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Final Countdown

Posted by MDugard on Jul 22, 2006 5:25:48 AM

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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