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Beautiful Reward

Posted by MDugard on Jul 20, 2005 3:52:24 PM

OK, so Pereiro's got that one off his back. Someone once said, "a man is never old until regrets take the place of his dreams."If Oscar Pereiro Sio had failed to win today, he would have been saddled with a serious bout of regret. First, he was part of a bold six-hour breakaway in the Pyrenees on Sunday. He is a Spaniard, and there is no greater honor for a Spanish cyclist than to win before their loveable and slightly demented fans (these are, after all the people who brought us the Inquisition). Then today, his legs still aching from Sunday, he jumps on another breakaway, through this year's final Pyrenean stage. As I watched the four leaders enter Pau, he looked the most vulnerable. At least it seemed that way. None of the others (Cadel Evans, Eddy Mazzoleni, Xabler Zandio) had worked as hard on Sunday. And Evans, an Aussie, had the advantage of emotion, wanting a win in memory of a fallen female member of the Australian national cycling team, killed on a training ride yesterday. But Pereiro was desperate for a stage, and today he got one. I can't wait to find a copy of the Madrid papers tomorrow. It's going to be front-page stuff.But I was rooting for Cadel Evans. Two reasons: the obvious emotional factor; and, as Austin and I have labeled him, Pereiro is a "woosy-boy." Pereiro earned that description by rendering himself a victim after Sunday's stage. He expected George Hincapie to let him win because he was Spanish. Hincapie, the hardest working man in the peloton, was having none of it. Discovery Team director Johann Bruyneel had told him that "today is your day," and Big George was not about to let his first-ever stage win slip away against a lesser rider. Hincapie's was the most popular and unexpected victory at the Tour in years. Even Bruyneel (a hardened sort) choked up. Yet Pereiro whined to the Spanish press that Hincapie "refused to work" with him. And even today, after winning his own stage (though a stage far less glorious and attended than Sunday's Pla d'Adet), he said he "never expected Hincapie to attack." I don't know about you, but if I've labored like a dog for others riders my entire career (as Hincapie has: selflessly, without complaining, always having a kind word), I go for the victory when my team director tells me it's my turn to win a Tour de France stage. Call me crazy.Finally, the Spanish press is still indignant that Hincapie didn't let Pereiro win. "How do you feel about what he did to you?" was the first question of today's post-race press conference.Lance Armstrong finished 36th today, 3:24 behind the winners. He looked strong and relaxed, and seems to be gaining power every day. Chris Horner of Saunier Duval jumped on that early break with Pereiro. But he faded and fell off the back. Horner finished in Armstrong's group. He's still looking for that all-important Tour stage win.So is Armstrong. If he fails to win one this year, Armstrong will be the first Tour winner since Miguel Indurain to win the general classification without a stage victory.The riders go everywhere on their bikes (Greg LeMond once told me that "a cyclist without a bike is like a soldier without a gun"). A good example was this morning, just before the start. Things are getting loose in the peloton and those teams without a chance of winning aren't keeping their riders on a tight leash anymore. As the start bell rang (a large bell is chimed in the pre-race village when the race is ten minutes off) they stopped making phone calls and checking email at the France Telecom booth, stopped drinking water at Aquarel, and stopped lounging in the shade. The riders clipped into their pedals and rode slowly to the start, which was several hundred yards away across a large public lawn. They wove in and out of pedestrians like salmon swimming upstream, but never seemed the least bit frazzled or worried.As another example, Disco and T-Mobile parked their busses several miles from the finish, on the other side of Pau. I wasn't really interested in finish quotes today, but I was walking toward there down an open public street, just to gauge the local mood (no surprise: there wasn't a soul in sight. Everyone was at the finish). Then, like guys out for a weekend ride, Jan Ullrich pedaled past. Then came Alexandre Vinkourov and Andreas Kloden. The Disco Boys were next, with Hincapie waving over to Austin and I ("Hey!"). The thing is, these guys had just ridden more than 100 miles over two impossible mountains during the Tour de France. Yet they all looked as if they could clip in and ride a whole lot more.These guys and their bikes are inseparable, and their comfort in the saddle is as much a given as their farmer tans. I have to wonder how Lance can walk away from all this so easily. He makes quiet comments about wanting a life change, and it's pretty cool that he wants to do the Jim Brown thing and go out on top. But the peloton is like a family -- a highly dysfunctional family where everyone wants to cannibalize the others, but a family nonetheless. He'll remember these cyclists the rest of his life. Lance says that betting on him to come back would be a colossal mistake, but who knows how he'll feel after re-charging his batteries.On the subject of post-retirement cyclists, Richard Virenque take a fair amount of abuse from his former teammates. Virenque retired last year and is doing commentary for local media. He is handsome in a slightly menacing way (small teeth, narrow eyes, shorn head, constant air of befuddled expectation), but dresses with a David Beckham flair and can be charming if the wind is blowing the right way. He is, above all, lean. But lean is a relative thing, and the peloton loves to mock retired riders as being "fat" (again, a relative thing). I can tell you that there are many former Tour winners currently in attendance who could stand to push away from the table a cheese platter or two earlier, but Virenque is not one of them. In competitive cycling it's vital to be as light as humanly possible without losing strength and endurance. Mickael Rasmussen is the most extreme example. The guy needs some food. People are blaming his angry disposition on a lack of calories. In real life, however, a little layer of body fat isn't a bad thing.We (at this point, that word means the entire Tour contingent, not just Austin and I) leave the Pyrenees tomorrow. I will miss them. Provence has a pure beauty that gets more attention. Paris is sophisticated and alive, which has an appeal much like Manhattan. But when the day comes that I buy land in France, it will be here. The rivers run clear, the mountains are visible without being claustrophobic (sometimes living in the mountains can feel like living on an island), there is astounding beauty around every bend, and it is (Lourdes notwithstanding) understated. I love understatement.Ran early this morning. The sun was just rising as my wake-up call came. In the north of France the sun is up at five a.m. this time of year. Down here in Pau (southwest corner but not on the ocean; think of a warm and low-altitude Flagstaff) the sun is up at about 5:30. Putted around town for a few miles, then headed up into the hills. I wasn't really going anywhere special, but it was nice to put some miles under my legs. There were no spectacular topographical details; a river, of course, but no trail or scenic overlook or one of those intellectual epiphanies. I just ran until the sun was over the mountains then followed the river back through the woods until I stood in front of the Hotel Christina.The media buffet never ceases to amaze. Some days it's a feast of local delicacies. Some day's its pre-packaged local food – like today. Lunch here in Pau was cold cooked lentils with duck, served in plastic Costco containers. There were cans of Kronenburg beer and airline screw-top bottles of Cordiere red wine, but I opted for the water bottle because presentation is everything and today's was definitely lacking. Every town at the Tour competes to present their local cuisine in the best light. It's almost like a test of how much people really love them. But in a town like Pau, where the Tour makes an annual stop, they know the Tour loves them a great deal. They don't really try to hard to wow people anymore.I am often perplexed by the French ambivalence about their faith. If they didn't have some representation of their beliefs it would be one thing, but this is a country with a great stone church in every village and massive cathedrals at the heart of every city. Statues of Christ on the cross line roadsides. So you would think this would be a part of their cultural fabric. But the churches (again, Lourdes being the exception) are empty on Sunday. As a student of history, this intrigues me. So I scanned writings about France's religious past this morning. The answer came in a single, repeated phrase: Wars of Religion. France was once a devout nation. Then, in the years after the Reformation, France became a religious battleground. Protestants battled hand-to-hand against Catholics in a religious civil war. This war, fought about the same time the Pilgrims were setting out for Plymouth Rock, seemed to make lazing about the farm on a Sunday morning a whole lot preferable to getting killed for going to church. The effects still mark the country today.Tomorrow the Tour rides from Pau to Revel. The course is a very long 239.5-kilometers. There are several rolling hills as the peloton moves into that region of France known as the Central Massif. The Massif is a land of farms and charming villages, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera. How many times have I written those words? This whole country is beguiling and beautiful; medieval and modern; sublime and gaudy. Every day I fall in love with some sleepy little town or some romantic view. Every day I see something that turns my head and makes me gape in awe. Some times that's a good thing. Sometimes it's a little weird.Until tomorrow.

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