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Oh, Mighty One

Posted by MDugard on Jul 23, 2005 9:12:44 AM

St. Etienne. Saturday morning just before noon. The sky is overcast and the air is warm, the sort of day when a sunburn sneaks up on you. Just walked through the pre-race village and then on over to the team area. The busses are parked at odd, protective angles, with stanchions and ropes set up to form a comprehensive perimeter. The time-trial bikes for today's 55-kilometer stage perch on stands; buffed, polished, tires pumped, and ready to go. Dense crowds surround each bus. The mood is patient, curious; in team areas like Davitomon and Euskatel, where riders are already out of the bus and warming up, they are gazed upon with a mixture of awe and deep scrutiny. It's a cycling zoo, though I don't know whether it's the cyclists looking at us like some sort of bold new species or the other way around.The race started three weeks ago today. The peloton numbered 189 riders. Now it's down to 155 and unlikely to change. As one Euskatel rider told me yesterday, "we all want to go home, but we don't want to go home yet." Meaning that the fatigue will soon be forgotten, but the memory of tomorrow's ride up and down the Champs Elysees will last a lifetime. My point is this: The Tour de France is the pinnacle of cycling achievement (please, no emails about the RAAM). To ride in this event an aspiring cyclist has a lot of leeway. He doesn't need to be the best racer in the world, just one of the top 189. It's not easy to make it that far – not by a longshot (the numbers are daunting: anybody who ever pedaled around their local cul-de-sac could be considered an aspiring cyclist), but I would think that seeing it from that viewpoint would make the goal seem a little more attainable. Or maybe not, now that I think of it. The odds and numbers might be the same as making it to the NBA.My boys are going to love this: Just saw a "More Cowbell" shirt on some guy at the finish line. Half expected Christopher Walken to be somewhere in the vicinity.The race today starts and finishes in this athletic hotbed 300 miles south of Paris. Alexandre Vinokorouv is a Kazak, but calls this city home. We're in the industrial north end of town, which is rather drab. I'm told that the place to see is St-Etienne's old town, with its 15th century church of Forezian sandstone and Museum of Modern Art. This city is a wall of pedestrians and closed roads, so driving there might be tough, but I'll take a walk over there if it's close. More germane to how I will spend my afternoon is that the start is on one side of the media center and the finish is on the other. Nestled in the sweet spot right next to us is the pre-race village (for the first time all Tour, it will be open throughout the day. I'm happy to report that Camembert is back on the menu). So it's possible to do as I just did: close the laptop, walk out the door to my left and watch riders roll down the ramp, wander through the village for a cup of coffee at the Grand Mere booth, then on to the finish to see riders come up that long straightaway to the line. The Tour is never this self-contained (the press center tomorrow will be almost three miles from the finish line).  I am loving today. It's going to be something special.A personal note: I thought Dan Coyle's new Armstrong book was riveting. He was my first editor back when I wrote for Outside, and is a fine individual and writer. His reporting is very strong, indeed.France Telecom has hired a small army of pretty young girls to hand out free phonecards before and after every stage. I have become a veritable junkie – whore might be a better word – for those cards. Each is good for ten minutes of free phone time. Austin and I take turns hitting those women up for the cards. We like to think they don't notice that we come back again and again, but I'm sure they do. But hey, free phone time is free phone time. And they haven't actually begun rolling their eyes when we abruptly stop the car at the mere sight of them, thrust our hands out the window, and ask for a phone card in very bad French.Fans began lining up at the finish line barricades early this morning. Just met Jeff and Jackie Roberts of St. Louis, and Mark and Martha Anderson of Westminster, Maryland. They got a great spot about 50 meters after the finish line, almost right in front of the award podium. For the Roberts', this is the first time they've ever actually been outside the United States (Can you imagine? Now, that's a great first-time travel experience). After their long day on the barricade today (they'll be leaning on that thing for at least another six hours; during the last hour the crowds around them should get especially ferocious) that foursome heads for Paris on the TGV from Lyon. I'm hoping they don't want to get sleep, because that's going to be a party train. Everyone I've talked to is bugging out of here right after the finish and taking that train north.Austin and I are going to drive instead. We wanted to take the train, but it doesn't leave late enough (there's talk of a secret midnight train) for us to talk with Lance, then find the Lyon gare. The drive will be long, a great deal of Red Bull-ish energy drink will be consumed, and our new batch of road mix CD's will be played at a very loud volume. But we're hoping to make it by midnight and take a walk over to the Left Bank to take in the scene.Today marks the 24th time the Tour has visited St-Etienne. This particular time trial course has been contested just once before. That happened in 1997, and the stage winner was an up-and-coming German rider named Jan Ullrich. He went on to win it all that year.The terrain around here is rolling, but not jagged. It reminds me a great deal of driving through the Black Hills of South Dakota. For some reason it felt calming.More later ...

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