yellow jersey, while Armstrong will be back in Discovery Channel blue and white.Voigt it in first place. Moreau is in second, 1:50 behind. Armstrong is in third, 2:18 back. There has been no change in the time gap between Armstrong and top rivals Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, and Jan Ullrich.So what's the story? I would say it comes down to Armstrong voluntarily relinquishing the jersey. Despite all the weeping and gnashing of teeth that is soon to take place in the American media, losing today is a very good thing for Lance. I would even go so far as to say he gave the jersey away. Jens Voigt is not a threat to win the Tour; he can't time trial and he's going to spend the next week working for CSC team leader Ivan Basso, despite his lofty status. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The Discovery Channel team has been working hard this week, riding at the front of the peloton in defense of the yellow jersey. As much as Lance wanted to wear yellow all the way into Paris, that had become unrealistic. It's much better for the Disco Boys to let Team CSC defend, allowing Lance and the boys to draft a few bicycles back. That way they rest their legs, rest their battered psyches, and will be mentally and emotionally poised to attack with gusto during next week's mountain stages.The race has been over for forty minutes. Armstrong is probably already mourning the (hopefully temporary) loss of the yellow jersey). He's probably also rejoicing that he didn't have to go through the podium ceremonies, post-race interviews, and drug screening so he can catch an immediate flight to Grenoble, where his team will spend the night. The Bale-Mulhouse Airport is just a few miles down the road. Losing yellow allowed Lance to hop into his team bus and make for the charter. Knowing Discovery Channel's efficiency, they may already be wheels up now.As expected, David Zabriskie abandoned the race this morning. He hasn't been the same since his crash during Tuesday's team trial, and has looked obviously spooked in the last couple days. Yesterday, in fact, he finished the stage dead last. "He gave us the most perfect start we could have asked for," Voigt noted of Zabriskie's Tour-opening stint in the yellow jersey. "He's a good rider and I hope he gets better soon."I don't know if the OLN feed picked this up, but a bottomless man greeted the riders at the top of the Col de Bramont. http://community.active.com/blogs/MartinDugar/2005/07/13/letting-it-go/ed. note:  They did.  At first I thought he was wearing a flesh-colored thong.  But then, you know, it became obvious that he wasn't.I found myself thinking of French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery today. In particular, I was looking at the crowd here. They were normal people, like you and I, screaming their heads off for a skinny Danish cyclist they never heard of before. It reminded me of our daily need for inspiration, and Saint-Exupery's rant against society's embrace of mediocrity. "You rolled yourselves into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, raising a modest rampart against the winds and tides and stars. Nobody grasped you by the shoulders while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught will you ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning."I have a feeling that people come to the Tour to experience that awakening. As I've written before, it can't be about just the bike race. It's as if, by watching others, us spectators may be inspired to push their limits. That awakening is the starting point of all personal journeys. Within some of us is a championship cyclist, within another a brilliant entrepreneur. In our lives we will be faced with great unknowns: the diagnosis of cancer; the call to help a troubled friend; the need to move forward after tragedy. As professionals we will attempt to chart paths that, however modest our lives may appear on the outside, involve deep moral decisions and complex tactical judgments. And though we may never ride the Tour de France, each of us, like the cyclists, faces a daily barrage of adversity, complication and decision. "By endurance, I conquer," was Polar explorer's Ernest Shackleton's family motto. It applied to more than just exploration.Like Lance, I'm pushing out of here in a hurry. Instead of taking the long way through France to Grenoble, I'm cutting through Switzerland and spending the night in Geneva. Not sure what time I'll get there, but I hope to pull in before the sun goes down. That should give me plenty of time: It stays light until ten or so.Tomorrow is a rest day in Grenoble. The Tour riders will go for a leisurely two-hour bike ride, then spend the day incognito.  Tomorrow is also the day that everything changes here. The press room has been a relatively static place so far, but I'm just now starting to see the second shift arrive as the race moves into the pivotal second week. Even more folks will parachute in here tomorrow, as will a host of new spectators. Like a great movie, all the action takes place in the second act. So it is with the Tour de France. Next week will be a raucous, loud, bombastic, tortuous, thrill-a-minute action adventure. As much fun as I've had until now, I know that it's all been just the beginning.  Talk to you tomorrow.

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