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Driving South

Posted by MDugard on Jul 11, 2006 9:11:01 AM

Greetings from Bordeaux, and a pressroom in the middle of a velodrome.  The great wooden track rises all around us, and the air smells of fresh lumber. Making the scene all the more surreal, Mario Cippolini, the fabled Italian sprinter known as The Lion King, just pulled up a chair next to me and is having a conversation in Italian with another journalist. Pretty cool. First off, thanks to all of you for posting comments. They're much appreciated and I savor them all. Keep them coming. Mickael Rasmussen, to answer a question, is here. He had another horrible time trial on Saturday, and will put his own ambitions second to teammate Denis Menchov in the mountains. If Menchov falters, look for Rasmussen to attack on the climbs alone, hoping to earn the polka-dotted jersey signifying the best climber once again. Bordeaux, scene of today's rest from competition, is a grand European city, gloriously awash in sunshine and decay. The grand town squares and great spires recall another time in history, and are stunning to see. I feel like I'm walking through the 17th century. The streets are jammed with tourists, and a small red trolley gives tours. As I write, road crews are busy repaving the main streets so the riders will have smooth pavement for the departure. With the temperature almost a hundred degrees in this port city today, paving a road is one tough gig. The big story right now is about Floyd Landis and his degenerative hip condition. He still has four-inch pins in his hip from a 2003 crash (his wife, Amber, told me that Landis can sometimes see the pins pushing up against the skin). The problem is being compared with Bo Jackson's career-ending hip surgery. While Landis downplays the problem, and his employers at Phonak knew about it, he is having hip replacement surgery after the Tour. Landis held a press conference here today and discussed the issue. Essentially, there's no blood getting into the ball of his right hip, and it has decayed. Each day he puts up with a bone-on-bone grinding when he walks. Tour officials have allowed him to take cortisone for the pain. He's a good guy, and just about as tough as they come. Landis told me that after the accident he didn't even go to the hospital for two hours, preferring to pop Aleve and put ice on the hip because he thought it was "only" dislocated. Teams took it easy today, heading out for a two-hour ride and then hanging out in their hotels. Team Discovery is next door at the Mercure, which is situated in a quiet woods on the edge of Bordeaux, in a park known as Le Lac. You know, because it has a big lake in the middle of it. In contrast with year's past, there were few journalists hanging around Discovery's hotel. Part of that is lack of Lance, and the other part is the poor performance by George Hincapie in the time trial. Look for some nice surprises from Discovery this week. Hincapie desperately wants to win a Tour, and Johan Bruyneel desperately wants to win one without Armstrong. There's no single overpowering team this year, so that three minutes between Hincapie and the yellow jersey will shrink once Discovery makes a few bold moves in the mountains. Here's how this coming week is shaping up. Tomorrow is a rather short 105-mile stage from here to Dax. There is almost no incline at all (it starts at 35 meters at sea level, finishes at 45 meters above sea level, and only goes as high as 74 meters all day long). Strategy-wise, this will be a day for conservative riding by the top teams (Phonak, Discovery, Davitamon-Lotto, T-Mobile, Gerolsteiner). The reason is simple: there are three hard mountain stages in the Pyrenees on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The climbers will need their legs fresh as well as those of their teammates. The lesser teams, however, know that tomorrow is their last chance to get any attention for the next week or so. Look for some unknown riders to go off the front early and often. Not only are they hoping to snag victory with a breakaway, but their sponsors will enjoy all the free advertising that comes with five hours of their brand logo being splashed all over worldwide television. I'm pulling for Robbie McEwen to win in a sprint, but his team director at Davitamon-Lotto has made it clear that McEwen's teammates will be working to help Cadel Evans win the Tour from here on out, rather than chasing down breakaways so McEwen could get a sprint victory. I can't remember the last time a single team had the yellow and green jersey winners, but that's what will happen for Davitamon-Lotto is McEwen stays in green and Evans moves up to win the Tour. The Pyrenees seem steeper than the Alps, and the roads have a more narrow and haphazard quality. Frankly, I'm scared just driving them in a car because guardrails are few and far between, and the drop offs can be hundreds of feet in some places. I've always wondered about how the publicity caravan transports their vehicles over long distances. It's one thing to drive along the course at 10 mph, throwing candy and samples to spectators, and quite another to journey 300 miles on the autoroute, driving flat out. Well, today I found out. The more oddly shaped vehicles (the small vehicles shaped like water bottles, for instance) are transported by flatbed truck. The rest drive down the autoroute, doing the best they can. The VW Bug with the ten-foot-tall stuffed lion was looking a little top heavy, as if a gust of wind was going to knock it sideways. Lance Armstrong is hosting the ESPY's this year (I think it's next Sunday). Just received word from my publisher that CHASING LANCE, my book about the Tour experience, is going to be in the gift bags given to the celebrities and athletes in attendance. Apparently, I have Lance to thank for that. So, dude, thanks. True story: In 2004, just after returning from the Tour, I took the family to Las Vegas for a vacation. My wife and I were getting some sun at Mandalay Bay's wave pool when I told her that I thought the Tour was the ultimate way to see France. The Tour is more than just the bike race, I told her, etc, etc. I mentioned that it would be cool to write a book about what it's like to follow the Tour from start to finish, including the bike race, politics, history, food... everything. It would a book about the world's greatest road trip, pure and simple. Just then, she reached under her beach chair to get something or other, and instead found a single piece of paper: the title page to Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD. Apparently, it had fallen out of someone's book and the wind had blown it under Calene's chair. No matter how it got there, its appearance seemed like fate. My book isn't anything like Kerouac's, and wasn't meant to be. I've always like the way Peter Mayle wrote about France (check out A YEAR IN PROVENCE), and wanted to combine that sort of commentary on French life with the sort of sports writing John Feinstein does so well. The result is a sort of SIDEWAYS-style adventure. If you're looking for a book about the blow-by-blow of the race, and what sorts of gearing the riders use in the mountains or their favorite breakfast food, don't read my book. But if you want to know what it's like to be at the Tour, every day, mingling with the riders and seeing all of France... well, I think you'll enjoy it. I'm always flattered when people who've followed the Tour tell me that I got it right. I watched the World Cup final along with 5,000 other people last night. The city of Lorient erected theater-sized screens in the town center to show the game. Things went a little nuts during the penalty kicks, and then the crowd quietly went home once Italy won it. I made the drive south from Lorient to Bordeaux in a little over four hours. Fields of sunflowers lined the road, broken up by golden wheat fields. The cities of Cognac and Bordeaux also attested to the area's winemaking prowess. There are 333,000 acres of vineyards in the Bordeaux region alone. When most people think of France, they think of cosmopolitan Paris. But most of France is either undeveloped or agricultural land. The cities are far apart, and urban sprawl is rare. Made a couple of nice mix CD's for the drive: Springsteen, Beck, Counting Crows, Marshall Crenshaw, Sinatra, Coldplay, the Clash, Pogues, samples from the Les Miserables and Rent soundtracks, and a whole bunch of other stuff. I think I've heard Thunder Road a thousand times, but I never get tired of that opening harmonica. I think I had the volume up a little too loud. My eardrums hurt. Staying in a little hotel near the gare (train station) in the heart of Bordeaux. After I leave the pressroom I'm going to head back into the city and take a long walk around. It is a bustling, happening place to be, particularly with the Tour in town.  Tomorrow's stage starts at 1:15, and should last about four hours. Dax, the finishing city, has been a famed for its waters (which are radioactive, by the way) since the Romans. They first settled the city in 56 B.C. The locals are fond of having bull races in the city streets, and their shepards are legendary for working the fields while wearing stilts -- I'm not making this up. Talk to you tomorrow.

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