Skip navigation

Currently Being Moderated

Soak Up The Sun

Posted by MDugard on Jul 16, 2006 6:47:38 AM

Driving the A9 through the South of France, caught in beach traffic. Vineyards line the roadside as far as the eye can see, little green grapes baking in the sun. It is Saturday, and the Tour de France is aiming north. Most of these cars are from Paris or Germany, full of tourists who've traveled a long way to windsurf or slather on sunscreen at the Cote d'Agde. Mix that crowd in with the throngs on their way from Beziers to Montelimar, following the Tour, and you have a hot, dawdling day in traffic. A perfect time to roll up the windows, turn on the A/C, and write. The starting area in Beziers was an inferno, with temperatures soaring well before noon and the riders staying in the shade before the race -- when they ventured outside their team busses at all. The pace will dawdle this afternoon, as the riders are tired from a hard week and already looking forward to an easier day.Beziers is close to the Pyrenees, was part of Spain five centuries ago, and celebrates that heritage by having its own bullfighting ring. Interestingly, the bulls and matadors have a different sort of relationship in Beziers. Unlike in traditional bullfights, the bulls are not slain during the course of the contest. In talking with Johan Bruyneel, it became clear that yesterday marked a turning point in the history of the Discovery Team. Because the team lacked a clear leader at the start of the race, George Hincapie was given a chance to prove himself. But when Hincapie fell 23 minutes back in the Pyrenees, that strategy went out the window. Now the team is working for Yaroslav Popovych, a rider whom many considered Lance Armstrong's inevitable successor. "We don't think about the GC classification, or overall rankings anymore. We're working for a top ten finish," Bruyneel said. "A few stage victories are a very good possibility."That's quite a comedown for Bruyneel, whose team has not only stood atop the GC rankings for the past seven-year, but also controlled the very tempo of the race. Discovery reigned over the Tour de France, pure and simple. Now they've got no team leader, an untried young Ukrainian (Popovych) as their last best hope, and had two riders up and quit the race yesterday. This is an amazing figure when you consider that Discovery/U.S. Postal (its former name) only had a grand total of two riders abandon the Tour between 1999 and 2005. Bruyneel even admitted the hopelessness of the situation yesterday when he gave Benjamin Noval permission to drop out. So what's next for the once-great Discovery? Bruyneel says the team may not focus on the Tour de France in the future, though those were just the words of a despondent man. Discovery's sponsors are almost all American corporations, and the only bike race major American corporations have heard of, let alone care about, is the TdF. The other option Bruyneel mentioned is getting a bunch of brand new riders. That's more likely. Basically, he plans to clean house, jettisoning the vestiges of the Lance Armstrong era. Noval will probably be the first to go (right about now he's on a plane home to Spain, well aware that his professional career is in tatters), and even the beloved Hincapie may be on the block. It's just as likely that two other possibilities will take place: Bruyneel himself might move to another team; and, Floyd Landis will receive a sizable offer to ride for Discovery. Landis says he's happy with Phonak, but if he could make peace with Bruyneel and was allowed to rebuild Discovery with riders loyal to him, anything's possible. Landis looked relaxed and calm in the pre-race village area. Standing in the shade of a sycamore, chatting with Frankie Andreu, Floyd was set to begin his second day in the yellow jersey, knowing that the jersey is probably safe for today and tomorrow's flat transitional stages. Since Monday is a rest day, the first real test of the jersey will come during Tuesday's L'Alpe d'Huez ascent. It's a steep mountain and Landis admits that steep climbs put a lot of pressure on his bad hip and force him to stand up in the pedals, which also causes pain. Landis showed a bit of strategic genius yesterday. When a three-man breakaway (which included Popovych) had a very small gap on the peloton, Landis called for the peloton to pull over for a potty break. As the man in yellow, that's his call. Well, Robbie McEwen, the sprinter from Davitamon-Lotto, was upset. He wanted the stage to end with a sprint finish.Cadel Evans, one of Landis' top rivals, is on McEwen's team. Landis answering the call of nature at the moment he did was a coy olive branch to Bruyneel and Discovery, thanks to Popo's presence in the break. But it was also a jab at Davitamon-Lotto, which had been drafting behind Phonak, resting while Landis's team did the hard work of setting the pace on a blistering summer afternoon. Landis, in effect, was making it clear that if McEwen wanted the sprint victory, Davitamon-Lotto would have to cowboy up and take over pace-keeping duties. They refused, and McEwen was denied his fourth stage victory of this Tour. All that stuff was unsaid, by the way. Gamesmanship is a Tour byword. On that note, Bruyneel denied that Discovery would return the favor if Floyd needed a little help in the coming Alpine stages. "No one helped us for seven years," he sniffed. So that was the morning in the pre-race village, talking to Johan because he's one of the two men whose life has been turned upside down by this Tour (the other being Floyd Landis), giving George a little space because his wife is in town, and just gettting a look at Floyd to see if he's getting jittery. Johan looked utterly at a loss, like some Super Bowl football coach who's trying to convince the world he'd be happier coaching at the high school freshman level. Spent the night in Narbonne, after leaving Carcassonne at 10 p.m., just as the Bastille Day fireworks exploded over the city's great castle. Thousands of locals stopped what they were doing to watch, so as Austin and I drove away the roads were utterly empty. Narbonne turned out to be a city of fantastic history, with fluted Roman columns rising randomly throughout the city, a holdover from the days when Narbonne's founders controlled the Mediterranean. The city was alive for Bastille Day, the streets closed and bands playing outdoors next to the canal boats. Entire families lounged in outdoor cafes, reveling in the holiday. If I weren't so beat after a long day I would have joined them. OK. Pulling into Montelimar, scene of today's finish. We've left the Med far behind. We've even left Provence and that fabulous lump of limestone known as Mont Ventoux.

Comments (5)