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If I Should Fall Behind

Posted by MDugard on Jul 17, 2006 8:08:42 AM

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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