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Master and Apprentice

Posted by MDugard on Jul 8, 2006 6:32:34 AM

Robbie McEwen thrust three fingers into the sky after his victory today. This is significant for a couple reasons. First, and most obviously, it's his third stage win of this year's Tour. He's won stages two, four and six. This give him eleven Tour de France career stage wins. The amazing thing, however, is that McEwen also won three stages at this year's Giro D'Italia (literally, the Feast of Italy, it's their version of the Tour, held each May). Just like here, he won stages two, four and six. Those victories also gives him a career total of eleven for the Giro. That running motion McEwen made with his arms after crossing the line was the result of a running dialogue with Levi Leipheimer. Each has pledged to perform the Dumb and Dumber salute when they win a race. It's supposed to mime them running in place, in slow motion. McEwen felt that his chances for victory yesterday were sabotaged by Belgian teammate Gert Steegmans. It is the job of the up-and-coming Steegmans to pace McEwen toward the starting line by setting a torrid pace. When the time is right, McEwen shoots off Steegman's draft and rockets toward the finish. It's the same slingshot technique used by NASCAR drivers. But Steegman went too early yesterday, which earned him a brisk lesson in tactics from McEwen. At 34, McEwen knows he's entering his last years of competition. He sees Steegman as his heir apparent, albeit one who's a little rough around the edges. So McEwen's taken it upon himself to be Steegman's tutor. Steegman was told that, under no circumstances, was he to make his move before more than 400 meters left. But at precisely 400 meters, Steegman was to pounce. He did. Steegman sprinted so fast that McEwen had a hard time keeping up. But when the time came to launch forward to the line, McEwen blasted around Steegman and won by five yards. It was brilliant to watch. "I really had to jump to stay on his wheel," McEwen said later. "It was like I was sitting on my own personal TGV. I'm the only one with a ticket and I just have to get off at my station."I couldn't be farther out in the country than I am right now, even if I owned a farm. Vitre, site of today's finish, is a small town in the Brittany region. It is a vibrant town ("A Young Town Which is Resolutely Modern" being the town motto), with castles and narrows roads and the TGV whispering into the train station. But there's not much in the way of vast open spaces. Those are the kinds of things the Tour needs to conduct a proper finish.So while the finish accouterment, such as the podium and doping control and the play-by-play television booths where Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen and the teams of international announcers sit (their booth is always positioned right next to the finish line, no matter the town, no matter the Tour), have been plopped in between a feed store and a heavy equipment rental concession, the press have been dispatched to a vast cornfield five miles away. I actually like it very much. It reminds me of being in South Dakota. I'm struck by the irony that in France, where the same towns have thrived for centuries, they struggle to present themselves as modern. In the States it's the other way around. New towns struggle to find a sense of tradition. The start and finish towns for tomorrow's time trial are nearby. Fans have already begun arriving to set up their spot for cheering. The road was jammed with campers and cars with bike racks. These people are professional when it comes to watching a bike race, just like some folks back home excel at pre-football parking lot tailgate parties. They've got satellite dishes, they've got portable tables and chairs, they've got flags and banners, and they've got lots and lots of food and wine. As I've noted before, the Tour likes to finish each stage in time for the evening news. Tomorrow that means the first rider will go off at 10:48 in the morning (last place Sebastien Joly; the order goes from last to first) and overall leader Tom Boonen chugs out of the starting house at 4:28 in the afternoon. It's important to note that morning tempartures are supposed to be cool, while it's supposed to be in the 80's when Boonen begins. Names to watch: Levi Leipheimer begins at 3:40; Bobby Julich starts exactly one hour in front of Boonen; time-trial ace Dave Zabriskie at 3:56; Britain's David Millar at 4:02; Floyd Landis at 4:14; and, George Hincapie at 4:20. Just to make it easier to figure out when to watch it all live on TV, we're six hours ahead of New York here. The riders start two minutes apart. The 32-mile course is long enough that some riders will catch the man in front of him. And while it would be interesting if Tom Boonen won his first stage of the Tour tomorrow, he's still very much a pure sprinter. Tomorrow's a day for guys like Zabriskier and Michael Rogers of CSC (start time: 4:24). Rogers, for instance, begins just back of sprinter Oscar Freire, winner of yesterday's stage. He will likely catch Freire and even put a little bit of time into George Hincapie. Hincapie, Landis and Leipheimer are all very calm about tomorrow. Keyed up, maybe, but outwardly stoic. If, by some outrageous quirk of fate, the possibility of three Americans on the podium in Paris starts to look like it really may happen, it could become quite a sports story. But anything can happen. A flat, a crash... it's crazy what they must be thinking right now. I was mentioning yesterday that I was thinking of camping out with some of the fans tonight. Still seems like a good idea 24 hours later, so I'm going to give it a go. I brought a sleeping bag for times like this (in previous Tours, traffic jams getting down off Alpine summits has meant spending the night in fields of clover). Of course, I don't want to just camp -- I want to find a really good corner of the course where the people are having fun and see how they do this camping thing. What does one do with a group of international strangers the night before a bike race? I'd like to know. I'll let you know how it goes. Talk to you tomorrow.

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