Skip navigation

Currently Being Moderated

American Skin

Posted by MDugard on Jul 18, 2005 10:02:34 AM

There is the temptation, now and again, to think of Lance Armstrong as a celebrity instead of an athlete. We see him in People. We see him hanging with Bono and Ashley Judd (and that woman, Sheryl Crow). But today was another reminder that he is the greatest endurance athlete of all time (there, I've jumped on the bandwagon). Armstrong rode a smart, powerful race. This was the sort of grueling stage where only elite riders were capable of handling the pace.Every single one of his top rivals was within striking distance with just 50 kilometers remaining, but none were mentally or physically tough enough to attack. In fact, their profound fear and respect for his abilities was their downfall. Lance Armstrong beat those guys with his body and his presence. The results show that Georg Totsching won the stage by almost a minute, thanks to a bold breakaway. But, really, the guy who came out on top was Armstrong.Not sure if you saw it, but the most beautiful moment today was all-American. Levi Leipheimer found himself in the middle of an attack, but without a water bottle. Water was all-important today. The sun was that sort of harsh high-altitude glare that gives a man sunburn and dehydration on a day hike. Riding the Tour de France without water under today's conditions was like demanding a comeuppance. The riders call that "blowing up," and it looked like Leipheimer was a man on the verge. He had two simple choices: drop back or stay with the attack. Leipheimer, a gutsy man from Montana, made the gutsy decision. He clung to the attack with every optimistic fiber in his being.Then a most amazing thing happened. Lance Armstrong passed Leipheimer a water bottle. Floyd Landis gave him one, too. Now, these are three men that barely speak to each other. But Armstrong's weakened Discovery Team wasn't there to help him and Landis's Phonak has been an iffy bunch at best. So these three Americans, riding in a pack of three T-Mobile riders that were poised to destroy their Tour hopes, worked as a team once again. They helped each other because they needed one another.The plan worked. Had T-Mobile worked as a team, Lance, Floyd and Levi (does that sound like a band of outlaws, or what?) could have been destroyed. In retrospect, T-Mobile will look back on this stage and on last Saturday's stage in Germany as two great missed opportunities. But they are incapable of working as a unit, because Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden and Alexandre Vinokourov are all competing for the role of team leader. On paper, that leader is Ullrich. But the unreliable Kloden and the mercuric Vino don't respect him and won't work for him. That's an imbroglio Armstrong is happy to exploit. Today, simply by sharing a water bottle, he did.I was talking with an American woman. We were standing a few kilometers down the mountain from the finish. She was bemoaning that American television networks don't really say much about what's going on at the Tour (meanwhile, every other person I meet here is American. I've spent time with them, listened to their stories. Most are cycling fans. Some are here because they just ran with the bulls in Pamplona. And a good percentage are cancer survivors or friends of cancer survivors who didn't become cycling fans until Lance. The cancer stories have a particular power. Not kidding: sometimes I have to stop the interviews and pretend I'm wiping phantom sweat from my eyes (("Man, what a hot day up here on the mountain…)). The stories are that life affirming). Well, after today it would be downright strange that American networks don't start paying attention to the Tour. In addition to the abnormally high percentage of Americans among the 20 million spectators, three of the top six riders in the overall standing are from the United States. Think about that: Three out of six. To give you a sense of perspective, France has only one.There was a time when Americans embraced endurance sports, but that was more than 30 years ago. Guys like Jim Ryun, Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter were inspiring people to watch their sport and attempt to push their own personal limits. In Ryun's heyday, 1966, more than 100,000 people packed the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch a United States-USSR track and field duel meet. Now we have become NASCAR Nation and Red Sox Nation and Raider Nation. More succinctly, we have become Lowest Common Denominator Nation. Look, I'm a TV junkie. I watch as much SportsCenter as I can handle. But the networks can do better. We need a major sports presence covering the Tour de France.As fantastic as they are covering the Tour, OLN doesn't count as a network. I mean, not really. It's not even basic cable. America needs at least an ESPN to ante up for the Tour.Along those lines, once again the top American newspapers have sent their "B" reporters to the Tour. The exceptions would be the lovely and talented Suzanne Halliburton of the Austin Statesman (who can not only flat-out write, she's something of a Lance confidante), Bonnie DeSimone out of Boston, and a small handful of others. Some of the American writers are even phoning the whole thing in from their hotel rooms. They watch EuroSport, filch Lance's interviews, then file. Again ... the American media can do better.Austin and I not only got to the finish in plenty of time, but I spent a very fascinating afternoon with the Basque spectators down the mountain. If you were watching OLN just before the final 2K mark, you might have even seen me. I was the guy in red and sunglasses cheering for Lance amid the sea of orange-clad Basques. I made new friends. I was invited to join them tomorrow on the Pla d'Adet. I had, in fact, the most euphoric Tour moment I have ever known. It was like seeing the Tour through brand new eyes.There was a moment there among the Basques – the slightest hint of a moment – when I was tempted to experience the moron sensation and run alongside Lance's group. What stopped me was the morbid fear that I would knock him down and be forever cast in the same villainous light as that foul ball guy who cost the Cubs the pennant. But one of these days before this is all over, if I'm very careful ... OK, nuff said.Yesterday's hero, Chris Horner, lost almost 25 minutes to Armstrong today.Tomorrow will decide the Tour de France. The last time the peloton finished atop the Pla D'Adet was 2001. The stage winner was Lance Armstrong. Tomorrow marks the last mountaintop finish of his career and he desperately wants to win. Thing is, EVERYBODY else that matters not only wants to win, they have to win. Jan Ullrich is getting stronger with every passing stage, but he's still 4:34 back. Mickael Rasmussen is just 1:41 behind. Ivan Basso is 2:46 back. The bottom line is that they have to commit some sort of bold act or they're essentially just riding for second place.There's more to the drama. Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis would dearly love to make it an all-American podium next Sunday in Paris. They know that winning would take some sort of miraculous intervention. But they sit just a few seconds behind Ullrich in the standings (fifth and sixth respectively) and are prepared to go off. This is the stage that both of them – and Leipheimer, in particular -- have aimed towards. Leipheimer rode it on a seven-hour training ride in the rain some months ago. Landis rode it often from his training base in Girona, Spain. These guys circled tomorrow on their calendar months ago. It's going to be a dogfight.I sat in the passenger seat of the Passat this morning, writing and navigating while Austin drove. Then we switched places so he could write. I have to tell you that those last two hours of two-lane country roads were simply spectacular. Sometimes when I travel I'll take along a Lonely Planet or a Rick Steves' guide book. They're very good, but they never take you to the offbeat roads of the Tour de France's guidebook. It was one mile after another of whitewater rivers, quaint villages that have changed very little in centuries, and that transition from flatland farms and vineyards to the Pyrenees' mountain valleys (the roads all followed the low contour, so that we were constantly looking up at peaks and hilltop fortresses).Like I was telling Austin, just when I think I've seen the most beautiful spot in France, I turn the corner and see someplace just as splendid, if not better.At last year's Tour I tried terrine de canard. Grayish and fatty, I thought it had the taste and consistency of dog food. Today, just for the sake of experiencing every culinary wonder this Tour de France presents, I tried terrine de canard again. I choked it down, but it still looks, feels and tastes like dog food. But the rest of today's lunch – sliced and dried pork sausage, apple tart, rare hamburger, gruyere cheese – was another lesson on the wonders of French food. It's been pointed out to me that the French culture is very much like that of Native American living on the Great Plains. As the Native Americans once made use of every single part of a buffalo, so the French do now (as they have for centuries) with cows, ducks, chickens, pigs, and geese.Anne Lamott, in her new book Plan B, mentions that the key to a long life is to keep moving – walks, bike rides, etc. France is a good proof of her theory. I've never seen a more physically active geriatric population. I watched an 80-year old woman -- in a house dress -- hike up a mountain yesterday as if it were no big deal. Amazing.Saw a guy today with "Free Tyler" written in Sharpie on his calves. Though I thought it witty and original, the fact is that nobody railroaded Tyler Hamilton. He was a guy with a long peloton history of not paying attention. It proved to be his downfall. Having said that, I hope he makes a comeback when his blood doping suspension is over. I've got to root for a guy who wears his dead dog's tags around his neck when he rides.OK. It's late and this is my favorite time of day. Time to sip a glass of something red and watch the sun set over the Pyrenees. Until demain.

Comments (16)