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Once More Into the Breach

Posted by MDugard on Jul 20, 2005 6:18:46 PM

As Jimmy Fallon would say, "we're baaaaaaack."Man, I needed that rest day. It took Austin and I almost all night to get off Pla D'Adet Sunday. The traffic stopped moving for an hour at a time coming down that one-road mountain. The traffic continued from the base, then up the valley for 30 miles to the A64 (the autoroute), like our own little spectator peloton. Tensions were high. Tempers flared. When one guy got the bright idea of passing us all on the shoulder, a Spanish woman went Tiananmen Square on him. She jumped out of her vehicle, stood directly in his path and held her hand up in a "halt" until he got back in line. It was that kind of night.If this is Tuesday it must be Pau (as in Edgar Allan, not "pow"). Pau is a regular Tour stopover. It was here that I picked up my press credential back in 2001. The woman in line before me was from Savannah, Georgia, writing an article about the Tour for her homeowner's association magazine. She presented her business card and was, after a time, granted a credential. That would never happen now. Thanks to Lance's popularity, credential applications are due March 1. The deadline is strict, and we all scurry to be on time. Covering the Tour without a credential would be akin to staying home and watching OLN. The credential allows access to the riders before and after stages, entry into the pre-race village and post-race media center, and just generally makes life easier. I am paranoid about losing my credential, and watch over it like I do my passport. One night I even slept with it on. The thing is invaluable.Had a long talk with Chris Horner this morning. The Saunier Duval rider is a ray of sunshine in a sometimes dour sea of riders. The San Diego native, who now lives in Bend, Oregon with his girlfriend and three young children, is enjoying his first Tour. Horner is skinny and balding, with a quick laugh and sharp wit. More than anything, he wants to win a stage this year. "I don't know about today," he told me, rubbing his distended belly, "I got a little bit of a stomach thing." At this point in the Tour, I've learned that whenever a rider tells me his strategy beforehand, it means the exact opposite. I've got a feeling Horner might jump on a break and make a go. I'd love to see it happen. He's got an incredible passion for cycling and has struggled to make ends meet his entire career.The hardest part of being a professional cyclist is the time away from family. When he's on the bike, all he thinks about is riding. But now, in his third month away from home, he finds the time between races miserable.If not Horner, then someone has to do something bold. Everyone around here's been waiting a week for The Bold Move. It's amazing how much grace the peloton has extended to Lance Armstrong. His presence is so forbidding (he never misses a chance to keep another rider down. After following Ivan Basso to the line Sunday, Lance made it clear that he let Basso beat him. This is probably true, but it also guaranteed that the Italian was thinking along the same lines) and his team is so strong that even the strongest riders are terrified of attacking. But the number of stages between now and Paris is dwindling, and with them the chance to move up in the rankings. The Floyd Landis's and Levi Leipheimer's (nice, talented men who should be sitting two or three places higher) can no longer afford to be diplomatic. Now is the time to be gutsy. Now is the time to risk the wrath of Lance.Today's stage is 180.5-kilometers long, with two very difficult climbs. The Col de marie-Blanque is a first-category climb that is relatively simple for the first three miles and painfully steep for the last three. The Col d'Aubisque is a relatively even ascent, but a longer and daunting 7.2% grade. Either way, the riders will suffer.   Technically, this is Lance Armstrong's last true mountain stage. But tomorrow and Thursday are also very hilly. Not mountainous; hilly.The French are dumbfounded by George Hincapie's stage win Sunday. So dumbfounded, in fact, that the newspapers all but accuse him of doping. Sure, anything's possible. But Hincapie has a long history of pacing Lance up long climbs. But 2005 has marked the year he's shown skill as a classics rider and time-trialist, too. Lance has always preached a power-to-weight ratio, a la Top Gun. It seems that 2005 marks the year Hincapie adopted the same philosophy. He's notably leaner, with calves so defined that his muscles and varicose veins are clearly delineated. And he's spent hour after hour practicing his climbing near his South Carolina and Spanish domiciles. It's all part of being a Disco Boy. "If you can't climb the mountains on this team," he said just after winning Sunday, "you don't ride the Tour de France for this team."A few team notes: Liberty Seguros is known as Liberty Mutual in the States. Liquigas is pronounced "Leakey-gas." The French press has dubbed Basso "the gentle prince."The press is referring to this week as "Lance's coronation." He should win, barring a crash. Lance is openly fearful of the narrow village lanes of the upcoming stages through the gut of France, and the chance of falling and breaking a collarbone. "If that happens it's all over," he says.The course travels in an odd direction during these final stages. Our westward push has finished. We'll be in Paris (a long way northeast from this remote corner of France) come Sunday, but we're taking the long route. Today sees the riders loop out from Mourenx in a southerly horseshoe that takes them into the Pyrenees one last time before doubling back to finish in Pau. But instead of pushing north we head directly east tomorrow. We go so far in that direction that by Saturday's time trial in St. Etienne we almost return to Grenoble, near the Alps, which we left a week ago. Austin and I will drop the Passat at the Lyon gare and take the TGV to Paris for Sunday's finale on the Champs Elysees.Stayed in Tours the last couple nights, and will again tonight. It's not a bad little town, but certainly not the spiritual hotbed I anticipated. There's something cheesy in a place that has a Vatican Parking Garage, a Grotto Trolley, and where a guy with a Jesus beard and crucifixion loincloth prowls the streets at midnight. The pilgrims, however, see beyond all that. They come to Lourdes for the healing waters, I stood next to a long line of wheelchairs yesterday, walking as they rolled forward into the city's famous blessed grotto. Signs forbade talking and the mood was very hopeful. The rest of that ticky-tack city feels like a religious theme park, but I was humbled by the simple displays of faith at the grotto.Ate at a quiet restaurant alongside the river that winds through Tours (can't find the name in my notes). Austin and I split a carafe of the local white, which was sweet like a desert wine. My salad was a meal unto itself, with ham and hard-boiled eggs served on a nice lettuce mixture. The entrée was baked duck leg and dessert was a cheese platter. The duck was great – tender, etc. – but the cheese was a little on the dry side. What made the meal notable was when the quiet suddenly disappeared. An American bicycle tour group sat at the next table, and pretty much took over the restaurant. They were boorish and entitled, acted as if the entire world were glad they had deigned to pay the Tour a visit, and lacked the simple ability to modulate their voices. Just from sitting there with my nose in my wine, I now know their training regimens back home, how far they rode their bikes yesterday, and exactly which expensive components adorns their bikes. So does everyone else who was in the restaurant last night. Strangely, like the knuckleheads who run alongside the riders (did you see that guy get run over by the motorcycle the other day?), I'm curious about their little subculture. Thankfully, I'm staying in Lourdes again tonight, and so are they. In fact, we're all staying at the same hotel. Every day at the Tour seems to possess at least one moment of that coincidental anthropology.The Australian riders have a heavy heart today. Word has come that a group of Australia's female cyclists was run down while training for a race elsewhere in Europe. Most of the Aussies are a tight bunch, and they all came up  through the same cycling program. There is talk of wearing some sort of memorial armband.The finish in Pau is a lap of the entire city. As it looks, now the riders will be within the barricades the last four kilometers. Tall buildings and narrow streets will protect them from the late-afternoon winds. The locals are out in force, filling the cafes and prepared to pound their palms on those barricades (the noise is like a wall of thunder). Should be prime for a breakaway.Talk to you after the stage.

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