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Mind the Gap

Posted by MDugard on Jul 17, 2006 11:36:53 AM

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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