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Lunar Landscape

Posted by MDugard on Jul 13, 2005 10:03:03 AM

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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