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A Great Day for Riding

Posted by MDugard on Jul 6, 2006 11:24:30 AM

Hey all. A great day for riding. The course roughly travels in a southwest direction, hewing close to the historic Meuse River. Lots of farmland, golden fields straight out of a Van Gogh painting, and small towns with lots of spectators.Today is the first time in the history of the Tour that two reigning world champions are ranked first and second overall. Road champ Tom Boonen is in yellow, while time-trial champion Michael Rogers of Australia (Team T-Mobile) is in second.But first, the medical reports: Freddie Rodriguez was examined for head trauma after his crash yesterday. Though out of the Tour, the tests showed no head injuries.Erik Dekker, the veteran Dutch rider who crashed out of the race yesterday, had surgery last night to remove gravel from his face and fix badly chipped teeth. Dekker's crash was thought to have been caused by a fan, but it turns out he hit a pothole and fell so quickly he had no time to react.Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde also suffered a severe crash yesterday. He flew to Valencia to get medical advice on his broken right collarbone. At this point, doctors are saying it's a clean break and Valverde should make a quuick recovery.The Saint-Quentin Canal is a navigable waterway linking the Somme with Escaut, was once the busiest in France. Napoleon considered it one of his Empire's finest engineering achievements.The Basilica here in Saint-Quentin is a beautiful, yet very beat up, 13th-century cathedral. It was burned in 1669 and bombed in 1917. Though the interior is still cavernous (the nave is three feet higher than that of the Notre Dame in Paris), chunks of stone have fallen off the exterior. Originally named after a 4th-century martyr (skewered on a spit, then decapitated), a local cardinal by the same name is also buried beneath the stone floor. In one alcove, safely contained inside an airtight glass contained, is the preserved hand of Saint-Quentin (severed at the wrist, skin still stretched over the long delicate fingers), though I'm not sure which Quentin is currently missing a hand.There are certain climactic conditions one likes to experience at certain sporting events. It should snow during playoff games in Green Bay. The altitude at Coors Field will always be a mile above sea level. And it should rain cats and dogs during the first week of the Tour de France. It's part of the Tour experience. But though there are clouds in the sky, and thunderstorms were predicted, it just feels hot and humid. It's a day when the smart riders will drink whenever they feel thirsty, as Floyd Landis points out.Hey, check out my website. I'm not very web savvy, so it's taken me since the introduction of the Internet to actually have a website. It's come to the point that a writer isn't really savvy if he doesn't have his own site, so it feels more like something to check off my to-do list than some great big self-promotional push. Go to and check it out.Every year the Tour organizers select a theme for the race. This year it's Tour history. But such is the animosity between former race director Jean-Marie LeBlanc and Lance Armstrong that the seven-time champion's name and photograph are conspicuously absent from the official Tour Road Book.The site of today's start was Huy, a splendid little city on the Meuse River. The city fathers call it la Belle Ville, and it truly is beautiful. Huy is set in a small forested valley that extends down to the river. A great castle overlooks the Huy, and the river is filled with barges, sailboats and sculls. The relaxed setting had quite an effect on the riders. After signing in, many of them chose to detour into the prerace village and relax in the shade rather than retreating to their team bus. They never walk and always take their bikes wherever they go. It was intriguing to watch riders navigate through the thick crowd, knowing that their tires had too much air pressure in them for the grass and gravel to cause a flat. Notably, the only team who didn't relax their discipline and enter the village was Discovery. They're still a vigilant bunch.Which brings up an interesting point. For seven years, Johan Bruyneel has been slagged for being a lucky team director instead of a talented team director. The thinking is that anyone could win if they had Lance Armstrong on their team. But Bruyneel has always been a tactical wizard, possessing an eerie ability to predict months ahead of time how the Tour will break down. He seems to be on a mission this year to change how he's perceived. Bruyneel is taking more time to talk and joke with the press. He's so relaxed and easygoing this year that I thought he was a different person when I ran into him a few days ago -- not behaving like a different person, but truly someone else. The transformation is startling, and it would be quite a coup if a Discovery stands atop the podium in Paris.Paris still seems a long way off, and in race terms it is. But we're actually just an hour north right now. All day long, signs on the autoroute have announced the turn toward Paris. That day will come soon enough. There's a whole loop of the country to make in the meantime.After paying homage to the Amstel Gold and Fleche-Wallon cycling classics by detouring into Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands over the last two stages, we're back in France. Other than a detour into Spain next Thursday to climb the Puerto-de-Beret, we're in France for good. That's a nice thing. I literally didn't know which country I was in most of the time yesterday. Started off in Luxembourg, passed through Belgium, into Holland, then back into Belgium (I think) to spend the night in Maastricht. The borders seem a little superfluous now that the European Union is in place. Crossing from one country to the next happens with far less fanfare than crossing from California into Nevada. France, of course, has a great big sign announcing that you are formally entering their nation.And unlike the other countries, they haven't torn down the customs outposts at the border -- just in case that whole EU thing takes a tumble, I guess. Then again, it makes sense. These nations often take the long historical view, having been around long enough to see borders and attitudes change. In ten years or in a hundred, the EU may be no more, and vigilant France will be ready.The course today is relatively flat and perfect for a solo breakaway group to dart ahead. They may not win the overall stage, but there are three sprint bonus sections. It would be a perfect way to slash a few seconds from their overall time.That Germany-Italy game last night pretty much brought Maastricht to a standstill last night. And even though Germany's border was just a few miles away, the fans were overwhelmingly pro-Italy. Tonight's France-Portugal game, however, will be even bigger. French flags are everywhere, and are even being sold in the street. The Tour press room is setting up a special big screen to show the game, and if France wins it will blow the lid off this place. No telling what will happen if they win the final, too.Random driving thoughts: last May I was in Italy, covering the Giro. I needed to get to Barcelona to interview Floyd Landis, and the quickest and easiest way to get there (thanks to scheduling issues), was by car. So I drove all the way from Genoa to Barcelona and back to the Giro, twelve hours each way, to spend time with Floyd. It was great, he was personable, I was happy with the way the story came out, etc. My point is that French radio in the south is all European pop music, and I only had one CD with me (Springsteen's Seeger Sessions) which I pretty much knew by heart when the drive was done. Well, once again I forgot to bring any CD's with me, and I'm trying to rely on French radio. I'm glad to say it's better and more eclectic in the north. I'm listing to artists I usually wouldn't pay attention to. I've got a new appreciation for Eminem, and Shakira, and wonder how come I haven't paid any attention to Carly Simon lo these many years. And while it was nice to turn the music up loud, I thought the hour-long Bon Jovi tribute was a tad excessive.You know that theme in French Kiss, the Lawrence Kasdan movie about France, where Meg Ryan is constantly hoping to see the Eiffel Tower, but keeps missing out? (I should point out that Kevin Kline's Luc Tessiere is the best and most accurate portrayal of a Frenchman by a non-French actor that I have ever seen). I sort of felt like that about Holland and windmills. I've been through here before, but I must have been sleeping on the train or something whenever we passed one by.Well, this morning when I went out a run I saw one. I was about a mile  from my hotel, at the exact spot where the city sidewalks ended and the countryside cornfields began, and there it was. They're very large, just in case you're curious.And finally, as the first cycling tour groups start to arrive a the Tour, a couple words of advice for those of you who've signed up for one and will be coming over. First, tell me you've trained. I don't have to tell you how embarrassing it is, year after year, when American tour groups are always the ones walking their bikes up a mountain. Second, if you have trained, please don't enthrall your tour buddies about your new speed while eating dinner in a quiet cafe. Remember that old football saying about scoring a touchdown: when you reach the end zone, act like you've been there before. In other words, if you're a talented athlete, let the riding speak for itself. And finally, please don't get anal about the food. Last year in Lourdes I heard one group go on and on about how proud they were that the had been in France five days without touching a bit of butter or sip a glass of red wine. Hey, a week of butter and red wine won't hurt the active training lifestyle. In fact, it might just help. Those are just my two cents. If you're coming over, have fun. Just looked up at the flat screens here in the press room and saw that Floyd Landis has flatted.Talk to you soon.

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