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Once More, With Feeling

Posted by MDugard on Jul 22, 2005 11:14:19 AM

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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