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Riding Out To Case the Promised Land

Posted by MDugard on Jul 23, 2006 12:23:37 PM

It's Friday, the day after Floyd Landis made the Tour his own (win or lose, it's his, always). Walking around the pre-race village in Morzine this morning, the French enunciation of Landis (Lawn-DEES) was in the air. Before yesterday's stage he was such a tragic figure that the Phonak bus was akin to a ghost town.Now he's a rock star. Today the crush was so great that Landis didn't even sign in for the stage (every morning before the start, riders clip-clop up onto a big yellow stage in their cycling shoes, then sign the official sign-in book. It's a way to see who's still in the race, but it's also a great bit of ceremony for the fans crushed against the barricades, giving them a chance to look at the riders). Instead, Landis was bundled inside a Phonak team car and driven to the roll-out area, where his bike was unloaded and he entered the zone where media are now forbidden. As Landis's car crept through the dense thicket of fans and press, he sat up front in the passenger seat. Photographers pressed their lenses up against the window, taking tabloid-style shots so absurd that Landis couldn't keep a straight face. His temper's wearing thin as we approach the end of the race. His wry wit is strained and you get the feeling he just wants to be left alone. Introverts everywhere, having found a new hero, can empathize with his sudden fatigue with all the attention. Before going into more about yesterday (more details are emerging as the legend grows), it's worth noting that there was a lot of talk this morning about teams like T-Mobile and Davitamon-Lotto attacking (in talking with a very eager Robbie McEwen, he really really really wants the stage win. He's superstitious. This year he has won three stages at the Tour and Giro, and winning the green jersey in Paris would mark his third such victory. "I want to win a fourth stage to break out of the numerology," he confided, his baby face desperately in need of a shave). Truth is, the riders are exhausted. Not just a little exhausted, but barely capable of making it to Paris. When Viatceslav Ekimov of Discovery was asked if he was going to attack and go for a stage win, he was incredulous. "Right now," he said, quoting Pulp Fiction, "I am pretty freaking (not actually the word he chose, but use your imagination) far from OK."Meanwhile, the Landis legend grows as behind-the-scenes snippets from yesterday's Quixotic quest dribble forth from teams and riders. My personal favorite: "Get me to the bottom of the first climb," Floyd Landis told his pretofore listless Phonak teammates, "and then I'll see you later." A day after Landis's historic ("La Historique!" screamed the French headlines. "Incroyable!") comeback ride, more and more details are emerging. That opening quote is already making the rounds here as Landis's signature comment. He was throwing down the gauntlet, daring his teammates to support him and defiantly promising that if they did their job, he would more than do his. The peloton knew that something was coming. It was unusual for Phonak to be setting the pace once the race began, since Landis was no longer wearing the yellow jersey. Remember, the riders are exhausted. Yesterday was the third hard Alpine stage in as many days, and all they wanted was to ride into Morzine without having to work unduly hard. So when rumors about a Landis breakaway attempt shot through the peloton, some teams actually sent riders up to the Phonak cadre and warned them not to attack. It was like putting out a fire with gasoline. Landis now knew that the peloton would let him go, then not chase him down. So he went.  If you had a chance to watch the stage on television, you might have seen Landis catch up with a small group that had launched an earlier breakaway. He lingered awhile, talking one-by-one with the riders. What you saw there was simple horse-trading. Landis was asking for volunteers, riders who might be interested in working with him to make the attack a success. He was willing to pay for that help, roughly $5,000 dollars from some reports. But nobody took him up on the offer, because the race is so wide open that Landis has few friends in the peloton. So he shot away as if suddenly bored, destined to ride alone all day, come what may. The bald and ebullient Chris Horner of Davitamon-Lotto said this morning that Landis could have been caught "only if" the top ten riders all worked together to chase him down. "But I've never seen that happen in any bike race, let alone the Tour de France. There's no way anyone was going to catch him."I know, I know. You're thinking that Landis's ride reminds you of another long breakaway you've seen somewhere before, yet you can't quite put your finger on where. Let me help. Landis duplicated David Marshal Grant's epic attack in "American Flyers" (a bike racing movie also memorable for Barry "The Cannibal" Muzzin, Kevin Costner when he was still the guy you wanted to hang out with if you had the chance, and Alexandra Paul's famously dopey line just before the stage: "Be strong now" -- which may not actually sound dopey right here, but in the proper context it's enough to make you feel sorry for her having to actually utter the words). Check it out. By the way, Grant's character was also a wheely rider, like Floyd. OK, enough about yesterday, other than to say the obvious (and slightly heretical): The signature stage of Lance Armstrong's career came in 2001, and the look he gave Jan Ullrich before pulling away on L'Alpe D'Huez. I loved "The Look." It motivated me, and made me strive harder in my own workouts. But yesterday ...  yesterday was better. The temperature today in eastern France is sweltering and humid, easily more than a hundred degrees (37 Celsius. Once again, I've forgotten the conversion formula. Help me). The Tour left the Alps this morning, moving in a straight line west to Macon. To get a visual, look at a map and find the corner of Switzerland where Geneva brushes against the French border. That's where we are now. Yet it's more complicated than just a quick map study. The start in Morzine found the peloton deep inside a mountain valley. Ski resorts perched on the summit and chair lifts climbed from Morzine up onto those high plateaus. Now (I was writing in the car, and just got to the press room), we're in flat farmland. Vineyards and fields of corn line the flat country landscape. Macon, by the way, is home of the Beaujolais wine varietal. The city's history is incredible, beginning with its 3rd-century founding by a Celtic tribe, then onto the Romans, on up to the Nazi's. It has been fortified, looted, burned, and occupied by every group from the Barbarians to the Francs. I have to say that you can't feel the history so much when you're actually here. The mood is sedate, like some tiny South Dakota farm town with a single stop light. I miss the Alps already. Austin and I got a ski condo in the ski station of Avoriaz, a full mile up the mountain from Morzine. We closed the pressroom once again last night (this time it was bad -- Tour employees actually turned off the power. When that failed, they shut off the Wifi) and didn't find our lodgings until 1 a.m. It was dark, but in the moonlight I could see a stark spire of a ridge looming over Avoriaz. When I got up in the morning I ran to the top of it, clambering along a narrow trail through a green mountain meadow. The path was muddy and thin and rocky, and by the time I found the top the ridge fell away a thousand feet on each side. At which point I had one of those weird ju-ju feelings telling me that the smart thing was to retrace my steps before I slipped off the cliff and became a "stupid tourist" urban legend (probably complete with a video clip. Having said that. our President just tried to give the German Chancellor a backrub, an act which is now making the internet video rounds. What, I want to say, were you thinking, dude?). Back to the Alps. I turned back and found other (safer, yet strangely steeper) trails, full of long tempo grinds that burn the legs and lift the heart rate. By the time I was done, I saw the run for what it was: One of those transcendent Tour experiences that will stay with me a long time. Having said that, I came back pretty exhausted. Blame it on the Landis effect, but I was overcome by the urge to push out of the comfort zone this morning. Reading your emails, I know that many of you felt the same way. But now the Alps are gone. The fields around us are flat, and the riders are just trying to get their legs back for tomorrow's time-trial. All eyes here are on the the time-trial and then push on to Paris in the evening. By the way, for those of you who came late to this party and are curious about Austin's identity, his full name is Austin Murphy and he writes for Sports Illustrated. My book, CHASING LANCE, was about our misadventures at last year's Tour, which was the fourth we'd covered together. Read the book for the physical description, etc., but know that Austin is a top-notch guy who can sing along to Thunder Road word for word, which is perhaps the finest barometer of road trip worthiness.  Check out his stuff at www.si.com. This being a non-Armstrong year, you may have to hit the "MORE" button to find his blogs, but they're worth the hunt. Alright. I'm getting misty. Talk to you after the stage.

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