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Posted by MDugard on Jul 8, 2006 3:38:00 AM

The rain started at ten past six this morning. As road crews labored in the early morning darkness to close the course to vehicles -- blocking roads and intersections, lining tricky corners with hay bales wrapped in bright red and white plastic -- the downpour intensified. After an hour it stopped, but the skies are still very dark and it should rain on and off throughout the day. The start town of St. Gregoire is a city of flowers and romantic canals that extend a hundred miles to the Atlantic Ocean. Hanging baskets and manicured beds of bright flowers line the roads. This is the sort of small town that makes you want to buy a paper, sit down at a cafe, and spend a good hour or so savoring the ambience. The finish area in Rennes, however, just ten miles away, goes through such a bad area of the city that the McDonald's has steel grates on the drive-thru window (McDrive, to the French). If the McDonald's back home served the same rich black coffee they do here, I'd be hard pressed to visit Starbucks. The pre-race village has a diverse menu this morning, reflecting the fact that the start area will be open from dawn to dusk due to the six hours it will take for all the time trial riders to get underway. Breakfast, surprisingly, is scrambled eggs and small spicy sausages, terrine de canard, Camembert, salami, and Grand Mere coffee. Something you don't see every day: Two of the Tour's stilt women taking a break. They wander through the starting area on six-foot stilts, dressed in make-up and various costumes each day. Instead of taking their rest on a park bench or in the shade, they merely walked over in stilts and sat down on top of a van. Rennes is the capital of the Brittany region, and scene of conflict for centuries. In 1491, Charles VII, who was then being pressed for funds to support Christopher Columbus's first voyage, sacked Rennes so he could abduct and marry a 14-year-old duchess. A Christmas Day fire in 1720 destroyed most of the town, and when it was reconstructed, the architect doing the design work was Jacques Gabriel, who also designed the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Finally, the obligatory WWII reference: General George S. Patton liberated Rennes on August 14, 1944. It's culinary specialties are cold meats and buckwheat pancakes. Just thought you'd want to know. I did the camping thing last night. It was past nine when I rushed out of the press center (leaving a poorly edited second post in my wake) to find today's course and secure a camping spot for the night. No time to sit down for dinner, so I enjoyed a very fine McDonald's McDrive experience. At first I thought that camping out with the spectators was going to be a bust. It was almost dark, the rain had begun to fall, and as I drove the first miles of the course I didn't see a single camper. But that's because I was in the city. As soon as I got into the farmland, those shiny white campers were arranged neatly on every broad shoulder and grassy lawn. I drove on for ten miles, just checking things out. Then I pulled over next to a golden field of freshly cut wheat, set the parking brake, and got out to meet my neighbors. But absolutely no one was outside. They preferred to picnic indoors out of the rain, watching their satellite dish. The only human voice I heard all night was the British guy tent-camping across the road, talking to his girlfriend on the cell. But by half past ten, he was out for the night, too. There wasn't so much as a streetlight or the sound of a human voice. A stone crucifix across the road with "1929" engraved on the bottom was visible from a farmhouse porch light. It was very, very peaceful, and a sharp contrast to the Tour's bedlam. I wouldn't have traded it for a hotel room, that's for sure. Now, of course, I need to sample that bonfire/dancing scene in the mountains. So there is more camping in my future, perhaps as soon as the Pyrenees next week. I'm looking forward to it. I'd intended to sleep outside, but the rain was too strong. Ended up folding down the back seats of the Volvo and spending a rather comfortable evening. I'm just under six feet tall, but was able to stretch out comfortably. Got up just before six and said goodbye to the camping life, eager to get off the course before the roads were sealed. I literally just made it. The final barricades were being set in place just as I drove out. Those crews must have worked all night. Here's what impresses me most about the course: It's tricky. There are loads of sharp left turns and roundabouts. Very little of the course is actually flat, it's either rising uphill or down, ever so slightly. The country roads are narrow, with blind turns; the city roads have that haphazard layout of a medieval village. The rain will only make matters worse. I like the observation that George Hincapie is a grinder in the tradition of Sean Kelly. I couldn't agree more. But George is a better climber and time-trial rider. He could win. He's the obvious sentimental favorite. Having said that, I think Floyd is the most talented rider in the field, yet Hincapie has the mental edge. Unlike Floyd or Levi, he doesn't fluster easily. And he knows how to manage his time, having spent all those years as part of the Armstrong media circus. I'm writing this at a table in Nike's village booth. Metal chair, Dixie cup of coffee, umbrella to keep the mist off my computer. Fifty yards to my right I can see the riders roll out of the starting house. It's worth noting that even the guys in last place get nervous before time trials. It's such a test of character. No wonder it's called "the race of truth."Anyway, time to go watch the race. It's a long time until the favorites roll out. Talk to you later.

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