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Straight Out of Strasbourg

Posted by MDugard on Jul 4, 2006 2:58:49 PM

The first person I saw as I walked up to the Tour this morning was El Diablo, the German gentleman who parades around in a devil costume. Usually you don't see him until the mountain stages, where he positions himself twenty kilometers or so from the finish, then chases the riders with his pitchfork. It's a visual that anyone who watches the Tour knows all too well. So this morning I saw him out there, painting his trademark pitchfork on the road with a roller of white paint. He has a brand new uniform for this year's Tour, and two sponsor logos splattered on the front. Despite the horns, cape and Grizzly Adams beard he's not very frightening in person. Families were stopping to have their picture taken with him, and he even signed a few autographs.  A quick segue: The Tour has never been one to shy away from publicity, good or bad. I can't help but think that these doping suspensions were a pre-emptive strike, designed to kick suspected riders out of the race now, rather than a week or two from now when they might be in contention or wearing the yellow jersey. I honestly believe that the Tour's organizers are serious about cleaning up doping (but really, is that possible? I don't think anyone thinks they can stop it entirely. They can only keep it in check from time to time), but I also think that this bit of publicity works in their favor. The eyes of France and Germany aren't on the Tour, but on the World Cup. The Tour doesn't have a Lance Armstrong trying to win eight in a row to shift that focus back to cycling. So doping will have to do. Like an old friend once reminded me, there's no such thing as bad publicity.  The Tour, by the way, did not suspend Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, or any of the other riders. They insisted that each rider's team do the deed. This keeps the Tour's hands clean in case of future lawsuits if those guys are proven innocent.  There is no sense of outrage about the suspensions. The mood in Strasbourg is that the Tour is bigger than any bike racer. It's all very blase. Everyone just wants to watch the race get underway.  The prologue is generally held in the evening. It's being held in the afternoon this year so the Tour doesn't have to compete with tonight's World Cup games. The first rider rolls out of the start house at 1:15 (Cedric Coutouly, wearing bib number 193). Riders follow in one-minute intervals. The last man to ride the 4.4-mile prologue course will be George Hincapie, who starts at 4:10. He will be wearing number 3. The winner of last year's opening stage, Dave Zabriskie, starts just before Hincapie. It should take most riders somewhere around eight minutes to finish.  The pre-race village just opened up. It's a place for the Tour officials, local VIP's, and even the media to hang out before the race. There are internet stations, free newspapers, a local cooking demonstration (today's special had something to do with potatoes, green beans and marshmallows), and other amenities. Since this is the first day of the race, there was a big ceremony to mark the occasion -- a band playing, girls on stilts, the usual French fanfare. With the temperature heating up, the Aquarel water booth was a popular spot, as was the bar serving German beer and French wine. I searched in vain for a piece of camembert (sometimes I think it's the camembert that keeps me coming back to the Tour; with all due respect to Wisconsin and California dairy farmers, nothing matches French cheese). Settling for a piece of hard brown bread and a few thick slices of salami, I left the village behind.   Who's going to win this year? Someone who time-trials and climbs well, as always. This could be a bold Tour, with riders attacking constantly. It could actually be a blowout if someone has the balls to attack early on a big mountain stage.  It all starts with today's prologue. I ran the course this morning, and was astounded by the number of very sharp turns. If it was raining today, someone would probably go down. But it's going to be brutally hot, and the riders were sweating hard as they pre-rode the course this morning. The top riders are all unusually tense. They know that without Lance Armstrong in the picture, and with Ullrich and Basso gone, any of the top riders could win. George Hincapie and Floyd Landis had serious game faces on this morning, and even glib Chris Horner was tense. Should be a great race.  Talk to you later.

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