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Bottle of Smoke

Posted by MDugard on Jul 13, 2005 6:43:59 AM

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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