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Bastille Day

Posted by MDugard on Jul 17, 2006 8:19:21 AM

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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