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Posted by MDugard on Jul 17, 2005 7:51:55 AM

We're definitely in the South of France. The weather is hot, hot, hot. The sun was beating down back at the starting line and it's even more intense here at the finish in Montepellier. This was supposed to be a boring day at the Tour de France, one last chance for the sprinters to control the roads. Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen were talking big about making a big breakaway, which had big Thor Hushvod worried, for his linebacker's body will truly suffer in this heat. But it's Friday and this is the 13th stage, so it's technically Friday the 13th. Anything can happen. Who knows? The Sprinters may sit back and rest, saving their legs so they can survive this weekend's mountain stages.Team Discovery's Manuel Beltran's crash yesterday was more serious than it was originally confirmed. The crash was caused by a T-Mobile rider who veered into his path during the day's first climb. Beltran got back on the bike right away, but didn't know where he was, what stage it was, and whether he was in first place. Beltran was climbing at just five mph and proving a danger to himself. So Discovery pulled him from the race and took him to the hospital. After a night of observation for a concussion, Beltran was released. At just about the same time that the Disco Boys were signing in for today's start, Beltran was boarding a plane home to Spain. This will mark the first time since 2001 that Discovery will finish with less than a whole complement of nine riders.Lance Armstrong looked fresh and relaxed this morning. This region of France is traditionally a tourist bastion in the summer, and the Discovery Team bus was surrounded by triple the usual number of fans. It's all a little numbing and surreal to see the crush around the bus each day. Spectators hold up pictures to be signed, reach out striving to touch Lance so a little of his juju will rub off, blow horns, and, most of all, scream "Lance." He's been doing this for a long time, and knows when to listen to the crowd and when to be inward. Today was a day for the fans, with lots of autographs signed. A very large contingent from Texas will be going home happy.There are eight stages left after today. Lance wants to win this thing badly, but he also wants to go home. He makes frequent allusions to his eagerness to have this final Tour behind him. This, of course, conflicts with the sense of nostalgia that attends his actions before and after most stages. But the gist is this: There's a lot of pressure on him to win, and nobody's about to roll over for him. Though he may want to revel in this farewell tour, he must suffer if he's going to get the job done. It's a sort of suffering most of us have never, and will never, know. I've written quite a bit about the fractured relations between the American riders. But as the Tour marches on its merry way to Paris, the schism is widening. Bobby Julich is quietly mocked for speaking in clichés and being intimidated by Lance; Floyd Landis can't seem to mention the Discovery Team without dropping an f-bomb before the word "Discovery"; Levi Leipheimer is tight-lipped about the American presence, preferring to say nothing rather than speak his mind; and, Lance Armstrong has precise opinions on each of them. Some of these feelings can be chalked up to gamesmanship. Some of them have to do with being highly competitive individuals competing for the same vaunted crown. But a lot has to do with the intense and personal nature of elite cycling. These guys have spent a lot of time in the saddle together. Sometimes they just get on each other's nerves.The lone exception, simply because he's new, is 34-year old Chris Horner. The Saunier Duval rider was called up to the big leagues after a stellar performance in the Tour de Suisse. After mistaking the Cofidis bus for Horner's Saunier Duval team bus (the Cofidis team director slammed the bus door in my face and screeched at me in French. Strangely, I found the experience a minor Tour highlight) I spoke with Horner as he sat in the shade. He is freckled from years in the sun, and balding. But Horner has a refreshing candor that comes with being new to the Tour. After all, he has nothing to lose. "When I race the Tour of Redlands top Southern California race I'm the best climber there. Here I'm the 20th." Horner was stunned to give his all during an attack up the Col de Madeleine, and reaching the summit with just a 35-second gap over Armstrong and the Disco Boys. "I thought for sure I'd have two, three minutes. But 35 seconds?"Horner also said that his legs have been toast since that last Alpine stage Wednesday. Yesterday he was content to spin in the peloton. He says he hopes to do the same today. As a climber, he says he wants to save his legs for the Pla d'Adet on Sunday.  And though it's rational to think that may be the case, I've learned that whenever a rider tells you what he plans to do, he has something exactly opposite in mind. Horner desperately wants to win a stage here. Who knows what he'll do on Friday the 13th.There's a lot of curiosity about Jan Ullrich's head these days. He crashed into a team car the day before the Tour began, he failed to attack Lance Armstrong when he had him alone (and was surrounded by three T-Mobile teammates of his own, who could have tag-teamed their breakaways to crush Armstrong and regain the time gap he lost on the first day), he crashed a few stages ago, and has shown absolutely no inclination to be the sort of bold individual it takes to win this race. This is not the Jan of old.Many here are crediting the Spanish riders' poor showing in the mountains to stronger drug and blood transfusion testing.Met a guy named Sepp Probst today. He's something of a star on either Swiss or Austrian television. I couldn't tell which. Thought you might appreciate that, Jeff.Had a talk with Levi Leipheimer's mom today. Levi is something of an introvert, preferring to sit alone at team meals and have his own hotel room ("There are nine guys on the team," the plain spoken Montanan shrugs. "Someone has to have their own room"). His mother is very much the same. She is, however, one proud woman. She stood at the starting line in a Gerolsteiner-blue "Levi" t-shirt.  "It's very exciting," she said softly. Then she walked over to hug her boy, who has very special plans for Sunday's stage.The Tour travels along the Mediterranean coast today. I was rather thrilled to see the sign noting that our route was passing the "Departement (the French equivalent of a state) du Gard." Seems I've got some local relatives.The press room is sweltering. I've sweated through my shirt and need to get some fresh air. Talk to you after the stage.

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