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Active Expert: Martin Dugard

July 2005

American Skin

Posted by MDugard Jul 23, 2005

Just went out for a long walk around town. Took in large chunks of the course and found St. Etienne's old town. Cheered for Chris Horner as he pedaled past. Thought about hanging out with a large crowd in front of a café a mile up the road, but I was out of Euros and it wasn't a credit card place. Good thing. The sky has cleared. It's a perfect sunny day, ideal for leaning back in a plastic chair with a tall 1664 and soaking up some rays. But it was all a little too appealing. Know what I mean? Better to hold off until Paris. The day is still quite young.The start house is pretty cool. It's the same sort of inflatable clamshell design as the podium amphitheater. A rider enters via a long ramp and rolls his bike to a small yellow starting line. An official holds the seat in place when the rider clips into his pedals. At seven seconds before the start time, the rider hears a loud electronic beep. Then the last five seconds are counted down by the beeps, and manually by an official.Checked back on the Disco Bus. Lance and George were warming up, side by side. The crowd around the bus isn't quite a mob, but it's a pushy-shovey bunch. Grown men are standing on their tiptoes to get a peek at Lance (Me too. Seen the guy a hundred times, but it's still cool to watch him settle in and get to work). College girls and children sat on shoulders. Lots of yellow bracelets. Lots of people waving at Lance, hoping to get a wave back. Now and again he'd oblige, but mostly it was all business.John Kerry is here today. Nice guy. About as tall as he looks on TV. Walked around the busses, visited over at Disco, headed into the village with a water bottle in his hand. Crowds and amazement followed his every action, but what surprised me was that the Europeans and Americans were equally star struck. Even a group of French teenagers knew who he was. I was impressed. I like to think that I'm up on my world politics, but if a major French politician walked past me in the States I doubt I would recognize him.Lance's kids are here, too. They played in the Disco team area this morning, and were still running around as he was warming up.Finally, the guy wearing the longhorn helmet is here today… He actually has two helmets, one with shorter horns for bike riding, and a longer set of horns for running up and down the road during a stage. Whatever. I was just scared he was going to hook someone with those things as he set himself up on the edge of the Disco scrum.Not to get too far ahead of myself, but I was reading up on Paris. The Place de la Concorde, where the race finishes (the grandstands were already in place a few weeks ago), was once marshy, hostile terrain. Architect Jacques-Ange Gabriel was hired to transform the area in 1748. He did, designing one of the most beautiful public squares in the world. Originally known as Place Louis XV, it was rechristened Place de la Revolution in 1792. More than 1300 persons had their head lopped off by the guillotine in the Place during the first six months of 1793, including King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The name was changed again in 1836, as a means of effecting greater national unity. It has been the Place de la Concorde ever since. The obelisk rising in its center was from the temple at Luxor. I always thought the French stole it during Napoleon's occupation of Egypt, but it was actually a gift from the Egyptian viceroy in 1829.Anyway, Lance goes off at 4:22 today. That's 27 minutes away, local time. If he's on his game, he'll be done just a little after 5:30. Talk to you then.

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Oh, Mighty One

Posted by MDugard Jul 23, 2005

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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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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This Hard Land

Posted by MDugard Jul 21, 2005

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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And a Couple of B-58's...

Posted by MDugard Jul 21, 2005

It is my sincere wish that all of you could see today's stage. The roads are empty of spectators for miles on end, because this region has a somewhat remote vibe (they're out there, but mingled in sudden clusters around towns and feed zones). But the terrain is yet another stunning reason why France is such a beautiful nation. Every day I say that I've seen the prettiest part of France, and every day I see some new aspect or view that makes me gape in awe. For instance, today's finish. The riders will pedal up the Tarn Valley, and then begin forty miles of abrupt climbing and descending. But when they reach the town of Mende, with its Notre Dame Cathedral (one of the oldest in France, it is built on the spot where Saint-Privat was martyred by barbarian invaders in the 3rd century), the racers begin a three-mile, 10.2% gradient climb. The spectator pack along that climb seems friendlier and less dense than the Basque horde from Sunday's Pla d`Adet, but their numbers are very strong.  But the race doesn't end on top of the mountain. The racers will power over the top with less than a mile left and sprint downhill. Instead of a city center or municipal stadium, the finish line is in the middle of the local airport runway. Should be one to remember.For the first time all Tour, the course comes within spitting distance of the press tent. Austin and I are taking bets to see how many of the media will race outside to lean against the barricades, and how many will lazily watch it all on the flat screens.Austin and I cleaned the Passat at a local aire (rest stop) when we stopped for diesel. It's our longstanding tradition that the backseat remain a trashcan until the night before Paris. But that vestige of college road trips was starting to feel a touch slovenly. So the water bottles and energy drink cans and assorted bits of sandwich wrappers were dumped. However, we did keep that sprig of lavender from the base of Galibier. It was a Bastille Day gift from the local people and it's supposed to be calming. That, and because those purple buds makes a fine natural air freshener. Believe me, there are days when that car needs a subtle dose of fragrance.When Austin and I checked into the hotel last night, we were surprised to see T-Mobile hanging out in the lobby. Normally those guys are sullen and quiet, refusing to speak to anyone but their own. But last night they were the pictures of mirth – strange behavior for a team that lost two of its top athletes yesterday. It was almost like a sense of relief had overtaken them. The rumor is that there was some sort of team showdown in the last couple days. The team's top malcontents, Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden, were summarily ousted. They didn't jump from the team, goes the thinking. They were pushed. Albi, site of today's start, was once the hub of the Tarn region. It is the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, the painter. More important, in my point of view, the great French navigator Jean Francois La Perouse was born there. La Perouse has been largely forgotten by history, but his 1785-1788 voyage of discovery (a young military cadet named Napoleon Bonaparte applied for a place on the crew and was personally turned down by the dashing La Perouse) charted almost the entire Pacific Rim. He arrived in Botany Bay, Australia shortly after Britain's famed First Fleet. Had he gotten there earlier, Australians might be speaking French these days (probably not: La Perouse had just two ships. Captain Arthur Philip had eleven vessels, two of which were gun ships. A Sydney suburb and a windblown Maui snorkeling spot, however, are now named for La Perouse). The French explorer sailed off, only to drown a few months later in a storm. Still, his voyage was one of the boldest and most thorough in history.Yesterday saw us on the fringes of the Massif Central, that craggy bastion 150 miles north of the Mediterranean. When I went out running this morning I climbed to the top of a local summit to inspect a chapel dedicated to St. Staphin, a local cleric. Looking out into the distance, I could see the rolling farmland of the Toulouse region before me. But when I turned and looked in the other direction, the hills rose far higher than where I stood. The terrain is rugged, but hardly the equivalent of the Alps or Pyrenees. It reminds me of Flagstaff, with its pine trees, red soil, high altitude, and hot sun. I kept expecting the day to get cooler as we drove up the D225 from town. Instead, the sun just seemed to get brighter, and feel hotter on my face.I either saw it on TV or as the subject of one of those in-flight documentaries, but today I saw the brand new Millau Viaduct in person. This futuristic bridge is the highest in the world, rising more than 1,000 feet above the Tarn River. Designed by the English architect Lord Norman Foster, the span cost a half-billion dollars to build and stretches almost two miles in length. When I first looked up at it (we were below, driving a back road through the Tarn Valley, the bridge seemed a little superfluous. Why not just have the autoroute wind down the mountainside, cross the Tarn just above water level, then climb back up into the Massif Central? It turns out that this part of France is extremely popular in the summer, particularly with Parisians and Britons making their way to the South of France to sunbathe (topless, in many cases. Went into a newsstand looking for a paper this morning and looked down to see a local newsweekly with bare-breasted photos of visiting celebrities on the cover). Millau had become the sight of a most famous bottleneck, hence the big gleaming bridge.Just in case you were wondering, Millau is the center of France's glove-making industry. My history text says that the period between 1896 and 1929 was the "golden age" of glove making. Who knew?A lot of dogs out along the course today. Lance is worried about a crash in these final four stages. Some of the worst such incidents in Tour history have been caused by dogs running onto the course.The final climb of today's race is known in Tour lore as "montee Lauren Jalabert" (very roughly: "Lauren Jalabert Ascent") because he won here on Bastille Day in 1995. Jalabert, a great climber whom the French refer to fondly as "Ja Ja", is her commentating for national radio.Austin and I wondered whether Lance Armstrong might do something impulsive like go for a win today. It's not likely, because all the top GC riders are resting their legs for Saturday's crucial time trial. But that final climb is his sort of steep, and his team is strong enough to put him in position.I've been here at the Tour so long that it feels odd knowing how little time remains. That start in Fromentine feels like it happened last Christmas. I can't imagine what it must feel like to be riding this brute every day.There are banners flying at the finish line; press tents and VIP tents and sponsor tents on the broad grassy field along the airstrip; and, cars and people lining the runway. It feels just like an air show to me. All it needs is the Thunderbirds.

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Once More Into the Breach

Posted by MDugard Jul 20, 2005

As Jimmy Fallon would say, "we're baaaaaaack."Man, I needed that rest day. It took Austin and I almost all night to get off Pla D'Adet Sunday. The traffic stopped moving for an hour at a time coming down that one-road mountain. The traffic continued from the base, then up the valley for 30 miles to the A64 (the autoroute), like our own little spectator peloton. Tensions were high. Tempers flared. When one guy got the bright idea of passing us all on the shoulder, a Spanish woman went Tiananmen Square on him. She jumped out of her vehicle, stood directly in his path and held her hand up in a "halt" until he got back in line. It was that kind of night.If this is Tuesday it must be Pau (as in Edgar Allan, not "pow"). Pau is a regular Tour stopover. It was here that I picked up my press credential back in 2001. The woman in line before me was from Savannah, Georgia, writing an article about the Tour for her homeowner's association magazine. She presented her business card and was, after a time, granted a credential. That would never happen now. Thanks to Lance's popularity, credential applications are due March 1. The deadline is strict, and we all scurry to be on time. Covering the Tour without a credential would be akin to staying home and watching OLN. The credential allows access to the riders before and after stages, entry into the pre-race village and post-race media center, and just generally makes life easier. I am paranoid about losing my credential, and watch over it like I do my passport. One night I even slept with it on. The thing is invaluable.Had a long talk with Chris Horner this morning. The Saunier Duval rider is a ray of sunshine in a sometimes dour sea of riders. The San Diego native, who now lives in Bend, Oregon with his girlfriend and three young children, is enjoying his first Tour. Horner is skinny and balding, with a quick laugh and sharp wit. More than anything, he wants to win a stage this year. "I don't know about today," he told me, rubbing his distended belly, "I got a little bit of a stomach thing." At this point in the Tour, I've learned that whenever a rider tells me his strategy beforehand, it means the exact opposite. I've got a feeling Horner might jump on a break and make a go. I'd love to see it happen. He's got an incredible passion for cycling and has struggled to make ends meet his entire career.The hardest part of being a professional cyclist is the time away from family. When he's on the bike, all he thinks about is riding. But now, in his third month away from home, he finds the time between races miserable.If not Horner, then someone has to do something bold. Everyone around here's been waiting a week for The Bold Move. It's amazing how much grace the peloton has extended to Lance Armstrong. His presence is so forbidding (he never misses a chance to keep another rider down. After following Ivan Basso to the line Sunday, Lance made it clear that he let Basso beat him. This is probably true, but it also guaranteed that the Italian was thinking along the same lines) and his team is so strong that even the strongest riders are terrified of attacking. But the number of stages between now and Paris is dwindling, and with them the chance to move up in the rankings. The Floyd Landis's and Levi Leipheimer's (nice, talented men who should be sitting two or three places higher) can no longer afford to be diplomatic. Now is the time to be gutsy. Now is the time to risk the wrath of Lance.Today's stage is 180.5-kilometers long, with two very difficult climbs. The Col de marie-Blanque is a first-category climb that is relatively simple for the first three miles and painfully steep for the last three. The Col d'Aubisque is a relatively even ascent, but a longer and daunting 7.2% grade. Either way, the riders will suffer.   Technically, this is Lance Armstrong's last true mountain stage. But tomorrow and Thursday are also very hilly. Not mountainous; hilly.The French are dumbfounded by George Hincapie's stage win Sunday. So dumbfounded, in fact, that the newspapers all but accuse him of doping. Sure, anything's possible. But Hincapie has a long history of pacing Lance up long climbs. But 2005 has marked the year he's shown skill as a classics rider and time-trialist, too. Lance has always preached a power-to-weight ratio, a la Top Gun. It seems that 2005 marks the year Hincapie adopted the same philosophy. He's notably leaner, with calves so defined that his muscles and varicose veins are clearly delineated. And he's spent hour after hour practicing his climbing near his South Carolina and Spanish domiciles. It's all part of being a Disco Boy. "If you can't climb the mountains on this team," he said just after winning Sunday, "you don't ride the Tour de France for this team."A few team notes: Liberty Seguros is known as Liberty Mutual in the States. Liquigas is pronounced "Leakey-gas." The French press has dubbed Basso "the gentle prince."The press is referring to this week as "Lance's coronation." He should win, barring a crash. Lance is openly fearful of the narrow village lanes of the upcoming stages through the gut of France, and the chance of falling and breaking a collarbone. "If that happens it's all over," he says.The course travels in an odd direction during these final stages. Our westward push has finished. We'll be in Paris (a long way northeast from this remote corner of France) come Sunday, but we're taking the long route. Today sees the riders loop out from Mourenx in a southerly horseshoe that takes them into the Pyrenees one last time before doubling back to finish in Pau. But instead of pushing north we head directly east tomorrow. We go so far in that direction that by Saturday's time trial in St. Etienne we almost return to Grenoble, near the Alps, which we left a week ago. Austin and I will drop the Passat at the Lyon gare and take the TGV to Paris for Sunday's finale on the Champs Elysees.Stayed in Tours the last couple nights, and will again tonight. It's not a bad little town, but certainly not the spiritual hotbed I anticipated. There's something cheesy in a place that has a Vatican Parking Garage, a Grotto Trolley, and where a guy with a Jesus beard and crucifixion loincloth prowls the streets at midnight. The pilgrims, however, see beyond all that. They come to Lourdes for the healing waters, I stood next to a long line of wheelchairs yesterday, walking as they rolled forward into the city's famous blessed grotto. Signs forbade talking and the mood was very hopeful. The rest of that ticky-tack city feels like a religious theme park, but I was humbled by the simple displays of faith at the grotto.Ate at a quiet restaurant alongside the river that winds through Tours (can't find the name in my notes). Austin and I split a carafe of the local white, which was sweet like a desert wine. My salad was a meal unto itself, with ham and hard-boiled eggs served on a nice lettuce mixture. The entrée was baked duck leg and dessert was a cheese platter. The duck was great – tender, etc. – but the cheese was a little on the dry side. What made the meal notable was when the quiet suddenly disappeared. An American bicycle tour group sat at the next table, and pretty much took over the restaurant. They were boorish and entitled, acted as if the entire world were glad they had deigned to pay the Tour a visit, and lacked the simple ability to modulate their voices. Just from sitting there with my nose in my wine, I now know their training regimens back home, how far they rode their bikes yesterday, and exactly which expensive components adorns their bikes. So does everyone else who was in the restaurant last night. Strangely, like the knuckleheads who run alongside the riders (did you see that guy get run over by the motorcycle the other day?), I'm curious about their little subculture. Thankfully, I'm staying in Lourdes again tonight, and so are they. In fact, we're all staying at the same hotel. Every day at the Tour seems to possess at least one moment of that coincidental anthropology.The Australian riders have a heavy heart today. Word has come that a group of Australia's female cyclists was run down while training for a race elsewhere in Europe. Most of the Aussies are a tight bunch, and they all came up  through the same cycling program. There is talk of wearing some sort of memorial armband.The finish in Pau is a lap of the entire city. As it looks, now the riders will be within the barricades the last four kilometers. Tall buildings and narrow streets will protect them from the late-afternoon winds. The locals are out in force, filling the cafes and prepared to pound their palms on those barricades (the noise is like a wall of thunder). Should be prime for a breakaway.Talk to you after the stage.

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Beautiful Reward

Posted by MDugard Jul 20, 2005

OK, so Pereiro's got that one off his back. Someone once said, "a man is never old until regrets take the place of his dreams."If Oscar Pereiro Sio had failed to win today, he would have been saddled with a serious bout of regret. First, he was part of a bold six-hour breakaway in the Pyrenees on Sunday. He is a Spaniard, and there is no greater honor for a Spanish cyclist than to win before their loveable and slightly demented fans (these are, after all the people who brought us the Inquisition). Then today, his legs still aching from Sunday, he jumps on another breakaway, through this year's final Pyrenean stage. As I watched the four leaders enter Pau, he looked the most vulnerable. At least it seemed that way. None of the others (Cadel Evans, Eddy Mazzoleni, Xabler Zandio) had worked as hard on Sunday. And Evans, an Aussie, had the advantage of emotion, wanting a win in memory of a fallen female member of the Australian national cycling team, killed on a training ride yesterday. But Pereiro was desperate for a stage, and today he got one. I can't wait to find a copy of the Madrid papers tomorrow. It's going to be front-page stuff.But I was rooting for Cadel Evans. Two reasons: the obvious emotional factor; and, as Austin and I have labeled him, Pereiro is a "woosy-boy." Pereiro earned that description by rendering himself a victim after Sunday's stage. He expected George Hincapie to let him win because he was Spanish. Hincapie, the hardest working man in the peloton, was having none of it. Discovery Team director Johann Bruyneel had told him that "today is your day," and Big George was not about to let his first-ever stage win slip away against a lesser rider. Hincapie's was the most popular and unexpected victory at the Tour in years. Even Bruyneel (a hardened sort) choked up. Yet Pereiro whined to the Spanish press that Hincapie "refused to work" with him. And even today, after winning his own stage (though a stage far less glorious and attended than Sunday's Pla d'Adet), he said he "never expected Hincapie to attack." I don't know about you, but if I've labored like a dog for others riders my entire career (as Hincapie has: selflessly, without complaining, always having a kind word), I go for the victory when my team director tells me it's my turn to win a Tour de France stage. Call me crazy.Finally, the Spanish press is still indignant that Hincapie didn't let Pereiro win. "How do you feel about what he did to you?" was the first question of today's post-race press conference.Lance Armstrong finished 36th today, 3:24 behind the winners. He looked strong and relaxed, and seems to be gaining power every day. Chris Horner of Saunier Duval jumped on that early break with Pereiro. But he faded and fell off the back. Horner finished in Armstrong's group. He's still looking for that all-important Tour stage win.So is Armstrong. If he fails to win one this year, Armstrong will be the first Tour winner since Miguel Indurain to win the general classification without a stage victory.The riders go everywhere on their bikes (Greg LeMond once told me that "a cyclist without a bike is like a soldier without a gun"). A good example was this morning, just before the start. Things are getting loose in the peloton and those teams without a chance of winning aren't keeping their riders on a tight leash anymore. As the start bell rang (a large bell is chimed in the pre-race village when the race is ten minutes off) they stopped making phone calls and checking email at the France Telecom booth, stopped drinking water at Aquarel, and stopped lounging in the shade. The riders clipped into their pedals and rode slowly to the start, which was several hundred yards away across a large public lawn. They wove in and out of pedestrians like salmon swimming upstream, but never seemed the least bit frazzled or worried.As another example, Disco and T-Mobile parked their busses several miles from the finish, on the other side of Pau. I wasn't really interested in finish quotes today, but I was walking toward there down an open public street, just to gauge the local mood (no surprise: there wasn't a soul in sight. Everyone was at the finish). Then, like guys out for a weekend ride, Jan Ullrich pedaled past. Then came Alexandre Vinkourov and Andreas Kloden. The Disco Boys were next, with Hincapie waving over to Austin and I ("Hey!"). The thing is, these guys had just ridden more than 100 miles over two impossible mountains during the Tour de France. Yet they all looked as if they could clip in and ride a whole lot more.These guys and their bikes are inseparable, and their comfort in the saddle is as much a given as their farmer tans. I have to wonder how Lance can walk away from all this so easily. He makes quiet comments about wanting a life change, and it's pretty cool that he wants to do the Jim Brown thing and go out on top. But the peloton is like a family -- a highly dysfunctional family where everyone wants to cannibalize the others, but a family nonetheless. He'll remember these cyclists the rest of his life. Lance says that betting on him to come back would be a colossal mistake, but who knows how he'll feel after re-charging his batteries.On the subject of post-retirement cyclists, Richard Virenque take a fair amount of abuse from his former teammates. Virenque retired last year and is doing commentary for local media. He is handsome in a slightly menacing way (small teeth, narrow eyes, shorn head, constant air of befuddled expectation), but dresses with a David Beckham flair and can be charming if the wind is blowing the right way. He is, above all, lean. But lean is a relative thing, and the peloton loves to mock retired riders as being "fat" (again, a relative thing). I can tell you that there are many former Tour winners currently in attendance who could stand to push away from the table a cheese platter or two earlier, but Virenque is not one of them. In competitive cycling it's vital to be as light as humanly possible without losing strength and endurance. Mickael Rasmussen is the most extreme example. The guy needs some food. People are blaming his angry disposition on a lack of calories. In real life, however, a little layer of body fat isn't a bad thing.We (at this point, that word means the entire Tour contingent, not just Austin and I) leave the Pyrenees tomorrow. I will miss them. Provence has a pure beauty that gets more attention. Paris is sophisticated and alive, which has an appeal much like Manhattan. But when the day comes that I buy land in France, it will be here. The rivers run clear, the mountains are visible without being claustrophobic (sometimes living in the mountains can feel like living on an island), there is astounding beauty around every bend, and it is (Lourdes notwithstanding) understated. I love understatement.Ran early this morning. The sun was just rising as my wake-up call came. In the north of France the sun is up at five a.m. this time of year. Down here in Pau (southwest corner but not on the ocean; think of a warm and low-altitude Flagstaff) the sun is up at about 5:30. Putted around town for a few miles, then headed up into the hills. I wasn't really going anywhere special, but it was nice to put some miles under my legs. There were no spectacular topographical details; a river, of course, but no trail or scenic overlook or one of those intellectual epiphanies. I just ran until the sun was over the mountains then followed the river back through the woods until I stood in front of the Hotel Christina.The media buffet never ceases to amaze. Some days it's a feast of local delicacies. Some day's its pre-packaged local food – like today. Lunch here in Pau was cold cooked lentils with duck, served in plastic Costco containers. There were cans of Kronenburg beer and airline screw-top bottles of Cordiere red wine, but I opted for the water bottle because presentation is everything and today's was definitely lacking. Every town at the Tour competes to present their local cuisine in the best light. It's almost like a test of how much people really love them. But in a town like Pau, where the Tour makes an annual stop, they know the Tour loves them a great deal. They don't really try to hard to wow people anymore.I am often perplexed by the French ambivalence about their faith. If they didn't have some representation of their beliefs it would be one thing, but this is a country with a great stone church in every village and massive cathedrals at the heart of every city. Statues of Christ on the cross line roadsides. So you would think this would be a part of their cultural fabric. But the churches (again, Lourdes being the exception) are empty on Sunday. As a student of history, this intrigues me. So I scanned writings about France's religious past this morning. The answer came in a single, repeated phrase: Wars of Religion. France was once a devout nation. Then, in the years after the Reformation, France became a religious battleground. Protestants battled hand-to-hand against Catholics in a religious civil war. This war, fought about the same time the Pilgrims were setting out for Plymouth Rock, seemed to make lazing about the farm on a Sunday morning a whole lot preferable to getting killed for going to church. The effects still mark the country today.Tomorrow the Tour rides from Pau to Revel. The course is a very long 239.5-kilometers. There are several rolling hills as the peloton moves into that region of France known as the Central Massif. The Massif is a land of farms and charming villages, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera. How many times have I written those words? This whole country is beguiling and beautiful; medieval and modern; sublime and gaudy. Every day I fall in love with some sleepy little town or some romantic view. Every day I see something that turns my head and makes me gape in awe. Some times that's a good thing. Sometimes it's a little weird.Until tomorrow.

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Hero for a Day

Posted by MDugard Jul 18, 2005

Without meaning to, I cased the finish line this afternoon. There was a spot about 175 meters down the hill with unobstructed sight lines, close proximity to the riders (about five feet), and a near certainty that no other journalist would be there because the finish was still up the road. Me, I'm through doing finish interviews. There are never any good comments because the international media scrum around the winner is too thick and taking a video camera to the head seems a silly way to begin an interview. So I waited at my spot and was rewarded with a clear view of George Hincapie's decisive sprint. I've seen a lot of bike riding since I've been here, but I think of Hincapie as one of the most solid and deserving guys in the peloton. His victory made me grin from ear to ear. It was the most sublime moment of the Tour thus far, bar none. "I'm in total shock," he said later.The Tour is a cutthroat place. Hincapie's candor and lack of ego have made him a fan and peloton favorite. He rested his head in his hands as he crossed, the look of disbelief and happiness so utterly charming. His was a popular victory, and the roar at the finish line exuded warmth.I thought the day would be way different. It seemed like Lance would go for the win and be attacked mercilessly by his rivals. But while Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich clearly showed their power, Armstrong stayed well within himself on his way to a seventh place finish. I think everyone's afraid of him, plain and simple. He can do whatever he wants at this point.Hincapie's job is to be Lance Armstrong's enforcer. When a rider capable of threatening Armstrong's lead attacks (namely, someone within striking distance in General Clasification, or CS, standings), Big George's job has been to chase them down and bring them back. But today Hincapie went off on his own breakaway, figuring he would drop back soon enough to help Lance. It's well known that Armstrong has a deep appreciation for Hincapie's loyalty, and when it became clear that the peloton would never catch the break (the gap was eighteen minutes at one point), Armstrong was more than willing to root Hincapie on to a stage win. "He was ecstatic," Hincapie explained when they met at the finish. "He gave me a big hug and just said, `unbelievable.'"Hincapie and Oscar Pereiro began gabbing a few kilometers from the finish. The conversation was initiated by the American. Hincapie wanted to work together up the climb then duke it out in a sprint. Pereiro, however, is a Spaniard, was competing in front of thousands of Spaniards, is a pure climber, and was worried about his contract for next year. He wanted that stage. So he tried to out-climb Hincapie rather than trade places up front. Pereiro still gets the glory of finishing second and riding well. But he didn't get the win. And for the first time in his long career, Hincapie did.The standings currently have Lance in first, Basso in second, and Mickael Rasmussen third. There's a three-minute gap to the fourth place rider, Jan Ullrich. This could very well be the overall order of finish.Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer showed today that they're still a few years away from winning a Tour.Landis's coach, Allen Lim, was exasperated when Floyd couldn't keep up. "I coach him, but I can't ride the bike for him," snipped the generally calm Lim.Those predictions of finish line thunderstorms never came to pass. The wind up here has been brisk, but there are exactly three small white clouds in the sky.French kids wear replica cycling jerseys the way U.S. kids wear replica baseball or basketball gear. Thing is, their garment of choice is not the maillot jaune. Why should they? If that child is under the age of sixteen, a French rider hasn't won the Tour in their lifespan. Instead, kids wear the polka-dotted jersey of the top mountain climber, a category France has dominated of late. Still, it's sort of like living in LA and wearing a Clippers jersey instead of a Lakers jersey. Or, these days, being a Dodgers fan instead of an Angels fan.The riders passed through the village of Saint-Beat today. Its local consul's balcony was the place that inspired Edmond Rostand to imagine the celebrated scene in Cyrano de Bergerac between Cyrano and Roxane.The media lunch was simple but filling: small squares of salty cheese-and-olive pizza and squares of Quiche Lorraine. Black coffee, bottled water. Strangely, it gave me a stomach ache.Tomorrow we rest. I'm sleeping late, washing every single item of clothing I own, and catching my breath before the final push to Paris. I've been in Pau a couple times before,. It's the unofficial gateway to the Pyrenees. Very lovely. Very old. Great castle. There's a really great running trail up the road a couple miles, connecting Pau with Lourds. I was thinking about taking the train somewhere tomorrow morning (Bilboa? Nice? Barcelona?) but I think it would take me off my game. I'm totally immersed in the Tour's rhythm. To go someplace else, if only to study the stained glass inside a cathedral, would feel rather odd.Pau was once a fashionable winter resort for British tourists. It was 1814 when the Duke of Wellington took control of the city during the Napoleonic Wars. Though Napoleon had been also been through Pau, the locals were more partial to the bombastic Wellington and his forces. That sentiment endured as the British made it a favorite winter resort for the next hundred years. "Pau is not a French town," wrote a British humorist in 1876. "Pau belong clearly and emphatically to England." Now, of course, the Brits prefer to get on a plane for Mallorca. It's much sunnier and the whole island's open all night.Back to George Hincapie for a second. He's a great sprinter, has become a great time trial rider, and is among the best climbers in the Tour. Lance Armstrong considers him one of the top bike riders in the world. So there's been talk between Lance and team manager Johann Bruyneel about maybe making George the next capo of the Disco Boys. "Some people are whispering about that," Hincapie said, deflecting the question with an embarrassed laugh. "But I'm just happy for what happened this afternoon. Let's just get through today."Stood on an overlook near the finish line a couple hours after it was all over, gazing at the beauty all around: deep green valleys, mountain cabins dotting distant hills, and the slightest hint of a clear river snaking toward the Atlantic. But I couldn't take my eyes off those mountaintops. I have never been attracted to the concept of mountain climbing, but looking at the summits above and below, I understood mankind's urge to trudge up sheer, uncharted faces to get a better view. The moment passed when I saw a helicopter churn my way. It seemed a much smarter method to see the world and be back in civilization in time for dinner.The media's all stranded up atop the mountain until the spectators drive back down. It's almost nine and it's probably going to be a couple hours. The sun is still up, so this might be a good time for a run.Finally, just received word that I'm an uncle again. Pilar Clair du Gard came into the world a little early and a whole lot underweight (32 weeks and just four pounds) but my little brother the M.D. says everything should be cool. Knowing Matt, the end of the hockey strike and the birth of a new daughter will make this the most memorable July he's ever known.Until tomorrow.

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American Skin

Posted by MDugard Jul 18, 2005

There is the temptation, now and again, to think of Lance Armstrong as a celebrity instead of an athlete. We see him in People. We see him hanging with Bono and Ashley Judd (and that woman, Sheryl Crow). But today was another reminder that he is the greatest endurance athlete of all time (there, I've jumped on the bandwagon). Armstrong rode a smart, powerful race. This was the sort of grueling stage where only elite riders were capable of handling the pace.Every single one of his top rivals was within striking distance with just 50 kilometers remaining, but none were mentally or physically tough enough to attack. In fact, their profound fear and respect for his abilities was their downfall. Lance Armstrong beat those guys with his body and his presence. The results show that Georg Totsching won the stage by almost a minute, thanks to a bold breakaway. But, really, the guy who came out on top was Armstrong.Not sure if you saw it, but the most beautiful moment today was all-American. Levi Leipheimer found himself in the middle of an attack, but without a water bottle. Water was all-important today. The sun was that sort of harsh high-altitude glare that gives a man sunburn and dehydration on a day hike. Riding the Tour de France without water under today's conditions was like demanding a comeuppance. The riders call that "blowing up," and it looked like Leipheimer was a man on the verge. He had two simple choices: drop back or stay with the attack. Leipheimer, a gutsy man from Montana, made the gutsy decision. He clung to the attack with every optimistic fiber in his being.Then a most amazing thing happened. Lance Armstrong passed Leipheimer a water bottle. Floyd Landis gave him one, too. Now, these are three men that barely speak to each other. But Armstrong's weakened Discovery Team wasn't there to help him and Landis's Phonak has been an iffy bunch at best. So these three Americans, riding in a pack of three T-Mobile riders that were poised to destroy their Tour hopes, worked as a team once again. They helped each other because they needed one another.The plan worked. Had T-Mobile worked as a team, Lance, Floyd and Levi (does that sound like a band of outlaws, or what?) could have been destroyed. In retrospect, T-Mobile will look back on this stage and on last Saturday's stage in Germany as two great missed opportunities. But they are incapable of working as a unit, because Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden and Alexandre Vinokourov are all competing for the role of team leader. On paper, that leader is Ullrich. But the unreliable Kloden and the mercuric Vino don't respect him and won't work for him. That's an imbroglio Armstrong is happy to exploit. Today, simply by sharing a water bottle, he did.I was talking with an American woman. We were standing a few kilometers down the mountain from the finish. She was bemoaning that American television networks don't really say much about what's going on at the Tour (meanwhile, every other person I meet here is American. I've spent time with them, listened to their stories. Most are cycling fans. Some are here because they just ran with the bulls in Pamplona. And a good percentage are cancer survivors or friends of cancer survivors who didn't become cycling fans until Lance. The cancer stories have a particular power. Not kidding: sometimes I have to stop the interviews and pretend I'm wiping phantom sweat from my eyes (("Man, what a hot day up here on the mountain…)). The stories are that life affirming). Well, after today it would be downright strange that American networks don't start paying attention to the Tour. In addition to the abnormally high percentage of Americans among the 20 million spectators, three of the top six riders in the overall standing are from the United States. Think about that: Three out of six. To give you a sense of perspective, France has only one.There was a time when Americans embraced endurance sports, but that was more than 30 years ago. Guys like Jim Ryun, Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter were inspiring people to watch their sport and attempt to push their own personal limits. In Ryun's heyday, 1966, more than 100,000 people packed the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch a United States-USSR track and field duel meet. Now we have become NASCAR Nation and Red Sox Nation and Raider Nation. More succinctly, we have become Lowest Common Denominator Nation. Look, I'm a TV junkie. I watch as much SportsCenter as I can handle. But the networks can do better. We need a major sports presence covering the Tour de France.As fantastic as they are covering the Tour, OLN doesn't count as a network. I mean, not really. It's not even basic cable. America needs at least an ESPN to ante up for the Tour.Along those lines, once again the top American newspapers have sent their "B" reporters to the Tour. The exceptions would be the lovely and talented Suzanne Halliburton of the Austin Statesman (who can not only flat-out write, she's something of a Lance confidante), Bonnie DeSimone out of Boston, and a small handful of others. Some of the American writers are even phoning the whole thing in from their hotel rooms. They watch EuroSport, filch Lance's interviews, then file. Again ... the American media can do better.Austin and I not only got to the finish in plenty of time, but I spent a very fascinating afternoon with the Basque spectators down the mountain. If you were watching OLN just before the final 2K mark, you might have even seen me. I was the guy in red and sunglasses cheering for Lance amid the sea of orange-clad Basques. I made new friends. I was invited to join them tomorrow on the Pla d'Adet. I had, in fact, the most euphoric Tour moment I have ever known. It was like seeing the Tour through brand new eyes.There was a moment there among the Basques – the slightest hint of a moment – when I was tempted to experience the moron sensation and run alongside Lance's group. What stopped me was the morbid fear that I would knock him down and be forever cast in the same villainous light as that foul ball guy who cost the Cubs the pennant. But one of these days before this is all over, if I'm very careful ... OK, nuff said.Yesterday's hero, Chris Horner, lost almost 25 minutes to Armstrong today.Tomorrow will decide the Tour de France. The last time the peloton finished atop the Pla D'Adet was 2001. The stage winner was Lance Armstrong. Tomorrow marks the last mountaintop finish of his career and he desperately wants to win. Thing is, EVERYBODY else that matters not only wants to win, they have to win. Jan Ullrich is getting stronger with every passing stage, but he's still 4:34 back. Mickael Rasmussen is just 1:41 behind. Ivan Basso is 2:46 back. The bottom line is that they have to commit some sort of bold act or they're essentially just riding for second place.There's more to the drama. Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis would dearly love to make it an all-American podium next Sunday in Paris. They know that winning would take some sort of miraculous intervention. But they sit just a few seconds behind Ullrich in the standings (fifth and sixth respectively) and are prepared to go off. This is the stage that both of them – and Leipheimer, in particular -- have aimed towards. Leipheimer rode it on a seven-hour training ride in the rain some months ago. Landis rode it often from his training base in Girona, Spain. These guys circled tomorrow on their calendar months ago. It's going to be a dogfight.I sat in the passenger seat of the Passat this morning, writing and navigating while Austin drove. Then we switched places so he could write. I have to tell you that those last two hours of two-lane country roads were simply spectacular. Sometimes when I travel I'll take along a Lonely Planet or a Rick Steves' guide book. They're very good, but they never take you to the offbeat roads of the Tour de France's guidebook. It was one mile after another of whitewater rivers, quaint villages that have changed very little in centuries, and that transition from flatland farms and vineyards to the Pyrenees' mountain valleys (the roads all followed the low contour, so that we were constantly looking up at peaks and hilltop fortresses).Like I was telling Austin, just when I think I've seen the most beautiful spot in France, I turn the corner and see someplace just as splendid, if not better.At last year's Tour I tried terrine de canard. Grayish and fatty, I thought it had the taste and consistency of dog food. Today, just for the sake of experiencing every culinary wonder this Tour de France presents, I tried terrine de canard again. I choked it down, but it still looks, feels and tastes like dog food. But the rest of today's lunch – sliced and dried pork sausage, apple tart, rare hamburger, gruyere cheese – was another lesson on the wonders of French food. It's been pointed out to me that the French culture is very much like that of Native American living on the Great Plains. As the Native Americans once made use of every single part of a buffalo, so the French do now (as they have for centuries) with cows, ducks, chickens, pigs, and geese.Anne Lamott, in her new book Plan B, mentions that the key to a long life is to keep moving – walks, bike rides, etc. France is a good proof of her theory. I've never seen a more physically active geriatric population. I watched an 80-year old woman -- in a house dress -- hike up a mountain yesterday as if it were no big deal. Amazing.Saw a guy today with "Free Tyler" written in Sharpie on his calves. Though I thought it witty and original, the fact is that nobody railroaded Tyler Hamilton. He was a guy with a long peloton history of not paying attention. It proved to be his downfall. Having said that, I hope he makes a comeback when his blood doping suspension is over. I've got to root for a guy who wears his dead dog's tags around his neck when he rides.OK. It's late and this is my favorite time of day. Time to sip a glass of something red and watch the sun set over the Pyrenees. Until demain.

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Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2005

We're definitely in the South of France. The weather is hot, hot, hot. The sun was beating down back at the starting line and it's even more intense here at the finish in Montepellier. This was supposed to be a boring day at the Tour de France, one last chance for the sprinters to control the roads. Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen were talking big about making a big breakaway, which had big Thor Hushvod worried, for his linebacker's body will truly suffer in this heat. But it's Friday and this is the 13th stage, so it's technically Friday the 13th. Anything can happen. Who knows? The Sprinters may sit back and rest, saving their legs so they can survive this weekend's mountain stages.Team Discovery's Manuel Beltran's crash yesterday was more serious than it was originally confirmed. The crash was caused by a T-Mobile rider who veered into his path during the day's first climb. Beltran got back on the bike right away, but didn't know where he was, what stage it was, and whether he was in first place. Beltran was climbing at just five mph and proving a danger to himself. So Discovery pulled him from the race and took him to the hospital. After a night of observation for a concussion, Beltran was released. At just about the same time that the Disco Boys were signing in for today's start, Beltran was boarding a plane home to Spain. This will mark the first time since 2001 that Discovery will finish with less than a whole complement of nine riders.Lance Armstrong looked fresh and relaxed this morning. This region of France is traditionally a tourist bastion in the summer, and the Discovery Team bus was surrounded by triple the usual number of fans. It's all a little numbing and surreal to see the crush around the bus each day. Spectators hold up pictures to be signed, reach out striving to touch Lance so a little of his juju will rub off, blow horns, and, most of all, scream "Lance." He's been doing this for a long time, and knows when to listen to the crowd and when to be inward. Today was a day for the fans, with lots of autographs signed. A very large contingent from Texas will be going home happy.There are eight stages left after today. Lance wants to win this thing badly, but he also wants to go home. He makes frequent allusions to his eagerness to have this final Tour behind him. This, of course, conflicts with the sense of nostalgia that attends his actions before and after most stages. But the gist is this: There's a lot of pressure on him to win, and nobody's about to roll over for him. Though he may want to revel in this farewell tour, he must suffer if he's going to get the job done. It's a sort of suffering most of us have never, and will never, know. I've written quite a bit about the fractured relations between the American riders. But as the Tour marches on its merry way to Paris, the schism is widening. Bobby Julich is quietly mocked for speaking in clichés and being intimidated by Lance; Floyd Landis can't seem to mention the Discovery Team without dropping an f-bomb before the word "Discovery"; Levi Leipheimer is tight-lipped about the American presence, preferring to say nothing rather than speak his mind; and, Lance Armstrong has precise opinions on each of them. Some of these feelings can be chalked up to gamesmanship. Some of them have to do with being highly competitive individuals competing for the same vaunted crown. But a lot has to do with the intense and personal nature of elite cycling. These guys have spent a lot of time in the saddle together. Sometimes they just get on each other's nerves.The lone exception, simply because he's new, is 34-year old Chris Horner. The Saunier Duval rider was called up to the big leagues after a stellar performance in the Tour de Suisse. After mistaking the Cofidis bus for Horner's Saunier Duval team bus (the Cofidis team director slammed the bus door in my face and screeched at me in French. Strangely, I found the experience a minor Tour highlight) I spoke with Horner as he sat in the shade. He is freckled from years in the sun, and balding. But Horner has a refreshing candor that comes with being new to the Tour. After all, he has nothing to lose. "When I race the Tour of Redlands top Southern California race I'm the best climber there. Here I'm the 20th." Horner was stunned to give his all during an attack up the Col de Madeleine, and reaching the summit with just a 35-second gap over Armstrong and the Disco Boys. "I thought for sure I'd have two, three minutes. But 35 seconds?"Horner also said that his legs have been toast since that last Alpine stage Wednesday. Yesterday he was content to spin in the peloton. He says he hopes to do the same today. As a climber, he says he wants to save his legs for the Pla d'Adet on Sunday.  And though it's rational to think that may be the case, I've learned that whenever a rider tells you what he plans to do, he has something exactly opposite in mind. Horner desperately wants to win a stage here. Who knows what he'll do on Friday the 13th.There's a lot of curiosity about Jan Ullrich's head these days. He crashed into a team car the day before the Tour began, he failed to attack Lance Armstrong when he had him alone (and was surrounded by three T-Mobile teammates of his own, who could have tag-teamed their breakaways to crush Armstrong and regain the time gap he lost on the first day), he crashed a few stages ago, and has shown absolutely no inclination to be the sort of bold individual it takes to win this race. This is not the Jan of old.Many here are crediting the Spanish riders' poor showing in the mountains to stronger drug and blood transfusion testing.Met a guy named Sepp Probst today. He's something of a star on either Swiss or Austrian television. I couldn't tell which. Thought you might appreciate that, Jeff.Had a talk with Levi Leipheimer's mom today. Levi is something of an introvert, preferring to sit alone at team meals and have his own hotel room ("There are nine guys on the team," the plain spoken Montanan shrugs. "Someone has to have their own room"). His mother is very much the same. She is, however, one proud woman. She stood at the starting line in a Gerolsteiner-blue "Levi" t-shirt.  "It's very exciting," she said softly. Then she walked over to hug her boy, who has very special plans for Sunday's stage.The Tour travels along the Mediterranean coast today. I was rather thrilled to see the sign noting that our route was passing the "Departement (the French equivalent of a state) du Gard." Seems I've got some local relatives.The press room is sweltering. I've sweated through my shirt and need to get some fresh air. Talk to you after the stage.

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Sunburns, Speedos and Cycling

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2005

Today is Sunday, July 17th. It will be, quite possibly, cycling's biggest day all year. I'm at the summit of the Pla D'Adet, a peak that appears to have had its backside sawed off. The peak shears away, just like that famous picture of Everest climbers approaching the Hillary Step. To one side is the utter desolation of a jagged cliff dropping miles down to the forested valley floor. To the other is a sweltering, beer-soaked assemblage of cycling fans. They line the 10-kilometer, 8.3% grade of today's final climb like so many movie fans lining the red carpet on premiere night. They have ridden up on bikes, in campers, run, or walked on foot. At the center of this congestion is a mile-long line of Spaniards poised just below the 2-km banner (meaning, two to go). Many of them have camped since Friday night. Beyond the Spaniards are the barricades lining that final mile to the summit. Today, like yesterday, is scorching. (Though thundershowers are predicted for the 5 pm finish).By the time the riders get here they will have contested four Category One climbs and the final Hors Category (beyond categorization; meaning, wretched and steep. Don' try this at home) assault of the Pla D'Adet. For the riders, it will be a very long day in the saddle (about six hours and more than 120 miles). For the fans, it will mean sunburns, exposure to extreme body odor (lots of sweating going on here, folks), traffic jams, fat men in Speedos, furtive strolls into the evergreens to answer the call of nature (no porta-potties along the route, but lots of telltale tissue scraps among the pine needles) – all that, and one unforgettable afternoon of cycling.Lance Armstrong has yet to win a stage at this Tour de France, but has guaranteed that he will do so. The obvious stage would be next Saturday's time trial, but a win today would be far more poignant. It was on the Col du Portet-D'Aspet, today's first climb, that his teammate Fabio Casartelli crashed and died a decade ago. The peloton will pass the site (Casartelli lost control on a descent. His head hit a stone roadside pillar) of the tragedy. Armstrong has publicly admitted that he will make some sort of gesture to honor his fallen friend, as he has when riding here in the past.The Col du Porter-D'Aspet features a memorial where Casartelli died. It also features some of the Tour's steepest riding. Several pitches are at a 17% grade.The Pla D'Adet is nearly as daunting in spots. That 8.3% average grade includes a kilometer of brief downhill, skewing that average somewhat. The obvious conclusion drawn from yesterday's race was that Lance's Disco Boys quit on him. Far from it. Rumor has it they were ordered to take it easy and and enjoy the scenery. Today is a much more important stage. Better to have Lance form a grupetto with the like of Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso than to tax his teammates too early. Levi Leipheimer's family is here from Montana. He appeared spent on yesterday's climb, but got a magical second wind as he rode by their minivan adorned with Montana flags and a "Go Levi" banner. His mother, needless to say, was very proud of her son.The race has begun. French TV is showing clay court tennis, but with a scrawl at the bottom of the screen that says George Hincapie is leading a breakaway group.Saw George yesterday during his climb up to Ax-3-Domaines (so named because three regions of the Pyrenees converge in one spot). The native of Queens looked stoic and workmanlike, just going about his business, shutting out the crowd. The team busses were parked at the bottom of the mountain, which meant that the cyclists finished then rode back down to the bottom. They passed fans and oncoming riders the whole way, which made for an interesting moment (I love how those guys descend at 40-plus while chatting and keeping just one hand on the bars). Most of them lingered at the summit, but Hincapie, as per his style, turned right back around and cruised down. It's the cycling equivalent of not stopping to make small talk.Austin and I walked down the mountain last night, just to get a sense of the scene. The sun was setting over the Pyrenees, giving the valley below a soft hue that reminded me of the cover of Cold Mountain. To tell the truth. We didn't think it would take all that long, but we ended up walking for almost three hours. Got down to the village of Aix-les-Thermes just in time to convince a small café to feed us (they were stacking the chairs and distributing checks to the final diners). She not only fed us, but brought out steak coated in a chunky cheese sauce, green beans with an odd hint of curry (they don't usually do curry in France), and a nice salad. Almost fell asleep during the 90-minute drive to our hotel in St. Girons. It wouldn't have been so long if we hadn't gotten lost in Foix, which was having a very large street festival. But then, if we hadn't gotten lost, we wouldn't have spied the castle on the hill watching over Foix. It was stately and grand, lit up by floodlights. The stone had a yellow-ish hue and the castle looked like it was built just last week.St. Girons was yet another city I wish we could have hung out for awhile. Small, old, quiet. Turns out our hotel (a scary place with snaking halls leading to wings that had that added-on feel. If it wasn't haunted, it should be. I kept thinking a ghostly bellhop would rise right out squeaky floorboards) is the place Lance stays when he trains for the Pla D'Adet.The past half-century has marked the first time in history that mankind has been capable of producing and sustaining high decibel sound. Think, for instance, jet engines and pneumatic drills. This must mark the first true test of the eardrum's performance limits. I mention this appropo of nothing have to do with the Tour, except to note that that there have been moments during the past few days when the decibel level in the Passat has reached deafening levels as Austin and I rock our way around France.On the CD today, a mix playlist: the Killers, Digital Underground, Tom Waits, Dwight Yoakam, the mandatory Bruce, and on. Flatt and Scruggs is a nice grace note. And I should add that, though I am not much of a Doors fan, opening the windows and cranking Backdoor Man on a Pyrenees country lane adds a savage menace to any Sunday morning drive.There was a heavy morning mist hanging over the road as we approached the mountain. Church bells were ringing as we passed through a village square, and four locals were talking to the priest after Mass.  A Sunday market was underway, all awnings, fruit stands and butcher shops (think of the Pyrenees as the Wyoming of France. Same abrupt mountains, like Jackson Hole. Same fondness for beef). Then, as if on cue, the mist parted. A triangular Pyrenees' peak, sharp and serrated like the tip of a very sharp knife, announced itself directly ahead. The moment had a dramatic feel, like that moment in a movie when the villain is introduced. As my crazy next-door neighbor used to say, "it was rather grand."OK. I'm taking a walk down the mountain to hang with some folks from Texas. Half the fun of a day like today is that walk down the mountain, stopping at the various campsites on the way. Somebody always has a satellite dish. And there's always a multinational crowd gathered around, watching TV and waiting for the race to pass on by.A European broadcaster was talking about what it takes to win the Tour. "Big balls," she said unabashedly. "Lance doesn't have two, but the one he has is very, very big." Just thought you'd want to know what people are saying over here.The wind is really kicking up. Perhaps it portends the coming storm. Talk to you after the stage.

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Turn it up loud, Captain

Posted by MDugard Jul 16, 2005

Driving from the start in Agde toward the Pyrenees. Stuck in a long traffic jam. Vinyards flank the road on either side, stretching as far as the eye can see. We have a long way to go to make the finish. Most of it will be narrow, congested mountain roads. Frankly, I'm not sure we'll get there in time. Every Saturday brings out the crowds here, but today is exceptionally congested because of beach traffic.The start was unusually early today. The peloton rolled out of Agde shortly after 10:30. A Sheryl Crow record was playing over the loudspeaker, and her sentiments about wanting to "soak up the sun" were the Tour organizers playful acknowledgment that its going to be very hot on the road. The riders are openly wary of today's stage. The best examples were the Lotto and Cofidis riders who pedaled into the pre-race village and made a beeline for the France Telecom booth. They lounged on chairs in the shade, taking advantage of the chance to make free phone calls, looking a whole lot more like a bunch of guys heading out for a leisurely training ride than the 14th stage of the Tour de France. They didn't hang up those phones until just minutes before the start. Fin du bouchon, I am told, means end of danger. The next two days should tell us whether or not Lance Armstrong will be fin de bouchon for the last week into Paris.The final climb up to the finish in Aix-les-Thermes today is 7.9 kilometers at an 8.3% average grade. A friend I used to ride with was fond of saying, "this is where it gets bloody" at the bottom of a brutal climb. Meaning, we're all about to suffer. That final climb today will definitely draw blood, particularly after more than 100 miles on a hot, cloudless day. It's estimated that the stage will last almost seven hours. Man, that's a long time to be pressing those sit bones into the seat.Had dinner at the Discovery team's hotel last night (a simple buffet: asparagus, olives, baked chicken legs, and a Languedoc red I had never hear of). Sheryl Crow was doing television in the hotel bar. Left late last night. Austin and I were confident that we'd have no problem finding our hotel. The maps showed that it was less than a mile from the Mercure. All we had to do was navigate through downtown Montpellier. Simple, right? Well, Montpellier is a town straight out of Les Miserables, with tangled streets that dead-end without warning. It was near midnight as we finally found the centre ville. Grizzled hookers; backpackers fresh off the trains from Spain, Nice and Paris; and, a certain menacing vibe attended our travels. I'm surprised we didn't see Jean Valjean himself. Finally found the hotel. The room was large but reeked of smokers (I'm not an anti-smoking vigilante. In fact, there are moments I find the aroma appealing. But hotel rooms that smell of cigarettes have a singularly insidious way of passing that aroma on to clothing and luggage for days to come). Watched Tiger on Eurosport, then crashed at around 1:30.Went for a stiff, cursory run around Montpellier at 6. It looks a lot better in daylight: a Roman aqueduct, a gorgeous opera house, farmers setting up for the Saturday market in the large plaza. Ran past the café across from the gare where my wife and I had lunch a couple Octobers ago (hey, Callie. Love you and miss you). There were three McDonald's within a mile of one another, which is not unheard of in France. However, I have yet to see a Starbucks.The scenery has changed dramatically in the last three days. Driving through the sun-drenched south of France en route to the Pyrenees feels a whole lot like driving through central California. Lots of farm land and sunburned hillsides. Hard to believe that a week ago we were all in rainy Germany, and that just last Wednesday found the Tour passing over the frigid and forbidding Col du Galibier. By days end, however, we'll be back in the mountains. The Pyrenees are a different beast than the Alps, and the finish today is just a couple miles from the Spanish frontier.One last note on the peloton. It's a huge rumor mill. The riders know who is sick and who is about to crack. They knew yesterday that Thor Hushovd had an upset tummy and wouldn't be a factor in the sprint. They knew that Valverde was on the verge of dropping out (having given just a wee bit too much on the Courchevel. And they know who's ready for today. Word is that the usual suspects: Basso, Armstrong, Ullrich, Landis, and Leipheimer have their game faces on.I should take a moment to say how flattered I've been to get such a steady stream of emails. Now comes word from the folks at (these dispatches are posted at and that many of you have been posting questions and feedback via the blog "comments" section. I had no idea (frankly, as great as they are, I never really look at either Web site. There's just too much going on here. I haven't even been obsessively tracking Last Voyage on Amazon or checking set lists on Backstreets since the Tour began). So for all of you who've posted comments, I'll start checking your comments and address some of your feedback in future dispatches. So feel free to keep posting, or just drop me an email at the address. I'm a little behind right now, but I'm trying to answer every email. Again, I'm flattered. Thanks to all of you for checking in each day.Talk to you after the stage.

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Bike Spike -- almost

Posted by MDugard Jul 15, 2005

I like Chris Horner's style. Though a climber, and entering the 13th stage of the Tour de France with tired legs, he helped his team by chasing down Juan Antonio Flecha's breakaway on this searing Friday afternoon (the stage began at 1:20 local time, late by Tour standards). Then Horner let it all hang out, dropping the indomitable Flecha and racing ahead with Cofidis's Sylvain Chavanel. The two were nipped just before the line. And though Horner ended up finishing tenth, he says he's not through yet. "There's plenty of time to win another stage. I'll do it again."I can only hope so. Horner's trademark is the "bike spike." When he wins he lifts his bike over his head, throws it to the ground, then screams like a madman on the podium.  So now you know.Though this is Horner's first Tour (at the relatively advanced age of 34, he's older than Lance Armstrong) he's a savvy racer. As he and Chavanel pedaled into the finish, Horner refused to take the lead, knowing that Chavanel would draft off him and slingshot past (think NASCAR) in the final moments. Chavanel slowed down, seeking to force the issue. Still, Horner refused. So instead of finishing second, he got that ten spot. Horner was unphilosophical. "Second or last, it's all the same. They only put the winner on the podium." Sure, he's a guy with nothing to lose. Horner's on a second-tier team and almost no one knows his name. But in a Tour when most interview questions are diplomatic or off the record, Horner is like a breath of fresh air. And on this withering July afternoon, fresh air is a very good thing.Robbie McEwen won the stage, giving him his third victory this year.Today was not the boring stage most people anticipated, but it was lightly contested. Lance Armstrong and his Disco Boys weren't risking anything in this weather. Armstrong is known to be suspect in the heat, perhaps as a result of his cancer treatments. Thus he hydrated well last night, rode safely inside the peloton, answered a few questions, then set off for his hotel. Most other teams had the same mentality. With tomorrow sure to be hot and uncomfortable (there are six climbs, including an Hors Category ("beyond categorization") climb up the Port de Pailheres, the teams were eager to get back to their hotels and off their feet. Team busses were driving away from the finish line less than ten minutes after it was all over. The exodus was unmatched so far in this year's Tour.Will Horner attack on Sunday's dramatic climb up the Pla D'Adet? Perhaps, but not on the final climb. "There's no way I'm going to be able to attack on that last climb when Lance is throwing it down. His team is just too strong."There have been questions about Lance's ownership stake in Discovery Team. Here's how it works: The Team is owned by a company known as Tailwind Sports, which obtains sponsors to pay the bills. Lance has a minority share in Tailwind. It was not always this way, but Lance gained that sort of bargaining chip as he became more and more of an icon.The address said that our hotel was in Aix-en-Provence last night, and I was looking forward to one of those late café dinners in the warm summer air. But the hotel was far outside of town – an inn, really – in the country. A freshly plowed hay field was next to the gravel driveway, and there wasn't another light for miles. Frankly, it was a little spooky at first. But the restaurant was still open (we always hold our breath; most places close by ten, and we rarely arrive by then), the room looked out onto a small forest, and the food was exceptional (olives smeared on thick bread, thin steak and roasted vegetables, some sort of custard/ice cream desert). We make each other laugh, even when we're talking about missing our wives and kids. We closed the place (there were only two other tables, so there wasn't much competition).I love the bread here.Ran this morning just after sunrise. I was searching for a trail, but was quite happy to stick with the single road connecting Aix to Beaurecouil. There were no cars, and the countryside looked like a mix between the Arizona desert and Southern California's sun-dried hills. I passed vineyards, small farms and large homes with private driveways. I finally found my trail at the top of a hill, and looped back down to the hotel.Rick Reilly from Sports Illustrated stayed with us last night. He was riding in the Discovery Team car today, so I agreed to drive his rental car from the start to the finish. It was a Mercedes sedan, though I'm not enough of a car geek to know which kind. All I can tell you is that it accelerates quickly, the air conditioning works very well, and the ride wobbles ever slightly as you push through 165 kilometers per hour.Not sure where we're staying tonight. We're headed off to the Discovery hotel for some late night interviews, then it's on to our own place. Tomorrow will be an early start with a mountaintop finish, which means it might be wiser to break out the sleeping bags (never attend the Tour without one) and camp in a pasture afterward, rather than brave the traffic jam coming back down. But that's tomorrow, and tomorrow is another day. I'll worry about it when it comes.There's a lot of time to think here at the Tour, what with all the hours wandering from town to town (by the time this is all done I will have driven nearly 6000 miles, roughly the same as driving across America and back again). We get lost on a regular basis, sometimes so lost that it feels like we'll never find the way. It can be quite maddening, and every journalist has dozens of stories about losing their car or sleeping in their car or wandering for hours in the dead of night, looking for a hotel that may or may not exist. But it dawned on me that the Tour's great lesson is to push forward, always forward. There's always a way. You just have to keep looking for it.OK. Enough Jack Handy. Talk to you tomorrow.

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La Marseillaise

Posted by MDugard Jul 15, 2005

Happy Bastille Day. These French are a fickle bunch, fond of unabashed patriotism and equally powerful apathy. Which may or may not explain why on this, their national patriotic holiday, I have yet to see a single French flag in the three hours I just spent driving through small towns and villages.I saw orchards, vineyards on near-perpendicular hillsides, castles, a house with turrets shaped like black witches hats, and a very bold man waterskiing without a wetsuit in a freezing glacial lake. Yet I didn't see the French tricolor. Nor have I heard a single bar of "Le Marseillaise". I feel like I'm the only man in France hoping for a bit of French patriotism. I'm a sentimental sort who gets misty whenever America's national anthem is played (don't even get me started on the Olympics). Maybe it's because I wasn't home for the Fourth of July parade around my little cul de sac this year – thus missing those emotional moments of Americana we all hold so dear, not to mention my son in his homemade go-cart -- but I'm itching for a powerful dose of patriotism.I get the feeling that the best way for that to happen is for a French rider to win a stage. That particular cyclist (Jalabert, Voeckler, Moreau? Or will it be some anonymous domestique) will become an instant national hero and those French flags will be waving proudly – or so I hope.  The rolling stage from Briançon to Digne-les-Bains is 187 kilometers long and the temperature is scorching. The first week of the Tour I traveled through northern France, with its wheat farms and cold rain. The past few days in the Alps have seen warm mornings and frigid afternoon rain. But Austin and I are just an hour from the Mediterranean. Famous tanning beaches like St. Tropez and Nice beckon (though we will not be going). The local population is no longer just the stereotypical Frenchman (cigarette in the corner of his mouth, baguette sticking from his bicycles panniers, a glass of Pernod and water in one hand), but also shows a chic Italian and North African look. When I ordered a coffee a few moments ago, my poor French led the vendor to believe I was Spanish. "Uno café?" he asked in confirmation. I didn't know whether to be taken aback or confused. Austin and I closed the pressroom last night. I wrote a lot of words yesterday, both in the process of filing these dispatches and taking additional notes. When I'd finally shut down the laptop and wandered out into the night air, I was spent. Thunderstorms had shaken Briançon just after the stage. The air smelled of wet gravel and distant cigarette smoke. Sometimes when I get done writing I act kind of lost, so wrapped up with internal thoughts that I can't think right. It was that way last night. So as I stood there in the darkness I slipped on my iPod and paced, listening to the Mavericks and slowly emerging from the process. The clouds parted. I could see the Big Dipper and the North Star, right where they always are back home (aren't stars amazing? So global, so omnipresent. But where was Orion and his sword?). To my right and left, the Alps curved upward, their shark-toothed gray peaks fringed with snow. There was something powerful and rejuvenating in the moment, and as Austin and I drove off to find our hotel two towns up the road, the strain of the day was replaced by a very pure form of well-being. It had been a good day I realized as I slipped off the iPod and we slipped into our back and forth. A very good day.  There was still the small matter of finding our hotel. It was someplace called the Alley, in a ski town named le Monetier-les-Bains. Austin and I still had the legendary photographer Neil Leifer in tow (it was a joke within our car that Neil was to always be referred to as legendary. However, if you read about him, you'll learn why). Rick Reilly from Sports Illustrated wandered into the press room just as we were leaving, fresh from spending six hours trying to find Briançon. He didn't have a hotel room. So the four of us went in search of Monetier-les-Bains and the Alley. What we found was an unexpected treasure.The Legend got his own room, but Austin, Reilly and myself were given a small ski condo for the price of a single (I had my own bunkbeds and loft). The restaurant was closed when we arrived, but the proprietor reopened it and we were served a simple gourmet meal: Salad of wild greens and flowers, duck in a blueberry sauce over rice, peach and rose (that's right, rose) ice cream, and a nameless red wine that complemented each course. The restaurant was rustic, with wood floors and tables, and stone walls. The chairs were straight back and wooden. But the restaurant felt so comfortable and inviting that we swapped stories until one, knowing all the while we had to be up in just a few hours for another day at the Tour. Man, I love when life surprises me like that.  Ran for an hour through an alpine forest at dawn, turning around halfway up a mountain when a field of cows blocked my path. From what I knew of the area, these same trails were trod by Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. The grass was cold and wet with dew, and the air smelled of pine and cow dung. In the distance I could hear the whitewater roar of the Durance River. I probably could have pushed through the herd and continued up the mountain, but sometimes a morning run is best when it's cut short at just the right time. So I trotted back down into the village, aiming toward the distant steeple of its 12th century church. The bells were tolling and it was time to get moving down the road toward Digne-les-Baines.  Digne-les-bains (the name, given by the Romans so long ago, refers to a local hot springs), is notable as one of Napoleon's stops on his return from exile on Elba. Before that, in 1629, its population of 10,000 was almost entirely wiped out by the plague. Now it's a major producer of lavender and fruit, and a haven for whitewater rafters, skiers, and mountain bikers.  Dropped the Legend at the Digne-les-Bains train station three hours later. He's off to shoot Jack Nicklaus at the British Open, but I have a feeling the highlight of his journey will be shooting Austin and I in front of a suggestive village road sign yesterday. Call me sophomoric, but I'm gonna frame that one.  I was digging around a bit here at the finish, wondering why Team Discovery Channel would be interested in hiring a foreign rider like Ivan Basso or Alexandre Vinokourov to replace Lance Armstrong. The answer has much to do with the incredible shrinking globe. It's obvious that the riders are advertising platforms, what with their corporate team names and their uniforms and team busses emblazoned with logos. Most teams (Quick Step, for instance, a flooring company) are sponsored by a corporation with no apparent link to cycling, but the Tour de France is a race seen all around the world.These companies know that their multi-million dollar investment will reap exponential advertising dividends. Rather than buy advertising time in all the various worldwide markets, a savvy CEO sponsors a quality team, knowing that its riders will showcase their brand every time the camera focuses on them or a race announcer mentions them by name (this is the reason some teams send riders on impossible breakaways. The rider may not win, but he'll buy his sponsors minute after minute of free advertisement).   Which brings us to Discovery Channel. Ever since Mark Burnett and his Eco-Challenge left the network five years ago, Discovery has lacked connection with an entity branding them as worldwide, instead of just another American network. It's rumored that Discovery paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million to sponsor Lance and the Disco Boys. The investment has already paid off in spades, thanks to the team's constant mention in newspapers and on television screens worldwide. So why go with a Vino or Basso as a replacement? Because Discovery is looking to build its brand in Europe, Russia and the Far East, much like my beloved travel partner, CNN. At this point, most viewers in those markets are American expats and tourists. By signing Basso, they become better known among the rabid Italian fans. By signing Vino, Discovery instantly expands its share of the Russian (sorry, Kazakhistan) market. So maybe he'll become the next Kournikova after all.  Enough business. Let's talk more about food. We have officially entered that transitional world between the Alpine and Provencal regions of France. France is divided into "departments," which are the same as a state in the U.S. Appropriately, today's finish in Dignes-les-Bains is in the department known as Alpes de Haute-Provence. The media lunch was very much like a picnic. Tapenade, dark break, soft local cheese, and a garlicky bean salad were served with a chilled rosé. Pots of lavender and olive trees surrounded the tables, which sat out in the sun. I have the bad habit of eating quickly, but today I lingered, enjoying the Bastille Day spread.  Team Discovery's Manuel "Tricky" Beltran was once considered Lance Armstrong's most powerful weapon during the long mountain climbs. But he has been relegated to flatland duty of late. It's not really a demotion – OK, it is – but Beltran isn't as vital as he once was. I mention this because I'm watching the French feed of today's stage. Beltran crashed on the first climb and was forced to abandon the race. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.  Talk to you after the race.

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Come On Over

Posted by MDugard Jul 14, 2005

A Frenchman won on Bastille Day! A year, almost to the day, that he won his first Tour de France stage, David Moncoutie won his second in most rousing fashion. He broke away with 37 kilometers remaining and rode powerfully to victory. The elfin Moncoutie bore a look of disbelief as he crossed the finish line, a look that grew even more wide-eyed as he pedaled into the scrum of waiting French journalists. Moncoutie was frail and wobbly as he stepped off his bike. But there was no denying the sheer joy on his face. It is a most special thing for a Frenchman to win on Bastille Day. For the rest of his life, people here will know him for that moment. That is, unless he some day wins the whole thing.I mentioned earlier today that I hadn't seen the French tricolor on this, their greatest national holiday. Well, I finally glimpsed one flying over the finish line. What I found startling was that the finish chute was lined by American flags and Texas Longhorn flags and homemade Go Lance banners, but no French flags. There are so many Americans here, in fact, that it's like Lance is racing with a home field advantage.It's been said so many times, but it's worth saying again: The French love Lance Armstrong. Every now and then a heckler screams something about doping or Sheryl, but for the most part he is adored. He's a familiar face on French television and jokes easily in French with the hosts.There's a game the media plays each day at the finish. It's called Chasing Lance, and it means the daily process of being one of the 2500 members of the international press to score an interview. He crosses the finish line and is immediately surrounded by his two main bodyguards: the hulking and bald Serge; and, Irwin, a bespectacled man who can kill you twelve different ways. (He laughed when I made that joke with him, but he didn't disagree). If he's headed off to doping control, as he was today, they take him to the medical trailer. If Lance is wearing yellow, he then goes to the podium amphitheater for the jersey ceremony. Both areas are fenced in and off limits to the press. The point of the game is to either get a few seconds with Lance before Serge and Irwin find him (fat chance) or somehow squeeze behind the fences (it's been known to happen). The third option is to find the Discovery bus and wait for him. But what it all comes down to is that if Lance wants to talk with the press, he finds a way to make it happen. Sometimes it comes in the form of an impulsive appearance in the interview room. Sometimes he makes a sudden appearance in the backstage area when you least expect him. Then it's a one-on-one situation, if only for a few minutes. It's pretty cool.Today, however, was not one of those days. The Disco Boys are steeling for Saturday and Sunday's Pyrenees stages. These will be grueling, long and steep (yesterday's Col du Galibier marked the highest point on the course this year, but the Pla d'Adet this Sunday has a much more vertical quality, not to mention tens of thousands rabid Spanish fans). They'll also be the last mountain stages of Armstrong's cycling career. He has long said that he prefers the Pyrenees to the Alps. It would be a rousing sendoff for him to win Saturday or Sunday – or both.It wasn't just his crash that caused Manuel Beltran to abandon the Tour today. Crashes are frequent and riders are resigned to carrying on afterward. But Beltran hit his head hard when he came down, and was unconscious for a few moments. He is being checked tonight for cranial injuries, but has no broken bones. The Disco Boys are trying to put on a brave face about this, but privately they're admitting that they'll miss him very much this weekend.Beltran's halt means the Tour is down to just 165 riders. Top sprinter Tom Boonen also pulled out this morning.The race has been over for an hour, and already the great logistical challenge of moving on to the next town has begun. Every single piece of Tour equipment is moved, every single day. This means an armada of trucks, drivers and workers to break everything down (including barricades, banners, broadcast vehicles, the finish podium, souvenir stands, a complete telecommunications system, mobile interview sets, sponsor booths, and every conceivable chair, table, video monitor and anything else the Tour requires) immediately, pack it up, then drive to the next finish.Another crew does the same exact thing for the start area. I watched in wonder last night as the miles-long line of semis descended the Col du Galibier at midnight, their headlights cutting the darkness. It seemed to take hours for the trucks to pass. In addition, there are hundreds of security officials, podium girls, telecommunications experts, computer geniuses, and press liaisons who must be trundled from town to town. It's an act of great logistical genius, and I have never seen the start or finish to be lacking in any significant detail.  The weird part of it all is seeing the same faces every single day. The chubby guy checking credentials at the press room door is the same guy who's been there since Fromentine. For the longest time we just addressed each other with polite "bonjours." Then we added a few additional words of greeting. Now he's saying hello in tentative English. I'm getting rather fond of all these people.The vibe of the Tour is changing. With just nine stages remaining, there's a sense that we are all in the middle of a long journey, but can see the end. For the remaining riders, it means a greater commitment to making it through the Pyrenees. For many of the weaker riders those mountain stages will be a major obstacle on their road to Paris. Having said that, I find myself amazed at their athletic abilities. Every day I watch these guys cross the finish line. In the first week they looked like they were just out for a group ride (a very big group ride) but now their faces are often drawn and haggard. Yet every morning they step out of the team bus, stretch for a couple minutes, then climb back on the bikes to do it all over again.I've been getting a lot of email from people saying they wish they could be at the Tour. My answer to all of you is to come on over. I know that hopping on a jet and impulsively flying to France is frowned on in many rational, logical circles. But life isn't always that cut and dried. Cheap flights can be had, the flight isn't all that long, and this is Lance's last Tour. Be bold. Get over here. Think of the fun you'll have calling in sick with the Tour finish mania booming in the background.Tonight Austin and I have rooms in Aix-en-Provence, that gorgeous city of pastel walls and tree-lined streets. It's very much a tourist town, which means it will be overpriced. But I love Aix. The first time I came to the Tour I managed to spend a couple days there. Once, as I was walking off dinner, I chanced across the open doors of an old stone church. Just before I slipped inside to have a look, I heard the sounds of a great choir wafting out into the dusk. The voices were elegant and unaccompanied, and I went on my way with that uplifted feeling that comes with such chance moments of beauty.The Disco Boys are staying down the road a piece, in a small village hotel between here and tomorrow's start in Miramas. Many of the teams tend to find hotels near one another, but Discovery is almost always alone. Austin's got this idea that we should go over there and do a bit of Chasing Lance by trying to get a lobby interview. So maybe we'll do that. Or maybe we'll just hang out in Aix. That gets my vote.Talk to you tomorrow. Should be another scorcher.

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The New Kournikova?

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2005

Want to see the future leader of the Discovery Channel team? You may have gotten your chance today. Alexandre Vinokourov, who won today's eleventh stage of the Tour in a sprint finish over Colombia's Santiago Botero (Lance Armstrong finished 1:15 back) is in the final year of his T-Mobile contract. The Discovery Channel still plans on grooming Ukrainian Yaroslav Popvych as the future peloton patron. (The term, by the way, is used sparingly. Just because a rider wears yellow doesn't make him the patron, that most exalted of all Tour titles. This godfather-like figure is the conduit through which all peloton power flows. The title is reserved for great riders like Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, and Armstrong, all of whom possessed a strong team and will to extract vengeance on those who cross him. Greg LeMond, for example, was considered too forgiving to be honored as patron, despite his three Tour victories).Discovery Channel has been in talks with Vinokourov to replace Lance Armstrong as team leader. Vino's strong, unpredictable, and explosive. He's capable of winning a Tour or three, and openly chafes that T-Mobile still considers Jan Ullrich their team leader. But will a U.S. cable channel allow a native of Kazakhstan to be team leader? Discovery invested in this team to advertise their product. So far, the $15 million-plus advertising fee paid to Tailwind Sports has paid off in spades. But I have a feeling they'd be a whole lot happier if the Disco Boys were led by someone a tad more American. The Cold War wasn't so long ago. Anna Kournikova comparisons aside, it would still seem weird to have a native of the former Soviet Union to be the standard-bearer for an American cable channel. Vino is dynamic in his own reticent way. He is a handsome if smallish, man. As a cyclist, he has as much potential as anyone in the peloton. But will America tune in to watch him lead the Disco Boys from Strasbourg to Paris next July? I would, but it won't feel like an American team, which is the product Discovery Channel desperately wants to sell.Having said all that, Vino is the Disco Boys' second choice. The man they really want is Ivan Basso, currently of Team CSC. Basso and Armstrong are friends. The bond strengthened when the Italian's mother was dying of cancer. At the daily sign-in, Lance often makes it a point to shake hands with Basso.The Tour de France gives, and the Tour de France takes away: First it was American Dave Zabriskie of Team CSC winning the yellow jersey and dropping out exactly one week later. Today it was Sunday's yellow jersey winner Jens Voigt who finished outside the mandatory time cutoff. He was unceremoniously sent home. To quote Philadelphia Story, How are the mighty fallen.Everyone makes nice about this, but there is no love lost between Lance Armstrong and fellow American riders Bobby Julich, Floyd Landis, and the suspended Tyler Hamilton. Private comments have so far been off the record, which is OK, because they're unfit to print anyway.Though it seems impossible, OLN commentator Phil Liggett has lost his voice. We'll see if he recovers in time for tomorrow's start.Though Lance Armstrong has a public "no gifts" policy, it's within his power to extend goodwill to other riders. It's all a part of being the patron. Sometimes that even means letting someone win a stage. Armstrong swears that he rode his hardest yesterday, and didn't intentionally allow Alejandro Valverde to win (I stood next to Lance as he said it, and the exhausted look on his face pretty much confirmed the denial). But it is likely that he allowed Vino to win today. With the T-Mobile rider more than six minutes back in the standings, it served Armstrong's purposes to let Vino's breakaway succeed.The rider posing the most immediate threat to Armstrong is second-place Mickael Rasmussen. The bony Dane (I swear that the man has an eating disorder) is only 38 seconds behind Armstrong. But Lance can't be too concerned. When Rasmussen sprinted away from the field to breast the summit of le Galibier first, Armstrong let him go. He knew Rasmussen was only chasing King of the Mountain points. And even if Rasmussen got cocky and tried to hie away permanently, he's just too skinny to downhill effectively. As it was, Lance and the peloton reeled him in shortly after the summit.Last on Vino: that Sea Foam Green jersey he wears symbolizes his title as Kazak national champion. Every national champion is accorded the same privilege.I don't know if this came across on the OLN feed, but Christophe Moreau was seen clutching a cardboard promotional item given to him by a fan as he topped the Col du Galibiere. Shaped like a giant hand and distributed by French company PMU, it was not something Moreau grabbed frivolously. Temperatures were so cold at the summit that riders were stuffing newspapers and even giant cardboard hands into the front of their shirts to keep their chest and lungs warm on the descent. If they hadn't, the combination of sweat-soaked clothing, the cold, and rapid downhill speeds could lead to mild hypothermia.This is obviously not the space to discuss U.S. economic policy, but let me just take a second to say that it sucks that the dollar is so weak. With the euro so strong (and don't get me started on the pound) Europe is a very expensive place to be an American nowadays. I know how it feels to be Canadian.In other nationalistic issues, tomorrow is Bastille Day, France's version of the Fourth of July. It's not always the case, but every now and then a Frenchman gets a wild hair and does everything within his power to win the stage. Lance Armstrong is beloved in France, despite the actions of a few malcontents. If he wanted to give the ideal gift – and, this being his last Tour, nothing would make the French love him more – he would pass the word to let a Frenchman win. You ought to see what it's like when that happens. This place goes nuts. Lots of tricolored flags, lots of La Marseillaise and exuberant French people blowing trumpets and playing accordions. It's all quite crazed.On the subject of tomorrow's stage, it's flat compared to today's soaring climbs, but there's still quite a lot of uphill. Sunshine is forecast for the start here in Briançon (soft "s", so it sounds sort of like "Brian's Song"), but the clouds are supposed to make an appearance by early afternoon. At 187 kilometers the distance has the transitional quality between mountains and flat stages the riders crave.In my ongoing attempt to sample all that France has to offer (in a culinary sense, of course) I should tell you that the media buffet here in Briançon invoked the area's rural charm. Cold chicken topped with a dollop of hard butter was served with couscous, shredded carrots in some sort of bland cream sauce, and a second salad made with pig jowls known as salade de museau. It was gamey but palatable, the sort of food you eat once, just to say you did -- and I did.Austin and I are pushing out of Briançon tonight, headed for a hotel down one of the five local valleys. Today has been more relaxed than other days, and I particularly loved driving the entire course (we didn't find out until later that the press was not supposed to be on the course due to heavy spectator congestion). We have one more day with the legendary photographer Neil Leifer and his stories about shooting Muhammad Ali and Steve Prefontaine, who pushes on to the British Open after tomorrow. Anyway, I'm saddened that tomorrow also marks our exit from the Alps. The sadness is tempered by the realization that we enter my most favorite region of France, Provence, the day after. Not to get ahead of myself (as I've said, every day at the Tour is a new start and new adventure unto itself) but I'm really looking forward to a couple days in the South of France. The weather is warm, the sunsets have a serene pastel quality, and the roads are lined with endless fields of lavender.Until tomorrow.

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Lunar Landscape

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2005

Pulled into Brides les Bains and the Gold Hotel just after the kitchen closed last night. It was only nine miles down the mountain from the finish in Courcheval, but mountaintop finishes always mean bumper to bumper traffic back down the mountain, and it took us almost two hours from the time we left the press center.It's something of a Tour tradition for cars bearing press stickers to bypass the traffic by driving in the left lane. But it was very dark and the roads were very narrow, and after nearly crashing head-on into a gendarme, Austin and I stuck to the more time, but safer, right lane. Thankfully, they reopened the kitchen for us, putting together a salad plate (beets, olives, shredded carrots, chilled asparagus) and a simple yogurt desert. It was perhaps the finest midnight snack I have ever eaten, and I went to bed and slept so well I blew off the six a.m. run in favor of a couple more hours sack time.As for this Tour de France thing, I'm not going to make any predictions today. Yesterday, after speaking with all the race experts, I was absolutely positive about how the stage would shake out. Boy was I wrong. I had no clue Lance would make such a bold statement, and I even thought Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis could possibly steal the win. But though Leipheimer and Landis rode well, this is not a place where average is good enough. Both Americans were unable to hang with Armstrong's pace during the last ten kilometers up to Courchevel. A visibly annoyed Landis gave a brief interview to OLN afterward, then snapped a brusque "no" when Swiss TV (a bold blow-of as his sponsor, Phonak, is Swiss) asked for time. Leipheimer was selected for random drug screening after the stage and I never even saw him. Bottom line is, I'm through playing Carnak. Predicting the Tour reminds me of that old quote about Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything." Especially, on certain days, me.Today's 173-kilometer push from Courchevel to Briancon is the second of two Alpine climbing stages. The road passes through a region of the Alpine crescent that contains the highest altitude in France. The climbs are steep and the downhills extremely perilous. This stage, appropriately, is very much like the stage which saw Lance don yellow for good in 1999, the first year he won.The finish line that day (I was there; it was cold and wet, and Lance attacked with a ferocity that no one knew he possessed) was across the Italian border in Sestriere. Today the route is slightly different, and finishes in the French village of Briancon. It is the highest village in all France, located at the crossroads of five valleys in the form of a star. The ancient historian Pliny traced the town's creation to Greeks who had been chased out of an Italian stronghold. The Celts and Romans later fortified the town. Briancon has two distinct areas: the old town – high town, built of stone on a lofty promontory – which hasn't changed much since Louis XIV. It has a citadel and rustic quality. The other area is a more modern section near the train station. This is where today's stage finishes.I have mixed emotions about Lance's position right now. Someone asked me before the race if it would be a tragedy if Lance lost. I responded that the tragedy would be Lance blowing the race wide open, robbing it of all its drama (obviously, if I was Lance that would be no tragedy of all. He wants the biggest, most comfortable cushion he can procure). What I want is a race. I want to see capable, deserving riders like Landis, Leipheimer or Chris Horner have a day of glory. Wouldn't it be great to see if one of them had the courage to show their potential? When I spoke with Landis' coach before yesterday's stage he was extremely nervous. "Physically, he's in ideal shape," Allen told me. "But the Tour is a mental competition, too. That's the unpredictable part."I'm writing this in the car, descending the backside of the Col de la Madeleine. I've traded in the Citroen (which I came to view with great sentiment. I logged more than 2,000 in her and she came to be something of a security blanket, a place I could retreat when the Tour's confusion felt overwhelming) for a gun-metal gray Passat. I'm riding with my buddy Austin, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. This marks our third Tour together and we have fallen into our usual rhythm of riffs and observations. We even have a guest in the car today, legendary photographer Neil Leifer. He rides in the back, waiting to be dropped off when we climb the Cold de Galibier. It is a gorgeous morning here in the Alps, sunny and warm. Wildflowers blossom on the steep hillsides and raging whitewater creeks tumble down the mountain. The road is extremely narrow on both the ascent and descent of la Madeleine, and it has not been resurfaced for today's stage. What scares me most are the lack of guardrails – several times we've driven perilously close to the edge of a cliff in our efforts to get around the spectator throng. Despite that, once again I'm stunned by the majesty of the Alps. Their jagged beauty (peaks like sharks's teeth sprawl across the horizon) is breathtaking.The riders will have a strong tailwind pushing them through the valley linking today's major climbs. You would think that would be a good thing, but a tailwind ratchets the pace higher and higher, making it just as tough on the field as a headwind.Stopped for lunch in Seant-Jeanne-de-Maurienne. An umbrella over the table protects me from the harsh noon sun. Twenty-five meters to my right workers are erecting the green banner denoting a sprint bonus (first riders under the banner receive points toward the green jersey signifying overall top sprinter). Austin is writing a postcard, and the rest of the café L'Encas is packed with Americans and Brits. After a light breakfast of coffee and fresh croissant this morning, I'm having a most simple chicken salad (grilled chicken breasts served over romained lettuce and sliced tomatos). Served with with a bottle of cold still water, it seems like the perfect meal for a hot day.Speaking of the weather, the mornings tend to be sunny in the Alps and the afternoons cold and gray. I don't know if that trend will hold, but clouds are forming around all the local peaks right now.OK. So we finished lunch and pushed up the two final climbs – Telegraphe and Galibier. Telegraphe is nice enough, a scenic climb up forested roads. The Galibier is something else entirely. The weather turned instantly cold. The terrain became a treeless moonscape, all boulders and screed. The climb goes up for 15 numbing kilometers, through hordes of spectators perched on the very edge of the cliffs, so intent on watching the bike race up close that they disregard the fact that one bad step could send them plummeting hundreds of feet. The roads are exceptionally skinny and the riders may see more fan interference than usual.Now we're descending to Briancon. A thick white tongue of glacial snow rises before us, up to a peak in the clouds. I can't imagine the nerve it takes to descend this stretch of road at full speed on a bicycle – the potential for miscalculating one of the tight hairpin turns and flying off the edge is very great. I don't usually get spooked by stuff like this, but my stomach's in knots as we drive so very close to the edge of this narrow road.But this is the road that leads to the finish. If some solo rider comes over the Galibier in first, you can bet he's going to take a whole bunch of chances. I'm scared for him.Sights along the road: A man dressed as Sylvester the Cat, two women dressed as clowns, and a road sign leading to a French city bearing the same name as a specific part of the female anatomy (hint: it's also the name of a large, now-deceased character on the Sopranos). English-speaking tourists (male) were standing in line to have their picture taken before it. The French who lived there didn't quite understand all the sophomoric clamor. They smoked their unfiltered cigarettes and watched it all, not knowing whether to be amused or offended.A smell from the road: The Passat's burning clutch as we ascended the Galibier.Sounds from the road: A dozen languages, French TV guys impatiently honking their horns, and the mix CD in the car, played just loud enough so we can hear the music and the spectator commotion outside the open window at the same time.So back to the race. Can Lance push himself hard today? Let's face it, the guys who want to beat him are running out of time to knock him down a peg. Floyd or Levi or Roberto Heras or Alexandre Vinokourov need to do something. Let's see if Vino's got what it takes to battle right back.Pulling into Briancon. Can see the citadel of the old city high above. Talk to you later.

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Bottle of Smoke

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2005

The theory of cognitive dissonance defines me right now. Got the Pogues blasting through the iPod headphones (has there ever been a better song about hope than "Fairytale of New York" or a more pointed use of the F-bomb when describing personal success than "Bottle of Smoke"?), as I sit down to process what I witnessed this afternoon. Lance Armstrong absolutely, freaking destroyed the pretenders to his throne. Has he won his seventh straight Tour de France? Undoubtedly. Barring calamity, nothing can stop him. The way he rode today was wondrous and vengeant, My spell check screams that "vengeant" is not a word, but I believe that it is. If not, it should be. Last Tuesday Bjarne Riis of the CSC team went on record as saying Armstrong was lucky to be wearing the yellow jersey. Lucky? Armstrong is driven by quotes like that. They don't cow him, they make him stronger. When he chooses to enter politics that drive will make him an L.B.J.-type machine, badgering foes and forging awkward alliances to ramrod his goals down the throat of a reluctant Texas Assembly. But for now that means Lance Armstrong is driven to make Bjarne Riis look like a fool. Today, without a shadow of a doubt, he did.   There is a peak that maps refer to as a mountain rising within running distance from the lavender in my backyard. I love Saddleback, and have poured sweat on her trails for years, but she's not a mountain. Courchevel is a mountain, a stark and hungry peak rising abruptly from a valley floor. Saddleback looks so comforting in comparison. Standing at the finish atop Courchevel on this hard, gray afternoon, I found my eyes sweeping over the horizon, marveling at all I saw. The Alps soared all around me. The air was cold and chilled me to the bone despite a fleece and two other layers. There's a hulking, forbidding quality to the Alps. It's not hard to imagine some monstrous glacier sluicing down the valley thousands of years ago, breaking off chunks of stone like so many fragile branches from a withered bough. Courchevel does not tower above the peaks ringing both sides of the valley, but it comes close. This where the Tour climbed today. Switched over to Springsteen's "Devils and Dust," then to a bootleg from Milan.I wrote earlier today that CSC could beat Discovery Channel through a bait-and-switch tactic. They (or some other team) might send a Bobby Julich or Alexandre Vinokourov on a Quixotic breakaway in the deep valley between today's climbs, trying to wrest the Tour from Lance. The common wisdom held that the Disco Boys would be broken down, attack by attack. But Discovery saw it coming. Team director Johann Bruyneel demanded that Pavel Padros, Benjamin Noval Gonzales, and Manuel "Tricky" Beltran lead the entire peloton through an apocalyptic pace. The rest of the Discovery Team rested in their draft as they rotated the lead. It was a marvel to witness, particularly because the three of them rode into a fierce headwind. The pace was so hard and fast that a Bobby Julich or Alexandre Vinokourov would have looked like a complete rookie trying to attack. The Disco Boys would have reeled in the attack and spit it out.So after the stage – after the moment when the entire cycling world was waiting for, when Lance Armstrong attacked like a champion on the long climb up Courchevel (his entire career's arsenal of retribution was on display: the look back to see who was strong and who was about to crack, the dropping back to get a visual glance at his foes, his taking the hands off the bars to arch his tight back before the last ten decisive kilometers, the sudden stand in the pedals and burst of speed; all that, and then the handshake of congratulations when Spain's Alejandro Velverde outsprinted him to the line, making the exuberant young rider an instant Spanish national hero) he finally let Bjarne Riis know that the insults had been a mistake. With Sheryl Crow clutching a bouquet of sunflowers to one side, Armstrong said what had been on his mind for a full week. "When someone says that a person who's won the Tour de France six times is lucky to win the yellow jersey... that's not respect. That's not honest. That's not true. That's not reality. The riders on that team," he said, referring to CSC, "are some of the classiest in cycling." And here he took a stab at Riis. "We race the team, not the team directors. I saved that comment on the hard drive when I read it." In other words, each and every day when Lance opened his omnipresent laptop, he vowed to get back at Riis. Today he did. Discovery Team's unity actually grew stronger after their awful performance last Saturday. "They felt humiliated," Armstrong said of his teammates. So on a day when the other squads splintered, the Disco Boys saw some superhuman performances. In addition to Lance's pacing through the valley, Chechu Rubiera led a charge up the Courchevel that split an 80-rider pack into just 25 – this while battling a chest cold. And Yaroslav Popovych ("Popo," Discovery's rider of the future) crashed early in the stage, then was paced back into the peloton and led the charge up the mountain. "It wasn't an acceleration," Armstrong noted afterward. "It was a sprint. To come back from a crash and do something like that is remarkable."Whose hopes of Tour victory, barring miraculous intervention, ended today? Alexandre Vinokourov, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, Jan Ullrich, and Ivan Basso. When it gets to the point that Lance is talking about Mickael Rasmussen as a serious contender, you know the Tour is as good as done. Armstrong gave his team an "A" for their performance today. The Tour is down to just 173 riders. Look for dozens more to exit before week's end. Polka-dotted bracelets are all the rage at the Tour. The organizers have taken a cue from Lance's yellow LiveStrongs to sell a polka-dotted version "that symbolizes the amazing victory of the human body and the courage discovered in each of the winners." I always thought that the LiveStrong bracelet was celebrating the same thing. Proceeds from the polka-dotted band, by the way, are not targeted for charity. But I bought one anyway. They look pretty cool.By the way, you can't (so far) buy LiveStrong bracelets at the Tour this year. Last year they were everywhere. Not that it matters, but Lance didn't shave today. Thought you'd want to know. The press center's paltry buffet today was a sure sign that we're in the Alps. It's like that every year. Today it was just peanuts , applesauce, and apple brioche. There's only so many peanuts you can eat before you need a regular meal. Know what I mean? So I drank a bunch of water, ate some applesauce and hoped it would tide me over to dinner. There are guys who actually plan their yearly weight loss programs around the Tour. Given the schedule and the pace (and today's buffet), I can see why.The press center was five kilometers downhill from the finish. Courchevel being a ski area, however, getting to the top of the mountain was as simple as hopping a gondola. The weather at the top felt like November in Mammoth: cold, threatening, bleak. After watching the finish and interviewing Lance I decided to walk back down. Instead of the gondola I chose a path through a narrow field of wildflowers. The walk was steep. Most of my fellow hikers (we looked like pilgrims descending from some greater awakening) were Americans. I listened to their stories of why they'd come, and found that it always boiled down to that single word: Lance. Made it back to the village, feeling a serious blood sugar low coming on. Ducked into a café and ordered a chicken burger and Carlsberg beer, which turned out to be surprisingly reviving. The chicken had a sauce that I've never tasted before, combining garlic and tarragon in a most interesting way. It's 8:30 now and I'm thinking ahead to tomorrow. Stage Eleven will be even more daunting. The riders travel from here atop Courchevel, to Briancon, which is three passes over. It will be a downhill finish, meaning less finish-line drama but more derring-do than today. The distance is 173 kilometers, which clocks in at just over 100 miles. Local start is 12:15 and the finish is supposed to occur at 16:53 (the Tour actually plots this out). There will be two hors category (beyond categorization), including the legendary Col du Galibier. This is the same peak where Lance claimed yellow back in 1999, then wore it to victory. I was there then, and am glad to be back to see him climb it one last time. The increase in spectators has meant more morons running alongside the riders. Today they waved flags of America and some sovereign nation I could not recognize, and wore silly Superman outfits. Is this about personal validation? Getting on television? Though this sounds like heresy, I might actually have to go down and hang with these guys to get inside their heads. Tonight, my buddy Austin and I are staying down the mountain. Couldn't find anyplace up here, and I didn't much feel like rolling out the sleeping bag because it looks to be a night of rain. I'd almost rather sleep in the car than get into that endless line of motorcycles, bicycles and campers (don't get me started on campers. Any outdoor occasion where you can watch satellite TV has nothing to do with camping) snaking down to Albertville. But the warm bed will be welcome, no matter how late I tuck in. Just looked out the big picture window overlooking the press room. The Alps are wreathed in clouds and the peaks have been painted pink by the sunset. It's truly remarkable. What a great place to be. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Letting It Go

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2005

Stood at the finish line as Mickael Rasmussen crossed in first. He broke away at the very beginning of today's 171.5-kilometer stage from Gerardmer to Mulhouse and rode like a champion. Though the climbs were not difficult by Tour standards the descents were a series of tortuous hairpins overlooking long drop-offs. And the final stretches of the race left him exposed to a gusting crosswind. Rasmussen is 31 – aging by Tour standards. He is also a former mountain biker who made the daunting leap to road riding. So as he charged down the final straightaway here in storm-tossed Mulhouse, the fans banging their palms atop the metal barricade signage to bring him home, there was a feeling that some change had taken over the Tour. It was not business as usual, with the sprinters and Discovery Team controlling the action. Rasmussen had taken a bold risk and succeeded. One can only imagine his utter sense of satisfaction. "It felt very good from the very beginning," is how he described it. "As the day progressed I just felt better and better."Jens Voigt of Team CSC fulfilled team manager Bjarne Riis's recent declaration that his team had specific plans to prevent Lance Armstrong from winning the Tour. Voight and Frenchman Christophe Moreau also escaped successfully from the peloton. They beat Lance Armstrong and the other Tour favorites to the line by exactly three minutes. Voigt now wears the yellow jersey, while Armstrong will be back in Discovery Channel blue and white.Voigt it in first place. Moreau is in second, 1:50 behind. Armstrong is in third, 2:18 back. There has been no change in the time gap between Armstrong and top rivals Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, and Jan Ullrich.So what's the story? I would say it comes down to Armstrong voluntarily relinquishing the jersey. Despite all the weeping and gnashing of teeth that is soon to take place in the American media, losing today is a very good thing for Lance. I would even go so far as to say he gave the jersey away. Jens Voigt is not a threat to win the Tour; he can't time trial and he's going to spend the next week working for CSC team leader Ivan Basso, despite his lofty status. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The Discovery Channel team has been working hard this week, riding at the front of the peloton in defense of the yellow jersey. As much as Lance wanted to wear yellow all the way into Paris, that had become unrealistic. It's much better for the Disco Boys to let Team CSC defend, allowing Lance and the boys to draft a few bicycles back. That way they rest their legs, rest their battered psyches, and will be mentally and emotionally poised to attack with gusto during next week's mountain stages.The race has been over for forty minutes. Armstrong is probably already mourning the (hopefully temporary) loss of the yellow jersey). He's probably also rejoicing that he didn't have to go through the podium ceremonies, post-race interviews, and drug screening so he can catch an immediate flight to Grenoble, where his team will spend the night. The Bale-Mulhouse Airport is just a few miles down the road. Losing yellow allowed Lance to hop into his team bus and make for the charter. Knowing Discovery Channel's efficiency, they may already be wheels up now.As expected, David Zabriskie abandoned the race this morning. He hasn't been the same since his crash during Tuesday's team trial, and has looked obviously spooked in the last couple days. Yesterday, in fact, he finished the stage dead last. "He gave us the most perfect start we could have asked for," Voigt noted of Zabriskie's Tour-opening stint in the yellow jersey. "He's a good rider and I hope he gets better soon."I don't know if the OLN feed picked this up, but a bottomless man greeted the riders at the top of the Col de Bramont. note:  They did.  At first I thought he was wearing a flesh-colored thong.  But then, you know, it became obvious that he wasn't.I found myself thinking of French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery today. In particular, I was looking at the crowd here. They were normal people, like you and I, screaming their heads off for a skinny Danish cyclist they never heard of before. It reminded me of our daily need for inspiration, and Saint-Exupery's rant against society's embrace of mediocrity. "You rolled yourselves into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, raising a modest rampart against the winds and tides and stars. Nobody grasped you by the shoulders while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught will you ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning."I have a feeling that people come to the Tour to experience that awakening. As I've written before, it can't be about just the bike race. It's as if, by watching others, us spectators may be inspired to push their limits. That awakening is the starting point of all personal journeys. Within some of us is a championship cyclist, within another a brilliant entrepreneur. In our lives we will be faced with great unknowns: the diagnosis of cancer; the call to help a troubled friend; the need to move forward after tragedy. As professionals we will attempt to chart paths that, however modest our lives may appear on the outside, involve deep moral decisions and complex tactical judgments. And though we may never ride the Tour de France, each of us, like the cyclists, faces a daily barrage of adversity, complication and decision. "By endurance, I conquer," was Polar explorer's Ernest Shackleton's family motto. It applied to more than just exploration.Like Lance, I'm pushing out of here in a hurry. Instead of taking the long way through France to Grenoble, I'm cutting through Switzerland and spending the night in Geneva. Not sure what time I'll get there, but I hope to pull in before the sun goes down. That should give me plenty of time: It stays light until ten or so.Tomorrow is a rest day in Grenoble. The Tour riders will go for a leisurely two-hour bike ride, then spend the day incognito.  Tomorrow is also the day that everything changes here. The press room has been a relatively static place so far, but I'm just now starting to see the second shift arrive as the race moves into the pivotal second week. Even more folks will parachute in here tomorrow, as will a host of new spectators. Like a great movie, all the action takes place in the second act. So it is with the Tour de France. Next week will be a raucous, loud, bombastic, tortuous, thrill-a-minute action adventure. As much fun as I've had until now, I know that it's all been just the beginning.  Talk to you tomorrow.

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Stand On It

Posted by MDugard Jul 12, 2005

Here's how it's going to shake out today: Discovery Team will ride in a tight scrum around Lance Armstrong. He's the obvious favorite to win this year's Tour, so other teams will try to wear them down by sending individual riders off on long breakaways. The primary stipulation is that the rider who goes off must be a threat to Armstrong's Tour hopes.Each squad has a team leader. The other eight riders all work for him, sacrificing their chances of victory so that the leader and the team will be victorious (this is the guiding philosophy behind all Tour teams, but especially Discovery Channel). Often the gap in ability between the team leader and the other members is vast. But several teams at this year's Tour have a second or third rider capable of not just being team leader, but winning the entire Tour de France. Those are the teams that will attack Lance Armstrong. The tactic they will use works like a bait and switch. A team like CSC, for example, will send a secondary rider like Bobby Julich on a breakaway. It will probably take place in the 25-mile valley between the day's two climbs (Cornet de Reselend and Courchevel). Because Julich is currently close to Lance Armstrong in the overall rankings (and a definite threat to win the entire Tour if he develops a three- or four-minute lead), Discovery Channel must chase him down. They have no choice. The extra effort will weaken the legs of Discovery and Lance. Meanwhile, CSC's top rider, Ivan Basso, will tuck in behind them and ride in Discovery's draft. So will all his teammates. The end result is that Discovery gets tired, Julich either wins or gets caught, and Basso's legs remain fresh for another day.CSC isn't the only team who's thinking like that. T-Mobile could send either Alexandre Vinokourov or Andreas Kloden (thereby protecting Jan Ullrich), and Phonak could send Botero (protecting Floyd Landis). All these attacks may fail. But Discovery must cover them all. The cumulative fatigue on their legs could prove overwhelming.Bjarne Riis, team manager of CSC, is known for his pragmatism. He's also known for being extremely traditional. And though it would be unwise for his team to help Jens Voigt keep the yellow jersey for another day (despite the fact that Voigt can't climb, is a modest time-trialist, and has absolutely zero chance of winning the Tour), Riis may do so, simply because Tour tradition mandates it. This would be the stupidest thing for CSC to do, but it may come to pass. Or not. Riis is aware that other team's known this weakness. He may change his tactics to exploit their knowledge.The start this morning was in Grenoble, a city of narrow streets that were laid out with utter disregard for logic. It is not as clean as the other cities I've seen so far this year. Even when I headed out of town for a trail run, the path was lined with broken beer bottles and smelled of fresh dog droppings.  I headed out of town before the start, almost getting run over by a trolley in the process. It's not that I didn't enjoy my time in Grenoble – I did – but I'm more comfortable in the coutryside. As Grenoble faded into my rearview mirror and I turned off the autoroute onto the smaller N90, it felt good to be driving through the Alps on a sunny July morning.I was eating dinner at a bistro across the street from my hotel last night, when I ran into Matt Ford. He's the owner of Rock `n' Road Cyclery, my hometown bike shop. Matt had flown in for the next three days as a guest of Look (I think). Great to see Matt, who's an exceptional cyclist in his own right.Turns out the press center in Grenoble was famous for more than just housing the city velodrome. During the 1968 Olympics, the building hosted the figure skating competition. That was the year Peggy Fleming won. Kinda' cool to be at the scene of that bit of history.Flash forward a few Olympics, to the 1992 Winter Games. They took place in Albertville, which lies at the base of the climb up here to Courchevel. The same jagged Alpine peaks the riders will ascend were the scene of the skiing and ski jumping competitions. The press center was the scene of hockey.  Again, great history.Spectator mania has increased every day. That trend continued today. Just a phenomenal number of national flags, cycling tour groups, beer-drinking Germans, and generally rabid individuals in all manner of dress. The sun is out but the air is cold, and rain is forecast for the finish. This is one of those mountains that never seems to end, and more than once on the drive (dodging bikes and people the whole way) up, I thought I had reached the summit. But then I would round a curve and see that the actual summit was still five miles higher.  The final push is steep and near the tree line, a demanding pitch that will see some very tired riders battle wind, weather and mountain before the cross the line It's a cliché, but today the race will go the rider who wants it most. If you want a dark horse candidate for stage winner, think Levi Leipheimer or Floyd Landis. I know I keep flogging the Landis bandwagon, but he seems to fit and mentally sharpTalk to you later. The race is about to start.

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Rest Day

Posted by MDugard Jul 12, 2005

Ah... Rest Day at the Tour. I'm in Grenoble, in a press center set up on the inner section of the town velodrome. The banked wooden track circles us all, filling the arena with the faint scent of pine. There's a simmering, anxious vibe in the air. It's nice to have a day to regroup (forget Rest Day, I need Laundry Day; it's getting so that I'm scared to open my luggage), but everyone here is looking ahead to the six vital stages that will take place from tomorrow through Sunday. All I have to do is step outside to be reminded of how difficult life is about to get for the peloton. The Alps watch over Grenoble like a brooding, malevolent presence. It is up their narrow roads and over their tree-less summits that the race will now travel. The spectator throngs are already in place. Their campers and pup tents line the roads. The smell of grilling sausage from their portable barbecues rivals the relaxing aroma of wild lavender as the prevalent roadside fragrance. So, yeah, it's a day of rest. But it feels a whole lot more like a prelude to some great drama. The stage is set, now all we need is the actors.Can't wait to see what will happen next. Everyone took note of Lance Armstrong's show of force yesterday, deliberately giving away the yellow jersey so his Disco Boys could get some mental and physical down time. But he made sure they rode like a juggernaut in the process so there would be absolutely no mistake of their power. Why do that? To get inside the heads of every single rider who even dreams of wearing yellow in Paris. He is the patron, after all.Lance is a stud. He's whippet thin, his jaw is firmly set, there's not a trace of fear in his mien. And yet… he's displaying a newfangled bit of emotion: nostalgia. Every stage makes his retirement one day closer. He rode his last Stage Nine yesterday, and tomorrow will ride his last Stage Ten (and on and on to that last stage in Paris). And like we all behave as nostalgia creeps in (he can be so superhuman at times that it seems odd for Lance to have emotions in common with the rest of us), Lance is clinging to every last poignant memory. Until yesterday, it was his Achilles heel. That's why he wanted to wear yellow for almost the entire Tour when the more pragmatic move would have been giving it away. Until yesterday, his proprietary emotions toward the maillot jaune got in the way of being his usual smart, deliberate self. It remains to be seen if that nostalgia will once again bubble to the surface between now and Paris. I think that's the only way he'll lose.Funny when you think of it: The Tour isn't about some vague notion of winning anymore. It's about beating Lance.So who can do it? The list of favorites would have to include Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Alexander Vinokourov, Floyd Landis, and maybe even Bobby Julich.  Mickael Rasmussen was so emboldened by his victory yesterday that he was talking about riding for yellow, but he was just talking crazy.So let's break it down. Ivan Basso has beaten Lance in the mountains before (last year at La Mongie), but has broken down under pressure at last year's Tour and at this year's Giro d'Italia. So the young Italian has a considerable monkey to get off his back if he's to win this year. Call him a longshot.Ullrich crashed yesterday, and is being x-rayed for a broken rib today. But he won't pull out. Big Jan has been quietly biding his time, waiting for the exact right moment to make his move. Unless that rib slows him (he did just fine after getting back on his bike yesterday) look for Ullrich to make a sudden, explosive move when we all least expect it. But will he win? No. But he might make it a race.Bobby Julich rides for Team CSC, and will work for Ivan Basso. But if Basso falters, look for Julich to take charge. He won at Paris-Nice this year and he's got that edgy, competitive aura of someone looking to make a stand. Another longshot, but one worth rooting for.Floyd Landis' coach says he's ready to do great stuff, and Landis couldn't be more loose and confident (of all the top riders, he's the easiest to talk to. Floyd doesn't edit his answers and generally has a smile on his face). But could Floyd Landis win the Tour de France? I'd really like to think so, but the answer is no.Finally, Alexandre Vinokourov. Nickname: Vino. Wily, strong, smart, and afraid of nothing, the T-Mobile rider could very well do it. Really. I'm not even racing the Tour, and I'm scared of his ability to make things happen.  However, when it comes right down to it, the only person who's going to beat Lance this year is Lance.Having said that, Basso, Ullrich, Julich and Landis have all played their cards close to the vest so far. No one can tell how strong or weak they might be. We'll find out soon enough. All it takes is a crash, an ill-timed puncture or a bad food day to ruin Lance's race.The week shapes up like so: Two stages in the Alps, two relatively flat stages through warm southern region of France, then two stages in the Pyrenees. There's a nice dramatic buildup to the action. Tomorrow will be the easiest day of climbing and Sunday will be the toughest. "Easy," however, is relative. Tomorrow is 192.5 kilometers long and features two lengthy climbs that will scatter the peloton. The first is a 20-kilometer ascent of Col de Roselend. The second is 22.2 kilometers to the finish atop the mountain in Courcheval. Average gradient is 6.2%. Race start is noon local time, with a projected winner's finish of 5:04 pm.I left the finish line in Mulhouse early yesterday. Had a hotel reservation in Geneva and wanted to make it there before midnight. Following the French autoroute would have meant a long roundabout path, so I took the rhumb line by following the A35 through Switzerland. Right from the start, it seemed like the wrong decision. The Swiss border was more backed up than the U.S.-Mexico line on a summer Sunday afternoon. There was no way to turn around, so I gritted it out, fuming the whole while. All I kept thinking of was a hot meal, a warm bed, and a very long night's sleep after yet another nonstop day. It was as if the Swiss border guards were trying to deprive me of that right. After a half-hour or so, I realized my negative attitude was building on itself, so I tried to stay calm. The fellow in front of me was videotaping some nearby apartment buildings, which I thought strange. Because I had nothing better to do, I became convinced he was a terrorist, and began imagining ways to quietly alert the Swiss. But I soon realized my paranoia was silly and fueled by low blood sugar. Finally, I made it to the border, paid 30 euros for the privilege of driving Switzerland's highways, then promptly got stuck in another traffic mess in Basel.   Things weren't looking good.But the Tour is like that. Just when you think you can't manage one more freaking minute of the latest crisis, something unexpected makes everything OK. Outside Pforzheim on Saturday it was the Coca-Cola rep handing out ice-cold cokes. Yesterday's turning point was the unexpectedly lush and manicured Swiss countryside (lots of tunnels and hillside farms). That, and a Snicker's bar purchased at a roadside kiosk. Made it to Geneva by about 9, splurged on a filet mignon smeared in seven spices and marrow sauce, and called it a night.Breakfast was instant in-room coffee, two bite-sized biscuits, and the Toblerone chocolate left by the turn-down service. I wanted to save my appetite for the sumptuous media buffet that would be waiting in Grenoble. Only problem, there is no buffet on rest days. My stomach has become used to the daily local spreads provided for the Tour. This feels like a severe and draconian change of pace. However, I've eaten a bit too well during my time in France. Perhaps a day of restraint is in order. Or perhaps I'll head out and find a quiet café along the local riverfront where I can jot notes and watch evening shade the Alps.A note on CNN: I don't watch it much at home, preferring the network and local news when I can wrest the remote away from the kids (and my wife, who has a deep passion for all things CSI). But whenever I travel, either CNN or the BBC makes my room feel like home. When I think of CNN's international broadcast I think of past nights in Asia, Europe, South America and Australia. They show American sports scores and news, which is often hard to find in foreign countries. I feel a bit lost when I check into a hotel and they don't have CNN. The other night, for instance, my hotel in Cornimont had channels in German, French, and some language I couldn't understand. The best I could do was a "Different Strokes" rerun dubbed in German.Perhaps that's a roundabout way of saying I'm getting the slightest bit homesick. Rest days do that to me. Too much time to think. Best to work hard and bash on.There were three levels to the parking garage beneath my hotel in Geneva. Level One was also the home of the Swiss Institute of Massage. Level Two was reserved for parking. Level Three housed the Dancing Millardaire Erotic Club and Gentlemen's Cabaret. It's not often you find a parking garage of such diversity.I've gotten a few emails about the Lance/Sheryl Crow thing. I'll admit that last year I thought he handled it poorly, maybe even flaunting her presence while working through a divorce. From the notes I've received, others thought so too – not that it's any of our business. However, this year Lance is handling things differently. The Lance/Sheryl thing is much more low-key, not so in-your-face. She was around for the first few stages but has been missing of late.And on a final note: The security level in France was increased to its highest level today. My bag was searched as I walked into the press center, and the whole country is clamping down. Short of stopping the Tour, there is no way to defend against a terrorist attack on the course. What a comforting thought as we enter the most highly-attended week.

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Stand On It

Posted by MDugard Jul 11, 2005

Gerardmer, site of today's start, is also home to the Ironman France triathlon. I can only imagine how difficult the bike and marathon sections of that course must be, as Gerardmer is in a deep valley. Ski slopes and mountain forest rise on all sides. The Tour de France riders won't have to run those hills, but they will begin climbing within the first kilometer today. The stage is short in comparison (171-kilometers instead of 220-plus) but there are six climbs. The angle of repose is not as great as the Alps and Pyrenees, but the pace will be very, very fast. That sort of pace was nearly the undoing of Lance Armstrong and his Disco Boys yesterday. Someone, perhaps Jens Voigt of CSC, will attack early in an attempt to steal the yellow jersey.The key to a Discovery Team victory will be his Spanish Armada: Benjamin Noval Gonzales, Manuel Bertran and Jose Luis Rubeira. They are all talented cyclists in their own right, and on a lesser team might even be the leaders. But they are paid to pace Lance Armstrong up the Tour de France's long climbs. Their actions help him conserve his strength for that moment when he veers out of their draft and attacks the top of the mountain. But yesterday they were unable to match the race's swift early pace. When the attacks came, only Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) winner Paolo Savoldelli was there to help Lance. Perhaps the Armada was tired after a grueling first week (average speeds are way up this year, perhaps helped by a frequent tailwind) or maybe, as Armstrong suggested, they had become complacent.Armstrong is even-keeled in public appearances, but his impulsive temper is legendary. When he said that he wasn't angry with his team after yesterday, take that with a grain of salt. Who knows what he said last night, but the Disco Boys had the fear of God in their eyes this morning.Mickael Rasmussen, the red-headed Dane who rides for Rabobank and bears a passing resemblance to Prince Harry, is now wearing the polka-dotted jersey. This is given to the top climber at the Tour this year. Points are awarded at the top of each climb at every mountain stage, and Rasmussen seems determined to win. In year's past the polka dots were the domain of France's Richard Virenque, who is now retired. France hasn't had a Tour champion in almost 20 years. Virenque consoled that sorrow by focusing attention on the polka dots (although the French have never, and would never, dream of taking it as seriously as le maillot jaune). Now the French don't even have the polka dots to console them. The top Frenchman in those standings is Stephane Auge of Team Cofidis, in tenth place.I spent the night ten miles down the valley from Gerardmer in Cornimont. It's a quiet little town that reminded me very much of the opening scene from Beauty and the Beast. I could imagine Belle wandering down the cobbled square, book in hand, and Gaston emerging from the local forest with the hunt slung over his shoulder. It was Saturday night, and the local bistro was packed. Everyone seemed to know one another, and it was clear that I had chosen Cornimont's favorite restaurant. Called home afterward, at a phone booth without a door that stood next to the town well. It was almost midnight here, and just about noon in California, which seemed very far away from Cornimon.Got up at six and ran down a mountain road that paralleled a whitewater stream. Lucked into finding a trail that spurred off into the woods. A carpet of pine needles and thin shafts of light made for a quiet, transcendent morning run. I could have gone for hours, it was that sort of trail. But the hotel's breakfast closed early and I knew that if I didn't eat there would be no hope for food until reaching the finish (the local markets were all closed for Sunday, and the nearest McDonald's is a long way off). So I ran back, passing a marble crafstman's shop and crossing the small bridge that led me to my hotel.Drove the last half of the course en route to the finish. Tour organizers always offer the press a faster route from start to finish (the "Hors Itinerarie"), but today looked to be just as crowded as yesterday. I wanted to see the people and wasn't disappointed. The gray Citroen broke through the barricades at the base of the day's final climb. Families and cyclists and picnickers and outright partiers trudged up the road, hauling chairs, leading little yippy dogs, holding young children by the hand. Fathers carried coolers of beer on their shoulder, and children clutched homemade German flags (We're in France today, but this portion was once German. They made their sentiments known). When I passed through, it was all a loose conglomeration; no one had found their roadside spot (with the exception of those who had camped all night). By the time the riders make that final climb up Le Ballon D'Alsace, they'll be crowded up against the riders five and ten deep.The Germans like noisemakers. Traditional culprits (party horns, ratchet-like twirly things, and polka music – who knew there were so many accordions in the world) have been joined by those thundersticks the Anaheim Angels made famous when they won the World Series. There's nothing like driving up a narrow mountain road, surrounded on all sides by rabid Germans banging thundersticks, to make a man know the meaning of "annoying."Saw a photo of Lance and the Disco Boys in this morning's French papers. The way they surround him sometimes, it looks like he has a Secret Service detail. Who knows, given rumors about his eventual entry into politics, one day he might.If some lucky rider manages to break away from the field today, the finish will be grueling. The last 15 kilometers are almost all windy and open. The poplars lining the road were bent double.Almost got killed this morning when I was driving into town. Went the wrong way down a one-way street because that's the way the Tour was supposed to go. Only the course wasn't closed yet. I'd forgotten that normal traffic rules apply until it is. In the future I'll be more diligent.After two uninspired days, the press room buffet was impressive this afternoon: a local pasta/beef dish rolled up like a cinnamon roll and served with marinara sauce, bleu cheese, dark purple grapes, green salad, and a rocking local Bordeaux.Talk to you after the stage.

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Today was not a good day for the Discovery Team. "If we have two more weeks like this," Lance Armstrong said afterward, "we're in trouble." He and his squad were unable to respond when Germany's Andreas Kloden launched an attack ten kilometers before final climb. The winding road was lined with a dense, damp pine forest and jammed with German spectators who crowded out into the center, leaving a scant path for the riders to travel through. They waved German flags and cheered Kloden on with a nationalistic fervor unseen at the Tour so far this year. Though Kloden would later get nipped at the line (the margin of victory was the slim width of a valve stem) by Rabobank's Pieter Weening, Kloden scored an enormous moral victory. After failing utterly in the opening stage one week ago, he now finds himself among a group of ten riders within two minutes of snatching the yellow jersey.What happened was that Discovery Channel stood flatfooted during those climbs. Their response, when it came, was clumsy and ineffective. Discovery Channel, in Armstrong's estimation, was overconfident. "It was definitely a crisis on our team. We need to evaluate it and not let it happen again." He blamed the difficulty on the relatively easy pitch, which made for quick speeds up the mountain. "It's not a true indication of what we're going to see in the Alps and the Pyrenees, which are much steeper. But the boys on the team are getting too confident. This is the Tour de France, you'd better show up to play and have both feet on the ground. Nothing's guaranteed." Nevertheless, Armstrong still remains in yellow, one minute ahead of CSC team's Jens Voigt.That bit of weakness, which nobody saw coming, will likely be put to the test again tomorrow. For those who wonder about evidence that others will be ganging up on Armstrong and company, the first glimpses came today. The rest should pour forth during stage nine. Now that the whole world sees a ***** in Armstrong's armor, look for his opponents' team managers to stay up into the wee hours looking for a way to make him bleed.Today's course followed the Rhine in Germany before crossing back into France and traveling into the low mountains along the border. The scenery was green and forested, lined with those small medieval towns and road furniture that are a Tour staple. The topography looked so simple on paper, but Armstrong admitted yesterday that he had never ridden it before. He didn't know what was coming. That went against his habit of pre-riding every stage of the course, and perhaps led to his team's disarray. Knowing Armstrong, he'll have better reconnaissance tomorrow.At this stage in the Tour, it's traditionally Lance Armstrong's habit to avoid crowds and press. But at this morning's start in Pforzheim he emerged from the bus and immediately conducted interviews. He wore a "Navy SEAL Team Ten" hat, out of respect for two SEAL commandos he met in his hotel lobby last night, who were about to ship out to Afghanistan. After changing into his helmet, he slipped away from the two bodyguards who traditionally lead him to the starting line. He veered toward the barricades and signed autographs for the large American crowd (particularly the children). Many were servicemen based in Germany. When he finally rode to the start, Lance made a point to take the long way, riding along the barricades before those Americans, much to their delight. There are still two weeks in this Tour. Win or lose he's retiring at the end. Much as he longs for victory to be decided, Armstrong seems to be savoring every last stage.A young military physician named Steven Brady was supposed to be with those two SEALS when they ventured into Armstrong's hotel. However, he was called into surgery to fix the eyes of a soldier wounded in Iraq. It seems that thirty percent of all injuries there are to the head and neck. Brady, however, was invited to the Discovery Team bus this morning so Lance could say hello.Drove the course today, just because I was curious about the climb. I learned the hard way that Saturday in Germany means the entire country indulges their passion for piling into the family car and taking to the autobahn. The roads were jammed, and I've never seen so many people inhabit rest stops. Combine that with a Tour course that paralleled the main highway, and the going was quite slow. Nothing, however, prepared me for the 16.7-kilometer climb just before the finish. From bottom to top, the crowds were five and six deep. The Alps and Pyrenees will be hard-pressed to match such numbers. I found myself scared for the small children along the course, whom I feared would dart in front of a Tour car or rider. The crowd was very, very German. The Discovery Channel team car riding behind me (not Johann Bruyneel's car, but one of the technical vehicles) was booed constantly. When I spotted two women waving an American flag and wearing Discovery jerseys, I slowed down to ask them where they were from. The women didn't understand the question. They only spoke German.I went for a short run through Karlsruhe this morning, past pastry shops whose tempting aromas spilled out onto the cobbled streets, down through a park lined with Renaissance statuary. But the Tour organizers must be concerned that myself and the other members of the press aren't getting enough of a workout. The press center is almost a mile from the start, and twice that from the parking lot. It would be a point of contention except that the view out the window is so serene. It is that of Lake Gerardmer, whose shores are lined with old hotels and vacation cottages. The lake is in a bowl formed by the surrounding mountains and pine forests. It's all very lovely, with gravel walking paths and park benches that face out to the water, inviting contemplation.On that note, following the Tour de France is a whole lot like competing in The Amazing Race. You wake up in the morning after a short night of rest, indulge in a brief workout and breakfast, then navigate to the start. This is never easy, and generally involves several U-turns, mangled cartographical translations, and stops for directions. Finally arrive. Park the car. Wander about. Interview the riders. Catch a glimpse of Lance getting off the bus and maybe grab a few quotes, because he's in the lead, he's the eminently newsworthy Lance, and it won't happen again after this year. Gulp coffee and the daily regional food in the media village (today: Fried cow stomach that tasted a lot like spam. Fried pineapple with maple syrup. Camembert and dark bread). Read Calvin and Hobbes and Doonesbury in the International Herald-Tribune (the Tribune still carries Calvin and Hobbes, which is reason enough to pick it up. That legendary cycling journalist Sam Abt writes for them too is even more incentive. By the way, before I came to my first Tour I somehow imagined Abt as a barrel-chested curmudgeon. Instead he is small like many of the riders, and chain smokes while typing his brilliant communiqués. Though getting on in the years, Abt is not quite old, and he works us all into the ground. Just when I think I've gotten the best interviews, I open the Tribune and find he's trumped us all). Race to the car and do a map study for the route to the finish. Get stuck in local traffic (the press stickers on the car only part the waters on the way in). Drive a roundabout hundred and fifty miles toward the finish, stopping to check the map and make a U-turn at least once. Fret that the rides will arrive first. Arrive. Get waved through the barricades and park in a grassy lot. Stride briskly to the press room. Find a spot with a view of the flat screen televisions. Watch the race. Jog out to the finish when the riders are 30 minutes out. Interview. Write. Get in the car at seven or eight and hope not to get lost on the way to the hotel (if you have a reservation). Find food, hoping the local restaurants serve after ten. Make notes before bed. And, as Jackson Browne said, "when the morning light comes streaming in, we get up and do it again. Ah-men." Anyplace else and it would all be a bit much. But this is the Tour de France, and it's the epicenter of the sporting world during the month of July. That makes it all an adventure. Besides, however much like Amazing Race it might be, none of the press are out there suffering in the saddle for five and six hours like the riders. But we all know how absurd if can sometimes feel. As Lance noted after today's stage, it's all part of being "a stranger in a strange land." I half expect someone to pop out of nowhere and tell me the order of my arrival.Not long ago I wrote a book about Columbus's fourth and final voyage. It was the boldest of his career, a swashbuckling adventure that saw him lose all four of his ships and spend a year shipwrecked (among other epic happenings). He returned to Spain in 1504 and died a year later. Shortly thereafter, a monk living in St. Die, France decided that Amerigo Vespucci had discovered the Novus Mundo (New World) instead of Columbus. So he named this land "America." Today the Tour route passed through St. Die. I had never been to that charming rural town at the base of today's final climb, and it took me a minute to remember how I knew the name. Suffice to say it is remote and surrounded by forest, both of which helped make it an intellectual hotbed so long ago. It felt cool to put a place with the name.I'm staying in T-Mobile's hotel tonight. You would imagine the teams all spend their rest hours in the lap of luxury, but it's just a two star. Not that I would do it, but one of the Tour's strangest habits is listing each rider's room number on a call sheet in the lobby. Getting ahold of them is as simple as knocking in the door. How strange that the Tour can be so big and so impersonal at times, and at other times recalling a more simple era.Lance Armstrong's summary of today's stage. "It was a bad day at the Tour."He wasn't the only one. David Zabriskie, who was experiencing the ultimate cycling high by winning the yellow jersey a week ago, had a wretched day today. He finished so far behind the field that Lance Armstrong had already changed out of his cycling shoes, answered preliminary interview questions, and completed the length podium ceremony. Zabriskie looked scared before the start today, as if he would rather be anywhere else in the world than here. A few more finishes like today, and he may be.Floyd Landis was the opposite of Zabriskie. He's one cool customer. "Our team is better than they looked," he said, referring to Phonak's disastrous performance in the team time trial. "A lot of guys had a bad day. We'll be ready when the mountains come." Five riders abandoned the Tour today, including Christophe Mengin and Isaac Galvez, who crashed hard in the last two days. Mengin now sports a black eye that has swollen his left eye shut. Attempting to ride in the peloton (where riders' wheels are just inches away, and the average pace is more than 30 mph) without his peripheral vision in one eyes would have been akin to begging for another crash.Yesterday marked the end of the west to east push across France. In one week we crossed the entire nation. Today marked the beginning of the move south. Tomorrow we push on toward Mulhouse. Like today, it features many short, quick climbs. But unlike today's downhill descent to the finish, the final kilometers slowly descend into town. It's a stage that Armsrong won in 2000. You can bet he'd like to win it again.Until then.

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I've watched sprint finishes for years on television. And I've watched them in person, head-on, beyond the finish line, at the end of the straightaway. But today I wanted to feel the speed as the riders passed. So I posted myself along the barricades, 35 meters from the finish. I squeezed into a spot along the rail and pressed my body into the unpainted metal, leaning forward to gaze down the road and watch the final approach. The sprinters seemed spread across the road, but I knew the aerial shot would show them carefully aligned off one another as they prepared for the final charge. Then came the crash. Isaac Galvez of Illes Balears-Caisse D'Epargne and Angelo Furlan of Dominica Vacanze went caterwauling into the barricades. The lay there, dazed and bleeding as the field left them behind.And still the sprint continued. A sudden whoosh of speed and air and bright colors and bike frames and helmets passed me by, just inches away. It felt like standing along a flight line as a fighter jet takes off. The sensation was terrifying and primal, and I stood in awe of the sprinter's fearlessness and utter disregard for personal safety.By the way, these sprinters look large and muscular on television. But in person, Australia's Robbie McEwen is small and borderline petite. It's amazing the power he can generate with that little body.Of the two riders who went down hardest, Furlan got up first. His jersey hung from his body in rags and his flesh was pink but not bleeding after sliding across the new pavement. He pounded his fist forlornly on the handlebars as he pedaled slowly to the finish line (every rider must finish, or they cannot continue the Tour).   His path was not straight. Rather, he wobbled down the final straightaway, knowing better than to ask for help.Galvez was the exact opposite. His front wheel was broken, so he walked the final 150 meters. He strode close to the barricades, chest out and head held high. His eyes looked straight forward. Galvez carried the bike by the handlebars and held it up and down, so that it rode on the back wheel and the useless front rim was up near his eyes. The left side of his shorts was torn away. He ignored the sympathy applause and te fans reaching out to pat him on the back. Looking very much like a rooster who has been badly wounded in a cockfight, the proud Galvez finally crossed the line and handed the bike to a handler.McEwen's victory means little in the overall standings. Lance Armstrong is in first. George Hincapie, his teammate and loyal enforcer, is 55 seconds back in second place. Alexandre Vinokourov is 1:02 behind, in third. In all, 20 riders are now currently within 20 seconds of Lance. It's Vinokourov – Vino – that concerns Armstrong the most. The tanned, burly Kazak is powerful and unpredictable. His sudden attack yesterday decreased the time differential between him and Armstrong by 19 seconds. Not that Armstrong's worried, but this afternoon he noted "I'll have to keep him in check."Typically, the cramped interview room is overflowing with journalists. But no one expected Armstrong to make an appearance today, so I pretty much had the place to myself. "Nice crowd," Armstrong joked when he walked in. We got to talking about the pressure of the yellow jersey, and whether or not he will defend his lead for the rest of the race. Remember, it would be much easier on his teammates if Lance let go of the jersey for a couple days, then maybe took it back sometime a week from now. "We might be defending it," he noted, "but we're also getting a lot of help. Three or four other teams are finding it in their interest to chase down each breakaway so we have a field sprint.  But we've been through the first week. Now the race is about to start."   In other words, he's not letting it go, except maybe to Hincapie.Armstrong, who looks relaxed, composed and completely unafraid after the end of each stage (he has a wary, slightly haunted look before the start, as if girding for unexpected calamity), also says that the pressure is something he can handle. "It's nothing like last year when I was going for six wins. This is definitely something I can deal with."All the other top teams – CSC, T-Mobile, Phonak – have been playing possum the last few days. They're using these pre-mountain stages to rest and prepare for some sort of attack on Armstrong. As popular as Lance may be in the States (and France), and despite his accomplishments, none of those teams are even remotely close to letting him win. There will be attacks and counterattacks, and the forging of unlikely alliances with also-ran teams looking for a dose of glory. Really, it's a lot like Survivor.Tomorrow should be a treat. It's another long stage, some 231.5 kilometers (about 122 miles) from the German city of Pforzheim back into the France and the city of Gerardmer. The weather sheet on the desk next to my iBook shows rain in the early stages, then thundershowers over the last half of the course. There are four third-category climbs in the early going, and a 16.8-kilometer climb just before the finish. Bobby Julich says it's the day he might make a breakaway. How cool would that be?Today is Friday. That means that right now, all around Europe and America, people are wrapping up their last day of work and preparing to board a plane to the Tour. Statistics show that between 8 and 10 million people will be here next week. I always marvel that the first week is the Tour's quietest, because it's so incredibly crazy. Between the crowds and the racing action, next week will be intense.For those of you making the journey, here are a few travel notes you might want to bear in mind: 1) rent a car: the train doesn't stop on top of the mountains, and cars give you more leeway to pull over in a small café and eat a nice lunch; 2) Make reservations or bring a sleeping bag: Campers line the road side and last-minute hotel rooms are very hard to come by, particularly atop the mountain; and 3) be flexible. That's all part of the adventure -- or least, that's what I tell myself.Until tomorrow.

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Posted by MDugard Jul 8, 2005

Today's stage sees the Tour leave France for the first time this year. Organizers aren't saying as much, but they're big fans of the subtle gesture, for better of worse. This being the 60th anniversary of World War II's end, it's no mistake that the route now follows the post D-Day Allied advance into Germany. Today it passes through the Black Forest, crosses the Rhine, and suddenly leaves the world of roundabouts and roadside wine picnics for four-way stoplights and bottles of beer. This is not to say the Germans aren't charming. They didn't wave at the Tour cars (like other cars allowed to drive the course, my gray Citroen has the requisite orange press stickers across the windshield) the way the French did, but they were animated in other ways. A man in cycling shorts and Charlie Chaplin makeup stood at one crossroads; an entire spin class was conducting a workout on stationary bikes just five kilometers before the finish; a father and son wearing sombreros (?) rode stationary bikes atop a van next to a field of wheat (I can only imagine what family life must be like on that farm); and, my personal favorite, the guy who rode his bike along the course until he found an empty spot. Then he set out a folding chair, stripped off his shirt and cycling cleats, lit up a smoke, and lay back to get a tan while he waited for the race to pass by.The last portion of this stage is flat, which I found strange after days of increasing gradient. It seems that this part of Alsace-Lorraine is something like Kansas, a wheat field-covered breadbasket that nestles just this side of the Alps.After yesterday's stage I drove through the rain, thinking I'd stop at the first hotel I came to. But the places just off the autoroute had a dispiriting strip mall quality that contrasted sharply to the tranquil countryside. Surely, in that land of meandering rivers and endless green hills and forests, there had to have been a more scenic play to stay. So I pushed up the road a piece and landed in Metz (I've gone on and on about the WWII stuff, so I'll leave you to Google Metz's significance to Patton's eastward push). The stone of its old city is amber like a sunset, and when I came around the cobbled street corner and caught sight of the cathedral (a truly massive and graceful assemblage of spires and stained glass), it took my breath away. I stayed the night in a funky little room, ate a dinner of pork stomach and sausage at a similarly offbeat bistro, then pushed on in the morning for Luneville. I can't help but say that I'm emboldened to try the same adventurous tactic tonight, as I once again find myself without a reservation.About the pork stomach thing: I've made a Supersize Me personal promise. Between now and the end of the race I will eat whatever they serve at the media gatherings, no matter odd it may look. Same for restaurants, only it means that I ask the specialty of the house and dig in. Consider me your culinary travel guide.The starting line in Luneville was made of stainless steel with a galvanically applied gold coating.Lance Armstrong signed in thirty minutes before the stage, wearing black Nike wet weather booties. But just before the start he thought better of it and went back to the bus for a quick bathroom break. When he came out of the bus, the booties were gone.Everyone on the Discovery Team is hoping against hope that George Hincapie can wear the yellow jersey this year. His job right now is to mark all the top threats to Lance Armstrong. Should they stage a breakaway, he chases them down and stops them. But there's a good chance Hincapie will launch one of his own tomorrow (yesterday's fizzled). If he wins by more than 55 seconds, he wears yellow for a few days. Johann Bruyneel this is the best possible way to thank a quiet, loyal rider for his many years of service to Lance Armstrong.By the way, Hincapie will keep riding, long after Armstrong retires, Discovery plans to help him win the big spring classic races next year.The most unsung American at this year's Tour is Chris Horner of Saunier Duval. The 34-year old Tour rookie wasn't even on his team's official roster until his breakout performance at last month's Tour de Suisse. His presence is pretty much the same as a guy playing minor league baseball for a dozen years then finally making it to The Show. I can't say that Horner is dazzled by it all, nor is he blasé. He's got a blue collar ethic that comes from having to work at his craft to achieve success. That doesn't mean he's a passive participant. He's looking for a chance to attack when the mountains come. "That's what I do best: Try to find a spot to attack so I can win a stage."I've always wondered whether the riders make such attacks on their own volition, or only go when team managers tell them. "Of course they have their say, but they can't see everything from inside the car," Horner said. We were standing next to his team car. He had the hatchback open as he rummaged around for his gear bag, then doffed his wet weather cycling booties because the rain had stopped. "Sometimes they get stuck behind other cars and the peloton and can't see the action. That's when I have to go if I see an opening. You gotta go when you can go."Bjarne Riis of Team CSC told me that he sees American Bobby Julich as his top candidate to lead a breakaway in the next couple days. This was news to Julich, but he did concede that if he made such a move, it would be tomorrow. "Today's too long," Julich noted of the 228.5 kilometer stage. We were standing in the courtyard of the ancient Chateau de Luneville. Five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault was jabbing me with an umbrella for slowing a rider down on his way to the start. "It's a day for the sprinters."After driving the course, I agree with Julich. This is definitely a day for the sprinters. The inconsistent weather will make a breakaway difficult during the early miles. That will only get worse once the course crosses into Germany. The course actually shifts from narrow village to streets onto a highway, something that was unheard of when the race was in France. Such a wide expanse offers a rider no place to hide from the wind.The Tour de France is a tour for everyone, even the riders. "I don't know the course," Julich noted. "We can't pre-ride every course in the world we race. It's impossible. You've got to take it as it comes. That way you get to see new things."OK. We're in Germany. Look for Gerolsteiner or T-Mobile to make a breakaway.Talk to you after the stage.

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Any Questions?

Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2005

The Tour isn't over, not by a long shot, but Lance Armstrong answered any and all questions about his fitness today. His second place finish in the individual time trial puts him in the catbird seat to win his seventh and final Tour de France. "I was hungry today. I'm excited to be here. I wanted to show the world my commitment to this race, that I didn't come to run a retirement race, but to win this race."Two surprising things occurred during Armstrong's ride. First, he slipped out of his right pedal just after rolling down the starting ramp. An audible gasp went up from the crowd as he slipped it back in, pretty much right in front of where Sheryl Crow was standing. For some, such as my buddy Austin Murphy, it was a shocking reminder of a similar slip in the Dauphine' Libere three weeks ago. "I don't know what happened. I tightened the cleat – the pedal – but it came out. I got it back in faster than in the Dauphine," Armstrong explained afterward. He was standing just before me, surrounded by a crush of media and fans. And when I say a crush, I mean a crush. Bodies pressed against me on all sides (Lance, of course, was protected by a pair of rather large gendarmerie. Armstrong was bathed in sweat, but the white of his eyes were clear instead of having that bloodshot look they get after a long mountain stage. His aerodynamic jersey featured a yellow fabric LiveStrong bracelet sewn into the left sleeve. A fan was banging on the Discovery Team bus, screaming "Hook `em horns, Lance. Hook `em horns." It was all I could do to take notes, but Armstrong was composed and hardly out of breath, probably from having endured dozens of such scenes over his career.The second odd occurrence was passing Jan Ullrich during the time trial. Ullrich started the day one minute ahead of Armstrong. "He's one of the classiest riders of our generation," Armstrong noted. "It wasn't like passing your local training partner, and it wasn't like motor pacing, but it was nice to have someone to pace off of. But remember, he suffered a severe crash yesterday. He wasn't at his best.Armstrong finished two seconds behind American Dave Zabriskie, who now races for CSC, but who raced for Armstrong's U.S. Postal team until this year. Zabriskie's performance stunned race spectators (with the exception of former Armstrong domestique Kevin Livingston, who predicted the victory. It's all the more remarkable because Zabriskie suffered a severe injury during a 2003 training ride. An SUV pulled out in front of him, and the crash broke his leg and arm. In 2004, Zabriskie crashed very hard at the Tour of Redlands, skinning his shoulder very badly and nearly suffering permanent brain damage when he banged his head on the pavement. "The feeling is amazing. Unbelievable. I'm sure tonight it's going to be difficult for me to sleep," the stoic and unassuming Zabriskie marveled.Zabriskie was the 19th rider to roll down the starting ramp. He had to wait almost three hours for Armstrong's ride, sweating through the performances of 170 other riders. "It's becoming a common theme for me to wait around during time trials," he said, noting that his skills have improved since he began working under team manager Bjarne Riis at CSC.   He also won a time trial at the Giro d'Italia in May. "The hard part was that Lance was the last rider. I never thought this would happen to me. Never ever ever."When asked whether donning the yellow jersey made him feel the weight of expectation, Zabriskie just shrugged. "I'm just Dave Zabriskie. I do what I do, and that's all I can do."Like it or not, CSC is now in the position of having to defend the yellow jersey. The talented team features top climbers like Ivan Basso and Bobby Julich, who would have preferred to expend their energy the mountains next week, rather than breaking the wind for a team newcomer.Even though Lance went on and on about how he hoped to win today, there's a lot of speculation that he lost on purpose. Team manager Johann Bruyneel is known to be a cagey tactician, micro-managing the race down to the last possible strategic variation. Although he wants Lance in yellow on July 24th, having him chasing the jersey rather than defending means he'll be able to relax a little until the team trial three days hence. Zabriskie will start tomorrow in yellow, while Lance will wear the green jersey as top sprinter.As to whether Lance intentionally let up in the last hundred meters to avoid: a) the hours-long ordeal of press conference, yellow jersey ceremony, and mandatory drug testing; and, b) defending, Discovery Team media coordinator Dan Ossipow simply grinned. He would not, however, answer the question.I was standing just beyond the finish line when Armstrong and Ullrich whizzed through. This was stupid of me. The previous times I've stood there it's been after mountain stages. The riders were tired then, and stopped almost right away. Today, Lance was an aerodynamic, 30 mph blur, and immediately swallowed by a crowd of cameramen. Ullrich, unfortunately, lagged behind. As I worked my way up to Lance, Ullrich was slowly navigating through the crowd, head down. When it looked like he was about to get knocked over I put my hand on the small of his back to steady him. But I needn't have bothered. To the Tour riders, the bike is an extension of themselves. Ullrich merely flicked the handlebars left, then right, and was out of danger.Lance's warm-up music today? Not sure, but he's been listening to Coldplay recently. A random note: for those who think cycling is a skinny man's sport, take heart. Magnus Backstedt of Team Liquigas-Bianchi weighs over 190 pounds. He finished 57th today.Bob Babbitt from Competitor Magazine was an early supporter of Lance's, all the way from back in his triathlon days. It was Bob who predicted to me that Lance would win the Tour back in 1999, even when the rest of the world thought Lance was washed up after his battle with cancer. The two have grown apart over the years, and until now Bob had never attended the Tour. So it was touching to see Lance pause as he was walking up the steps to his trail and recognize Bob in the crowd and yell out a hello. I'm not saying they're going to be picking out curtains any time soon, but it was a nice gesture, nonetheless.Alright, so it's almost 8:30 here. There's only one road leading back to my hotel, and it's packed with several hundred thousand Frenchmen and their families. If I was smart I would have brought my running shorts and gone for a run up to the local castle for a look around before the sun goes down and the traffic dies. But I did not. All, however, is not lost. They're serving a chilled local Medoc over in   the media room. A glass of that, a slice of the local brioche, and a view of the sun setting off the French coast seems a fine way to pass the time. So until tomorrow...

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Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2005

Italy's Lorenzo Bernucci won today's sixth stage of the Tour de France, but the big story was the rise and fall of one Christophe Mengin. His daring breakaway at the 29 kilometer (out of 199) mark was a gutty day at the office. At one point his lead over the field was a fat eight minutes and thirty seconds. But riding so long without a break weakens the mind and the legs. With three kilometers left his lead had dwindled to just ten seconds. But the great thing was, it looked like Mengin just might win. The tight turns and short straights of the final kilometers favored a solo rider. Alas, Mengin was so eager to sprint for the line that he got sloppy. The Frenchmen crashed on the final turn, precipitating a tumultuous pileup that brought most of the peloton to a standstill. As Bernucci deftly steered clear of the carnage (bare-legged riders slamming into, and sliding across, rock solid pavement at 35 mph qualifies as some minor version thereof), Mengin found himself tangled in a steel barricade, unable to stand. He didn't even finish in the top 100. In fact, I'm not sure hard-luck Christophe Mengin finished at all.Just found out that Mengin did finish. "You must take risks to win," he said. "Today I took the risk and lost. I will not be afraid to take the same risks tomorrow or the next day, no matter what the cost." How can you not root for a guy like that?The statement of the day was made T-Mobile's Alexandre Vinokourov, and it was unspoken. He brazenly attacked the peloton with three kilometers to go. This bid for a stage victory came with Lance Armstrong close at hand. Vino gave Armstrong a scare in the mountains two years ago, and seems poised to do the same this year.Armstrong and Vino stood next to one another. When Armstrong asked what they said to one another about the breakaway, his answer was a terse "nothing."As Bjarne Riis predicted this morning, he longed to launch an expendable rider on a breakaway. It's the cycling equivalent of playing long ball. He mentioned Bobby Julich by name as the man who would go. So when Julich went off it came as no surprise. It also came as no surprise to Johann Bruyneel of Discovery Channel, who had George Hincapie poised to be Julich's shadow.  The attack fizzled.If you're wondering about those little square boxes on each rider's frame, they're Global Positioning Systems. Each rider's GPS carries his race number. The GPS can show a rider's exact location on the course at all times. That's how the Tour (and television screens) knows the exact distance and time gaps between athletes.Just so you know, only one rider has dropped out of the Tour thus far. That may change tomorrow. That crash was harsh, and a couple riders were seen clutching their collarbones.Craig Hummer and I go way back. We once weathered a hurricane together. If he told me that some aspect of my writing could use a polish, I'd listen. Maybe. Anyway, I stand close when he does most of his post-race Lance Armstrong interviews, and it's like Hummer is Armstrong's lap dog. There's no such thing as a tough question when they talk, and even less focus on some sort of gritty reportage. It would be one thing if Hummer were working for Channel 59 in Dubuque (or, for that matter,, but he represents the sole American broadcast outlet with exclusive access to the world's greatest bike racer.  I don't honestly believe the problem lies with Hummer, who is a solid journalist. Rather, I get the feeling the corporate guys at Outdoor Life Network are terrified of making Lance the slightest bit peevish. OLN needs Lance (Survivor isn't going to save that network, and neither is the regular menu of bull riding and bait fishing). He's their franchise. One wonders how they're going to troll for ratings once Lance has retired.Along those lines, I was thinking once again about Lance's curious maneuver of wearing his Discovery Channel jersey to the starting line when he should have worn the maillot jaune. As my colleague, Ric Lacivitas, pointed out, Lance has learned how to control the peloton. Day by day, no matter how greatly they dislike it, the entire Tour de France field knows that they either do Lance's bidding (if a rider, for instance, is passing through his hometown, he must ask permission to ride ahead and say hello before rejoining the peloton) or they will be punished (such as last year, when Lance personally quashed a breakaway which contained a man who had been unloyal. Such a maneuver is almost unheard of by a man wearing the yellow jersey). Now, riding his last year and having nothing to lose, Lance is exerting quiet control over not just the peloton, but the entire Tour.   Wearing the Discovery jersey was a way of quieting those who said Zabriskie wouldn't have crashed if a policeman hadn't gotten in his way. It not only shut them up, it had the advantage of making Lance appear selfless and it made people think he actually cared whether or not Dave Zabriskie likes him (there's been a lot of talk around here abot the conflicts between Lance and his former lieutenants like Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer, Tom Boonen, and Floyd Landis). The bottom line is that Lance came here to win. If he can control the tempo of events and minimize distractions, it only makes his job easier.The locals put on a strong showing for the pre- and post-race buffet today. This morning it was andouillet sausage in a champagne/sausage cream sauce (I was scared, because it looked like something the cat threw up. But after a plate I had to curb my longings to go back for seconds), gooey stinky Camembert, hard bread, and coffee. The food in Nancy was a weird combination of apple tarts and some sort of liver gelatin spread (no bread, strangely). It was all very fortifying.Tomorrow we go to Germany. I've never been, and am quite enthusiastic about the prospect. The start is in the French town of Luneville.   There will be a moment of silence for the London victims, then the racers begin a 228.5 km ride across the Rhine to Karlruhe. It all sounds very beautiful, historic, and faintly martial, but my Tour history book glosses over any uncomfortable aspects of the tetchy Alsace-Lorraine disputes between Germany and France that have led to three conflicts. All the book says is that Karlsruhe was built in the shape of a star, and that the local specialties are sausage, cold meats, game, and onion tart. Should be very interesting.Tomorrow's stage is flat, with the exception of a single climb up the Col Du Hantz. The climb is just 3.5 kilometers long and rises at a gradient of five percent. The rest of the ride is level. Now, I wonder how that works. It's gotten progressively hillier and more forested here the last couple days. Now we're heading into a flat. Must be some sort of prairie or plain between here and Germany. I'll let you know.Lance Armstrong, for one, is looking forward to tomorrow. "We've been keeping up a brutal pace," he said after today's stage. "I hear a lot of the guys talking about needing a rest." Sounds like the patron might order a rest day – or not. There are rumors that several teams are conspiring to work together against Discovery Channel. As it becomes more and more clear that Lance wants to wear yellow all the way to Paris, that act of hubris might prove his undoing. His team has worked very hard the past two days.   They can't afford to go into the mountains weak. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Bas On, Regardless

Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2005

In light of today's terrorist attacks, covering a bike race can seem a bit trivial. But I think it's times like these that races like the Tour become so vital. The attacks by those of who have willingly disenfranchised themselves from the rest of the world, choosing to see themselves as self-righteous victims instead of murderers, stand in stark contrast to an event where men push themselves each day to be their absolute mental, physical and emotional best. I just drove the course of today's stage, passing through literal throngs of people beaming with anticipation of watching the Tour in person. They didn't come to watch a freaking bike race. They came to watch mankind at his finest, and hope that maybe some of that excellence will rub off on them. So if they can stand in a driving rain to catch a glimpse of that, the least I can do is write about.Tour security has not changed thus far. We'll see what happens in the day to come.Once more on the bombings: The Brits have more backbone than they like to confess. If the bombings were meant to cow them, I'm afraid the perpetrators (I refuse to even type their names) will find that just the opposite is true.Today's 120-mile stage flows through some of the most hotly contested territory of the last two World Wars. I can understand why. Starting in Troyes, located in the heart of the Champagne region, the route passes through thick forests and steep country roads on its way to Nancy, in the Alsace region. Tuol, and its stunning, fortified cathedral (the ramparts surrounding it still look impenetrable 305 years after Louis XIV ordered their construction. I have used the world "beautiful" and "wondrous" to describe stages thus far. And the words have all been appropriate. But I am utterly enchanted by today's route. It is by far the most scenic we've seen to date.The weather at the start was cold, with black clouds threatening rain. The very instant the stage began, drops started hitting the ground. Now, just a hundred yards from the finish, it is coming down like cats and dogs.Spoke with Bjarne Riis, team manager for bedgraggled CSC. He's a tall, stoic Dane. His deep tan doesn't suit his Nordic personality. Riis lamented that his new race strategy is to launch a series of killer breakaways against Discovery Channel, and has the men to do them (American Bobby Julich was mentioned by name). "But they won't let me do it," he said of Discovery Channel.   That doesn't mean he's throwing in the towel after his squad's dispiriting performance in the last two stages. "We may have to wait a couple days, but we have plans."Riis is a gentle man, and speaks in the soft tones of a funeral director.   I felt like I was playing verbal chess with Max von Sydow's Death character from The Seventh Seal.Osipow. One S. Thanks, Austin.The course today is special for some fairly decent climbs. There are four in all, spread out evenly over the route. But let me tell you, the difficult part of the route will be the last 25 kilometers. The crowds pressing against the road are almost as thick as on mountain stages, and the riders will have to pray a child or rabid fan doesn't run out and knock them flat. Additionally, most of the roads have been repaved recently and are extremely slick from the weather. This might not be such an issue, except that those last 25k feature more than a dozen narrow, abrupt turns. There are two ninety-degree bends just before the finish. If someone doesn't hit the hay bales today it will be a miracle.The finish is a winding, treacherous sprint through Nancy. The barricades have been up all night, and snake through the town in very random fashion. Of course, it's lined with people (interesting, we're in France but the crowds all look and sound German because the border's so close. Even the houses have a dark, Teutonic look). If it comes down to a sprint finish, look out – due to several bends near the line, the riders can't see the finish arch until they're within a hundred yards.Interesting note: I was standing on the starting line in Troyes this morning. Behind me was the Tour's P.A. announcer, calling out each rider's name as they signed in ("Lance Arm-STRONG!!!). The starting line spanned a narrow street. On one side was a tobacconist. On the other was a bank, and a plaza in front of the train station. High up the bank wall I noticed a plaque that had been installed years ago. It pointed out that the bank building was once the deportation center for the more than 3,000 citizens of Troyes who were then marched to the train center and shipped to Nazi death camps. Gave me chills.Another World War II note, Nancy was liberated by George S. Patton's tanks, with help from the French resistance.   This land is so peaceful now, with its quaint canals and forest as thick as jungle. It's strange to think a war was once fought here. Then again, I walked the streets of London a few months ago, and it was pretty peaceful there, too.

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Vive LA France

Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2005

Robbie McEwen of Australia won today's fifth stage of the Tour de France. Despite the valiant efforts of a four-man breakaway, the peloton reeled them in 10k from the finish. McEwen edged Tom Boonen by half-a-wheel length for the victory. Lance Armstrong finished well back in the pack and remained in yellow.Two things made today unique: Armstrong showed up at the starting line wearing his Discovery Channel team jersey instead of the racer's yellow. It was a salute to Dave Zabriskie, who would still be wearing yellow if he hadn't crashed during the team time trial. It was also a calculated maneuver to repair his fractured relationship with Zabriskie (and perhaps other American riders like Floyd Landis who once rode alongside Armstrong) whom he has silently disparaged. Armstrong knew Tour organizers would change into yellow, but the symbolism was nonetheless powerful. Don't be surprised to see Zabriskie riding for Discovery Channel one day in the future.The other off occurrence was the sight of Team CSC crashing, then adding insult to injury by having a musette bag get tangled in a wheel during a feed zone. That's not saying the wheels are falling off at CSC, but their composure is certainly ruffled.My plan today, if you could call it a plan, was to give Bob Babbitt a lift to Charles de Gaulle Airport then drive into Paris to have some papers notarized. The timing was dicey -- with an early afternoon start, it would be a rush to dash into Paris, stand in line at the American Consulate (it had to be an American notary, I was told), and battle traffic back to Chambord. At the very least, I hoped to make it to Montargis for the finish. It was not to be.Spent the night at the de Gaulle Sheraton, a delicate building constructed between airport terminals. The design is taken from that of a ship, and from a distance it appears to be a great prow slicing the terminals' concrete wave. Frankly, I loved the place, and got up early for a sauna and run before striking off for Paris. Meanwhile, Babbitt's Tour adventure had come to an end, and it was a bit sad bidding him adieu. He's been in France for five days, which is a very long time to cover a normal event. But the Tour is so epic and Herculean -- so oversized compared to anything else out there (in size and organization it is literally like conducting a Super Bowl in a different town for 23 days staight) -- that his five days merely marked the beginning of a great adventure. One can only imagine how the riders find the strength to keep going, day after day.As I left the airport I watched the beginning of the American Tour onslaught: bike boxes from Miami, watched over protectively by two elderly men who've come as part of a tour group; college students wearing Discovery Channel team t-shirts; and, somewhat bothersome, a reed-thin fellow with gray hair and a weak chin who bragged to his companion about walking out of a restaurant because "I demand great service." Buddy, you've come to the wrong place. The service is fine, the food is excellent, but there's not a French waiter in the country who's likely to kiss anyone's butt anytime soon.Traffic was horrendous, so I took the Metro from the outskirts of Paris. Got off at the Place de l'Concorde (by the way, I've been mangling some of the French in my dispatches. Sorry about that. I'm trying. I'm really trying) and stood along the same stretch of roadway the riders will pass on the Tour's final days. I gazed upon that spot in the exact center of the Champs Elysees where the winner will hear his country's national anthem (sadly, today it was covered by a reviewing stand and bleachers, in anticipation of Paris being named host of the 2012 Games. London's victory saw those bleachers come down in a hurry). It was strange to be here when the Tour is not. I had been distant from the race for just a few hours, but already I longed to get back.Again, this was not to be. The line at the Consulate was long, a collection of lost passports, overstayed visas, and un-notarized documents. I didn't make any friends when I mistakenly hopped the line and skipped past a couple dozen people who'd been fuming about inefficient bureaucracy since the crack of dawn. Suffice to say, I went to the end of the line.OK. Two-thirty pm. Got the documents signed. A rather witty consular official who went by the name of Mr. Smith made the process surprisingly lighthearted. But it was too late to make Montargis, so I settled into a café to watch the European feed. I booked a room in a nearby hotel, with plans (NEW plans) to watch the race, write this piece, then take a morning run along the Seine tomorrow before striking out for the start. All went well. Watched the race, settled in to write, etc. That's when I discovered that I'd left those documents (those precious documents that compelled me to detour to Paris in the first place) back at the café.I should point out that I'm writing all this off French TV, trying to look flawless and smart while I crib quotes from riders 150 miles away. The process makes me long for the proximity of the Tour; the clamor of the crowds, the sweaty arrival of the peloton, that telltale gasp from the crowd when something wondrous or terrible happens in the peloton. Today was supposed to be a boring stage, one without drama or pizzazz. But really, there's no such thing at the Tour. It's an addictive narcotic to watch it in person. The hustle-bustle of Paris (Vespas, honking horns, cigarette smoke, fat sweating tourists of a hundred nations, and, trying to look like I belong when I know that I'm a tourist like everyone else) is more cosmopolitan than the Tour's rural routes. But it's nowhere near as cool.So I'm in the café, pretty much jumping up and down with joy when Lance Armstrong asks French TV if he can answer interview questions in English. They say yes, and I figure I'll get a unique take on events. But as soon as he begins speaking, they dub his comments into French. I didn't hear a word.Tomorrow's stage is a 100-miler from Troyes to Nancy. The route will be hillier than today, with the start of the Alsace forests. Look for more breakaway's like that four-man group of today, because now is the time at the Tour when anonymous men become heroes.Tomorrow also marks the peloton's entrance into the Champagne region, which will mean a rocking media buffet. On a more somber note, Nancy and nearby Verdun were the sites of pivotal battles in the two World Wars. I may never pass this way again, so I plan to take in all the history I can.As for the documents, I raced back to the café and found them, safe and secure.

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Thundering Down

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2005

Whew. Just when I thought Dave Zabriskie was safely back in yellow…By now most of you have seen it on OLN, but Zabriskie's crash in the final kilometers of today's time trial was just the sort of providence Lance Armstrong needs to win his seventh straight Tour de France. The quirky, shy Zabriskie has a history of crashing, and it was painful to see him go down so hard once again. His face was drawn and pale as he rolled through the finish area. It was as if he had lost a loved one. And, in a way, he did.Funny how some guys always find a way to crash, and some guys always find a way to win.CSC was always the odds-on favorite to win the team time trial. They have the unity, talent, and confidence to beat almost anyone. Their lead through the early time checks was impressive enough to think that they were cruising. But Lance Armstrong made it clear in a post-race interview that it was all part of his plan. "We knew the race was going to come down to the last 20 kilometers," he said. "The newly paved road, flat course, and relatively straight path were signs that there would be no big time gaps. Our plan was to stay comfortable early, then push hard into the finish."Lance knows how to beat a guy when he's down. He dismissed Zabriskie as "a great young rider of the future." Daming praise, it pretty much means that Zabriskie will remain in his rear view mirror for the rest of the Tour.Lance is a straight shooter. He looks you in the eye when you ask him a question. His answers are blunt and straightforward, sometimes laced with wry humor. So when the question of strategy arose – namely, would he try to stay in yellow for the rest of the race? – his deflection was odd. He passed the question over to team manager Johann Bruyneel, who hemmed and hawed about the difficulty of protecting the yellow jersey for the next 17 stages. Then the old Lance returned. "I'm gonna' put a little pressure on him to let me keep it."Zabriskie started the day two seconds up on Armstrong. His team, CSC, finished just two seconds behind Armstrong's. During a team time trial, all team members get the exact same time as the first member to cross the line. Logically, Zabriskie and Armstrong should be tied for yellow. So why is Lance wearing the maillot jaune? Because Zabriskie crashed into the barricades before crossing under the triangular red banner denoting just one kilometer remaining. The rule states that a rider only gets the same time as his teammates if he has passed under the flame rouge. As it was, Zabriskie lost 30 more seconds and dropped to ninth.I like a good rivalry. It was – and remains – my fervent desire that Lance Armstrong go hammer and tongs with another rider this year. I was hoping it would be Floyd Landis or Levi Leipheimer (the great irony would be Bobby Julich, who was considered the great hope of American cycling until Lance's 1999 victory rendered him anonymous). But if someone's going to have a go, they need to make a move soon. The closest real threat is Alexandre Vinokourov, 81 seconds back in seventh place. Floyd Landis is a desultory 20th, apparently saddled with a team that looks stronger on paper than in reality. Ivan Basso is 10th, some 86 seconds back, but Armstrong can crush him in time trials (there's one left. It's a 32-miler on the penultimate day), so the affable Italian isn't really a factor. So who's going to take a chance at Armstrong? I'm betting on his old nemesis. Jan Ullrich, who's always good for a fight. That would be some battle if Ullrich could manage to make up the 1:36 deficit.The scene after today's finish was madness. Fans mingled in with the Tour procession, clutching pens and camcorders as they clamored to touch the riders. It was hard to watch as young children battled with grown adults for access. Actual, bona fide paparazzi were in attendance to snap Sheryl and Lance. Over at the CSC bus, a mournful Bjarne Riis spoke in hushed tones about Zabriskie's pratfall. The sky was cloudy and threatening rain, which only added to the ominous feel. This was the biggest crowd since the Tour began Saturday, though it will be dwarfed in the weeks to come. Crazy to think of what lies ahead.Don't have a place to sleep tonight. That's a common theme here, and I brought a sleeping bag just in case I need to bunk in a pasture. But the wind is howling outside the media tent, rain is going to come soon enough and I'd like to stay dry. It's interesting: When most people (me included) think of France, they think of Paris. Or maybe Provence. But not all of France has a cosmopolitan vibe. Most of the country is as undeveloped as the South Dakota prairie, and just as laced with farmland. There are no Marriott's or even Motel 6 off every freeway exit (and for the most part, there are no freeways). And Expedia doesn't take reservations for most of these small towns -- I checked. But I have hope that some quaint country inn will have a room and a hearty petit dejeuner with dark black coffee in the morning. And without hope we are nothing, right?I'm going to take a small break from the Tour tomorrow morning. I need to dash into Paris and wrap up some business. Then it's a sprint back down the A6 in time for the finish. Actually, if all goes well, I'll be back in time for the 1:15 start in Chambord. I had promised myself I wouldn't go into Paris until the Tour arrives July 23, but it will be a nice change of pace. Maybe I'll see Tom and Katie standing atop the Eiffel Tower.Tomorrow's stage travels 183 kilometers from Chambord to Montargis. The route is as level as the Bonneville Salt Flats. Lance predicts that Tom Boonen will win. "We know Boonen," he alluded to his former teammate. "And he can win six, seven, eight stages this year." We'll see. Those flat stages, with their sprint finishes and breakaways, are always a crapshoot. And now that Lance has a relatively cushy lead he might be more willing to extend some team a gift by allowing a successful breakaway. Lance is known as the patron of the peloton, which is a nice way of saying he's cycling's version of a godfather. Nothing happens without his blessing.  Speaking of gifts, the Tour souvenir stands are selling a t-shirt with "No Gifts" scrawled across the front. It's an allusion to a conversation between Lance and Bernard Hinault a few years back. The topic of discussion was crushing rivals and never giving them a single moment of hope. Seems appropriate right now. I read in my French history guide that the castle in Chambord is the largest in the Loire region, a landmark of the French renaissance known for it's turrets, spires, and double staircase. Sounds wonderful (I see ten castles a day and have yet to tire of them). From the description, however, I much prefer the finish in Montargis. It's a canal-lined medieval city known for its gastronomy. Given that four vineyards battled to have their wines tasted at today's media buffet (the food menu: foie gras, salade forestiere, fruit sorbet, and fresh local blueberries), I can't wait to see what a center of gastronomy will have to offer. Vive le France. If you look at a map, tomorrow's stage puts us halfway across France. The terrain has changed every day since leaving the Atlantic. I'm really not sure what tomorrow will bring, and that's OK. I find that's the best way to experience the Tour. Ah, there it is. The light patter of rain has been replaced by a steady downpour and distant flickers of thunder. Until tomorrow.

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Hot, Hot, Hot

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2005

It's hot. The temperature is a humid 85 degrees and the riders are going to be suffering on today's flat 181.5-kilometer stage. The route is loosely shaped like a "u", pushing south down the coast from Challons for the first 60 miles, then turning sharp left and north toward the finish in Les Essarts. The road along the Atlantic is scenic farmland dotted with acres of pine trees, which were planted in the late-19th century to stabilize the sand dunes. The turn inland is green, a continuum of hedgerows and rolling country roads that call to mind the farmland of eastern Nebraska. There's an uphill push to the finish, but nothing remotely mountainous. It is a ride through history, laced with cathedrals and ancient castles. And did I mention that it's hot?This is a day for the sprinters and attack groups. Lance Armstrong isn't going to do anything audacious, nor is yellow jersey guy David Zabriskie of Team CSC. They're a comfortable one-minute up on the field. Barring a crash or supernatural intervention, nothing's going to change.David Zabriskie is a strong climber, but will still work to put Ivan Basso in yellow during next week's mountain stages. It's felt that he's too unsure of himself and not enough of a leader. This is a pragmatic move by CSC team manager Bjarne Riis, but nonetheless curious. Zabriskie, though unknown, has the potential to wage a spectacular war against Armstrong. Basso is strong, but something of a head case, prone to snap under pressure.Phil Liggett and Chris Carmichael are picking Tom Boonen to win today. Paul Sherwen is picking Australia's Baden Cooke. Bob Roll was more interested in talking about the curious French reaction to yesterday's time trial. Instead of marveling at Lance Armstrong passing Jan Ullrich, they feel Armstrong is weak because he didn't win.   Either way, Roll feels vindicated that yesterday was a turning point for American cycling. Four of the top six finishers hailed from the U.S.Speaking of that, is there a better second-banana in cycling than George Hincapie? He's the Scottie Pippen to Armstrong's Michael Jordan. They complete each other, even though Hincapie's role is almost completely unsung. There were many on the Discovery Team who were rooting for Hincapie to win yesterday's time trial, just so that he might wear the yellow jersey for once in his career.Despite the sportsmanlike comments about Ullrich yesterday, Lance Armstrong was privately very happy about beating him. Their careers are inextricably woven together, and include some of the most epic Tour highlights in history: Ullrich going off road and Lance stopping to wait, the "look" on L'Alpe d'Huez in 2001, Ullrich's crash in the rain in 2003,   and now the "pass" of 2005. Ullrich has always come out on the losing end.Just walked over to the finish area. A local marching band wearing all red is parading up and down the streets, looking very much like the Disneyland band on Main Street U.S.A. The players are all of a certain advanced age, and looked most uncomfortable under the glaring sun (they were also a sharp contrast to the black-clad accordion band at the starting line, who looked like musical Mennonites). The Les Essarts marching band, however, sound great. Nothing like the martial sound of drums, cymbals and brass to beat the summer doldrums.Went for a run this morning, and inadvertently found myself in the midst of the local market day (this comes after last night's local bocce tournament, also well attended). Amid the stalls of fresh local berries, melons and modest bikinis (ironic, as French TV is currently showing a fishing show that features a topless model casually chatting with the anglers as she baits their hooks – no metaphor intended) were scads of freshly caught fish on ice. I didn't recognize the French names of them all –- though sole was easy enough – but the giant lobsters and live crabs were hard to miss. Pretty cool way to ease into a morning run.Speaking of souls, this coastal region is intriguing for its spirituality. The Roman Catholic influence is pronounced, with several towering roadside crucifixes that look to have been in place for centuries.   A grotto to the Virgin Mary is just across the park from today's finish. However, even though the church bells tolled outside my hotel room this morning, the old stone church was locked. So was every other church I've seen so far. It seems that the churches exist today as a building on which the locals can lean their bicycles while shopping at the market. Bob Babbitt from Competitor thinks it's all part of a French "what the hell" attitude towards life – no church, no helmets while cycling, and a constant infusion of cigarettes.OK, I know we're getting into red state territory here, but I was also intrigued that Aquarel water features an actor dressed as a priest on their float during the pre-race caravan. He pronounces to one and all that Aquarel is equivalent to holy water. It's all very unusual – and uniquely French. Call it the legacy of Cardinal Richelieu.The pre-race village in Challans featured heaping platters of oysters, two ballerinas on stilts (don't ask), the requisite copies of Le Monde and L'Equipe, those red-clad models from Paris who dole out free black coffee, and slices of soft, odiferous Normandy Camembert.   Thanks to the Tour I have developed a deep fondness for Camembert, but the Canadian-made stuff back at Trader Joe's is neither soft nor odiferous enough. Great to be back in France, eating the real thing.Team CSC's Bjarne Riis builds team unity in the off-season by putting his team through a wilderness survival course.   That unity figures to be a key ingredient in the Tour's next big stage, Tuesday's team time trial. Many feel the competition will be as much about the duel between CSC and the Disco Boys as between their two managers: Riis and Discovery's Johann Bruyneel.The Tour is funny. You work to the point of exhaustion, drive long hours, crawl into bed at midnight, and wonder how you'll ever manage the strength or enthusiasm for the next day. But the scenery changes with each stage, introducing new sights and smells, infusing each and every day with a wonder all its own. The sense of rejuvenation is organic and complete.Enjoy today's stage. More later.

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It Starts

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2005

It feels like all of France has descended on the tiny fishing village of Fromentine for the start of this year's Tour. During the five-hour drive down from Paris yesterday the roads were packed with cars towing small campers and lugging bicycles on racks. Now those same campers line the course from Fromentine here to the finish in Noirmoutier. It's still five hours before the start, but as I drove in from my hotel in Notre Dame de Mons this morning, spectators were already perched in their chairs along the roadside claiming their spots. Here and there, tables laden with wine bottles, plastic cups and fresh baguettes announce the start of the party. Cyclists wearing the colors of their favorite teams pedaled along the blustery roads, past the oyster farms and low salt marshes that define the topography. The air smells like low tide. Closer to the finish, fans of all ages from around the world line the barricades, waiting for the moments when the riders will pass and they can bang their palms on the metal signage covering the barricades for the last kilometer. The mood is, above, all, expectant, like the moments before the start of the Super Bowl, albeit it a Super Bowl that will contiue for the next 23 days. It feels good to be at the Tour, like the feeling that comes before the start of a great adventure.   Except this time the adventure will not be solitary, but shared with the other 20 million spectators who will watch the race between now and Paris.Today's start will be very late in the day – 3:40 pm local time. The winds are blowing lightly along the course right now, but if yesterday's weather was any indication, the gusts coming off the ocean to hit the riders broadside will greatly increase in power by late afternoon.The focus, of course, is on Lance Armstrong and his bid to win a seventh and final Tour de France. He has maintained a low profile, but his picture is in all the papers. Not even Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, a national hero after defending the jersey for more than a week last year, is more prevalent. Armstrong has been subdued in his discussions with the press, except to say that he didn't come here to lose. The bike crash last week (a bee flew into his glasses and stung him) hasn't left him the worse for wear and tear. Pre-race scuttlebutt is saying that Armstrong's team is the strongest in the field. They'll do their job protecting him from the wind and on the long climbs. The pressure will be on Lance to perform in the time trials (starting with today's) and during next week's pivotal mountain stages.The course today is a tough one. After a circuitous loop past the quaint streets of Fromentine, the riders head out to the island of Noirmoutier en L'ile. The road is protected from the winds by trees (and campers) for the first few miles. However, the bridge between the mainland and island is both steep and unsheltered. The winds should be particularly harsh there. After a screaming descent off the bridge (it will be a test of courage to stay in that aero tuck, given the combination of winds and angle of descent) the road stays level all the way to the finish. Salt marshes, freshly-mowed farmland, and oyster farms line the road. The riders wil make a sharp left at the roundabout once they reach town, then stand up in the pedals for that final short sprint to the finish.Last year Armstrong's team, U.S. Postal, was known as the Posties. This year his team has a new sponsor and a new nickname. Team Discovery Channel is also known as "The Disco Boys."The CBS television van parked next to me in the gravel car park near the finish. Armen Ketayan is over here doing their coverage this weekend (the daily feed will be handled by OLN, while CBS will continue the weekend reports they've been doing since the days of Ric Lacivita). It was nice to see the CBS guys and good to hear someone speaking English, but what I really liked was the guys carrying the extra bags of Brooks Brothers clothing just in case the weather turns. I need a guy like that.The Tour generally starts with a short prologue. This year is different. The first stage is a 19-kilometer individual time trial, meaning that gaps of seconds and even minutes will separate the field after the first day of competition. The Tour organizers (no dummies) are setting up a three-week drama between the top riders, instead of the usual quiet first week before a true leader emerges. Look for Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden, Alexandre Vinokourov, and, of course, Lance Armstrong, to separate themselves.Of that group, Vinokourov – "Vino" – goes off first. He starts 104th at 5:23 pm. The riders leave at one-minute intervals. Leipheimer goes off at 6:11. Armstrong heads down the ramp at 6:48, just a minute behind Jan Ullrich. You can bet Ullrich will be aware of that short gap, though his chances of getting caught are slim in such a short time trial.On a personal note, yesterday was a long one. After the overnight flight from L.A., I battled Paris traffic for several hours before breaking free for the drive to the coast. Paris doesn't have a single ring road, meaning a navigation challenge through the outskirts of the city to find the way from de Gaulle to the A11 highway. After a detour that almost led me onto the grounds of Euro Disney (I promised my son, Connor, I would try to make it there while I'm in France, but that will have to wait until the Tour brings us all back to Paris in three weeks time), I finally found the A11. The road was lined with pine trees and signs advertising turn-offs toward local castles and other historical spots. Beautiful, simply beautiful.All the local hotels were booked up (with every shake of the proprietor's heads I learned the hard way what "Voulez-vous reserve?" means), but after picking up the media credential in Challons and eating dinner at a small local restaurant (the standard menu was local oysters, steak au poivre, and chocolate mousse), I finally found a place down the coast from the start at 11 pm. The long day was done.Ran into Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen a few minutes ago. They're gearing up for six straight hours on the air. Liggett was proud to pass along the news that he was recently given an Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for his contributions to cycling.One key facet of pre-race preparation is the podium ceremony. I looked on this morning as a new flock of young podium models went through a dress rehearsal for this evening's presentations of flowers, stuffed lion (the symbol of a major sponsor), and yellow jersey to the day's winner. The women were shapely, well-coiffed and somewhat nervous as the Tour music swelled from a speaker to begin the practice presentations. A scruffy male production assistant in shorts and a t-shirt stood in for the winner. A producer knelt down front and used hand paddles to cue them on the proper order of presentation (always the same: bouquet, lion, two kisses on the cheek, and then the yellow jersey, which five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault personally zips).That's it for now. Still three hours before the start. Plenty of time to walk around and take it all in. Right now, all that's missing is the riders.

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Against the Wind

Posted by MDugard Jul 5, 2005

Today's 67.5-kilometer team time trial from Tours-Blois is deceptively tough. The course follows the Loire River's meandering path on its southern shore. The route is green and lush, passing through an area Leonardo da Vinci once called home. Like most waterways, the Loire seems to have a weather system all its own. The official race feed reports a "slight breeze" blowing at the backs of riders, but that's because the starting chute in Tours is protected by tall buildings and a spectator throng. I'm here to tell you that the wind along the river is anything but slight; a swirling, gusting force that is sure to play havoc with the riders.The rules of a team time trial: All nine members of a team start side-by-side today, atop a Tour-yellow starting ramp. They will ride in a single pace line throughout. The clock stops when a team's top six riders cross the finish line. A special jury watches each finish from a reviewing stand along President Wilson Avenue, which lies at the end of a 1200-meter straight finish. Look for teams like Euskatel-Euskadi -- which consists of several tiny, spider-armed, farmer-tanned Spanish climbers – to lose members en route. Their specialty is climbing, not time trialing. However, look for all nine members of today's favorites to finish together. A team is always stronger with more men to take turns pulling at the front of the pace line.Those favorites, by the way, are Discovery Channel, Phonak, T-Mobile, and CSC. The last squad, led by race leader Dave Zabriskie, is perhaps the strongest overall team in the field. But this is a stage where riders will pedal as close to one another as possible. Too close and they clip wheels and crash. An inch too far apart and the added speed of the draft is minimized. A good team leader keeps his troops in line and encourages them to work in synch during the time trial's early moments, when too much adrenaline can scuttle organization. A good leader also shows how its done, motivating them by taking extended pulls up front when his teammates are tired late in the stage. So who wins and loses today is just as much a matter of team leadership as athletic potential. An example of how a poor team leader can cause mayhem during a time trial is Team Phonak's wretched showing in last year's team time trial. Hamilton, a man prone to daydreaming and note:  It seems that Martin had a Tyler Hamilton moment of his own here.It's worth noting that Luke Roberts from CSC is perhaps the best qualified, though most overlooked, member of their squad for this stage. He was part of the Australian team winning the gold medal in the 4,000-meter team pursuit at last year's Olympics. Team pursuit is a shorter sort of team time trial. Another member of that Aussie team was Brad McGee of the Francaise de Jeux squad.Shared a small elevator with Tour CEO Jean Marie LeBlanc last night. He was in good spirits, explaining that he was on his way from his second cocktail party of the night to his third, which would be followed by two dinners. I took his upbeat attitude to mean the Tour is proceeding according to his plan. In those years when the Tour descends into chaos, LeBlanc can either be a curmudgeon or downright dismissive.In case any of you are wondering, 189 riders started this year's Tour. That's 21 teams, with nine riders per team. The team leader's number always ends in "1" and the rest of his teammates' numbers end in 2 through 9. No one's number ends in zero. The entire Tour will be 3,608 kilometers. I'll let you do the math, but let's just say it's about 2,000 miles.Took a leisurely run around Tours this morning. I'm so immersed in the Tour de France that I forget it's workday, and was surprised at first to be dodging pedestrian commuters on the sidewalks. The Boulevard Nationale is the same wide thoroughfare where yesterday's stage finished and today's begins. It is a broad, if rather unspectacular, collection of apartments, hotels, brasseries, and shops. The most interesting facet is the alleyways and side streets, with their quaint café's and patisseries. It's all so very French.By the way, I'm here to tell you that, despite what the bestselling book says, French women do get fat. So do French men. And they smoke like swimsuit models. However, everyone seems to either walk or ride a bike (those old three-speeds with the basket on the handlerbars and panniers hanging over the back fender). I haven't seen a single morbidly obese person since I arrived. After my run I took a long walk down through the starting area. All the team busses were in place five hours before the stage would begin. Discovery's wind trainers were all in a precise line, awaiting the time for group warm-up. Team mechanics were checking and polishing each bike. Disc wheels (made by Bontrager) and tri-spokes (Hed.3) were attached. Everything was set to go by 11:30, and a crowd packed the surrounding barricades, awaiting Lance and the crew to emerge from the bus. What no one was telling them was that Discovery wasn't on the bus. They weren't planning to leave their hotel in Nantes until 1:30, and wouldn't arrive until almost 3. Call it G8 fever (from what I read in the papers, it seems America can, and will, ignore African poverty and global warming at the upcoming Edinburgh summit. How very Karl Rove of us), or maybe just the ultimate Sideways getaway, but more and more American flags can be seen at the Tour. The groups are almost all men, traveling in small wolf packs. I have the feeling that the Tour has become like Augusta or the Super Bowl, a place where men of a certain age and financial status travel for their sporting jones and indulge in the local vintages. The phenomenon obviously has a lot to do with Lance, and seems singularly American at this point. I haven't seen Germans or Spaniards waving their flags or wearing their team colors. I need to talk with some of these guys and find out more. A quick hey to the Bongo Boys – Devin, Connor, and Liam. I'll be back after the stage. Just looked up at the feed and saw that T-Mobile's about to go off, and that Euskatel-Euskadi finished. I can hear the cheers outside as Liquigas-Bianchi charge home. Discovery goes off in 25 minutes. Hope Lance doesn't pull his foot out.

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Lost in the Scrum

Posted by MDugard Jul 4, 2005

Today's La Chatagineraie-Tours stage is deceptively grueling. The riders will see their first real uphill of the Tour, with three fourth-category climbs in the first 100 miles. The wind is blowing hard enough that the finish corridor had to be rebuilt after several morning gusts knocked the barricades flat. It's also a very good possibility that we'll see thunder and lightning sometime soon. But perhaps the biggest obstacle will be the nature of the rural town's along the route. Houses and buildings press right up to the roadway, spilling spectators onto the roads. Add in the many abrupt turns, and an abundance of roundabouts and medians ("road furniture" in Tour parlance) and the riders will have to pay close attention to avoid a crash.The finish straightaway is spectacular. Used annually as the final stretch of the Paris-Tours Classic, it's 3,000 meters right into the gut of the city. The boulevard is wide enough to accommodate a dozen cyclists abreast. Fans were already lining the route by early morning. It is expected that they will pack the barricades ten-deep as the riders charge for home this afternoon.Though it's a longshot (I'm watching the feed right now, and the three-man breakaway group led by Erik Dekker is slowly being reeled in), I'm hoping for a successful breakaway. Barring that, the final sprint will be a long furious hammer to the line. Should make for great drama.Speaking of sprint finishes, Lance Armstrong watched a videotape of yesterday's finish in his hotel room last night. He marveled at the daredevil nature of the sprinters, and said he was glad not to be among them. It's worth pointing out that his Discovery Team is one of the few squads not to use a dedicated sprinter at the Tour. They're not willing to risk the loss of a rider due to a crash.It's hard not to notice that many of this year's top riders once worked for Lance. Among them are Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, yesterday's winner Tom Boonen, and current wearer of the yellow jersey Dave Zabriskie. Dan Ossipow of the Discovery Team points out that their departures were all amicable, and it's true that these men were all very talented riders who could make more money and have a better chance of winning elsewhere. However, it's worth pointing out that Landis often chafed aloud at team manager Johann Bruyneel's authoritarian leadership and that Dave Zabriskie's quirky sense of humor went unappreciated. When it came time for contract renewal last fall, Zabriskie wasn't booted from the team. Instead, he was offered an amount of money so small as to be laughable. He had no difficulty leaving to sign with CSC.To Discovery's credit, they stuck through Zabriskie during two trying years of injury (unlike Cofidis, which dropped Lance in the midst of his cancer recovery). After the crash at Redlands last year which shredded the skin on his upper body and knocked him senseless, a tearful Zabriskie lay in his hospital bed and wondered aloud whether he had the strength to make a comeback.At last year's Tour, I noticed quite a few Capri pants on men. It seemed a whimsical fashion statement. Like day-glo and baggy cotton weightlifting pants, the trend seemed sure to die a quick death. Sadly, this has not come to pass. Richard Virenque – a mercurial former rider who never lived up to his country's expectations of a Tour victory – was even wearing a pair while taping a segment on French TV. Hey, I'm not saying the guy was wearing a skirt (not that there's anything wrong with that) but it just didn't look right.For the curious among you, today's media buffet was perhaps the best yet. Each town sponsors a dish highlighting their local specialties, and Tours put forth a spectacular effort. The appetizer was some sort of creamy pork spread that tasted like carnitas ("what is this?" I asked the woman behind the table. She was wearing a flowing green robe that looked very much like a Notre Dame graduation gown. "Mmmm…. How you say? Pig," she replied). So I ate the pig (very good) a slice of local brie, passed on the vegetable pate and roast beef (I'll go back for that later), and finished it all off with a china demitasse of coffee. All of it was good, but I'd have to say that the pig was the highlight.After the stage...Here's what it's like to cover a sprint finish: squeeze through a crowd of spectators through the small press entrance into the finish area. I go straight out into the middle of the road, into a crowd of TV camera men. The official shakes a finger at me and order me to stand in an enclosed area reserved for print journalists. Except the enclosed area is as crowded as a cattle stall on market day, and the journalists will be held in there until the TV guys have had a crack at the riders. I wait until the official turns away, then escape the holding pen and squeeze into a crowd of TV guys. By now the race announcer is going crazy on the P.A.   Straight ahead, I can see the entire peloton passing under the one-kilometer to go archway (the "flame rouge").   Tom Boonen throws up his arms straight up in ecstasy after winning the sprint. Then things get a little crazy. The rides whiz up to where I am standing, not bothering to touch their breaks until they're almost on the crowd. The street becomes a sea of riders and journalists. The cyclists have one foot in the pedals and the other unclipped to steady themselves. Lance comes up to me. I tell him congratulations, then make a note to get to his team bus as quickly as possible.   He's upset about getting cut off and nearly crashing with three kilometers remaining.George Hincapie rides past, tall and lean and tanned, with a gruesome set of varicose veins bulging from his left calf. Ivan Basso stops to do an interview with a Spanish broadcaster.   It seems strange to see him so eloquent, because he looks so tortured when trying out his English. A Belgian domestique sees his mother behind the barricades and smiles broadly as he pedals over.  I am now complexly surrounded by bikes. The riders bump off of me and each other, always moving toward their team bus. Floyd Landis pedals alongside and slows to my pace. His red hair and goatee are trim and it looks like he has not broken a sweat all day. He rides while I walk and ask questions. Landis is witty and humble, already looking past this week into the mountains. After a block I run out of things to ask and he pedals away. I'll save the extended interview for another day.  By now the streets are a scrum of riders, press and team buses revving up and driving out of town. The race has been over for five minutes. It all happens that fast. Jan Ullrich pedals past, his body pressed against the AG2M bus as it rolls away. And then the riders are gone, off for a night of eating, massage and sleep.Boonen's victory means that every stage thus far has been won by a former teammate of Lance Armstrong's. This is significant because he handpicked each one. It's as if Lance has personally shaped modern cycling.Tomorrow's a pivotal day. I was going to say it's going to be a "very big" day, but there will be so many of those in weeks to come that I don't want to overuse the phrase now. It's to be a 67.5-kilometer team time trial from Tours to Blois (a city whose name means "wolf", given by the Celts, who ruled the area until 584 and feared the many wolves in its thick forests). The first 15 miles are flat. It will be easy for teams to stay together and maintain top speeds. But a series of climbs soon make the route extremely daunting, particularly the climb at Carrefour in the 58th kilometer. Look for CSC, Discovery, Phonak, and T-Mobile to battle it out. Dave Zabriskie's slim two second lead is definitely not safe.I bounced that assessment off Floyd Landis this afternoon. He says that the profile is misleading, and that it's actually very flat tomorrow. The route runs along the banks of   the Loire River. Those hills shown in the pre-race profiles are actually a very slight gradient. Landis says CSC is the obvious favorite, but points out that they've been working hard the past two days and are vulnerable. Blois, which has been rebuilt after being almost entirely destroyed by World War II bombing, is also the birth place of Harry Houdini. It's also the place where Joan of Arc also rallied her army against the British in 1429.Speaking of history, the French are a funny people. The local history of Tours takes pains to point out that it was devastated by German bombing between June 19-21, 1940. However, it points, the Allied raid of May 20, 1944 caused far more damage. Maybe if they'd repelled the invasion in the first place the French wouldn't have had that problem.Lance, by the way, had a few things to say about tomorrow. "The Maillot Jaune is something to be cherished," he said while standing in front of his team bus. "You can bet I'll be fighting for it tomorrow. CSC is a tough team and tomorrow's a big day."Looking forward to it.

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Woke last night to the sound of thunder…Happy Fourth of July from Tours, scene of today's finish. This is the first rather large city the Tour will pass through this year. My hotel room is on the fifth floor of the Hotel de l'Univers. Once upon a time L'Univers was a majestic residence, hosting the likes of Hemingway and Hepburn. Now it has fallen, but still possesses a certain shabby beauty, and what it lacks in opulence it makes up in charm, like the view it provides me as I write. I look out through old-fashioned wood-pained windows, the kind that swing all the way open. Across the slanted black rooftops I can see the eight-story clock tower, with its bronze cupola and bell. Ornate stone carvings of Greek gods and lion-headed gargoyles line the block-wide tower, and a tolling bell marks the passing of each hour. The window is open and the curtains pulled back, letting in a chill morning breeze. The Tour, I am reminded, is not just about cycling. It is a literal tour of France, with all its subtle beauty and charm.The riders won't be here for six hours. I am impressed that the finish straightaway will be nearly two miles long, making for either a spectacular sprint finish or an agonizing final passage for some lone breakaway group. Out the window, in the distance, I can hear the amplified voice of the finish line announcer, already warmed up and broadcasting. He will be out there, announcing the daily carnival that defines a Tour finish, until late tonight.Oh. He just took a break. From the bombastic sound of swelling music, I can tell that the podium girls are practicing this afternoon's yellow jersey presentation. It will be this way each morning, all the way to Paris.The drive over from Les Essarts last night was longer than I expected, though the journey along the N160 was wondrous. I had the window rolled down and could smell fresh-cut alfalfa as I passed through the farmland and small towns, with their cobbled streets and brown exteriors (a sudden contrast to the whitewashed colors along the coast). I saw my first vineyards of this year's Tour; the first sunflowers and wheat).  As eight o'clock became nine o'clock became ten, it looked like making Tours before the restaurants closed would be an impossibility.So I bought a small pizza and an Orangina at a roadside stand, not quite sure what ingredients I was ordering, but pleasantly surprised to be greeted with anchovies, unpitted black olives, thin-sliced sausage and a rather zesty tomato/pimento sauce. Tres bien.Crossed the Loire River at Samour. It is as broad and sluggish as the Mississippi this time of year, laced with sand bars and dangerous eddies. Samour would have been a great place to stop had it been earlier. The bridge was old and made of stone, with arched supports like the bridges of Paris and London. I could see a huge castle jutting above the town, and the dome of a cathedral nestled in the sycamores along the water. Ah, well. Another time.The first Tour I covered was 1999, the year Lance Armstrong first won. I came to write a story about Greg LeMond's new bike touring company. LeMond was kind enough to loan me one of his personal bikes ("LeMond" was written in Sharpee on the front tire). On the day of the pivotal Sestriere Alpine stage, LeMond was eager to talk with Lance beforehand. I tagged along as LeMond tracked him down in a small trailer near the starting line. Lance was inside, talking strategy with Tyler Hamilton, then his top domestique. LeMond went in, while I stood outside with the guy holding Lance's bike. By the time they emerged, the past and future of American cycling arm in arm, the photographers had found them. Lance would go on to win the stage that day, donning the yellow jersey that he would wear to Paris.In reply to an email from Curious in Carlsbad: Yes, the Tour will go forth as scheduled today, despite the thunderstorms. There are no rainouts at the Tour.Those thunderstorms ripped through here at about 4 am. The windows were open (air conditiong, apparently, non-existent when l'Univers was built) and the sudden crackle of lightning and boom of thunder fairly lit up the room. I think it had something to do with that clock tower across the way being the tallest structure in town. I could smell the rain outside -- you know, the way it smells on grass and pavement on a warm summer evening. The storm raged for several hours. Now the sky is relatively calm, if covered in puffy grey clouds.So… to wrap up last night. Checked in at midnight. Walked down to the corner brasserie for a beer and the chance to write down my notes. Much to my surprise, it was loaded with Americans (as well as Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, Bob Babbitt, and Bob Roll).  When I think of the groups of people who make their way to the Tour each year, I think in nationalistic terms: the Americans, the Germans, the Spaniards, and on. But as I spoke with a young couple from the Bay Area, I was reminded that another group of individuals come: Cancer survivors whose lives have been touched by Armstrong. Thirty-year old Jordan Redner told me of the changes he's made in his life since beating Hodgkins, and about how he'd been inspired by the Armstrong Foundation information he obtained while undergoing treatment at Stanford. Since then he's lived every day to the fullest, much like Lance (when people wonder how Lance can often be so direct and confrontational, it seems there's a correlation between cancer and that inability to endure b.s.). Now Redner's in Tours, cheering on Armstrong.I wished Redner and his wife, Mary (who is fretting about the loss of her wedding ring; best of luck with that) good night. As I walked back to the room I couldn't help but wish that my little sister, Monique, who read Armstrong's book as she lay dying, could be here too. Kind of puts it all in perspective, you know?More later. Today's going to be a fantastic stage, loaded with scenery and challenge. Talk to you then.

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Stage Two, Part Two

Posted by MDugard Jul 3, 2005

The eyes of France were on Thomas Voeckler, hoping against hope that his four-man breakaway group could pull of a stage win and put him in yellow. And though he pulled it off last year, the baby-faced national hero was unsuccessful on this blistering Sunday afternoon. The peloton slowly but surely reeled in the breakaway. They seemed to be in no hurry, content in the knowledge that the gap between them and Voeckler's bunch was too small to be a threat. They were right. Tom Boonen got the win in a sprint breakaway.Voeckler's day, however, wasn't a total washout. Thanks to a time bonus awarded the first cyclist to pass the stage's 150-kilometer mark, he now wears the polka-dotted jersey.  This is awarded to the best mountain rider. Today's "mountain" was the renowned 230-foot peak, Chateau Guibert.Lance Armsrong, Dave Zabriskie, Alexandre Vinokourov, and everybody else in the top 10 finished without worry. Which is not to say there wasn't tension. The TV feed showed a telling moment when Lance's Discovery Team shadowed Zabriskie's CSC squad. The two men made eye contact; just Lance's way of reminding Zabriskie that he considers the yellow jersey to be on loan.We still don't know a lot about Zabriskie. He comes across as – let's put it right out there – boring in interviews. Friends say he's just extremely shy, and that in person he's one of the sharpest, wittiest people you'd ever want to meet. He gave brief evidence of that in his post-race press conference, telling journalists that the survival course team manager Bjarne Riis insisted CSC undertake in the off-season "made a man out of him." OK, not that funny, but at least it was better than yesterday's awkward interviews, when he could barely mumble more than a sentence at a time. One other thing: The Utah native resides in Berkeley when he's not in Europe. His girlfriend is just finishing up school there.A new rule in effect this year gives the same time to every rider that finishes within two kilometers of the winner. This is designed to minimize those sphincter-clenching sprint finishes and the all-too-frequent catastrophic crashes (kissing the pavement at 35 mph is a singularly horrid sensation) that have defined the Tour's early stages in years past. That's why the gap between the sprinters and the peloton was several hundred yards at the finish today.Floyd Landis averaged 200 watts of energy expenditure today. On his scale of 1-10, that's about a 4. His training rides often see him average 250 for six hours straight, so Landis was pretty much just kicking back today. Don't ask me how this watt thing works, but I'm told it translates to about 3200 calories burned. Though that doesn't sound like much for a 115-mile ride, consider this: Landis didn't even have to pedal 16% of the time. He just flowed in the slipstream, sucked along by the riders in front. This, of course, is the same tactic Lance Armstrong has used so successfully on his way to six victories.Had a talk with Alan Lim, Landis' coach. The Discovery Team has scoffed at Landis's chances in the coming mountain stages, but Lim says those will be Landis's forte. Over the past two months he has climbed more than 350,000 vertical feet in training, an average of 7-15,000 feet up the Pyrenees each day. Lim says that Landis was up to the constant climbing, but that the clutch on the rental car used as a chase vehicle was so trashed they had to get a new one. To work on his time-trialing skills, Landis would switch to his TT bike whenever he rode through a valley. "Some people think you need to train long, some people think you need to train hard," says Lim. "Floyd thinks you need to train long and hard."Not that Landis is bitter about his time with Discovery, but the free-spirited Mennonite couldn't be happier at Phonak. He felt stifled at Discovery (then Postal Service) and was bothered by the team's rigid class system, which had every rider working for Lance, at all times.   Chris Carmichael of Discovery is openly doubtful that Landis can be a team leader this year, calling him a "top 15 G.C. (general classification, or overall finish) candidate at best." Lim, however, says that Landis is "one of the toughest people you'll ever meet." Not that either man is biased…Last on Landis, for now: Interestingly, he and Dave Zabriskie, the man in yellow, are roommates and training partnerss. Though they race for separate teams, Landis and Zabriskie share an apartment in Girona, Spain. They ride 80-150 miles per day, averaging 30 hours of training per week. For those in the know, that's the same Girona where Lance lives and trains while in Europe. He's not too forthcoming on his training mileage.A little bit of Tour trivia: It's a year-round corporation, sponsoring events other than the Tour. The official corporate uniform is a dark brown blazer, tan pants, and brown shoes. Bernard Hinault is fond of breaking the dress code on hot days by removing his blazer before making the post-race podium presentations.The press room today is a mile from the finish. It's housed in a school gymnasium with a wood-beamed roof and those retractable basketball backboards (six, in all) winched up to the ceiling. The air is thick with cigarette smoke and the air hums with cell phone rings,   a French show called "Velo Club" on the flat screen monitors, and journalistic debates in a half-dozen languages that somehow blend together into a single international thrum.   A woman with a bored expression circulates up and down the long rows of tables, passing out the day's results and a half-dozen other press releases, most of which are worthless. I would like to say that we all smell like lavender, but there is no air-conditioning and I sweat sitting still.   Just thought you might want to know...I like my history, so I'm looking forward to the next two stages. As we work our way westward up the Loire Valley, leaving the salt marshes and oysters of the Atlantic region behind, the towns possess are sometimes more than a thousand years old. My favorite tidbit from the Tour guidebook revolves around the city of La Chatagnerie, where the riders begin tomorrow's stage: "Local resident Francois de Vivonne was the tragic hero who fought a duel with the Baron de Jarnac in 1543. Vivonne lost, and Jarnac severed his hamstrings as he lay bleeding." Off to Tours to spend the night this evening and tomorrow night. It's the site of the third stage finish and the starting point for the fourth, that all-important individual time-trial.  Lance Armstrong and the Discovery Team, continuing their tradition of lodging as far as humanly possible from the race (and the press) as possible, are staying an hour further up the road in Chambord.Tomorrow's stage is just over 120 miles long. The terrain is rolling throughout, on country roads lined with pastures and irrigation canals. The high temperature today was 95 degrees, and more of the same is expected for tomorrow. Good news for the riders is that showers are expected in the middle miles, providing a brief respite. Talk to you then.

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Day One, Part Two

Posted by MDugard Jul 2, 2005

Noirmoutier en L'ile is the Cape Cod of France, known for its tourism and fruits of the sea. If you like oysters, this is the place to be. The media buffet, which each day showcases the food of local regions, featured heaping plasters of oysters (a leaner, slicker version of the stuff from back home), a creamy red fish chowder and piles of another local specialty, sea salt. Heaping mounds of it can be seen drying along the roads. I don't know much about salt, but the texture and taste reminds me of a deeply saline kosher salt. The wind is blowing from the northwest, which means it will be on the rider's left. It's misting, but the road isn't slick. The expanse of ocean along which the riders are pedaling right now is the Bay of Biscay. It is an area laden with history, as explorers from Columbus through Captain Cook have sailed though its turbulent waters (Cook considered this passage one of the toughest on earth). More recently, the Nazi U-boat fleet sheltered in bombproof concrete pens up the road in Lorient during World War II. The Tour route for the first four days will stay just south of the path the Allies followed after D-Day. The latter half of this week, however, will pass through cities and forests that saw some of the heaviest and most infamous fighting in the winter of 1944-45, as well as passing close to the legendary WWI battlefield of Verdun. While waiting for the stage to begin today, the broadcast feed in the pressroom featured a French television show that looked to be a cross between Desperate Housewives and CSI. Looked interesting. Couldn't understand a word. Had a conversation with Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong's coach, just after he did his stint on today's OLN broadcast. His comments were memorable for their direct nature. Namely, that Lance was in no condition to win the Tour four months ago. But then two key things happened: Armstrong announced his retirement just before the Tour of Georgia, which provided him with motivation and a certain nostalgia; and, Armstrong hurled his Blackberry into Austin's Lake Travis because his fondness for instant email was occupying too much of his time. Now, says Carmichael, only a crash, illness or just plain bad luck can stop Armstrong.Much is being made of the Armstrong/Floyd Landis rivalry, but Carmichael considers Landis a decided longshot. Saying that the pressure of being a team leader will be too tough on the immature Landis, Carmichael considers him a top-15 choice at best. Discovery team director Johann Bruyneel would like Lance to have at least a 90-second advantage over top climbers like Alexandre Vinokourov, Ivan Basso, and Roberto Heras before the first mountain stage on July 12.The consensus is that Armstrong should win today's time trial.   Jan Ullrich, who crashed into the back of his team car during a training ride yesterday, should also do well. However, the dark horse is Santiago Botero of Team Phonak. He starts just six minutes before Armstrong.An evolving aspect of the Tour is the different nationalities among the spectators. The vibe today is almost entirely French, with the majority of Americans, Spaniards, Germans and other tourists expected to bombard the event over the next week, as the race approaches the sexy mountain stages. However, I did run across a group of students from Helena High School in Montana, visiting the Tour for the first time with their French teacher. Their names, because they were so rabid and so interesting to talk to: Marta Madden, Julie Grant, Brenden Mcgill, Dylan Larsen, and Jordan Morey.   All were wearing Lance's LiveStrong bracelets. Larsen, held up a sign stating "Montana loves Lance and Levi." The Levi in question was Team Gerolsteiner's Levi Leipheimer, who hails from Butte, Montana. Butte, the students assure me, is "the shithole of the world." Nice.As I write, the 73rd rider of the day is beginning his time trial. But I haven't seen any of the action because the video feed in the press room is down. It's time to walk over to the finish line and watch this Tour de France thing in person. I'll check in later, when today's stage is all said and done.

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