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Posted by MDugard on Jul 22, 2006 9:11:01 PM

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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