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Come On Over

Posted by MDugard on Jul 14, 2005 5:49:46 PM

A Frenchman won on Bastille Day! A year, almost to the day, that he won his first Tour de France stage, David Moncoutie won his second in most rousing fashion. He broke away with 37 kilometers remaining and rode powerfully to victory. The elfin Moncoutie bore a look of disbelief as he crossed the finish line, a look that grew even more wide-eyed as he pedaled into the scrum of waiting French journalists. Moncoutie was frail and wobbly as he stepped off his bike. But there was no denying the sheer joy on his face. It is a most special thing for a Frenchman to win on Bastille Day. For the rest of his life, people here will know him for that moment. That is, unless he some day wins the whole thing.I mentioned earlier today that I hadn't seen the French tricolor on this, their greatest national holiday. Well, I finally glimpsed one flying over the finish line. What I found startling was that the finish chute was lined by American flags and Texas Longhorn flags and homemade Go Lance banners, but no French flags. There are so many Americans here, in fact, that it's like Lance is racing with a home field advantage.It's been said so many times, but it's worth saying again: The French love Lance Armstrong. Every now and then a heckler screams something about doping or Sheryl, but for the most part he is adored. He's a familiar face on French television and jokes easily in French with the hosts.There's a game the media plays each day at the finish. It's called Chasing Lance, and it means the daily process of being one of the 2500 members of the international press to score an interview. He crosses the finish line and is immediately surrounded by his two main bodyguards: the hulking and bald Serge; and, Irwin, a bespectacled man who can kill you twelve different ways. (He laughed when I made that joke with him, but he didn't disagree). If he's headed off to doping control, as he was today, they take him to the medical trailer. If Lance is wearing yellow, he then goes to the podium amphitheater for the jersey ceremony. Both areas are fenced in and off limits to the press. The point of the game is to either get a few seconds with Lance before Serge and Irwin find him (fat chance) or somehow squeeze behind the fences (it's been known to happen). The third option is to find the Discovery bus and wait for him. But what it all comes down to is that if Lance wants to talk with the press, he finds a way to make it happen. Sometimes it comes in the form of an impulsive appearance in the interview room. Sometimes he makes a sudden appearance in the backstage area when you least expect him. Then it's a one-on-one situation, if only for a few minutes. It's pretty cool.Today, however, was not one of those days. The Disco Boys are steeling for Saturday and Sunday's Pyrenees stages. These will be grueling, long and steep (yesterday's Col du Galibier marked the highest point on the course this year, but the Pla d'Adet this Sunday has a much more vertical quality, not to mention tens of thousands rabid Spanish fans). They'll also be the last mountain stages of Armstrong's cycling career. He has long said that he prefers the Pyrenees to the Alps. It would be a rousing sendoff for him to win Saturday or Sunday – or both.It wasn't just his crash that caused Manuel Beltran to abandon the Tour today. Crashes are frequent and riders are resigned to carrying on afterward. But Beltran hit his head hard when he came down, and was unconscious for a few moments. He is being checked tonight for cranial injuries, but has no broken bones. The Disco Boys are trying to put on a brave face about this, but privately they're admitting that they'll miss him very much this weekend.Beltran's halt means the Tour is down to just 165 riders. Top sprinter Tom Boonen also pulled out this morning.The race has been over for an hour, and already the great logistical challenge of moving on to the next town has begun. Every single piece of Tour equipment is moved, every single day. This means an armada of trucks, drivers and workers to break everything down (including barricades, banners, broadcast vehicles, the finish podium, souvenir stands, a complete telecommunications system, mobile interview sets, sponsor booths, and every conceivable chair, table, video monitor and anything else the Tour requires) immediately, pack it up, then drive to the next finish.Another crew does the same exact thing for the start area. I watched in wonder last night as the miles-long line of semis descended the Col du Galibier at midnight, their headlights cutting the darkness. It seemed to take hours for the trucks to pass. In addition, there are hundreds of security officials, podium girls, telecommunications experts, computer geniuses, and press liaisons who must be trundled from town to town. It's an act of great logistical genius, and I have never seen the start or finish to be lacking in any significant detail.  The weird part of it all is seeing the same faces every single day. The chubby guy checking credentials at the press room door is the same guy who's been there since Fromentine. For the longest time we just addressed each other with polite "bonjours." Then we added a few additional words of greeting. Now he's saying hello in tentative English. I'm getting rather fond of all these people.The vibe of the Tour is changing. With just nine stages remaining, there's a sense that we are all in the middle of a long journey, but can see the end. For the remaining riders, it means a greater commitment to making it through the Pyrenees. For many of the weaker riders those mountain stages will be a major obstacle on their road to Paris. Having said that, I find myself amazed at their athletic abilities. Every day I watch these guys cross the finish line. In the first week they looked like they were just out for a group ride (a very big group ride) but now their faces are often drawn and haggard. Yet every morning they step out of the team bus, stretch for a couple minutes, then climb back on the bikes to do it all over again.I've been getting a lot of email from people saying they wish they could be at the Tour. My answer to all of you is to come on over. I know that hopping on a jet and impulsively flying to France is frowned on in many rational, logical circles. But life isn't always that cut and dried. Cheap flights can be had, the flight isn't all that long, and this is Lance's last Tour. Be bold. Get over here. Think of the fun you'll have calling in sick with the Tour finish mania booming in the background.Tonight Austin and I have rooms in Aix-en-Provence, that gorgeous city of pastel walls and tree-lined streets. It's very much a tourist town, which means it will be overpriced. But I love Aix. The first time I came to the Tour I managed to spend a couple days there. Once, as I was walking off dinner, I chanced across the open doors of an old stone church. Just before I slipped inside to have a look, I heard the sounds of a great choir wafting out into the dusk. The voices were elegant and unaccompanied, and I went on my way with that uplifted feeling that comes with such chance moments of beauty.The Disco Boys are staying down the road a piece, in a small village hotel between here and tomorrow's start in Miramas. Many of the teams tend to find hotels near one another, but Discovery is almost always alone. Austin's got this idea that we should go over there and do a bit of Chasing Lance by trying to get a lobby interview. So maybe we'll do that. Or maybe we'll just hang out in Aix. That gets my vote.Talk to you tomorrow. Should be another scorcher.

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