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The Stones

Posted by MDugard on Jul 22, 2005 9:42:51 AM

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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