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Posted by MDugard on Jul 14, 2006 2:39:53 PM

Step into the Volvo for a spin. We're driving the N125 through the village of St. Beat. Austin is at the wheel so I can write. T-Rex is on the stereo singing about dirty sweet girls. The Volvo navigates the narrow roads of St. Beat, a town tucked neatly in the cleft of a valley, with a clear mountain stream flowing through the center. The sun is shining, not knowing that rain was forecast for today's eleventh Tour de France. In an hour we'll be in Spain, site of the finish atop the Pla-de-Beret. Check that. We just crossed the border. "ESPAGNE" reads the French sign, corrected a moment later by "ESPANA" on the Spanish side of the line.  "New country!" exclaims Austin, who is making his first visit to Spain. He riffs a line from The Sun Also Rises and we bump knuckles. There's always something cool about going to a new land. If this is Thursday it must be Spain -- I think. Until I saw that sign I honestly had no idea where I am or what day of the week it is. This is not unique to today, but an ongoing theme at each and every Tour through which I've traveled. The days become a blur and time is measured by the gap between the start and end of a stage, and then the number of hours until the next stage begins. Tour gossip is everywhere, at all times ("Which rider has a cold? Who was out partying last night? Who was calling a Tour groupie at 3 a.m.?"), and the necessities of food and sleep begin to pale next to questions about the bike race itself. But always, in the back of our minds, there is Paris. Lovely, bustling, debauched cosmopolitan Paris, such an unlikely city in which to end a bike race that takes place in the mountains and countryside. But now the mood has shifted here at the Tour, so that people are not looking backward toward what happened the first half of the race, but forward, toward our eventual arrival in Paris just a little over a week from now. You hear snippets of conversation about plane reservations and The End of the Race ("When are you flying out? Do you think we can get into the team party if Floyd/George/Cadel wins?"), but those are just a subcurrent. Mostly, we are more in the here and now than humans are usually capable, fixated on the big question confronting the 2006 Tour so far: When will this Tour go off? Today.  That's the word from Floyd and George and Cadel and Johan and anyone else who has something to say about how that question is answered. Ah, but they've said that before. Let's wait and see. Spent the night in Lons, a suburb of Pau last night. In the press room yesterday and at dinner (roast duck, French fries, baked tomato, and chilled Bordeaux), the talk was all about today's five climbs. It will be a big day. This morning at breakfast, the riders from Francaise des Jeux looked very quiet and drawn. Yesterday was draining, but today will see many riders quit the Tour altogether. Hincapie says that the team pre-rode this stage a few months ago, and he considers it extremely tough. The riders started at eleven this morning and will be on their bikes almost seven hours today. "Some guys are going to go early, and others might wait until the last two climbs," he predicted just before the start. He plans to ride with Floyd Landis and the other top riders. Levi Leipheimer's performance, or lack thereof, has been so confusing this year that Floyd Landis rode alongside him during a recent stage and asked him if everything was OK. And just this morning, Leipheimer denied that he was hiding some sort of illness. Weird Tour conversations: The start area in Tarbes is just down the road from Lourdes, also known as Six Flags Over Jesus for its garish Catholic tourist attractions. It turns out the Lourdes, thanks to the elderly pilgrims who flock to its healing water, is an epicenter of hip replacement surgery. When word of that got around this morning, there were jokes that Floyd Landis should have his surgery done here. Along those surgical lines, just as Lourdes does hip replacement well, it turns out that the best place to have knee replacement surgery is Northern Ireland, thanks to the popularity of "knee-capping" -- shooting out a man's knee caps -- by the IRA and their adversaries. On that note, Stuart O'Grady of Team CSC is riding with a cracked vertebrae -- if he decided to start today. Not sure where to get that fixed, and I can only imagine the sort of pain he's in. CSC is the bad luck team of this year's Tour, their months of training and their annual wilderness survival course all for naught after the losses of Ivan Basso and Bobby Julich. They would be down to just six riders if O'Grady bows out. As you can imagine, being a member of the Discovery Team means giving a lot of autographs. So many, in fact, that it becomes second-nature to absentmindedly grab any pen and piece of paper in their immediate vicinity and sign. A good example happened this morning, while I was talking with Chechu Rubiera. Without realizing what he was doing, he took my notebook and pen from my hands and began signing his name. When he realized what he was doing, a chagrined Chechu apologized. Not in the least offended, I told him to keep signing. After their dominant performance yesterday, the T-Mobile team is feeling pretty confident. Word is getting around that they're actually glad Jan Ullrich is out of the race because he was undisciplined and rarely attended team functions. That might be spin control designed to placate their German sponsor and deeply passionate German fan base, but it has a ring of truth. Ullrich is a physically blessed individual, but doesn't have a lot of common sense sometimes. You may notice a similarity between my stuff today and those of other American journalist and TV types. Without intending to, we all gravitated to the Discovery Team's bus this morning (how far has Disco slipped in the Tour's esteem since last year? They used to command a prime parking spot each morning at the start. Today they were next to the porta-potties). It became a mini-American enclave. The Volvo just made the turn onto on the course, and now we're driving the long valley leading up to the Pla-de-Beret. It's slightly uphill the whole way, with a powerful wind that will be in the rider's face. The sun is still bright and warm, but clouds are forming atop the mountains. The reason that yesterday and today's Pyrenees climbs are being staged midweek instead of on the weekend, per tradition, is that the Basques shat the bed last year. By the conclusion of the Sunday stage atop the Pla D'Adet the Spaniards were wrapping up a three-day drunk. They threw bottles at police cars and fights broke out. The Tour responded by taking away what has long been a favorite Basque party weekend. Feeling hungry. The drive from Tarbes to the finish line has taken two hours. Breakfast in the pre-race village was braised lamb served over green beans, camembert, sausage, and coffee. In spite of all this food, I'm actually leaner than when I left home. Part of it's from the nervous energy of chasing the Tour from dawn to dusk, but it's also because I've been walking so much, like the French. I notice that even older people walk everywhere (I came upon an eighty-ish couple in the middle of the countryside the other day and stopped to ask if they wanted a ride. They brushed me off, claiming that they were just around the corner from their village. That village, I learned as I drove down the road, was two miles from where I left them). Just a random observation, made by a guy from the plastic surgery mecca of Orange County, but I haven't seen a whole lot of Botox faces in France, and augmentation appears to be a rarity. Having said that, an ambitious orthodontist could make a killing here. Ah, there it is, the press center. We're in the mountain village of Vielha, which has the A-frame chateaus and winter accouterment befitting a winter resort. It reminds me of Mammoth Mountain. Today's they're putting us up in an ice rink. Should be quite interesting. It dawns on me that knee-capping is what the best riders want to do today. Perhaps not win the Tour just yet, but cut the unworthy down at the knees, so the real game can begin. Talk to you after the stage.

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