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Sunburns, Speedos and Cycling

Posted by MDugard on Jul 17, 2005 5:14:00 AM

Today is Sunday, July 17th. It will be, quite possibly, cycling's biggest day all year. I'm at the summit of the Pla D'Adet, a peak that appears to have had its backside sawed off. The peak shears away, just like that famous picture of Everest climbers approaching the Hillary Step. To one side is the utter desolation of a jagged cliff dropping miles down to the forested valley floor. To the other is a sweltering, beer-soaked assemblage of cycling fans. They line the 10-kilometer, 8.3% grade of today's final climb like so many movie fans lining the red carpet on premiere night. They have ridden up on bikes, in campers, run, or walked on foot. At the center of this congestion is a mile-long line of Spaniards poised just below the 2-km banner (meaning, two to go). Many of them have camped since Friday night. Beyond the Spaniards are the barricades lining that final mile to the summit. Today, like yesterday, is scorching. (Though thundershowers are predicted for the 5 pm finish).By the time the riders get here they will have contested four Category One climbs and the final Hors Category (beyond categorization; meaning, wretched and steep. Don' try this at home) assault of the Pla D'Adet. For the riders, it will be a very long day in the saddle (about six hours and more than 120 miles). For the fans, it will mean sunburns, exposure to extreme body odor (lots of sweating going on here, folks), traffic jams, fat men in Speedos, furtive strolls into the evergreens to answer the call of nature (no porta-potties along the route, but lots of telltale tissue scraps among the pine needles) – all that, and one unforgettable afternoon of cycling.Lance Armstrong has yet to win a stage at this Tour de France, but has guaranteed that he will do so. The obvious stage would be next Saturday's time trial, but a win today would be far more poignant. It was on the Col du Portet-D'Aspet, today's first climb, that his teammate Fabio Casartelli crashed and died a decade ago. The peloton will pass the site (Casartelli lost control on a descent. His head hit a stone roadside pillar) of the tragedy. Armstrong has publicly admitted that he will make some sort of gesture to honor his fallen friend, as he has when riding here in the past.The Col du Porter-D'Aspet features a memorial where Casartelli died. It also features some of the Tour's steepest riding. Several pitches are at a 17% grade.The Pla D'Adet is nearly as daunting in spots. That 8.3% average grade includes a kilometer of brief downhill, skewing that average somewhat. The obvious conclusion drawn from yesterday's race was that Lance's Disco Boys quit on him. Far from it. Rumor has it they were ordered to take it easy and and enjoy the scenery. Today is a much more important stage. Better to have Lance form a grupetto with the like of Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso than to tax his teammates too early. Levi Leipheimer's family is here from Montana. He appeared spent on yesterday's climb, but got a magical second wind as he rode by their minivan adorned with Montana flags and a "Go Levi" banner. His mother, needless to say, was very proud of her son.The race has begun. French TV is showing clay court tennis, but with a scrawl at the bottom of the screen that says George Hincapie is leading a breakaway group.Saw George yesterday during his climb up to Ax-3-Domaines (so named because three regions of the Pyrenees converge in one spot). The native of Queens looked stoic and workmanlike, just going about his business, shutting out the crowd. The team busses were parked at the bottom of the mountain, which meant that the cyclists finished then rode back down to the bottom. They passed fans and oncoming riders the whole way, which made for an interesting moment (I love how those guys descend at 40-plus while chatting and keeping just one hand on the bars). Most of them lingered at the summit, but Hincapie, as per his style, turned right back around and cruised down. It's the cycling equivalent of not stopping to make small talk.Austin and I walked down the mountain last night, just to get a sense of the scene. The sun was setting over the Pyrenees, giving the valley below a soft hue that reminded me of the cover of Cold Mountain. To tell the truth. We didn't think it would take all that long, but we ended up walking for almost three hours. Got down to the village of Aix-les-Thermes just in time to convince a small café to feed us (they were stacking the chairs and distributing checks to the final diners). She not only fed us, but brought out steak coated in a chunky cheese sauce, green beans with an odd hint of curry (they don't usually do curry in France), and a nice salad. Almost fell asleep during the 90-minute drive to our hotel in St. Girons. It wouldn't have been so long if we hadn't gotten lost in Foix, which was having a very large street festival. But then, if we hadn't gotten lost, we wouldn't have spied the castle on the hill watching over Foix. It was stately and grand, lit up by floodlights. The stone had a yellow-ish hue and the castle looked like it was built just last week.St. Girons was yet another city I wish we could have hung out for awhile. Small, old, quiet. Turns out our hotel (a scary place with snaking halls leading to wings that had that added-on feel. If it wasn't haunted, it should be. I kept thinking a ghostly bellhop would rise right out squeaky floorboards) is the place Lance stays when he trains for the Pla D'Adet.The past half-century has marked the first time in history that mankind has been capable of producing and sustaining high decibel sound. Think, for instance, jet engines and pneumatic drills. This must mark the first true test of the eardrum's performance limits. I mention this appropo of nothing have to do with the Tour, except to note that that there have been moments during the past few days when the decibel level in the Passat has reached deafening levels as Austin and I rock our way around France.On the CD today, a mix playlist: the Killers, Digital Underground, Tom Waits, Dwight Yoakam, the mandatory Bruce, and on. Flatt and Scruggs is a nice grace note. And I should add that, though I am not much of a Doors fan, opening the windows and cranking Backdoor Man on a Pyrenees country lane adds a savage menace to any Sunday morning drive.There was a heavy morning mist hanging over the road as we approached the mountain. Church bells were ringing as we passed through a village square, and four locals were talking to the priest after Mass.  A Sunday market was underway, all awnings, fruit stands and butcher shops (think of the Pyrenees as the Wyoming of France. Same abrupt mountains, like Jackson Hole. Same fondness for beef). Then, as if on cue, the mist parted. A triangular Pyrenees' peak, sharp and serrated like the tip of a very sharp knife, announced itself directly ahead. The moment had a dramatic feel, like that moment in a movie when the villain is introduced. As my crazy next-door neighbor used to say, "it was rather grand."OK. I'm taking a walk down the mountain to hang with some folks from Texas. Half the fun of a day like today is that walk down the mountain, stopping at the various campsites on the way. Somebody always has a satellite dish. And there's always a multinational crowd gathered around, watching TV and waiting for the race to pass on by.A European broadcaster was talking about what it takes to win the Tour. "Big balls," she said unabashedly. "Lance doesn't have two, but the one he has is very, very big." Just thought you'd want to know what people are saying over here.The wind is really kicking up. Perhaps it portends the coming storm. Talk to you after the stage.

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