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Tougher Than The Rest

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2005

Lance Armstrong was conserving his strength after today's stage. Tomorrow is a very important day for him (without fail, riders use the term "tomorrow is a very important day" but this time it's for real), and he was eager to get back to his hotel and rest. But he talked briefly about the past week. "It's hard," he said, his face belying an impatience to stop answering questions. "You have to pay constant attention. It's hot. There are constant attacks from the riders struggling for position. No one's throwing a retirement party for me quite yet."Tomorrow's time trial is just over 30 miles long. Hilly. Long downhill to the finish.This week was supposed to be a farewell tour, of sorts. Not that Armstrong expected that sort of warmth would ever materialize, but he certainly expected this week to be easier. Instead, Tour officials designed a course that demands a vigorous stage each and every day. Their hope was to avoid a farewell tour to the Tour (though if Armstrong was French the course might have been juggled to suit that sort of bon voyage). "Am I sad?" Armstrong said about the final days of his cycling career. "No. There's just too much for me to be thinking about. I don't have time to be sad. There's no time to be sad when you're racing the Tour de France. It never gets easy."Chris Horner of Saunier Duval was all set to do something bold this week – and did, jumping out front with a solid breakaway on Tuesday's stage to Pau. But just when it looked like he might have a chance to win, he had to drop back with severe stomach sickness. Horner feels better, but says it's too late. "Once you lose your conditioning at the Tour, you don't get it back. The only reason the riders can do it is because they're so much better than the rest of the field."Ivan Basso has reportedly signed a three-year contract extension with Team CSC, which would take him out of the running to replace Lance on Team Disco. It was open knowledge that Lance wanted the young Italian rider to replace him. But Bjarne Riis, the doleful Dane who serves as team director at CSC, is widely recognized as a paternal figure with a talent for getting the best from his athletes.The French have a television series called Fort Boyard. Sort of a mixture of Amazing Race and that NBC show where they eat all the bugs, but the setting is medieval fortress, complete with hidden passages and catacombs. Can't understand a single word, but it's pretty cool to watch. Just thought you'd want to know.I just want to say that it's only nine p.m. and I'm already hunkered down in a hotel room. How great is that? Austin and I cut out of the press room early today. It felt somewhat heretic not to close the place, but he has a big Lance feature to write for the coming issue of SI and I've got to start taking that deep breath of introspection before I begin the book. Better to cut out early and prepare us for tomorrow's all-important time trial.Back when I first hung a map of France on my office wall back home and charted out this year's route with a yellow highlighter, the time trial seemed oddly situated. But now it makes perfect sense. The pressure is on Lance to win his first stage of this Tour (and not click out of his pedals or otherwise flirt with disaster). Ivan Basso will be striving to show he can ride like a champion. And Jan Ullrich will be aiming to walk Mickael Rasmussen down to take that final podium spot.I'm pulling for Ullrich.The Tour, by the way, has become a news story. What started off as a very large bike race three weeks ago has become an international gathering. The sports guys have always been here, making the press room a fully-packed and vibrant place to be. I like to hear the different national tongues being spoken, or to walk down the aisles between those long tables and see stories being written in German, French, English, and languages like Chinese and Japanese that have a completely different script. I like the omnipresent bottles of Aquarel water we drink to stave off the heat, the utterly ridiculous piles of stat sheets handed to each one of us after every stage, and even the imperious behavior of Mathieu, the bearded and bespectacled Frenchman who makes that machine hum (last year he earned my everlasting respect when a woman from some radio station began broadcasting back home via her cell phone. Her voice was a shrill distraction, and all of us wanted to hurl that special little phone to the far side of the room. It was Mathieu who did the dirty work, wagging his finger in her face and loudly remonstrating her in the middle of a live broadcast. She stopped. Sucked for her, but I was quite impressed). So anyway, our fraternity has grown from unwieldy to overpopulated since Grenoble. That was expected all along. But this week the reporters have ceased to be merely sports journalists. "Hard" news people have infiltrated our midst. On the one hand, it's rather awkward making space for these people who know little about the Tour. On the other hand, it's nice to see a race like this rise and find a global audience outside of cycling and Lance fans.All this makes me realize that following Lance can sometimes be too easy. He doesn't indulge in train wreck behavior and he doesn't really lose at this race. So though his career has had its share of dramatic moments, (other than the opening time trial, moments that are sorely missing from this Tour, which gives his farewell an anticlimactic aura) Lance's faithful have never had to deal with that moment when he utterly fails at the Tour. But is that such a bad thing? He's setting a phenomenal precedent. Not even Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky (or Ted Williams or John Elway or even David Beckham) had a ride like this.Talked to Chris Brewer of the Lance Armstrong Foundation today. Chris and Lance were diagnosed with cancer just ten days apart. Brewer, a tall and self-confident man who exudes quiet personal presence, says 1999 marked one of the most important moments in Lance's career. "When he stood on that podium," remembered Brewer, "it marked the moment when "cancer survivor" took on a whole new meaning."Here's what I like about guys like Lance and Chris: They exude purpose. The little things don't seem to scare them as much. My little sister was like that when she got sick.Lance knows how he wants to be remembered by the Tour. "It wouldn't be a picture from the race. It would be a moment with the team or the mechanics. Or a picture from a training camp, with just a few guys working hard together in the early season, training together in really bad weather when no one's looking."Right now, everyone's looking – as well they should.

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Final Countdown

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2005

The story today is simple: Lance Armstrong is praying not to crash. With just three stage left he looks terrible, all drawn and sleep-deprived. Many of the riders say that the hardest part of the Tour is the time off the bike, not the riding itself. I think that's the case with Lance. While George Hincapie looked loose and happy before the race, chatting with other riders and making jokes in some language that sounded like a composite of Spanish and Italian, Lance looked haunted as he rode to the line. He brightened when a very pro-Lance crowd roared his name, but the smile was fleeting. Lance Armstrong has been all business this year, but never more so than today. He wants to wrap this thing up without incident. Watch for the Disco Boys to ride in extremely tight formation, making sure no one jostles The Man.There was an extremely large Australian coalition at the start this morning. They waved their flags and yelled Aussie chants and generally just looked thrilled to be there. In a touching gesture, many of the Australian riders made it a point to ride over to the barricades, sign autographs, and pose for pictures.The course today is a hilly (five climbs) 153.5-kilometer stage from Issoire to Puy-en-Velay. That's just a little shy of 100 miles. The course is in the shape of a fish hook, with Issoire being the top (we actually backtrack today, which feels weird. The course moves in north-south direction instead of continuing our inexorable march toward Paris). The weather this morning was cold enough that I thought of slipping on a fleece. This is an abrupt change over the past few days and signals that we are definitely moving north towards Paris. One interesting note is that we come quite close to France's only volcano. The Puy de Something-or-Other -- can't find my notes right now is just west of today's course. I had no idea France had such a thing.Thank you for all the emails (and I mean that in the best possible way; my abilities as a stat guy are limited. I can't tell you how indebted I become to copy editors and fact-checkers during the editing process for my books) about Lance and his number of days in yellow. I erred, to put it lightly. Just so you know, Lance now has worn yellow 80 days. Bernard Hinault wore it for all of 78. But the legendary Belgian rider Eddie "The Cannibal" Merckx wore it for 111 stages. Some say he just wore it 96 days, but in the old school Tour de France there were sometimes two stages in a day.Random sighting at the start this morning: Floyd Landis shooting a TV spot wearing the new Oakley radio glasses (or are they a telephone? My wife mentioned something about them on the phone, but I couldn't find an Oakley rep to fill me in. They look sleek); A kid trying to talk George Hincapie out of his LiveStrong bracelet; Jan Ullrich slaloming through the crowd at three-quarters speed on his way to sign in; a man eating lunch at the Bar de Francais, his pet terrier cradled in his lap; and, the Spanish Euskatel team leaning against their bikes in the shade. "I want to go home," one of them told me. "I want to take two days and not ride a bike, and lie on the beach all day."That's the mood among the riders. They're exhausted. Austin and I stayed at the same hotel as Cofidis and Lamprey last night. They didn't come down for breakfast until 9:30 (race start was a wonderfully late 1:30). They walked slowly and had that faraway look of zombies. Their meal was simple and a little bland: mueslix, orange juice with ice, plain yogurt, ham, and croissants. They ate without speaking. Honestly, if I hadn't known they were Tour de France cyclists, those blank stares would have had me thinking they belonged to some sort of cult.The reason I'm so familiar with what the riders are eating is that I ate it, too. You know, my French isn't what it could be. So when the hostess told me in which part of the dining room to eat, I had no idea she was asking me to leave the room altogether (breakfast was also taking place in another section of the hotel). So I walked over to that team buffet, thinking it was for all the guests. I helped myself to a little ham, a croissant, some juice. The riders weren't up yet, but the team mechanics were looking at me kind of funny. It wasn't until I was halfway through that croissant that I figured out my mistake. Ah, well.The hotel was known as the Hotel du Garabit. It was perched overlooking a river, but far beneath an enormous steel bridge. The supports and arches had that same rivet-and-steel look of the Eiffel Tower (in fact, the woman at the front desk told me that Gustave Eiffel constructed the Garabit first. It was considered one of France's greatest wonders until he built the Eiffel Tower five years later). The dining room was closed when we arrived last night, but the staff was kind enough to put a plate together from the kitchen leftovers of the rider's dinner a few hours earlier. So what do the riders eat for dinner? A green salad with cubes of ham and cheese; baked chicken, a large plate of pasta, and just a little broccoli (boiled, not steamed). The food was bland, with no spices or sauces. But it was good, and it was filling. And I never fail to be touched by the extra lengths hotels here go to for Tour de France people. It was really very nice of them to feed us.The food at the pre-race village this morning had no lack of flavors and spices: gnocchi with bleu cheese sauce, some sort of potato and ham dish, and a nice apple and yogurt dessert with a berry sauce. Yum.For one rider to "flick" another (the word has the same general connotation as a more celebrated word beginning with "f") is to extract vengeance. It might mean forcing a crash, it might mean sabotaging their strategy. Lance has spent a considerable amount of this Tour in a flicking mood. Early targets were Floyd Landis and Bjarne Riis. If possible, he'd like to flick the author of that new book about him (no one in the Armstrong camp will admit to having read it, and Lance's comments on the subject veer to the profane). And right now he's trying to flick Jan Ullrich. Humiliating his German rider in the opening time trial wasn't enough. Now Lance wants to see Mickael Rasmussen hold on to third place. Ullrich is hovering in fourth, hoping to move up during tomorrow's time trial. The difference between third and fourth is simple – and symbolic: Third place stands on the podium Sunday afternoon. Fourth place goes back to the Meridien and grabs a shower.A reader yesterday wrote how my personality seems to change quite a bit while I write these dispatches. I hadn't noticed, but couldn't agree more. It's more of a reflection of how the day progresses than any sort of psychiatric condition (that I know of). I don't always sit down and write these in one sitting. Sometimes I'm in the car, sometimes sitting in a hotel or meadow, and sometimes sitting next to some Dutch guy in the press who hasn't shaved or bathed in three weeks and chain smokes as he curses at his WiFi. Sometimes the Tour can be vexing, sometime wondrous, and sometimes a little routine. So that's what you see.Or, like yesterday, I was really struggling to fill space. It was tough. Yesterday's stage marked the first time on this whole Tour when that was a problem. Usually there's something weird going on in the peloton if I get stuck, or some journalist said or did something that provoked a thought (like the poor guy who got so sick on the Pla d'Adet that his clothes were beyond salvage. He ended up throwing them away, wrapping a t-shirt around his waist, then hitching a ride down the mountain with a French ambulance crew; You know, stuff like that). But there was a noticeable lack of energy throughout the Tour yesterday.If my comments wandered a little, it was because yesterday was the first time I caught that same end-is-in-sight the riders have. I was pleased to notice a new air of enthusiasm in the riders and myself this morning. Like I've said so many times, every day is a brand new day at the Tour: new racing, new scenery, new food. At least once a day I look around and marvel that I'm in France, at the Tour. As demanding as all this can be, it's the greatest pageant in the world, and I don't want to miss an instant. Fell asleep last night to the full moon shining in through the hotel room's sliding glass door. The Garabit was lit up (like they do the Eiffel Tower, but which has a more stunning effect in the dark environs of the French countryside), turning all that steel a bright yellow color. Their reflections gleamed on the river. And all was still and silent. There'll be plenty of commotion and crowds in the days to come. It felt like the calm before the storm.Talk to you after the stage.

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Once More, With Feeling

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2005

Marco Serrano of Liberty Seguros won today. Bold move. Nice guy. Impressive victory. Do you care?Sorry, that sounds cynical. It's not meant to. It's just that Serrano is exactly one hour, sixteen minutes, and thirty-three seconds behind Lance Armstrong in the overall standings. He's the tenth-ranked Spaniard in the race, and third on his team. Let the TV guys craft some drama out of all this, but now is the Tour equivalent of the NBA's garbage time. Most of the peloton isn't competing, they're praying they'll make it to Paris. A guy like Serrano, with nothing to lose, is supposed to win a nothing stage like today.What I want to see is real drama: Like Lance Armstrong attacking his rivals, even though his victory is in the bag. I want to see Lance win a stage (or Levi, or Floyd, or even Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso – or perhaps all four together in an intentional tie). From the very first, I've longed for a big heaping of drama at the 2005 Tour. Maybe something spectacular will happen in the next three days. This being the Tour, anything can happen. Remember Jan Ullrich's crash in the rain a couple years ago?Having said all that, the highlight of the day was Ivan Basso's attack on that last climb. The climb was just two miles long but preposterously steep and packed with fans. Basso (or, "The Gentle Prince," as the press here calls Armstrong's heir apparent) is 2:46 back, in second place. The attack was his way of taking one last stab at winning yellow. But Armstrong, Cadel Evans and Jan Ullrich quickly caught Basso's wheel. The four of them charged hard up the mountain, leaving behind the race's other top contenders. At the end of the day, Armstrong and Basso are still 2:46 apart, but Jan Ullrich picked up 30 seconds on Denmark's Mickael Rasmussen. Ullrich may not be riding to win the Tour anymore, but a strong showing in Saturday's time trial could vault him into third place overall.A word about that time trial. It's a 55.5-kilometer loop (Saint-Etienne to Saint-Etienne) which features almost 15 miles of climbing. Riders start in ascending order, from last place to first. That means Iker Flores of Spain will go off at 10:45 Saturday morning.  Lance Armstrong, providing nothing disastrous happens tomorrow, will begin at exactly 4:22 pm. The riders start two minutes apart, with the exception of the last twenty riders. There will be three minutes between them. Average speed is expected to be about 27 mph, and a fast guy like Lance should finish in an hour and fourteen minutes. From the looks of things, the Saint-Etienne spectators should be a little on the freaky side. It's considered the most sports-crazed city in France, outside of Paris. It has more than 600 cycling clubs, and 48,000 competitive cyclists. Now, combine that with the stage's proximity to Germany and the fact that it's being held on the final Saturday of the 2005 Tour, and it sounds like the TT will be greeted by a bit of volume.The Tour had its first totally nude streaker today. The guy ran alongside Serrano during an early breakaway. There was another fellow a few weeks back who ran without his pants on, but that was more an act of misguided passion (advertisement? Personal pride?) than streaking. As far as I can see, being a fan at the Tour is almost a competitive event unto itself. At the bottom you have your families and picknickers, who merely sit along the road and wave as the peloton passes by. Then there are the camper people, following the Tour in a squadron of small white RV's. Then you have your sign-makers and flag wavers. Then there's the big national groups congregating together on a climb. Just below the top are the runners, those committed sorts who paint their bodies or put on a costume or just run alongside a cyclist because being a part of the race makes them feel special. At the very top, however, is the total commitment of that streaker. I like to imagine that a guy like him has a staid, boring job in real life. Maybe he's afraid to fly, so adventure travel isn't an option. What he does is get his fulfillment running alongside professional cyclists in the altogether. OK, maybe he's just a whack job, but I'm trying to give the guy the benefit of the doubt.Armstrong was terse during interviews this afternoon. Like yesterday, this was a long stage without shade or other protection from the sun. He was tired, and chose his words carefully. Trying to deflect pressure from himself, he picked Jan Ullrich as the favorite in Saturday's time trial.A note on helmets: They're mandatory at the Tour. Used to be that riders could take them off just before the last climb if the stage finished atop a mountain. That changed this year. Helmets must remain strapped to a rider's head any time his bike is in motion.Breakfast this morning was hard bread smeared with fig jam, and a small press of coffee. It was fresh and very good, but all carbs. Needed a little protein to balance out my blood sugar. So we stopped a couple hours later and picked up a chunk of salami at a roadside butcher stand (honest, such a thing exists). Austin and I divvied that thing up like a couple of fine carnivores, then arrived at the finish just in time for the media buffet. More salami, a big slice of pate, some dry cheese that tasted a little like Swiss, and some sort of legume and ham dish. I know that the French are trying to serve regional delicacies at the end of each stage, but it seems like we're eating a whole lot of salami, cheese, and brown bread. It's not really Atkins, is it? And it's certainly not South Beach. But I notice that no one here really loads up their plate, and they don't chug big goblets of wine. The air of moderation is noticeable. Which reminds me of that Oscar Wilde line: "Everything in moderation – including moderation."Last thing on Serrano: His buddy and training partner, Oscar Pereiro, won the Tuesday stage. Serrano said that the victory made him "very happy." It also prompted him to go out and get a win of his own. Serrrano added that he expects his friend to return the love. Even if he doesn't, how cool is that? Your riding buddy wins a stage, then you go out a couple days later and bag one, too. They must be doing something right on those training rides.Lance Armstrong now holds the all-time Tour record for most days in yellow, with 87. He breaks Bernard Hinault's record. (ed note: Lance is actually second all-time, with 80 yellow jersies. Eddy Merckx is the all-time leader with 96 yellow jerseys over seven Tours.)We're not really stuck up here at the airfield, but if Austin and I head back down the mountain now we'll probably end up sitting in traffic. It usually takes three to four hours for a modest-sized final climb like today's to clear out. So we'll hang a bit, then do that nightly search for accommodations.Tomorrow's stage from Issoire to Le Puy-en-Velay doesn't start until 1:30, which is nice. However, as the Tour moves towards Paris, the stage starts are a hundred or so miles apart, not just forty and fifty. I kind of dreaded this going in, but it's become a blessing. Those extra miles mean more hours of driving and exploring the French countryside each morning. When it was first begun, the Tour de France was an attempt to be the ultimate way for cyclists and fans to see this nation. They've succeeded. There's nothing like chasing the Tour to see France.A demain.

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The Stones

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2005

On the surface, today's stage victory by Discovery Team's Paolo Savoldelli was reward for a job well done. He has worked selflessly for Lance Armstrong since this Tour began (no easy thing for a man used to being a team leader and having others do his bidding). He won the Giro d'Italia last May, giving Discovery a nice grand tour win that quieted rumors about overall team weakness. And, like George Hincapie on Sunday, he was given the green light by team director Johann Bruyneel to go for the win. But scratch beneath the surface and you'll notice that it was Team CSC's Kurt-Asie Arvesen he outsprinted to the line. Just two weeks ago, CSC team director Bjarne Riis was calling Lance Armstrong "lucky" to be wearing the yellow jersey this year. Armstrong was so ticked he saved the comment on his computer as a sort of motivational screen saver. Since that day, CSC has not won a single stage at this Tour de France. You can bet that Savoldelli had to dig deep for the win, but the fact that he reeled in Arvesen during the final sprint was just another Discovery dagger aimed directly at Bjarne Riis. Long after this Tour is over, what will amaze me most is how Lance Armstrong and Johann Bruyneel used strategy and spite to control every single stage. They couldn't have choreographed today's finish any better.Savoldelli is a sincere man, with an honest face and the habit of speaking from the heart. After the race he talked about the overwhelming joy of winning a Tour stage. And he spoke just as honestly about Ivan Basso. Savoldelli feels that Basso is Lance Armstrong's heir apparent (no Italian has won the Tour since Marco Pantani in 1998), and is destined to win the Tour in 2006. As for Savoldelli, who has won the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) twice, his aim is to focus on winning many more of his nation's premier race.Of the 155 cyclists still in the Tour, the man holding down last place is Iker Flores of Euskatel. The Spaniard is almost four hours behind Lance Armstrong. The man in 154th, Wim Vansevenant of Belgium, is six minutes ahead, so Flores seemed destined to remaining last. As a man who has finish last in the Raid Gauloises, I can honestly tell you that the sting doesn't last long. All I remember is that crossing the line had a life-altering effect. So I'm rooting for Flores to avoid a crash or random pedestrian encounter in the four remaining stages. I want to see him make that finish in Paris.A bored intern just handed me the stats for tomorrow's stage: 189 kilometers from Albi to Mende. The temperature is expected to be in the low 80's throughout, with nary a cloud in the sky. There's a surprising elevation gain, with the course rising from 500 feet about sea level at the start, to about 3500 feet at the finish. There are, in fact, five rather difficult climbs. So it's not like the peloton is coasting into Paris. The Tour organizers design their course with a certain malevolent intent each year. Their aim is to tax the riders while making sure the world doesn't take their eyes off the Tour. By making the final stages just as demanding (in their own unique way) as anything the riders have done thus far, they are making it possible for something very crazy to occur.Between you and me, I don't think the Tour organizers would mind a little calamity at this point. The story isn't the race anymore, it's Lance's countdown to Paris. But Lance isn't talking these days, so we don't know if he's being nervous or nostalgic. His face was drawn at the end of today's stage. He looked wary of those who gathered to cheer him at the yellow jersey ceremony. His smile, though genuine, was taut. Someday he might look back on this last week and wish he had savored his last days in the peloton, but as I watched him stand atop the podium on this hot July evening in the heart of France, Lance Armstrong looked like a man who wished the Tour would end tomorrow.Tomorrow, by the way, looks to be another day of caution for Lance (who recently made the faux pas of admitting to the European press that his victory Sunday was imminent). Today his group finished 22:28 behind Savoldelli. However, it looks like a perfect attack day for Chris Horner (I've given up on Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer – ninth and sixth overall, respectively. They'll make their mark on cycling some day, but this isn't their year). Horner has absolutely nothing to lose. He's brash. He's cocky. He's got a little bit of that selfish streak all winners possess. And, above all else, he believes he is destined to win a stage at the 2005 Tour de France. Look, he probably won't. But I'm cheering for him to have a go tomorrow.You can imagine my chagrin when the media had to actually pay (!?) for today's mid-afternoon meal. But it turned out to be money well spent. This is farming country, and the locals turned out to serve sausage and peppers for about $10. The media can be a spoiled bunch, and I tried to tell my rumbling stomach that we could hold off until much later in the evening. But after I broke down and went to the Tour ATM (the Tour has its own bank, which travels with us from town to town. It's the only bank in all of France allowed to remain open on Bastille Day). I wasn't disappointed. There's a difference between the sausage I might buy at my local supermarket back home, and the stuff a farmer makes fresh. Sure it's pig entrails. I know that. But it tasted very, very good. Wash it down with a sample from the local vintner, and you have a most fulfilling afternoon meal.There was a sharp corner 450 meters from the finish. I wanted to watch the riders come around that turn, because they'd be struggling to hold as much speed as possible without crashing. It was a blazing afternoon and there was a patch of grass nearby. I sat down to write as I watched the helicopters get closer. The one great delusion of travel, I have learned, is the that nothing bad can ever happen in a foreign land. This is why I run through overgrown mountain trails over here, completely disregarding the presence of some poison oak-ish plant that will make my life an itchy hell for the next week. I know in my rational mind that snakes must exist here, and I know for a fact that wolves can still be found in the forest. But I pretend I am impervious because I am a traveler. So today, as I sat down on a nice patch of cool green grass to jot a few notes, I was reminded once again that this theory is nonsense. The spot I parked my bottom was the Mecca for the local species of ant, a large brownish creature that immediately began scouting the remote crevices of my torso for new places to build a colony. I quickly moved on.A little travel tip: Don't check your bank balance on a public computer. The guy who used the free France Telecom online service at the start this morning didn't log out properly. When I tried to log on his bank information came up.Austin and I are heading down the road a few miles to Soreze, a little bitty dot on the map. As I've mentioned before, the Tour is always full of surprises. So even though that little town won't have, say, a Border's, I'm really hoping that the hotel is one of those charming little places we've had such good luck finding since Fromentine. The rooms aren't always big, the showers are often those handheld things the Euros love so much, and sometimes the hotels are downright freaky, they're so old. But the breakfasts are always filling, the people are about as warm as the French can be (they brighten considerably when they see Tour stickers on the car; the French in these parts LOVE the Tour. Parisians, on the other hand, act like they could give a rip), and there hasn't been a single place that I didn't wish I could hang around for an extra day or two. At this point in the race, I can feel the tractor beam of Paris sucking us all in, so I won't be in the mood to linger anywhere. But tonight I have simple dreams: to drive to the hotel without getting lost in some medieval alley; eat a meal that doesn't cost $100 (that strong Euro is killing me); sleep for more than five hours; and, most of all, wake up at dawn and find a really great running trail.Finally, a non-Tour thought, the sort you get when you're outside of America, appreciating our values and ideals more deeply than ever: I keep seeing these "Free Tyler" banners. They allude to Tyler Hamilton and his drug suspension. The banners are funny and slightly tragic, but never fail to make me smile. What I'd really like to see is a "Free Judith" banner (Google "Judith Miller"). When Americans wave the flag over here and cheer for Lance, we're cheering just as much our country and the values we hold so dear. One of the most precious is the First Amendment. And the First Amendment is the First Amendment, no matter which side of the political fence you're on. Being in France, seeing how their embrace of compromise has diminished their national character, I can't help but admire the backbone of a patriot like Miller. Given the same predicament, I hope I would have the same sort of stones.Until tomorrow.

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