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Rest Day

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

What does one do on a rest day? Sleep, for one. Then eat, run, and write. Sometime this afternoon Floyd is holding a press conference at his hotel, and I'll be there (it's the Kyriad Hotel in Gap, if you're in the neighborhood). In the meantime, life doesn't get more elemental. Austin and I got rooms in Les Orres, a ski town forty miles outside Gap. Driving up the mountain in the dark, we weren't sure what we were getting ourselves into, because the road wound through miles and miles of utter darkness before emerging into the lights of this small town (there's a metaphor for life in there somewhere). As if entering some Dante-esque absurdity, the first two cars I saw in the parking lot had ten-foot-high red devils on top. Then there was the car with the pizza, and the coffee pots, and the giant pretzels. We had found the Tour's publicity caravan. Like carny geeks, the caravan employees cluttered the hotel's downstairs bar, glad to be rid of their absurd little vehicles for a whole day. From the look of things as I was checking in, I can tell you that those caravan folks party very, very hard when the day is done. I guess driving around France with a giant red devil looking over your shoulder will do that to you. I needed a long trail run in the worst way. Those riverfront runs that have become a staple of the Tour are all well and good, but at some point I need to lose myself in a dense woods. This hotel, L'Ancolie, sits directly at the bottom of the mountain. In the winter I would be able to ski from the lobby to the lifts. Likewise, finding a solitary trail was as simple as taking the elevator down and stepping outside. I ran up and up and up, slow and steady, traversing back and forth across the slope on service roads and singletrack, past herds of bell-wearing dairy cows (we exchanged moo's. It was all very Dr. Phil, and I felt like I bonded in particular with a small brown cow that couldn't decide whether to charge me or let me pass. She kept chewing on a mouthful of grass as I trotted by, but never took a wary eye off of me). It is sobering, and somewhat splendid, to run up a mountainside until the legs scream that they cannot go any higher, feeling very full of myself, and then look even higher up the mountain and see an eighty-year old man walking down from the summit. He was my reminder to push harder and dig a little deeper (that Kate Miner song "Take Me Higher" began a continuous loop in my head). The old man wished me well as we passed. "Bon journee," I replied, hoping his hike down was a safe one. So that's how the mind works. You push to a point where stopping feels like the only option, and then when something urges you to push past it, something inside is set free. I began composing this missive as I ran, thinking of what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, writing entire sentences in my head, and then editing them, knowing all the while that I would forget the actual words when the run was done, and remember only the broad topics. Take, for instance, books. I was thinking about my Tour book, CHASING LANCE, which is a book very much like these columns, about following the Tour and being in France. It is not a book about Lance per se, I must point out rather honestly, but a book about Austin and I and the Sideways-style jaunt we have taken these many years through the Gallic world. Lance, as you'll see when you get a chance to read it, is someone we spend time with and whose race we dissect, but in the end, Lance is a metaphor for the greatness that lives within us all, and which we struggle on a daily basis to bring forth in our own lives. Man, it felt good to get that explanation out there. Not everyone needs to be filled in on the subtleties of a book. But apparently, after reading some of the knucklehead reviews on Amazon from those two or three people who will only read a Tour book if it's a Lance hagiography, some sort of Cliff's Notes was in order. I could tell you what he eats for breakfast, explain the sort of gearing in which he rides the mountains, and offer a few behind-the-scenes takes on Lance and Sheryl at the Tour, but that's all been done. So buy my book and let me know what you think. That's my naked, shameless plug on this rest day. It's on Amazon and it's out there in the stores. And when you're finished, write and tell me how you liked it. The email link on this site is always good, and I enjoy the feedback, for better and worse.On the topic of books, I'm asked a lot about my take on the Coyle book. I have to say that I intentionally avoided reading it until after my book was finished, because I didn't want any cross-pollination. I finally read it cover to cover during a trip to Italy in May, and enjoyed it very much. The reporting was excellent and I admired the commitment of moving his entire family to Spain in order to immerse himself in Lance's world. As a writer, my only quibble would be those random moments when he loses his own voice, which is most appealing, and slips into Outside magazine's trademark (and distracting) smarty-pants, we-know-more-than-you voice that makes every one of their stories sound the same and makes the magazine virtually unreadable. On the whole, that's a minor criticism, involving just a few chapters. It's a good book. Onward. As much as I like Les Orres, I'm already feeling like it's a mistake to linger here. Tomorrow is the L'Alpe D'Huez. As I write, I am sitting on my hotel balcony looking far across a broad valley at hulking gray Alpine peaks. Toward its right shoulder is an invisible line delineating the Italian border. But straight over the top as the eagle flies, and then down the other side, lies the base of L'Alpe d'Huez, where thousands upon thousands of fans are already setting up tents and campers and riding their bikes up the famous switchback. Austin and I have lodging at the top of the mountain, but to get there we need to push the Volvo through that sea of humanity. It's a traffic jam of epic proportions now, but it's only going to be worse tomorrow. Something inside of me thinks it's very important to be there as soon as possible. As I wrote yesterday, the next three stages of this Tour are crucial. Tomorrow will be the first of those challenges, and one of the top riders is going to tumble down hard in the rankings. Floyd Landis could be in trouble because his team is weak, and the same goes for Cadel Evans. Watch for Denis Menchov's Rabobank teams to send Mickael Rasmussen and Michael Boogerd on exploratory breakaways designed to probe for weakness in Floyd Landis and other top riders the way that advance military patrols probe enemy lines for a soft spot in which to attack. If you only watch one stage of this year's Tour, watch that L'Alpe D'Huez climb tomorrow. I've ridden that road before, and it's impossibly steep. Someone's just going to off on that thing tomorrow, and someone's going to implode. Meanwhile, the crowds along the road will be spitting on the riders, pressing right up next to them, throwing beer on them, waving flags in their faces -- the European version of Raider Nation, right down to the face paint. Which reminds me, I still haven't run alongside one of the riders yet. Stay tuned. I need to do this, even if it makes me look like an utter moron. If Floyd says anything interesting in the press conference I'll pass it along. Otherwise, I'll talk to you tomorrow.

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Mind the Gap

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

Thunderstorms are pelting Gap, adding a dramatic finale to the Tour's second week of racing. The Tour was virtually over at the conclusion of the fourteenth stage last year, but right now it's slowly building toward a grand finale. There are six more stages before the Tour ends. The Tour is Floyd Landis's to win or lose (Bernard Hinault, a notoriously aggressive five-time Tour winner, says Landis just needs to "finish it" -- put away the competition), but next week has three major Alpine stages, followed by an easy day, and then a time trial that will determine the winner. Then there's Paris, which is largely ceremonial. But what if... and here I'm just riffing... what if the race is neck-and-neck after the time trial? That final ride in Paris will have some real drama for the first time since Greg LeMond outfoxed Laurent Fignon in that time-trial finish almost twenty years ago. Before moving that far ahead, it should be noted that when we look back on this stage in five or ten years, all we'll remember is the crash. Rik Verbrugghe and David Canada ended their Tour in an ambulance, having overshot a turn and broken a femur (Verbrugghe) and a clavicle (Canada). The pavement was hot from the weather and it seems they hit a patch of gravel going at too high a rate of speed. No matter the reason, the two of them were obviously in great pain. The cyclists know that crashing is part of the job, but when you see them just lounging around before a race the scars are discomfiting. A Tour rider will pedal on through almost any pain (Australia's Stuart O'Grady currently has a fractured vertebrae; most of us wouldn't get out of bed with a broken back, let alone ride the Tour de France). When you see them go down hard like that, flying over a guardrail and not popping right back up, you know that they're really hurt badly. In the end, this is a very blue-collar sport. A man's job depends upon whether or not he can show up for work the next day. And even though their teams will cover the hospital costs and get them home to recover, until they can race again, both Verbrugghe and Canada will definitely fret over whether their crash cost them a job. Taking it back to this morning, Austin and I motored up the A7 with our brand new sticker, and then detoured off onto the D104 towards the finish in Gap. What does one see along the French roadsides between the farmland of Montelimar and mountainous Gap? A nuclear power plant simmering along the Rhone, Algerian immigrants scrambling to make a living in boarded-up Loriol-sur-Drome, rock climbers scrambling up a limestone face outside Beaurieres, fields of lavender and sunflowers side by side welcoming plots of yellow and purple, white campers jockeying for a spot in riverfront campgrounds, and the pure and wondrous realization that this spot so far off the beaten path is pretty much a place to store inside the head and heart to keep forever. There is a place on Highway 15, just about a hundred miles north and east of Las Vegas, where the flat desert terrain suddenly ends and a jagged series of rocky canyons and peaks consume the earth. That's what the road is like between Montelimar and Gap. Once minute you're in quaint farmland, starting at a nicely groomed vineyard, and the next you're driving along the edge of a cliff, looking a few hundred feet down into a roiling, chocolate-colored river. As I've mentioned before, the concept of guardrails is lost on the French. You miss a turn, you're airborne. The pucker factor on some of those mountain roads can be extreme. Stopped to get lunch in Luc-en-Driois, a small town consisting of three buildings next to a river. A goat cheese concession occupied one building. Bought a couple different varieties (one tangy and bitter, another smelling of grass and yeast that was soft and very good), a bag of walnuts, and some crackers. A simple lunch, but it hit the spot. Arrived in Gap about halfway through the afternoon. Walked three miles to the pressroom, only to find out later that I'd made a complete loop of the city by following the wrong signs. The pressroom is actually just 300 yards from the Volvo. The flat screens were on in the pressroom, but it was a nothing stage, intended only to get the riders close to the mountains, and nobody was paying any attention. With tomorrow as the rest day and then the Tour's final week looming, it was a pretty safe bet that the overall standings wouldn't change. Still, it's a trip watching the Tour in a room full of Europeans. Nobody really speaks to one another, because we all speak different languages. But when a rider does something clever, the room erupts into a series of mumbles and roars of approval. Likewise, when a rider cracks, there's a collective moan of sorrow. That sort of dramatic attention will be amplified, come Tuesday. The last week of racing begins with a very long and mountainous stage that ends atop L'Alpe D'Huez. Wednesday is even tougher, with an opening ascent of the fearsome Col du Galibier, which sounds just like another mountain pass unless you have stood on its rugged slopes, which resemble a moonscape. That Wednesday stage gets even tougher after the Galibier, but any time you start a stage with a mountain peak that made both Eddy Merckx and Lance Armstrong crack, you know it's going to be a *****. And then, just when the riders are just about as rubber-legged as can be, they rider 125 hard miles over four Alpine peaks. Two of them are category one climbs (about as tough as you can get), but the final climb of the day is even gnarlier: the hors categorie (basically, a mountain so incredibly tough it makes a mockery of the weak) Col-de-Joux-Plane climbs seven miles at an incline of 8.5%. Writing this, I feel silly. All those days I spoke of wanting some rider or team to make a definitive move into first place seem silly now. The riders are tired now, probably even more wrung out than they would like to be, thanks to the global warming that seems to have focused all its strength on the Tour these past two weeks. But the truth is, the riders have been pacing themselves. Next week is going to be incredibly hard. Yeah, it's their job, but no amount of training will make those ascents any more humane. It all depends upon who wants it more. A guy like Levi Leipheimer can easily make up that huge time deficit, just as Floyd Landis or Denis Menchov or Cadel Evans can become heroes or underachievers, depending upon the size of their cojones in those three crucial Alpine stages. But we start by resting tomorrow. As with last week, the riders will pedal two easy hours, get a massage, and generally just hang out. I'll do laundry and head over to interview Floyd tomorrow night. Tomorrow's not a racing day, but I'll still be posting once, just to keep things up to speed. A little Tour trivia: The record for most men wearing the yellow jersey is eight. This Tour has seen seven men wear yellow so far. The record will be tied, if not broken.  Alright. The thunderstorms have stopped. I'm off to find Les Orres, which is supposed to be someplace on a lake around here. I'm hoping there's a running trail nearby, a nice restaurant that stays open late (not much is open after nine in France on a Sunday, and it's 8:30 now), and a place to by some new socks. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Bastille Day

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

Happy Bastille Day. Man, is it hot. Africa hot, the kind where you sweat sitting still. It's 105 degrees here at the finish line. Thundershowers are threatening,which would be a nice and dramatic way to cool down. Carcassonne, today's finish city, is something of a tourist mecca. It's the wine-growing center of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. It was founded by the Romans in the first century, sacked during the Crusades, and was a favorite haunt of the 18th-century Romantics. I'm a jazzed because this area is known for it's lamb and fois gras, and also because the city lights a traditional bonfire in the historic citadel each Bastille Day. A little Carcassonne trivia: The movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (Kevin Coster, Morgan Freeman, etc), was filmed here. The talk around here is all about Floyd Landis. He suddenly seems to have been the obvious favorite all along, and more than one journalist has marveled that, for a guy with only a high school education, he's awfully savvy. Landis is not afraid of losing the yellow jersey for a few days. He just wants to make sure he's wearing it when the Tour gets to Paris. Stayed in the same hotel as three French teams last night. Some days the riders are barely fatigued after a stage, and others they barely have enough energy to eat dinner and get a massage before toddling off to bed. Last night was such a night. Yesterday's stage was a killer, and many riders would struggle to make it to the start in the morning, wondering why to keep going when nine more days of suffering awaited. Paolo Salvodelli of Discovery Team crashed while riding his bike to the team bus yesterday, felled by a fan who ran onto the course. He needed ten stitches in his head and is expected to abandon the race if he has problems. today. That's a big blow to the Discovery Team, which yesterday suffered the worst stage debacle they've known in years. It was a throwback to the days of the 7-11 Team, when the new American squad regularly got shellacked by the more experienced European teams. Floyd Landis's move into the yellow jersey only made matters worse. Discovery famously turned their back on Landis after the 2004 Tour. That move seemed vindicated last year, when Landis struggled through the Tour and lost heart. Now it doesn't look so smart. And despite rumors, don't expect Landis to re-sign with Discovery after this season. He doesn't like Johan Bruyneel's tendency to be a know-it-all and is reluctant to give up the hard-won control of his personal destiny, which is part and parcel of drinking Discovery's purple Kool-Aid. Regimentation is a good thing for many people, and Floyd is highly disciplined. But he doesn't like people telling him what to do. This being Bastille Day, French riders are itching to win the stage. They'll attack early and often. The heat will make it tough to sustain a breakaway through the entire course, but that doesn't mean they won't try. I remember looking at the total shock and wonder on David Moncoutie's face when he won this stage last year. He knew that his so-so cycling career had just become something very special, for a Frenchman who wins on Bastille Day is never forgotten in France. Stayed up late last night, well past one. That was partly the function of a late dinner (an interesting meal, starting with a simple pate, followed by chicken and rice soup, and followed by steak served in a pastry shell, a la Beef Wellington. The waiter was from India and spoke perfect English), a long and wondrous call home, and the ongoing energy from the excitement of yesterday's stage. The hotel room was a two-story chalet, which Austin and I shared. It was a nice change from the regular lineup of roadside inns that the Tour offers to riders and journos alike.  When I turned on the TV to find some international news (CNN is on just about anywhere you go, from Hong Kong to Toulouse), all I could find was a French-language dubbing of a Meg Ryan movie, and a local cable access Spanish porn channel where a naked woman danced alone in a hot tub without the bubbles turned on. I opted for Meg Ryan (wondering if her movie -- "Innerspace" -- and the porn channel were all part of some creatively symbolic late-night programming by some guy with a very wry sense of humor) but soon gave up trying to translate and went to sleep. Ran an hour in the Pyrenees at dawn, on a dirt path along the edge of a mountain pasture. The trail soon led me straight up the mountain to the former home of St. Jaime, the local religious icon. The stone cottage had two small windows and walls three feet thick. It was a mile above the town of Lons. Looking out at the view, it seemed a fine place for spiritual nourishment, and could see why Jaime chose it in the first place. Having said that, it must have been awfully cold and lonely in the winter. Then it was time to leave the Pyrenees. They arise abruptly from the earth, so that within an hour of the time Austin and I pushed on for Carcassonne, they were gone. We emerged from the steep pine forests and whitewater streams into a flat land of corn fields and even palm trees. A moment of sublime grace today: After crossing the border from Spain back into France, the Volvo got stuck in a miles-long traffic jam. A quick check of the map showed that Austin and I had navigated at cross-angles to the Tour, and somehow come to the point where police had closed the road. Traffic wasn't moving, nor would it move until the peloton rolled past, which wouldn't take place for three hours. Our only option was to turn back and navigate to the finish through Spain and Andorra, knowing that the trip would take at least eight hours. I was driving, the window rolled down. People in front and behind us were out of their cars, engines turned off, prepared to wait it out. Mountain meadow on both sides of the road. Just as I started to decide whether to make for Spain, a gendarme on a motorcycle (sky blue uniform, knee-high leather riding boots, aviator sunglasses) pulled up right next to the Volvo. He looked at the blue Tour stickers on the window, looked me in the eye, and motioned for me to follow him. Now, driving the Tour (for all France's splendor) is all too often frustrating. Either I'm getting lost or someone's wagging a finger in my face, denying me access to someplace I absolutely have to be. But this gendarme kindly led me past the miles of cars, then ordered another policeman to open the course barricades and let us through. I gave him a wave of thanks and the Volvo pushed on for Carcassonne. Which is where I am now. The city center features a huge medieval fortress, with stone walls and vast courtyards. The last two kilometers of the course make a giant lap around the fortress, through a phalanx of barricades line with sweating and thirsty fans. It's a day when I marvel at the rider's perseverance and sense of purpose, particularly those who are so far out of contention that their participation is noticed only by their team members and immediate families. There's the sound of thunder. Talk to you after the stage.

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If I Should Fall Behind

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

They took my stickers. Understand, this is traumatic. Life at the Tour revolves around access. Those numbered blue stickers on the blue Volvo's front and rear windshields, and the laminated credential hanging around my neck make it possible for me to do my job. Without the credentials, I might as well be watching OLN on television at home. Austin and I parked the Volvo out front of our hotel late last night. Went do dinner, walked around in rain (knowing that we had an extra hour to stay up late because the Tour would start right in front of our hotel in the morning), stepped into a place called the Blue Gin Cafe to hear a French rock and roll band belt out Police and AC/DC. Business as usual. The night ended with me in the hotel lobby at 1:30, checking email and composing the first bits of this missive. All in all, a pretty usual night. Dinner, by the way, was typical of this region of France. After the lamb and steak of the Pyrenees, and the whitefish with apricot and eggplant served that morning in the village, there was more of an Italian feel to this meal. It was a pizza and pasta town, and I had a nice thin-crust pizza with artichokes and peppers. Moving along. The barricades were up early this morning, and every car in that parking lot was gone except for the blue Volvo. It turns out that the team busses would be using that lot, and the tow trucks had been out early to clear the space. Thank goodness for the stickers. Anyway, knowing that the car was safe, I ran for an hour on a gravel path along the Rhone River (a surprisingly brisk run, by the way, given the fact that my legs are drum-tight from five hours a day of driving), and then back into Motelimar. Only now the stickers were gone from my (now beloved) car. I have driven the Volvo almost 3,000 miles around France in the last fourteen days. It is a station wagon, and I haven't been a station wagon guy since the yellow Datsun in high school, but we've bonded, that car and I. The stickers are so much a part of its overall look that at first I thought I was looking at the wrong car. I was sure a souvenir seeker had stolen them. A very polite, and somewhat embarrassed, race official called over to me. "They are gone," he yelled, miming the sticker being stripped off the windshield. "The boss of the start -- do you know Yannick? -- took them. Today you have no stickers."He smiled. It was an attempt to comfort me, but we both knew that I had been cast into Tour hell. Attempting to drive the course without stickers was sheer folly. I might as well just rent a freaking camper and watch the Tour from a roadside pasture. Adding insult to injury, today's stage would take the peloton along narrow mountain roads. The towns would be small and access would be extremely limited. The only thing that would get me anywhere near the race or the finish line was those stickers (FLoyd Landis said it best a few months back: When you get right down to it, the Tour is a three-week traffic jam). "Yannick?" I said, trying to sound calm even though I felt like wetting myself. "That his name? Where do I find him?"Yannick would remain elusive. In time, I may come to see him as a metaphor for France and the Tour's embrace of bureaucracy. The story goes on, and includes the sort of stereotypical incident where a haughty Tour official blew cigarette smoke out the corner of his mouth and then accused me of trying to cadge my way into "parking in the good parking." The long and short of it was that the blue Volvo was in the Tour penalty box. The stickers would be returned, but only in Gap, where the stage would end. I did not like that man. So, somehow, I had to make my way to Gap. Without stickers. On those slender little roads. Adding insult to injury, when I moved the Volvo out of its off-limits parking spot, the reality of my new life without stickers became obvious. Instead of the gendarme waving me through the barricades, pointing officiously (and, I like to think, courteously) toward the press parking, he brusquely whistled at the car and ordered me to find parking out on the edge of town. You know, with the huddled masses, those people without stickers, folks parked so far outside town they sunburned just walking from their cars to the start area. I'd never been out there. It felt like Tour excommunication. It was all starting to feel like a bad episode of "The Amazing Race." I kept looking for the obligatory "couple trying to rebuild their relationship" and "dwarf/clueless Russian chick" to hustle past in their backpacks. I sat down at a brasserie, under the shade of a great elm, and ordered a coffee. Let's take a break for second, just to bring the stage into the story. The riders will pedal 180 kilometers today, leaving the farmland of central France behind as they make their first tentative steps into the Hautes-Alpes. "Not the true Alps," notes Austin, who covers college football most of the time, "just the jayvee." Still, there will be a few minor climbs, along with rivers turned muddy from ongoing winter snowmelt, soaring limestone crags, and the first actual field of lavender we've seen so far this Tour. I have come to admire those purple carpet swatches along the roadside so much that I planted a lavender garden at home. Here, the lavender, sunflowers, wheat fields, vineyards, and local goat cheese shops add a distinctly French ambience I can only hope to duplicate. All those plants are nice, but the lavender is special, filling the air with a calming aroma and adding a subtle beauty to the horizon. The Tour is two weeks old. Paris is a week from today. The mood around here is a sense of collective fatigue. The second week of the Tour is always that way. That all changes during the last week, as we (riders, press, everyone) smell Paris like cows trotting toward the barn. Riders will bring their girlfriends in tonight and have company for the next week. Right now we all have that blase' look roadies wear before and after a concert -- we know the show by heart, and would love to be surprised by some new and bold race twist in the Tour's daily performance. Every day, in every town, the crowds pour in from miles around, eager to see and touch the riders. Montelimar is no different. The centre ville is loaded with fans of all ages, and the race village is set along a tranquil lake, where ducks float to and fro while dignitaries chug coffee and eat fresh apricots and Camembert. I should note that Americans are notably absent at this Tour. Australians are the new Americans, flying their flags and yelling "Go Aussie." I really honestly tried so hard to believe that America's newfound attraction to the Tour de France (Americans were everywhere the past few years), had more to do with a growing appreciation for the race and sports beyond football-basketball-baseball -- not just a chance to worship at the altar of Lance (hey, we all did it). The fact is, Lance was the draw all along. Those frat packs of middle-aged men in their Oakleys and corporate golf tournament shirts are gone for good, off to the next cool thing.  The temperature is still hot, and those forecasted thundershowers probably won't make an appearance (they sky is the clearest blue, with hawks whirling in the thermals, sharing space with gliders and parasailers). The smart racers will take it easy, because Tuesday through Thursday in the Alps will require every ounce of leg strength. Floyd Landis, as the favorite, doesn't have the same sort of strong and dominating team that Lance Armstrong enjoyed the last seven years. Nobody does (T-Mobile has the strongest squad, but as they showed on the Col de Portillon Wednesday, they are clueless when it comes to how to handle that strength because they're so unused to being in charge. That's team's lack of tactical leadership would be pathetic if it weren't downright tragic). So everyone wants to rest their team on this hot and humid day. Look for early kamikaze attacks, and a stage winner nobody has ever heard of. OK, back to the stickers. I forgot that we had an ace in the hole: Austin had received a set of press stickers along with his press credential. We plastered them on the front and back windshields, gave the gendarme a friendly wave, and pushed on for Gap.  By the way, Lance Armstrong flies into town tomorrow, just in time for L'Alpe d'Huez. Talk to you after the stage.

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It's A Loan, Not A Gift

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

I just called home to talk with my wife. When I told her about Floyd Landis giving up the yellow jersey (this, by the way, was not the opening topic of our discussion. I am capable of looking beyond the Tour from time to time throughout my long weeks here, engaging in warm discussion about domestic matters and getting the latest update. But then, inevitably, talk turns to the Tour, because I'm pretty much the Tour version of a Trekkie at this point), Calene paused for a minute. "I don't get it," she said, sounding as appalled as a Tour fan could be. "He did what?"Along with my wife, sports editors, and weekend sports anchors (who wouldn't know a bike race from a sled dog race) across America won't understand what happened today. Yet it was Floyd's best and smartest hope for winning the 2006 Tour de France.  It was smart and it was bold, but Jehovah help him if it backfires. He'll be branded the biggest chump in Tour history. It won't backfire.Floyd, you see, gave up the yellow jersey. Voluntarily. His Phonak team rode with the stolid tempo I see more often from the elderly club cyclists who ride through my town on a Sunday morning, on their way to hog all the good tables at Starbucks (note to you guys: Lose those rearview mirrors on your sunglasses and all those couples on tandem bikes. They make you all look -- and this needs to be said -- freaking weird). It was a hot day, and the stage was 142.6 miles long. You try chasing down a breakaway when the temperature's 107 degrees and you've spent the week riding through the Pyrenees. Floyd made a selfless command decision.It makes perfect sense that Phonak would give up the jersey today," said stage winner Jens Voigt after today's stage. "Otherwise his team would have had to ride hard today, would have to ride hard tomorrow, and then they would have the mountains, where they would be too tired to compete. He knows he can get it back."Thank you, Jens Voigt, for summarizing the stage in a single sentence. Floyd Landis let the yellow jersey go, knowing that his team is exhausted. To demand that they ride at the front of the peloton, setting the pace each and every day, just so he can wear a certain yellow swatch of fabric on his back would ultimately be self-defeating. Yes, the yellow jersey must be good for Landis's ego (I mean, come on, it's the dream of every cyclist), but his teammates have to do the hard work of defending it: sprinting after breakaways in this intense Provencal heat, always riding at the front of the peloton, and pretty much suffering in the Name of Floyd. For the record, Oscar Pereiro Sio is now renting yellow this evening. He'd better sleep in it, because it may be off his back as early as tomorrow evening. More likely, he'll keep it through Monday's rest day. Landis is not a popular man with the Davitamon-Lotto team. His decision to, in the words of Robbie McEwen "stop for a piss" yesterday afternoon just after a four-man attack escaped, was an intentional act to wear down Davitamon-Lotto. They would be forced to chase down the attack so McEwen could win the sprint finish and ultimately keep his green jersey all the way to Paris. So after the race, both McEwen and his teammate (and top Landis rival), had strong words for Landis. Evans disparaged Landis for giving away the yellow jersey ("I'm not sure he gave it a way on purpose," said Evans, with the insinuation that Landis was actually weak today), and McEwen made it clear that the offense will not be forgotten. Just so you know, most cyclists are either small or of average height. Magnus Backstedt of Liquigas, however, looks like a tight end. He towers over his fellow racers. And just a note for all you dreamers out there. The idea of being a writer is something a lot of people aspire to, but that most people abandon at some point, probably because they thought they couldn't match up to Hemingway or they thought they didn't look the part. Well, I'm looking around the pressroom right now, and I'm here to tell you that writers come in all shapes and all levels of ability. I'm sure some of these men and women are great, and some are hacks. But the point is that they're doing it. The work is out there, so if you want to write, then write. Don't let anyone stomp on your dreams. If a linebacker like Magnus Backstedt can ride the Tour, you can write its history. While I'm on the subject of dreams, I should respond to the emails from those afraid-of-flying's out there hoping to make it to Paris for the final stage. By all means, go. Charge it, sell a car, mow a few lawns... whatever it takes, be there. Paris is crazed and it doesn't really represent the essence of the Tour like, say, L'Alpe D'Huez, but if you're a serious Tour fan you have to go at least once in your life. My last name has a French quality to it, and there's even a French Nobel Prize winner who shares my name. But my heritage is Irish (long story, but the last name comes from a distant relative who assumed a new identity. Pretty cool, eh?). Anyway, there's a famous Roman aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard, and today's stage passed through the Gard region of France. There's even a large local castle bearing my last name (I'm going to have to stop in one of these years and see if I'm in line for an inheritance). Anyway, the Pont du Gard has taken on a somewhat elusive quality in my life. Every time I pass through this region during the Tour, I mean to stop and give it a look, but I never have time. But this year was different. Stuck in traffic this afternoon, thinking we could spare a half-hour, Austin and I pulled the Volvo off the autoroute and followed the signs for my Pont. It's a formidable limestone stone structure, built by the Romans and spanning the lazy Rubion River. Very cool. I even bought a t-shirt. Montelimar, site of today's finish, is known as the nougat-making capital of France. Now you know. Backtracking to Beziers, where we started the day, I've been poking around and found that it was the scene of a horrific massacre in 1209. Crusaders besieged the old Roman town and slaughtered every man, woman, and child in sight. "Kill them all," a Crusader said so famously at the time. "God will recognize his own." On a lighter note (an awkward segue, but it had to be done) tomorrow's stage follows the "Route des Fruits et des Vins" -- the fruit and wine route. It's famous for vineyards and hilltop villages. The plains of Remollon and Monetier-Allemont and the hills of Theus and Valserres produce whites, roses, reds, and a sparkling wine. Needless to say, we're all looking forward to the pressroom spread. We're going to Gap tomorrow. I think we were there last year, though I have to say that all these Tour cities blend together after awhile. It marks the entry into the Alps, where we'll spend the final week of this grand drama. The stage has been set and I think it will be a phenomenal and exciting conclusion to this very unusual Tour de France. Talk to you tomorrow.

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