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The New Kournikova?

Posted by MDugard on Jul 13, 2005 6:49:56 PM

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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