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Posted by MDugard on Jul 15, 2006 7:07:30 AM

Brilliant. This is the stage we've all been longing to see. The Tour's top riders battled it out for six long hours and five major summits. The valley roads were largely empty of spectators, but fans lined the Pyrenees' steep mountain grades, chugging sangria and waving orange Basque flags at the riders, matador-like and defiant.  Most important of all, it was the day that the Tour moved out from under the shadow of Lance Armstrong, introducing America to an iconoclastic new cycling hero who couldn't be more different from Armstrong if he tried. Floyd Landis keeps his own counsel and is notorious for doing things his way. That ride today was vintage Floyd. To rest his teammates, he opted to take the final climb alone, depending upon other teams to set the pace; he had words with a tired Denis Menchov when the Russian rider refused to exit from Landis's draft and take a turn setting the tempo; and, he calmly countered each and every attack, never appearing out of control. The Tour isn't over, not by a long shot. Landis's one-minute lead is a bit slender right now. But he's not worried. The most important thing to him is wearing yellow at the end of the race, and he's confident he can win. Landis often races like a mountain biker, elbows angled outward and totally self-dependent. That sort of independence pervades so much of his life. When he met John Kerry shortly after the 2005 Tour, where Armstrong whipped Landis soundly, Landis informed Kerry that they had something in common. "What's that," asked Kerry. "We both got our asses whipped by a Texan," chortled Landis. For the record, Kerry laughed. I should have known that George Hincapie might have trouble today when his teammate, Vietceslav Ekimov, suggested before the stage that the Discovery Team was still without a leader. Hincapie reminds me of Scottie Pippen to Lance Armstrong's Michael Jordan: a very capable number two who floundered when asked to take on the lead role. Getting dropped on the Col du Portillon put an end to George Hincapie's chances of finishing among the top three. "It's just not coming together," he lamented after the stage. Hincapie is now 23 minutes back. I have often used the term "pressroom" to describe my workspace (sometimes I write in the car, sometimes outside under a tree or sitting on a rock, but usually it's in the special space the Tour provides for journalists). The room is a vast space, usually the size of an arena floor, with long rows of tables and chairs, a dozen flat screen monitors, and a power outlet for every seat. But there is no one-size-fits-all facility. We have set up shop in gymnasiums, velodromes, convention centers, and concert halls this Tour. Today, however, was the best of all. We are in an ice rink. More specifically, we are on an ice rink. My ankles are numb. All weather carpeting has been laid over the surface, but the temperature has been kept low to keep the ice from melting. Condensation has caused ice cubes to form on the carpeting, the plastic chairs are frosty wet and frozen to the floor, and a great white tarp anchored down with curling stones serves as a partition between the press and the hockey penalty box area. Thought I'd give you a visual. Thunderstorms were forecast, but the rain held off throughout the stage. Now it it looks like the skies are about to open up. Tomorrow is Bastille Day. Look for the French to attack early and often. So what is Bastille Day? I did a little research. Bastille Day marks the moment in time when the people of France overthrew King Louis XVI and France became governed by the people. It happened in 1789. A mob of citizens stormed the Bastille, an infamous fortress originally constructed in 1382 to defend the east side of Paris. Just thought you'd want to know. I've gotten a few emails asking about the rider's bathroom breaks. The peloton generally stops as a group the minute it leaves the start town and relieves themselves along the side of the road. Later in the race, when things are more competitive and stopping isn't so smart, many riders have mastered the precarious act of steering with one hand and aiming off to the side of the road with the other. Try it some time... not so easy. Other emails center around OLN. Apparently, a whole lot of you think the world of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, and think that OLN is trying to phase them out of prime time coverage because OLN's primary viewing audience, the bull riding and bass fishing public (can we say Red State without sounding pejorative and political? I mean, that's what it is) can't stomach two men with Limey accents broadcasting a sports event. OLN's viewing audience is down 50% from last year, a statistic one of their executive producers shared with me this morning (strangely, the Tour still beats NHL hockey in the ratings). They're about to change their name to something like the Versa or Versus Network, and hoping to shed their niche-sport branding. Apparently, making the Tour accessible means American voices talking about American riders. As much as I love Bob Roll and Al Trautwig (and Craig Hummer and Frankie Andreu), I think that stance doesn't give Americans enough credit. Liggett and Sherwen are the gold standard. They belong in prime time. Spending the night here in Vielha. We're in the Catalan region (legend has it that Columbus was a Catalan), and this is the biggest ski resort in the region. The thick local pine forest looks like it has some great running trails and tomorrow's starting line is just twenty miles away in Luchon. Tomorrow we leave the Pyrenees behind, heading back into France and a finish line in the medieval fortress of Carcassonne. It's a hilly stage, but loses altitude along the way. Total distance is 130 miles. I've been to Carcassonne once before, and remember it for its gastronomy. I think I had some sort of cassoulet with beans and turkey hearts. I know it doesn't sound so good, but trust me...Looking forward to taking a long walk and exploring Vielha. Talk to you tomorrow.

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