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This Hard Land

Posted by MDugard on Jul 21, 2005 7:28:25 PM

Today is the longest stage of the 2005 Tour de France, and it will be remembered as one of the prettiest. The start is Pau, scene of yesterday's finish. For the first few miles the course has a familiar feel: small farms, pockets of forest, towns consisting of just a dozen stone buildings. The riders will be able to see the Pyrenees off to their right, in silhouette. But then the course presses due east.The Pyrenees, where we have spent the last four days, will be a memory ("Au Revoir, Les Sommets" read the banner headline in this morning's L'Equipe). The land becomes sun-drenched and dry. Sunflower fields outnumber cornfields. The last thirty miles march up and down winding lanes, many of them framed by tall sycamores on either side. They shade the road and look like natural cathedrals. As with every day at the Tour, camper shells and motor homes have already staked out the primo viewing spots. Look for the four guys wearing diapers at the 5k mark.The finish in Revel has a few sharp turns, but the last straightaway is several hundred yards long. If no breakaway group has succeeded, the sprinters will love that stretch.The distance today is 239.5 kilometers, or just under 150 miles. It's stage 17, which blows my mind a little bit. Have we progressed this far? There are only four more stages to go after today: two tricky passages in the Massif Central, the time-trial in St. Etienne on Saturday, then the finale in Paris. It's been said that this is the part of the Tour when the lesser riders are just hanging on, doing anything they can to make Paris. The reason for that is simple: In the cycling world, a Tour de France finish is a most special achievement, no matter whether a rider finishes first or last.Been getting a few emails and comments about my typos. I hear you. Sure wish I were catching them before I send these out. But I'm asking for just a little bit of grace. I'm doing these dispatches on the fly. It's fun to write fast, not fussing over every word. Know that I'm not at all happy with the typos, but my mind's eye seems incapable of catching them when I read and reread before hitting the send key. Having said that, I appreciate the feedback.Onward. Dinner last night was another midnight meal. Austin, myself and Kevin Blackiston of the Dallas Morning News made our way back from the finish late. We were staying in Lourdes for the third straight night, a most unusual sensation here at the Tour. Unlike most small cities in France, Lourdes is open late, and we found a small café on the River Gave that was still serving hot food. It was one of those places perched on a busy street corner, so if a driver missed the turn he would have plowed into our table. It became a sort of game, watching the headlights aim our way on that warm summer night, holding our breaths until the turn was done. Austin did the salad and duck combo, Kevin just had wine, and I had a salmon, anchovies and shrimp pizza. It was salty, and the taste was a little unusual at first. But it turned out to be a most enjoyable meal.Former Tour rider Davis Phinney took note of the tailwind that will push the riders from Pau to Revel. That not-so-gentle shove, he says, will dramatically increase the pace. The long hills will add a measure of suffering. So though Tour organizers intended this day to be on the easy side, Phinney guarantees that they will suffer.Those radio earpieces the riders wear came into use during the early-1990s. Phil Anderson was the first Tour cyclist to use one. The Motorola Team, of which a young Lance Armstrong was a member, used their sponsors' technology to follow suit. Now every team uses them. The team director is in radio contact with each rider, barking commands and exhortations as he follows behind in the team car.Here's what it looks like inside Johann Bruyneel's team car: a radio, a satellite television (small screen) to watch the feed, a roster with each rider's team, name, number and position in the overall rankings, and a course map.The starting area was pretty cool this morning. Set in a public park, the media village had the feel of an outdoor carnival. The local cuisine they served was some sort of meatballs with pearl onion dish, and a shredded carrots and potatoes with bacon thing. All quite good. Unfortunately, the Tour is no longer serving my beloved Camembert before each stage. In its place is hard sausage. The sausage is good, and I try a piece now and again, but oh, how I miss that gooey cheese.On the sign-in stage, I was astounded to see the normally stoic Jan Ullrich waving to the crowd and smiling. When he descended the steps and climbed onto his bike, he rode across the street to the barricades and signed autographs. I've never seen him do that. Since I happened to be standing there, I got one, too. Why not?Maybe Ullrich was smiling because he's finally rid of his team's two divisive sub-lieutenants. Alexandre Vinokourov informed his T-Mobile teammates over breakfast that he's leaving the team at the end of the season. Shortly before that, Andreas Kloden pulled out of the Tour with a fractured wrist. Both Kloden and Vino had been trying to topple Ullrich as team leader. And though Jan isn't having his best Tour (he's currently fourth, the exact same sport he finished last year), he's still smarter and more powerful than those two. Vino used to be a threat, but he's put on weight and his tactics are so predictable (attack, get caught, attack, get caught again) that he's become a caricature of himself. Kloden's always been a bit of shooting star, sometimes burning brightly and other times burning out entirely. Their departure means Jan is free to be in command.Lance Armstrong's coronation week continues. The Discovery Channel team bus is being mobbed by larger and larger crowds each morning (the start is the best time to see the riders. They tend to disappear afterward). American flags, Texas flags, autograph books, and more. On days when Lance comes out to his bike by himself, they go nuts. But when Lance steps out of the bus with Sheryl a step behind, the flashes really start popping.There is no start command at the Tour. Instead, the riders gather somewhere close to the official start banner, and then pedal casually for a couple miles. This is known as the roll-out. When everybody's safely down the road a flag is waved by the lead escort vehicle, and the serious riding begins. This morning I wandered out to the roll-out and stood among the peloton. Some of the riders were silent, leaning over their handlebars and staring at the ground. But most were sitting astride their bikes, resting a butt cheek on the top tube and chattering with riders from other teams and nations. Everyone knows one another, and the atmosphere is very relaxed. When the final riders show up – today it was the Disco Boys, led by George Hincapie – all you hear is a communal click as everyone clips into their pedals. And then they just begin rolling forward. No one says a word. It just happens.The drive from Pau to Revel was mile after mile of scenic eye candy. Just a gorgeous day to be in the car. Unfortunately, our tunes are getting a little stale. Need to find a record store.Talk to you after the stage.

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