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Turn it up loud, Captain

Posted by MDugard on Jul 16, 2005 6:54:00 AM

Driving from the start in Agde toward the Pyrenees. Stuck in a long traffic jam. Vinyards flank the road on either side, stretching as far as the eye can see. We have a long way to go to make the finish. Most of it will be narrow, congested mountain roads. Frankly, I'm not sure we'll get there in time. Every Saturday brings out the crowds here, but today is exceptionally congested because of beach traffic.The start was unusually early today. The peloton rolled out of Agde shortly after 10:30. A Sheryl Crow record was playing over the loudspeaker, and her sentiments about wanting to "soak up the sun" were the Tour organizers playful acknowledgment that its going to be very hot on the road. The riders are openly wary of today's stage. The best examples were the Lotto and Cofidis riders who pedaled into the pre-race village and made a beeline for the France Telecom booth. They lounged on chairs in the shade, taking advantage of the chance to make free phone calls, looking a whole lot more like a bunch of guys heading out for a leisurely training ride than the 14th stage of the Tour de France. They didn't hang up those phones until just minutes before the start. Fin du bouchon, I am told, means end of danger. The next two days should tell us whether or not Lance Armstrong will be fin de bouchon for the last week into Paris.The final climb up to the finish in Aix-les-Thermes today is 7.9 kilometers at an 8.3% average grade. A friend I used to ride with was fond of saying, "this is where it gets bloody" at the bottom of a brutal climb. Meaning, we're all about to suffer. That final climb today will definitely draw blood, particularly after more than 100 miles on a hot, cloudless day. It's estimated that the stage will last almost seven hours. Man, that's a long time to be pressing those sit bones into the seat.Had dinner at the Discovery team's hotel last night (a simple buffet: asparagus, olives, baked chicken legs, and a Languedoc red I had never hear of). Sheryl Crow was doing television in the hotel bar. Left late last night. Austin and I were confident that we'd have no problem finding our hotel. The maps showed that it was less than a mile from the Mercure. All we had to do was navigate through downtown Montpellier. Simple, right? Well, Montpellier is a town straight out of Les Miserables, with tangled streets that dead-end without warning. It was near midnight as we finally found the centre ville. Grizzled hookers; backpackers fresh off the trains from Spain, Nice and Paris; and, a certain menacing vibe attended our travels. I'm surprised we didn't see Jean Valjean himself. Finally found the hotel. The room was large but reeked of smokers (I'm not an anti-smoking vigilante. In fact, there are moments I find the aroma appealing. But hotel rooms that smell of cigarettes have a singularly insidious way of passing that aroma on to clothing and luggage for days to come). Watched Tiger on Eurosport, then crashed at around 1:30.Went for a stiff, cursory run around Montpellier at 6. It looks a lot better in daylight: a Roman aqueduct, a gorgeous opera house, farmers setting up for the Saturday market in the large plaza. Ran past the café across from the gare where my wife and I had lunch a couple Octobers ago (hey, Callie. Love you and miss you). There were three McDonald's within a mile of one another, which is not unheard of in France. However, I have yet to see a Starbucks.The scenery has changed dramatically in the last three days. Driving through the sun-drenched south of France en route to the Pyrenees feels a whole lot like driving through central California. Lots of farm land and sunburned hillsides. Hard to believe that a week ago we were all in rainy Germany, and that just last Wednesday found the Tour passing over the frigid and forbidding Col du Galibier. By days end, however, we'll be back in the mountains. The Pyrenees are a different beast than the Alps, and the finish today is just a couple miles from the Spanish frontier.One last note on the peloton. It's a huge rumor mill. The riders know who is sick and who is about to crack. They knew yesterday that Thor Hushovd had an upset tummy and wouldn't be a factor in the sprint. They knew that Valverde was on the verge of dropping out (having given just a wee bit too much on the Courchevel. And they know who's ready for today. Word is that the usual suspects: Basso, Armstrong, Ullrich, Landis, and Leipheimer have their game faces on.I should take a moment to say how flattered I've been to get such a steady stream of emails. Now comes word from the folks at (these dispatches are posted at and that many of you have been posting questions and feedback via the blog "comments" section. I had no idea (frankly, as great as they are, I never really look at either Web site. There's just too much going on here. I haven't even been obsessively tracking Last Voyage on Amazon or checking set lists on Backstreets since the Tour began). So for all of you who've posted comments, I'll start checking your comments and address some of your feedback in future dispatches. So feel free to keep posting, or just drop me an email at the address. I'm a little behind right now, but I'm trying to answer every email. Again, I'm flattered. Thanks to all of you for checking in each day.Talk to you after the stage.

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