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And a Couple of B-58's...

Posted by MDugard on Jul 21, 2005 7:39:00 AM

It is my sincere wish that all of you could see today's stage. The roads are empty of spectators for miles on end, because this region has a somewhat remote vibe (they're out there, but mingled in sudden clusters around towns and feed zones). But the terrain is yet another stunning reason why France is such a beautiful nation. Every day I say that I've seen the prettiest part of France, and every day I see some new aspect or view that makes me gape in awe. For instance, today's finish. The riders will pedal up the Tarn Valley, and then begin forty miles of abrupt climbing and descending. But when they reach the town of Mende, with its Notre Dame Cathedral (one of the oldest in France, it is built on the spot where Saint-Privat was martyred by barbarian invaders in the 3rd century), the racers begin a three-mile, 10.2% gradient climb. The spectator pack along that climb seems friendlier and less dense than the Basque horde from Sunday's Pla d`Adet, but their numbers are very strong.  But the race doesn't end on top of the mountain. The racers will power over the top with less than a mile left and sprint downhill. Instead of a city center or municipal stadium, the finish line is in the middle of the local airport runway. Should be one to remember.For the first time all Tour, the course comes within spitting distance of the press tent. Austin and I are taking bets to see how many of the media will race outside to lean against the barricades, and how many will lazily watch it all on the flat screens.Austin and I cleaned the Passat at a local aire (rest stop) when we stopped for diesel. It's our longstanding tradition that the backseat remain a trashcan until the night before Paris. But that vestige of college road trips was starting to feel a touch slovenly. So the water bottles and energy drink cans and assorted bits of sandwich wrappers were dumped. However, we did keep that sprig of lavender from the base of Galibier. It was a Bastille Day gift from the local people and it's supposed to be calming. That, and because those purple buds makes a fine natural air freshener. Believe me, there are days when that car needs a subtle dose of fragrance.When Austin and I checked into the hotel last night, we were surprised to see T-Mobile hanging out in the lobby. Normally those guys are sullen and quiet, refusing to speak to anyone but their own. But last night they were the pictures of mirth – strange behavior for a team that lost two of its top athletes yesterday. It was almost like a sense of relief had overtaken them. The rumor is that there was some sort of team showdown in the last couple days. The team's top malcontents, Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden, were summarily ousted. They didn't jump from the team, goes the thinking. They were pushed. Albi, site of today's start, was once the hub of the Tarn region. It is the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, the painter. More important, in my point of view, the great French navigator Jean Francois La Perouse was born there. La Perouse has been largely forgotten by history, but his 1785-1788 voyage of discovery (a young military cadet named Napoleon Bonaparte applied for a place on the crew and was personally turned down by the dashing La Perouse) charted almost the entire Pacific Rim. He arrived in Botany Bay, Australia shortly after Britain's famed First Fleet. Had he gotten there earlier, Australians might be speaking French these days (probably not: La Perouse had just two ships. Captain Arthur Philip had eleven vessels, two of which were gun ships. A Sydney suburb and a windblown Maui snorkeling spot, however, are now named for La Perouse). The French explorer sailed off, only to drown a few months later in a storm. Still, his voyage was one of the boldest and most thorough in history.Yesterday saw us on the fringes of the Massif Central, that craggy bastion 150 miles north of the Mediterranean. When I went out running this morning I climbed to the top of a local summit to inspect a chapel dedicated to St. Staphin, a local cleric. Looking out into the distance, I could see the rolling farmland of the Toulouse region before me. But when I turned and looked in the other direction, the hills rose far higher than where I stood. The terrain is rugged, but hardly the equivalent of the Alps or Pyrenees. It reminds me of Flagstaff, with its pine trees, red soil, high altitude, and hot sun. I kept expecting the day to get cooler as we drove up the D225 from town. Instead, the sun just seemed to get brighter, and feel hotter on my face.I either saw it on TV or as the subject of one of those in-flight documentaries, but today I saw the brand new Millau Viaduct in person. This futuristic bridge is the highest in the world, rising more than 1,000 feet above the Tarn River. Designed by the English architect Lord Norman Foster, the span cost a half-billion dollars to build and stretches almost two miles in length. When I first looked up at it (we were below, driving a back road through the Tarn Valley, the bridge seemed a little superfluous. Why not just have the autoroute wind down the mountainside, cross the Tarn just above water level, then climb back up into the Massif Central? It turns out that this part of France is extremely popular in the summer, particularly with Parisians and Britons making their way to the South of France to sunbathe (topless, in many cases. Went into a newsstand looking for a paper this morning and looked down to see a local newsweekly with bare-breasted photos of visiting celebrities on the cover). Millau had become the sight of a most famous bottleneck, hence the big gleaming bridge.Just in case you were wondering, Millau is the center of France's glove-making industry. My history text says that the period between 1896 and 1929 was the "golden age" of glove making. Who knew?A lot of dogs out along the course today. Lance is worried about a crash in these final four stages. Some of the worst such incidents in Tour history have been caused by dogs running onto the course.The final climb of today's race is known in Tour lore as "montee Lauren Jalabert" (very roughly: "Lauren Jalabert Ascent") because he won here on Bastille Day in 1995. Jalabert, a great climber whom the French refer to fondly as "Ja Ja", is her commentating for national radio.Austin and I wondered whether Lance Armstrong might do something impulsive like go for a win today. It's not likely, because all the top GC riders are resting their legs for Saturday's crucial time trial. But that final climb is his sort of steep, and his team is strong enough to put him in position.I've been here at the Tour so long that it feels odd knowing how little time remains. That start in Fromentine feels like it happened last Christmas. I can't imagine what it must feel like to be riding this brute every day.There are banners flying at the finish line; press tents and VIP tents and sponsor tents on the broad grassy field along the airstrip; and, cars and people lining the runway. It feels just like an air show to me. All it needs is the Thunderbirds.

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