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A Tarantino Afternoon

Posted by MDugard on Jul 13, 2006 10:28:46 AM

To set the scene, Juan Miguel Mercado of Spain outsprinted France's Cyril Dessel to win the opening mountain stage of this year's Tour. Floyd Landis dropped to fifth place, 4:45 behind the leader, but the relative gap between him and the other favorites stayed the same. That will all change tomorrow.OK, now let's go back. As Dane Cook would say, let's Tarantino it...There is a moment between the time I settle in to write and the moment I am lost in my PowerBook. All writers do it. Sometimes it's a long moment, sometimes it's not much at all, but that flicker of time is when a writer decides what to write about and how to tell the story.Just now though, I got a little stuck. The Tour has been odd thus far, a slow and wary circling by the top riders that makes perfect strategic sense, but still feels a little slow. In a nutshell: The Tour is exactly halfway finished. Ten stages are in the book. Yet we're no closer to picking a winner than we were so long ago in Strasbourg.So I wandered out of the pressroom here in Pau to get a little fresh air. It's a city that was liberated by Wellington in 1814 and became a British playground during the Victorian Era. In look and feel, it still has a very British design. There's a great big park next door to the pressroom, with an acre of grass and a little playground.  I lay on the grass and looked up at the clouds and tried to make sense of the Tour.It's been years since I've laid on the grass and looked up at the clouds, but it was either that or try to sort things out next to the chain-smoking Aussie who set up shop next to me in the non-smoking pressroom. All in all, the cloud thing was rather refreshing.Here are my conclusions: First off, the Tour isn't odd, but I need to change my expectations. I like it best when a rider ruthlessly asserts his will on the peloton. That's the way Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault and Lance Armstrong all rode. This just isn't one of those years. The top riders -- Floyd Landis, Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden, Denis Menchov, and even Christophe Moreau (OK, not Christophe Moreau) -- are too evenly matched. It makes you wonder how different this Tour would be if Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso had been allowed to race.Also, the Tour has historically followed years of consecutive victories by a single rider (Armstrong, in this instance), with two or three years of one-time winners. This could be one of those years, meaning that the next great Tour champ could be here now as a domestique, or just some nameless rider who's crazy about his bike.Today was important because a sense of order began to set in, although you had to be looking for it. It came via the T-Mobile Team, which currently has four riders in the top ten of the overall standings. By riding powerfully at the front of the pack, setting the tempo, they let their dominance be known.T-Mobile happily let a breakaway group of no-name riders attack, and even gave up Sergei Honchar's yellow jersey when that breakaway led to a stage victory for Spain's Mercado. They were more interested in protecting top riders Michael Rogers and Andreas Kloden than worrying about yellow.It should also be said that there have been few outright disappointments this year. Levi Leipheimer notwithstanding, everyone seems to be where we thought they'd been when this whole thing began. George Hincapie may have been overachieving during that prologue, and maybe his day in yellow will be the only time in his career he'll everwear it -- though I hope not. I picked Hincapie to win, didn't I? Right or wrong, I'm sticking with him.Today's third place finisher was Spaniard Inigo Landaluze. Whenever I see the name Inigo, I can't help but think of Mandy Patinkin's character in The Princess Bride ("my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die...").I'm just looking at the profile for tomorrow's stage. It's going to be a monster. There will be five major climbs, thunderstorms, and a mountain top finish. At 128 miles it's plenty long, and the whole thing ends up in Spain (making that the sixth country the Tour has visited in 2006). It's all going to b every uncivilized, especially because: a) the Spanish fans that were notably absent along the climbs today will definitely line the slopes of the Pla-de-Beret; and, b) all thoseclimbs make it the ideal day for the best riders to draw blood.Tomorrow's first climb will set the tone. It's the Col de Tourmalet, the most climbed mountain pass in Tour history. It's a terrifying ascent that not only goes on for almost eleven miles, but drops off sharply on the left side of the road. It was the first mountain higher than 6,500 feet to be climbed at the Tour.The Tour de France discovered the Tourmalet by accident. An official sent out to reconnoiter the course during the spring of 1910 almost perished in a freak snowstorm. His sufferings notwithstanding, he eagerly added "the bad detour" to the course for that year's Tour.Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, a summer resort through which riders will pass after descending the Tourmalet, is another of the Tour's notable footnotes. In 1913, when riders rode as individuals instead of in teams, and were responsible for all their own equipment, Eugene Christophe broke his bike's front fork. He ran eight miles before finding a blacksmith who could fix it, then got back on the bike and continued racing.Just something to think about, but the longest stage at that year's Tour was 470 kilometers -- some 291 miles. Until fairly recently, riders sometimes started a stage in the dead of night, or contested two stages in the same day.Thanks for the Big Yellow Taxi trivia.Usually Pau isn't known for their food here in the pressroom, as if their local cuisine was negligible. But today they came out strong with ham carved on the bone, salami, fresh peaches, a carrot salad, and some very delicious boiled potatoes. Really, really good stuff.I bought a straw cowboy hat today. Cost me three euros. It has a thin red band that advertises the name of a local newspaper, and though well ventilated and perfect for keeping the harsh mountain sun off my face, makes me look like a total geek. Frankly, I'm not sure why I bought it. Let's just say it spoke to me.The Volvo pushes east in the morning, aimed for the start in Tarbes. Legend has it that Tarbes was founded long ago by an Ethiopian queen who met Moses on the Ethiopian border. Having failed in her attempt to charm Moses, she fled her country to hide her despair. Her long journey took her to the banks of the Adour River. That legend may or may not be true, but it's a great story. Historians, by the way, say the Romanssettled the place in the third century.Bringing it back around ...Look for Phonak and T-Mobile to set a solid tempo tomorrow. One way or the other, the yellow jersey will change hands again. I know that there's bound to be a lot of hand-wringing in the press when Landis drops back the way he did today, but I talked with him this morning and he looks very strong. Today was never meant to be the day (and tomorrow may not be, either; a good rider never gives away his strategy). I'mjust saying that he looks very, very confident.Talk to you tomorrow.

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