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Frenchman wins, rest day looms

Posted by MDugard on Jul 10, 2006 6:02:46 PM

A Frenchman won the eighth stage of the Tour de France, on a day when France will play for the World Cup title. Sylvain Calzati of Team A2R dashed off the front with a breakaway group just 29 miles into the stage. As the peloton closed in on the escape group, he boldly sought the glory of a stage win. As he crossed the line, Calzati reached back into a jersey pocket and held up a picture of his daughter.Something tells me that years ago, when he first became a cyclist and dreamed of winning a stage in the Tour de France, Salvati never dreamed that he'd be the sort of guy who would hold up his child's photograph while he did so. Kids ... they change you, they make you more substantial.Floyd Landis finished with the peloton. He's still one minute behind Honchar in the overal standings. For a while there, Dave Zabriskie was the virtual leader of the race. Shortly before being stung by a bee thirty miles in, the gap between his breakaway group and the peloton surpassed the 2:03 breach between the American CSC rider and the yellow jersey. If he had attacked with Calzati and managed to stay relatively close, Zabriskie would be wearing yellow right now, the first time since last year's team time trial in Blois.There are now 170 riders left in the race. That figure should drop substantially in the next week, perhaps by as much as ten percent. The sprinters will drop once they realize they can't win the green jersey, but most riders who abandon will do so because they fall too far behind.There is an award known as the Medaille de la Fidelite du Tour de France. It is given to individuals who had participated in 20 Tours. Today is was given to a gentleman known as Jean-Pierre Moinet, who's with an outfit known as Force Ouvriere, of which I know absolutely nothing about. Anyway, I have to tell you I admire Jean-Pierre. The Tour is an all-consuming beast, requiring stamina and devotion. I'm taking vitamins and drinking lots of water, but I can feel myself getting run down. Almost every journo who's ever covered this says it's the toughest event in the world to cover (the Raid Gauloises and Eco-Challenge being but a memory). So good for Jean-Pierre. He deserves that medal.To make a point, following the entire Tour involves lots of days that involve driving great distances, watching the bike race, talking to the riders, writing about the bike race, then driving a couple more hours to find a hotel. It's like waking up in Los Angeles, driving four hours to Las Vegas, watching the race and writing about the race, then driving two hours down the road toward Flagstaff, hoping to find a hotel. But I can think of absolutely no better way to see France.Forget those package tour groups. If you ever come over and really want to see this country in a whole new way, simply follow the Tour de France for a week or two or even three. I guarantee that you'll see it all, and that you'll end up in Paris. All journeys should end so romantically.As I wrote that last section I was about to make an analogy that covering the Tour was like being in a race, and a person had to pace themselves. But then I remembered that the Tour IS a race... which, you know, would have made the analogy rather comical. Challenging as it is, none of us in this vast press room entertain notions that we're working harder than the cyclists.A week ago I was having a conversation with Craig Hummer of OLN about rest days. You'd think that we'd look forward to a day off (though it's not really a day off, just a day without bike racing), but Hummer and I agreed that they're a nuisance. They break up the rhythm of covering the Tour. The Tour is about forward motion. It feels weird to stay in one place.A strange sight this afternoon. Immediately after the stage, teams were taking each rider's bicycle, removing the wheels, and then stuffing the bikes into vans and inside team cars. The reason is simple: the bikes have to be in Bordeaux first thing in the morning, when teams will take a lazy two-hour ride to cleanse the toxins from their legs. The mechanics left this morning in their special trucks. With the distance  from here to Bordeaux almost 300 miles, the team cars and vans will travel faster with the bikes inside the vehicles rather than in racks on top.In French, that bee sting Dave Zabriskie (who has to be one of the hardest luck riders in history. I mean, there's a whole story that could be devoted to his crashes and calamities) is known as a piqure d'insecte.As I write this, the riders are already at the airport, ready to board one of two charters to Bordeaux. The stage finished just an hour ago. Here's how it works: as soon as the stage ended, the cyclists aimed straight for their team busses. Levi Leipheimer was a study in hasty exits, riding to the bus, stopping his bike right at the base of the steps, unclipping from his pedals as he handed his bike to a mechanic, while simultaneously stepping onto the bus.Total time from finish to bus: 30 seconds. Number of comments about his time-trial woes: 0. Rumors that Leipheimer has a strategy to make up time by attacking hard in the mountains: Priceless. Without a strong team to control the attacks, the mountain stages are going to be a tad chaotic.Anyway, most of the busses have showers, but the riders prefer to towel off. They slip out of their cycling gear, which is given to a team functionary who places them in the bus washing machine (each morning at breakfast, riders are handed a mesh bag with their clean uniform and socks). Then they put on a pair of sweats as the bus makes for the airport.Speaking of laundry, I've been very good about washing stuff this year. But tomorrow everything gets cleaned, whether it needs it or not. Rest days should be called "washing days" instead.I'm also cleaning out the Volvo on a regular basis. I used to make a game out of throwing water bottles in the back seat, only cleaning them out when I turned the car in. But last year, when Austin and I had Neil "The Legend" Leifer in the car for three entertaining days, the back seat became a place where someone actually sat. The water bottles have looked a little trashy ever since. So I clean them out, along with the diet coke cans and other paraphernalia of a three-week road trip.A word about Austin Murphy: This will be the fourth time Murphy and I have traveled through the Tour together. He writes for Sports Illustrated, where he also covers college football. We're meeting in Bordeaux tomorrow night, and will navigate the rest of this race together. It will be good to see my old friend, whom I have not hung out with since Paris and the end of last year's Tour.The drive tomorrow will be long and scenic. The route will take me due south along the French coastline, following the Bay of Biscay on the flat coastal plateau between here and Bordeaux.Bordeaux fun facts: Huon of Bordeaux, who lived more than a thousand years ago and was known as the Duke of Aquitaine, was the inspiration for Oberon, Shakespeare's King of Elves.Even better is the story of Louis and Alienor, who married in 1137. Louis' father was Kind of France, and he himself would go on to become Louis VII. But after celebrating a great wedding to Alienor in Bordeaux, he divorced her upon returning from the Crusades. Alienor was a capable women of guile and beauty. She demanded that Louis return her dowry, which he did, and then she married his best friend, Henry Plantanegent. Alienor and Henry together controlled more land than Louis.It gets better. Henry soon became King of England, making Alienor his Queen. The inevitable war -- the infamous Hundred Years War -- between England and France soon followed.Alright. I'll be posting tomorrow, so please check in. I can't follow up on every request, but if any of you have any Tour questions you'd like answered, please feel free to post a comment. And tell a friend or two. It's a rush being over here, and it's just as big a thrill to share this incredible journey with all of you.Talk to you tomorrow.

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