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Hero for a Day

Posted by MDugard on Jul 18, 2005 7:06:28 PM

Without meaning to, I cased the finish line this afternoon. There was a spot about 175 meters down the hill with unobstructed sight lines, close proximity to the riders (about five feet), and a near certainty that no other journalist would be there because the finish was still up the road. Me, I'm through doing finish interviews. There are never any good comments because the international media scrum around the winner is too thick and taking a video camera to the head seems a silly way to begin an interview. So I waited at my spot and was rewarded with a clear view of George Hincapie's decisive sprint. I've seen a lot of bike riding since I've been here, but I think of Hincapie as one of the most solid and deserving guys in the peloton. His victory made me grin from ear to ear. It was the most sublime moment of the Tour thus far, bar none. "I'm in total shock," he said later.The Tour is a cutthroat place. Hincapie's candor and lack of ego have made him a fan and peloton favorite. He rested his head in his hands as he crossed, the look of disbelief and happiness so utterly charming. His was a popular victory, and the roar at the finish line exuded warmth.I thought the day would be way different. It seemed like Lance would go for the win and be attacked mercilessly by his rivals. But while Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich clearly showed their power, Armstrong stayed well within himself on his way to a seventh place finish. I think everyone's afraid of him, plain and simple. He can do whatever he wants at this point.Hincapie's job is to be Lance Armstrong's enforcer. When a rider capable of threatening Armstrong's lead attacks (namely, someone within striking distance in General Clasification, or CS, standings), Big George's job has been to chase them down and bring them back. But today Hincapie went off on his own breakaway, figuring he would drop back soon enough to help Lance. It's well known that Armstrong has a deep appreciation for Hincapie's loyalty, and when it became clear that the peloton would never catch the break (the gap was eighteen minutes at one point), Armstrong was more than willing to root Hincapie on to a stage win. "He was ecstatic," Hincapie explained when they met at the finish. "He gave me a big hug and just said, `unbelievable.'"Hincapie and Oscar Pereiro began gabbing a few kilometers from the finish. The conversation was initiated by the American. Hincapie wanted to work together up the climb then duke it out in a sprint. Pereiro, however, is a Spaniard, was competing in front of thousands of Spaniards, is a pure climber, and was worried about his contract for next year. He wanted that stage. So he tried to out-climb Hincapie rather than trade places up front. Pereiro still gets the glory of finishing second and riding well. But he didn't get the win. And for the first time in his long career, Hincapie did.The standings currently have Lance in first, Basso in second, and Mickael Rasmussen third. There's a three-minute gap to the fourth place rider, Jan Ullrich. This could very well be the overall order of finish.Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer showed today that they're still a few years away from winning a Tour.Landis's coach, Allen Lim, was exasperated when Floyd couldn't keep up. "I coach him, but I can't ride the bike for him," snipped the generally calm Lim.Those predictions of finish line thunderstorms never came to pass. The wind up here has been brisk, but there are exactly three small white clouds in the sky.French kids wear replica cycling jerseys the way U.S. kids wear replica baseball or basketball gear. Thing is, their garment of choice is not the maillot jaune. Why should they? If that child is under the age of sixteen, a French rider hasn't won the Tour in their lifespan. Instead, kids wear the polka-dotted jersey of the top mountain climber, a category France has dominated of late. Still, it's sort of like living in LA and wearing a Clippers jersey instead of a Lakers jersey. Or, these days, being a Dodgers fan instead of an Angels fan.The riders passed through the village of Saint-Beat today. Its local consul's balcony was the place that inspired Edmond Rostand to imagine the celebrated scene in Cyrano de Bergerac between Cyrano and Roxane.The media lunch was simple but filling: small squares of salty cheese-and-olive pizza and squares of Quiche Lorraine. Black coffee, bottled water. Strangely, it gave me a stomach ache.Tomorrow we rest. I'm sleeping late, washing every single item of clothing I own, and catching my breath before the final push to Paris. I've been in Pau a couple times before,. It's the unofficial gateway to the Pyrenees. Very lovely. Very old. Great castle. There's a really great running trail up the road a couple miles, connecting Pau with Lourds. I was thinking about taking the train somewhere tomorrow morning (Bilboa? Nice? Barcelona?) but I think it would take me off my game. I'm totally immersed in the Tour's rhythm. To go someplace else, if only to study the stained glass inside a cathedral, would feel rather odd.Pau was once a fashionable winter resort for British tourists. It was 1814 when the Duke of Wellington took control of the city during the Napoleonic Wars. Though Napoleon had been also been through Pau, the locals were more partial to the bombastic Wellington and his forces. That sentiment endured as the British made it a favorite winter resort for the next hundred years. "Pau is not a French town," wrote a British humorist in 1876. "Pau belong clearly and emphatically to England." Now, of course, the Brits prefer to get on a plane for Mallorca. It's much sunnier and the whole island's open all night.Back to George Hincapie for a second. He's a great sprinter, has become a great time trial rider, and is among the best climbers in the Tour. Lance Armstrong considers him one of the top bike riders in the world. So there's been talk between Lance and team manager Johann Bruyneel about maybe making George the next capo of the Disco Boys. "Some people are whispering about that," Hincapie said, deflecting the question with an embarrassed laugh. "But I'm just happy for what happened this afternoon. Let's just get through today."Stood on an overlook near the finish line a couple hours after it was all over, gazing at the beauty all around: deep green valleys, mountain cabins dotting distant hills, and the slightest hint of a clear river snaking toward the Atlantic. But I couldn't take my eyes off those mountaintops. I have never been attracted to the concept of mountain climbing, but looking at the summits above and below, I understood mankind's urge to trudge up sheer, uncharted faces to get a better view. The moment passed when I saw a helicopter churn my way. It seemed a much smarter method to see the world and be back in civilization in time for dinner.The media's all stranded up atop the mountain until the spectators drive back down. It's almost nine and it's probably going to be a couple hours. The sun is still up, so this might be a good time for a run.Finally, just received word that I'm an uncle again. Pilar Clair du Gard came into the world a little early and a whole lot underweight (32 weeks and just four pounds) but my little brother the M.D. says everything should be cool. Knowing Matt, the end of the hockey strike and the birth of a new daughter will make this the most memorable July he's ever known.Until tomorrow.

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