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Scenes From An Arrival

Posted by MDugard on Jul 15, 2006 12:09:07 AM

At the Tour, the riders don't really start and finish. They depart and they arrive. Today's arrival in Carcassonne was spectacular, a time to revel in being alive, feeling the rain on your face and the breath in your lungs. Here's what it looked like:Spectators waiting patiently along the barricades for the first riders to pass. They are stationed at a turn precisely one kilometer from the finish. It's a great vantage point, a place where the riders will have to brake and lean into the turn, giving the crowd an extra few precious seconds to observe them. A squadron of police motorcycles whizzing around the corner, followed closely by the Tour's official red lead car, a Skodia. A hundred yards behind them, Yaroslav Popovych churns into the turn with a large lead, on his way to win the first stage of his career. He is a member of the Discovery Team, which has been decimated by poor performance after years of dominating the Tour, and has had two key riders quit the race today. The loss Benjamin Noval and Paolo Savodelli is a devastating blow to Discovery, but the win by "Popo" ends the day on a high note. As if on cue, a soft summer rain begins to sprinkle on Carcassonne. Thunder booms in the distance, one concussion after the other, sounding like Black Cats on the Fourth of July. The fans look up at the sky in surprise, for it was blistering hot just moments before. Mothers step back from the barricades and take young children out of their metal-framed strollers, then hug them tight and shield their heads from the drops as Floyd Landis whizzes past in the yellow jersey. European History 101: A walled city is, literally, a city with walls around it. This fact somehow eluded me when I parked the Volvo next to the 50-foot high walls. But as I race from the pressroom to the finish area, I enter a rabbit warren of cobbled medieval streets jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with spectators and tourists and shopkeepers. The air smells of lamb barbecueing on an open sidewalk barbecue. Worn out fans sit in brasserie seats, chugging beer out of half-liter mugs. I wander the walled city in random fashion, a little boy lost at Disneyland. My press credential is my saving grace at all times here at the Tour, granting me access to almost every possible behind-the-scenes place and activity. But pressing through the city crowd, losing my bearings in the labyrinth of people and buildings, the credential hanging around my neck means nothing. I become my own lead-out man, weaving through the throng like Robbie McEwen. As I walk, I make a note to myself that the "soft summer rain" reminds me of "Jungleland," and then another when the thunder strikes, about "Night Moves." It feels derivative and evocative at once, and I opt to revel in the poetry. The rain stops and then starts and then stops again as I reach the finish line. My goal is to find the interview trailer and get Floyd Landis's take on the race. Each and every day, the stage winner is interviewed after the podium ceremony, followed by the man wearing the yellow jersey. The stage winner is obligated to attend. The maillot jaune has to the option of skipping them ever once in a while. And while I can see the interview trailer, a vast gulf of spectators and six-foot high barricades separate me from it. I press through the crowd and wave to a security official inside, asking him where to find an opening in the gate. "A droit," he says, pointing to his right. The spot turns out to be more than 200 yards away. I press through the crowd once more, only now it is not just people, but motorcycles, bicycles, and team cars trying to get wherever it is they are going. The rain starts again, and keeps falling. It is an easy patter, and while I am not wearing a jacket or hat, I am wet. On the other side of the inflatable podium, Bob Roll stands bare-chested atop the OLN broadcasting studio, looking out on the sea of people. A bronze war memorial rises in the foreground. I have made a turn and am on the course, which has been opened up so that spectators could watch the award ceremony. The crush is enormous, that endless mass of humanity that swarms out of a big city coliseum after an NFL game. Only this mass isn't moving, they're all standing outside the doping facility, which is basically the sort of mobile office trailer used on construction sites. And they're all staring at its lone door, waiting for it to open. It swings open. Floyd Landis emerges, having successfully given his urine sample. I wonder about the absurdity of it all -- a grown man exiting the men's room and finds a crowd of thousands outside the door -- as Landis clops awkwardly down the metal steps in his cycling shoes. Phonak team officials escort him into the crowd, leading him to a waiting car. We exchange greetings as he walks past. His face is tense, a little freaked out -- which is understandable. It's not normal to encounter such adulation, every single person trying to touch or just look at you. Floyd's lead is one minute. That's nothing. One minute is a flat tire, the wrong breakfast, a summer cold, a lost hour of sleep, a nagging worry about something going on at home, and a thousand other bumps in the road -- including a bump in the road. I wonder to myself how badly it will hurt Landis is he happens to get involved in a crash and bangs his injured hip somehow. It's Bastille Day but I see no French tricolors or other overt signs of patriotism at the finish. I stop to stare at a huge bronze statue atop a war memorial built in remembrance of French citizens from World War I, the Holocaust, the Resistance, and the Algerian conflict. The statue towers above the landscape, watching over a roundabout next to the TV trucks and milling crowds. But no one seems to see it, and no flowers have been laid at its base. I run into another journalist. We catch up on rumors as the rain falls, the Noval/Savodelli dropouts being the big news. Later I will find out that Popovych's breakaway group escaped because the Phonak team ordered a pit stop when the Popo's group had just a fifteen-second lead and seemed destined to fail. The pit stop basically ensured their success. With a political motivation for every action, and Robbie McEwen supposedly against the stop because rival sprinter Oscar Freire was part of it, I can only wonder about Floyd's motivation for ordering the peloton to take that short break. I finally make it to the interview room. Popovych has just finished, and is being interviewed by a Spanish journalist outside the small trailer. I open my notebook and take out my pen, prepared to ask a few questions. Popo catches my eye and smiles, then takes my notebook and signs it. This is the second time in as many days that a rider has done this. I wonder why this is so, and what I am doing that makes me look like an autograph hound. The rain pours down. An OLN cameraman confides that his good day is usually somebody else's bad day, and tells me that he managed to get footage of both Noval and Savodelli abandoning. I start back to the pressroom. The crowds in the streets are fewer, but the bars are all crowded and the mood is festive. I look for a store to buy sock as I walk past the shops, but all I can find is a place for Levi's. Finally, I make it to the pressroom, drenched to the bone. The pressroom is inside Carcassonne's basketball arena and my seat is right about where one of the three-point arcs should be. Tomorrow's stage, I find with a quick check of my Tour Roadbook, is a fast and flat 142-mile dash from Beziers to Montelimar along the shoulders of the Mediterranean. The course will be crowded with weekend traffic and tourists visiting to the South of France, and the sprinters will battle it out for the win. But that's for tomorrow, where the Tour will start again with a "depart."Talk to you then.

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