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Fonzie

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2006

Today was a nothing stage, and the collective journalistic corps couldn't have been more disinterested. The pressroom here in Macon's Palais de Sport is not air-conditioned and we are panting like dogs in the claustrophobic heat. Once it was clear that no team hasd the legs to threaten the top riders, we lost all interest in the flat screen monitors. Behind me, a guy from Radio France is dictating his story into a tape recorder. He is an obnoxious man whom most male members of the American press corps almost beat to a pulp when he evicted the Boston Globe's Bonnie DeSimone from her seat in the press room yesterday afternoon, reasons unknown. So... yeah, we're all getting a little tense around here. Before going on: Matteo Tosatto won today's stage. He's normally the lead-out man for Tom Boonen, but the Belgian quit the race earlier this week, allowing Tosatto free reign to go for a stage victory. Tosatto, who has carved out a niche as a lead-out man for several teams, was asked after the race if he felt the sudden urge to pull over fifty meters from the line to let someone else pass. I liked that one. Back to the pressroom. It's not just that journalists are suddenly flocking in from around the world for the race's final days, making for a cramped and overcrowded place to do some serious reflecting and writing. And it has nothing to do with nationalism, because the press is so taken with this odd and amazing bike race we're witnessing that who the leaders are and where they're from is of little consequence. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the end is in sight. Sleep has been minimal for almost three weeks and tempers are getting short. The entire Tour contingent -- riders, officials, press, and even the caravan's carny geeks -- have dipped desperately far into our adrenaline reserves.  I saw a sign today for Strasbourg on the autoroute. That's where we started. To realize that we have actually made this big loop of France -- le Grand Boucle -- is a little amazing. With Paris literally 24 hours away, this sudden prospect of our long and surprising odyssey coming to an end is making us all a little pissy.I was feeling that way earlier today, but I'm feeling pretty Fonzie right about now. The twists and turns of this race mean that tomorrow's time trial will be epic. I love epic. We already have our podium. Oscar Pereiro, Carlos Sastre and Floyd Landis are all within thirty seconds of each other, and each is a great time-trialist. Barring calamity (the weather forecast calls for torrid morning heat in Central France, followed by thundershowers right about the time those three leave the start house) those three will finish 1-2-3 in the 2006 Tour de France. The actual order is anyone's guess. So calamity is what it will take for one or all of those three to finish out of the money. Andreas Kloden is fourth, almost two minutes behind Landis. Cadel Evans is another forty seconds back of Kloden. But this Tour has not lacked for drama. All it takes is a slip on wet pavement, a punctured tire, or a Mickael Rasmussen-style time trial by one of those three and the race is going to take yet another twist and turn. Having said that, I've been debating the idea of a three-way tie. What if all Landis, Sastre and Pereiro finish tomorrow within mere seconds of one another? You'd think that Tour officials would love a madcap sprint on the final stage into Paris, but nothing could be further from the truth. Tradition holds that the riders time-trial hard Saturday afternoon, party hard Saturday night, then cruise into Paris on what amounts to a ceremonial final stage. Typically, it's a day for the sprinters (all of whom were quite nonplussed when Alexandre Vinokourov breached protocol by tearing away for the win last year). The idea of having two or three riders and teams going neck-and-neck into Paris is enough to throw Tour director Christian Prudhomme into an apoplectic fit. The French love order and hierarchy, and such a finish would be absolute chaos. The stage is a thirty five-mile individual time trial from Le Creusot (a former coal mining town) and Montceau-les-Mines (which, amazingly, was first settled in the Paleolithic period). The route is largely flat, with a few hills thrown in. The first rider goes off at 10:58 in the morning followed at two-minute intervals by almost all the peloton. The top twenty riders, however, roll out with a three-minute gap between them. The riders leave the start house in reverse order from last to first. Wim Vansevenant of Davitamon-Lotto is the "lantern rouge" (or, last place, with a title derived from the red lights that used to hang on a railroad caboose). Floyd Landis starts his ride 4:42, local time. A few things before I leave this buffet-less sauna in search of a hotel. First off, writing these dispatches (OK, blog. There. I've said it) each day has been one of the best experiences of my career. I never knew it could be so much fun. I'm not sure how I'm going to pull it off, or even what I could write about that could continue capturing your attention, but I'd like to keep it rolling once the Tour is over. I'm not very web savvy, and a little research is in order, but it's just something I'm rolling around in my head. Check this site every now and then to see if I've gotten something together. Next, your responses from yesterday's stage were overwhelming. The emails and postings, with their stories and honest emotion, were thoroughly powerful. One of the reasons that Austin and I tarried in the pressroom was to read those missives. You know who you are if you wrote in, so thanks. Alright.... Off to find the hotel. It's still light out, which is something of a minor miracle. This Tour de France, this Grand Boucle, is almost done, yet the best is still to come. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Final Countdown, Part II

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2006

Notes from the wait...Hanging out in the pressroom at the finish line, waiting for the time trial to be decided. Floyd and company don't go off for more than two hours (the Australian press assures me that Cadel Evans will move into a podium spot, by the way). Since we're all forced to watch time trials on TV, thanks to the nature of the TT, I almost dropped Austin off at the finish and then pushed on to Paris alone to watch the finale in my favorite cafe (he's on deadline, and will be staying in Dijon to write, anyway). But then I realized that I needed to be there at the finish line to see the look on the face of Pereiro/Landis/Sastre/Evans (?) when they realize they've moved into yellow for good. How could I not be? It would be like leaving a movie before the final ten minutes, or leaving a boxing match before the final round. Sure, I could see it on TV. But someone's going to be very happy right around 5:55 local time and someone will be on the verge of tears. That's what sports is all about. After three weeks of watching this drama unfold, I need the closure of seeing the ending for myself. Paris can wait. And yet ... it's bad form to attack yellow on the final day of the Tour, but this Tour has broken all the rules. Why should tomorrow's push along the Champs Elysees be any different? In fact, it's almost guaranteed that there will be some sort of battle. Even if the yellow jersey is decided today, and the green jersey (sprinters; won by Robbie McEwen yesterday when Freire, the Spaniard, abandoned), those final steps on the podium may be wide open. Absolutely nobody except bike geeks and the Velo News staff (with all due respect guys, there's no difference between the two) remembers who finishes fourth at the Tour. It's all about podium -- 1, 2, 3. If the fourth place guy is within striking distance tomorrow morning, there will be blood. An aside: I'm starting to check in with the world again. I know about the Angels surging in the West, Isreal doing what they do (damned if they do, gone if they don't) in the Middle East, Le Backrub, and I'm finally catching up on Doonesbury. So I look at ESPN.COM and see that Barry Bonds and Pat Tillman are the top stories, that Tiger has the lead on a bunch of sites, and that the LA Times hasn't sent anyone to cover this race, even as the NY Times has sent a business writer to do a man's job. Part of me feels like I've got some sort of great scoop because I'm witnessing, one of the lucky few witnessing, one of the year's great sporting moments in person. Part of me is absolutely pissed that today is being marginalized by someone as ludicrous as Barry "Asterisk" Bonds. OK. Rant's all finished. It's 2:46 here. The finish area is rather charming, a little island between the Saone River and a deep green canal. The weather has turned very warm and preposterously humid. Because the start and finish are separated by a dozen miles, I can't tell you exactly what's going on, but right now is exactly the time that the top riders are emerging from their team busses and beginning their hour-long warm-up on a wind trainer. Crowds are gathered around the busses, standing ten feet away behiind yellow caution tape, watching the riders get ready like they'd watch apes at the zoo -- only you don't ask the ape for an autograph, nor gape so respectfully. Onward. Incredible press buffet here today: sauteed steak, goat cheese, baguettes, some sort of fabulous boiled potato, and yellow plums for desert. Thought you'd want to know. Talk to you after the stage.

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Final Countdown

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2006

No day but today, redux...The skies opened up over Central France this morning, dumping rain on the start town of Le Creusot. It wasn't just a little sprinkle, it was a long and protracted deluge that slatted against the windows so hard it sound more like hail than rain. Thunder boomed and wind bent the poplar trees double. I could hear a train whistle in the midst of it all, and a Gerolsteiner mechanic sprinting down the hallway of my hotel, hurrying out into the parking lot to move team time-trial bikes into a protective shelter. And then it was gone. The deluge ceased and the thunderclaps (now crackling like rifle shots) echoed further and further away. Yet in the midst of it all, while all that rain fell in big fat punishing drops, I sat at breakfast and watched a Francaise de Jeux team car with bikes on top load up a couple riders and then head off for the start. No matter what the weather, no matter how much punishment the riders might endure, the Tour must go on. That pair of cyclists are some of the lucky ones, though in a weird way. They'll be time trialing early in the morning. They'll get it out of the way, so to speak, and be back at the team hotel for lunch. The heavy hitters of this Tour -- those riders ranked among the top twenty overall -- won't race until early evening. They have all day to fret. For some today will be about saving face after a disappointing Tour (you already saw some of that yesterday: after Levi Leipheimer lost fourteen more minutes on Thursday, his job was very much on the line, which is why he attacked the peloton. For that, the Tour jury named him the stage's most combative rider, as they had Floyd Landis the day before). For others this is a contract year and a good time trial will be a means of attracting offers from other teams. And for just six riders, this time trial will be for all the marbles and the chance to stand atop the Tour de France podium tomorrow night in Paris. Denis Menchov is one of those six (the others: Oscar Pereiro, Carlos Sastre, Floyd Landis, Andreas Kloden, and Cadel Evans). I'm not sure how the rest prepared, but Menchov's Rabobank team had a very spirited dinner here at the Mercure Chalon-sur-Saone. There was a lot of laughing and joking as the riders ate their typical bland meal of baked chicken (no spices, bad for the stomach), pasta without sauce, and steamed green vegetables. Their team mechanics lounged outside afterwards, sitting in the warm summer air with their cohorts from Gerolsteiner or Francaise de Jeux, but never mingling. The Alps were extremely hard this year and put the teams on edge. That relaxed attitude last night was a way of decompressing after those three stressful days, and a quiet acknowledgment that Menchov stands little chance of making up those long minutes between himself and that Pereiro-Sastre-Landis triumvirate nestled atop the standings. But remember, anything can happen today. Look at Jan Ullrich's crash in the rain in 2003, Bobby Julich's fall here two weeks ago, and Mickael Rasmussen's multi-crash debacle on the penultimate day last year. The thunder's back. The start area in Le Cruesot is just waking right now, exactly one hour before the first rider goes out. The Tour announcer hasn't started his daylong spiel to exhort the crowds and introduce the riders, and they haven't begun pumping dance music into the village. All that will come soon enough. The Tour's organizers have a genius for building momentum and anticipation. Between now and that moment seven hours hence when Oscar Pereiro rolls out of the start house, perhaps to clinch the yellow jersey, the volume and buzz will rise to a fever pitch. For now it's enough that the stilt girls -- a pair of Tour entertainers who work the pre-race village atop six-foot stilts, dressed as ballerinas -- have applied their clown-face makeup and are over in the parking lot doing their warm-up stretches (sans stilts) in preparation for a day in the sky. Favorite stilt girl moment of the Tour: the stilt girls averting their gaze as they walk past an unaware man relieving himself against a dumpster. Le Cruesot is a company town, built around the coal mines ("As early as the 16th century, people worked the black stone that appeared under the brushwood and which, at the time, could be picked up as if one were gardening" reads the chamber of commerce's literature), and now trying to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. Hmmm. It'll take some work. The big draw is a museum devoted to cranes, locomotives (the TGV trains are constructed here), and industrial design. I know that engineering sorts the world over will read that and feel a warm flush of anticipation, but it just doesn't do it for me. The campers are here in force, having spent the night along the course. I have discovered that the Tour even has an official camper (built by Narbonne), which doesn't surprise me in the least. These people would license the French sunshine if they could.  Anyway, the campers remind me that I did not sleep outdoors in the Alps or Pyrenees this year, as I have at Tour's past.  I thought I'd miss it, because there's something very cool about waking up in a mountain meadow and watching the sunrise over a spectacular mountain range. But those nights atop La Mongie and L'Alpe D'Huez were unplanned, and thus uncontrived. Part of the wonder was the organic nature of it all -- those moments just simply happened, as if they'd orchestrated themselves. I like it better that way. There's a greater sense of adventure to not always knowing what's next. Spent last night in Chalons-sur-Saone, a bustling, if unremarkable old town on the Saone River (thus, "sur Saone"). As we drove through the centre ville in search of our hotel, Austin and I were glad to see a broad pedestrian boulevard line with open-air cafes. Families were out having dinner and there was a festive, quintessentially rural French, feel in the air. Finally, after weeks of arriving at near-empty restaurants just as they were about to close, we were going to have a kickback meal and revel in a bit of the local culture. We're getting to that point in the trip where we talk about our wives and kids more and more, because the flight home is getting nearer. It would be good to hear a child's laughter during dinner. But the signs for the Mercure took us further and further from the center of town, into a rather dodgy neighborhood, and then a vast strip mall, where we found the hotel. As if in greeting, a team mechanic sprinted through the parking lot on a time-trial bike, shifting through the gears to make sure all was in working order. The usual night-before mood filled the lot, as team cars and mechanic vans nestled side-by-side in the back of the hotel. Bikes on racks were being cleaned, dried, tuned, and then put away for the night. Inside, each team posted the rider's room assignments on lists next to the elevator. This is one of the Tour's more charming characteristics. Austin and I have often been given the rooms assigned to the former Liberty Seguros Team, which was kicked out of the Tour at the last minute. So not only have we been assigned rooms in the team hotels, but very often the riders are on the same floor. It's all pretty cool. By the way, this is no secret so I can put it out there, but if you're in Paris for the last stage, almost all the teams stay at the Meridien. I'll leave it up to you to figure out which one. OK. Just a few more minutes before the start. I'm trying to be calm about this whole thing, but today is pretty huge. If Floyd Landis is going to win, he needs to: a) show up n time for the start; b) avoid making another bike change in the middle of a time trial; and, c) ride the time trial of his life. Landis rides best when he works himself into a righteous fury about something or other. It's almost like he needs to be mad at the world to shut out the doubting voices in his head. He downplayed that finish line fist-pump the other day, telling me it was no big deal, but he was mad at himself for La Toussuire, and even more furious at those who had written him off (I'll admit ... I had my doubts). Here's hoping that someone insults his manhood or calls him a whimp or otherwise launches Floyd Landis into a Travis Bickle mood this morning. Talk to you after the stage.

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