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La Marseillaise

Posted by MDugard on Jul 15, 2005 6:06:28 PM

Happy Bastille Day. These French are a fickle bunch, fond of unabashed patriotism and equally powerful apathy. Which may or may not explain why on this, their national patriotic holiday, I have yet to see a single French flag in the three hours I just spent driving through small towns and villages.I saw orchards, vineyards on near-perpendicular hillsides, castles, a house with turrets shaped like black witches hats, and a very bold man waterskiing without a wetsuit in a freezing glacial lake. Yet I didn't see the French tricolor. Nor have I heard a single bar of "Le Marseillaise". I feel like I'm the only man in France hoping for a bit of French patriotism. I'm a sentimental sort who gets misty whenever America's national anthem is played (don't even get me started on the Olympics). Maybe it's because I wasn't home for the Fourth of July parade around my little cul de sac this year – thus missing those emotional moments of Americana we all hold so dear, not to mention my son in his homemade go-cart -- but I'm itching for a powerful dose of patriotism.I get the feeling that the best way for that to happen is for a French rider to win a stage. That particular cyclist (Jalabert, Voeckler, Moreau? Or will it be some anonymous domestique) will become an instant national hero and those French flags will be waving proudly – or so I hope.  The rolling stage from Briançon to Digne-les-Bains is 187 kilometers long and the temperature is scorching. The first week of the Tour I traveled through northern France, with its wheat farms and cold rain. The past few days in the Alps have seen warm mornings and frigid afternoon rain. But Austin and I are just an hour from the Mediterranean. Famous tanning beaches like St. Tropez and Nice beckon (though we will not be going). The local population is no longer just the stereotypical Frenchman (cigarette in the corner of his mouth, baguette sticking from his bicycles panniers, a glass of Pernod and water in one hand), but also shows a chic Italian and North African look. When I ordered a coffee a few moments ago, my poor French led the vendor to believe I was Spanish. "Uno café?" he asked in confirmation. I didn't know whether to be taken aback or confused. Austin and I closed the pressroom last night. I wrote a lot of words yesterday, both in the process of filing these dispatches and taking additional notes. When I'd finally shut down the laptop and wandered out into the night air, I was spent. Thunderstorms had shaken Briançon just after the stage. The air smelled of wet gravel and distant cigarette smoke. Sometimes when I get done writing I act kind of lost, so wrapped up with internal thoughts that I can't think right. It was that way last night. So as I stood there in the darkness I slipped on my iPod and paced, listening to the Mavericks and slowly emerging from the process. The clouds parted. I could see the Big Dipper and the North Star, right where they always are back home (aren't stars amazing? So global, so omnipresent. But where was Orion and his sword?). To my right and left, the Alps curved upward, their shark-toothed gray peaks fringed with snow. There was something powerful and rejuvenating in the moment, and as Austin and I drove off to find our hotel two towns up the road, the strain of the day was replaced by a very pure form of well-being. It had been a good day I realized as I slipped off the iPod and we slipped into our back and forth. A very good day.  There was still the small matter of finding our hotel. It was someplace called the Alley, in a ski town named le Monetier-les-Bains. Austin and I still had the legendary photographer Neil Leifer in tow (it was a joke within our car that Neil was to always be referred to as legendary. However, if you read about him, you'll learn why). Rick Reilly from Sports Illustrated wandered into the press room just as we were leaving, fresh from spending six hours trying to find Briançon. He didn't have a hotel room. So the four of us went in search of Monetier-les-Bains and the Alley. What we found was an unexpected treasure.The Legend got his own room, but Austin, Reilly and myself were given a small ski condo for the price of a single (I had my own bunkbeds and loft). The restaurant was closed when we arrived, but the proprietor reopened it and we were served a simple gourmet meal: Salad of wild greens and flowers, duck in a blueberry sauce over rice, peach and rose (that's right, rose) ice cream, and a nameless red wine that complemented each course. The restaurant was rustic, with wood floors and tables, and stone walls. The chairs were straight back and wooden. But the restaurant felt so comfortable and inviting that we swapped stories until one, knowing all the while we had to be up in just a few hours for another day at the Tour. Man, I love when life surprises me like that.  Ran for an hour through an alpine forest at dawn, turning around halfway up a mountain when a field of cows blocked my path. From what I knew of the area, these same trails were trod by Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. The grass was cold and wet with dew, and the air smelled of pine and cow dung. In the distance I could hear the whitewater roar of the Durance River. I probably could have pushed through the herd and continued up the mountain, but sometimes a morning run is best when it's cut short at just the right time. So I trotted back down into the village, aiming toward the distant steeple of its 12th century church. The bells were tolling and it was time to get moving down the road toward Digne-les-Baines.  Digne-les-bains (the name, given by the Romans so long ago, refers to a local hot springs), is notable as one of Napoleon's stops on his return from exile on Elba. Before that, in 1629, its population of 10,000 was almost entirely wiped out by the plague. Now it's a major producer of lavender and fruit, and a haven for whitewater rafters, skiers, and mountain bikers.  Dropped the Legend at the Digne-les-Bains train station three hours later. He's off to shoot Jack Nicklaus at the British Open, but I have a feeling the highlight of his journey will be shooting Austin and I in front of a suggestive village road sign yesterday. Call me sophomoric, but I'm gonna frame that one.  I was digging around a bit here at the finish, wondering why Team Discovery Channel would be interested in hiring a foreign rider like Ivan Basso or Alexandre Vinokourov to replace Lance Armstrong. The answer has much to do with the incredible shrinking globe. It's obvious that the riders are advertising platforms, what with their corporate team names and their uniforms and team busses emblazoned with logos. Most teams (Quick Step, for instance, a flooring company) are sponsored by a corporation with no apparent link to cycling, but the Tour de France is a race seen all around the world.These companies know that their multi-million dollar investment will reap exponential advertising dividends. Rather than buy advertising time in all the various worldwide markets, a savvy CEO sponsors a quality team, knowing that its riders will showcase their brand every time the camera focuses on them or a race announcer mentions them by name (this is the reason some teams send riders on impossible breakaways. The rider may not win, but he'll buy his sponsors minute after minute of free advertisement).   Which brings us to Discovery Channel. Ever since Mark Burnett and his Eco-Challenge left the network five years ago, Discovery has lacked connection with an entity branding them as worldwide, instead of just another American network. It's rumored that Discovery paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million to sponsor Lance and the Disco Boys. The investment has already paid off in spades, thanks to the team's constant mention in newspapers and on television screens worldwide. So why go with a Vino or Basso as a replacement? Because Discovery is looking to build its brand in Europe, Russia and the Far East, much like my beloved travel partner, CNN. At this point, most viewers in those markets are American expats and tourists. By signing Basso, they become better known among the rabid Italian fans. By signing Vino, Discovery instantly expands its share of the Russian (sorry, Kazakhistan) market. So maybe he'll become the next Kournikova after all.  Enough business. Let's talk more about food. We have officially entered that transitional world between the Alpine and Provencal regions of France. France is divided into "departments," which are the same as a state in the U.S. Appropriately, today's finish in Dignes-les-Bains is in the department known as Alpes de Haute-Provence. The media lunch was very much like a picnic. Tapenade, dark break, soft local cheese, and a garlicky bean salad were served with a chilled rosé. Pots of lavender and olive trees surrounded the tables, which sat out in the sun. I have the bad habit of eating quickly, but today I lingered, enjoying the Bastille Day spread.  Team Discovery's Manuel "Tricky" Beltran was once considered Lance Armstrong's most powerful weapon during the long mountain climbs. But he has been relegated to flatland duty of late. It's not really a demotion – OK, it is – but Beltran isn't as vital as he once was. I mention this because I'm watching the French feed of today's stage. Beltran crashed on the first climb and was forced to abandon the race. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.  Talk to you after the race.

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