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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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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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Chasing Floyd

Posted by MDugard Jul 21, 2006

"Dude," Austin said an hour after Floyd Landis won today, "we witnessed something historic."That we did. Just when it seemed Phil Michelson had a latched onto a lifelong partner in sporting infamy, Floyd Landis willed himself through a divine afternoon of redemption. Instead of being remembered for blowing the Tour yesterday on La Toussuire, Landis will now go down in history for today's epic comeback. Michelson will win the British Open if there's any justice in this world, and find a little redemption for himself just to even things up. Landis limited himself to one beer last night, deciding that he hadn't battled for three weeks to give up on the Tour de France after one very bad (historically awful, actually, what the French press were calling the worst collapse in Tour history) day in the saddle. "He told me he was going to go out in the morning and do something big," Amber Landis told me as she watched her husband begin the final descent of the Col de Joux-Plane. "He doesn't say that very often, but when he does, he always goes out and does it."That he did. Per his style, Landis didn't explode away from the peloton in the manner of most breakaways. Rather, he gradually left a yellow jersey group containing Oscar Pereiro, Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden, and Denis Menchov. He tiptoes away like a cat burglar, as if afraid of drawing attention to himself. Landis then began an 80-mile individual time trial, constantly dousing himself with water on this humid mountain afternoon, at one point pulling so far ahead that he was the virtual leader of the race. Just before Landis crested the Joux-Plane I sprinted across the valley separating the press room from the finish area. Then it was up a series of railroad ties dug into the earth to serve as steps, then a protracted juke through the thick crowds filling the brasseries and pressed against the barricades, and then into the Tour's backstage area via the security gates (armed by pistol packing gendarmes today). A large crowd of American press was gathered at the OLN booth -- Austin, Bonnie DeSimone from the Boston Globe, the Houston guy with the curly hair -- where we all watched the Liggett and Sherwen feed on a big screen monitor. Amber Landis was there, too, watching the race nervously. Now and again she would get a phone call from back home in California as family and friends tuned in to the race at dawn and learned that against all odds, Floyd Landis was making a race of the thing. Two things: To quote Vin Scully, Landis making up those eight minutes was the biggest comeback since Lazarus. And, with all due respect to Mickael Rasmussen, his breakaway win yesterday -- memorable and courageous as it was -- just got trumped. Onward. Amber explained that she doesn't usually watch Floyd as he hazards the descents on mountain stages, fearing for his life. But today of all days, as he plunged down the mountain without regard for life or limb, she watched every last minute. She cringed when he almost went off the road (a la Christophe Moreau) on the steep drop into Morzine, then distracted herself by looking away from the screen to fill Austin and I in on Floyd's mood after La Toussuire. Turns out he was down in the dumps, but otherwise fine. Amber, a small unpretentious woman fond of joking that she and FLoyd are "ghetto" (not at all your typical cycling wife, by the way) was the one sobbing and mumbling "oh, baby" as he tried to console her. "It was sad to see him have such a hard day," she said later, adding that after awhile she had just stopped watching the La Toussuire debacle long before he plodded across the finish line. Ah... but when Floyd crossed the line today, fist thrust into the air and a scowl on his face, Amber Landis jumped up and down. "Oh, baby!" she screamed, fighting back tears. Only this time they were tears of joy. And, if I am to be honest here, I was a little misty, too.  Before we get to the Landis press conference, let me describe the finish area. Riders crossed the line ashen faced, and soon entered a scrum of photographers and TV cameras. The final straightaway was as festive and crowded as Broadway during the Macy's Parade, lined with fans banging thundersticks and smacking their palms against the metal barricade, Bislett-like. Official red Skoda's followed the grupettos of cyclists across the line, blowing their horns to part a path through the media. The race announcer's voice boomed over the public address system, naming each rider as they passed. And all about, I could hear people marveling at the stage they just witnessed. In French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, and English, the Tour press and team officials chattered in edgy disbelief. Making up an eight-minute deficit with just three days left in the Tour is unprecedented. Landis was clearly enraged when all those bodies pressed up against him (during yesterday's finish, an overly aggressive camera man managed to smash a large camera body into the side of a child's head while trying to snap a photo of Floyd. Clearly, more restraint was in order), and barked "guys!" to buy a little space. Carlos Sastre pedaled through the mix, chaperoned by the CSC team staff. There was spittle creasing the faces of some riders, and many grasped for water bottles as if that was all they'd been thinking about for the previous hour. I squeezed into the press interview trailer. The air conditioning felt nice after an hour in the mountain humidity and I needed to make a few notes, so I found a seat while the podium ceremony was still underway. Two odd things happened: First, there was no one else in the interview room when I found my seat. Second, the rest of the media were still outside, waiting for Floyd, when the press conference began. So it was basically just Floyd and I having a little chat, which was nice for the first two minutes, by which time everyone came thundering in, and that bit of casual connection was lost. Still, it felt cool to be there having that talk on such an epic day. Anyway, Landis let it be known that he felt horrible about letting his team down yesterday. This despite the fact that every Tour watcher has pointed to his team's mediocrity as the reason for Landis's struggles. "They fought and they believed in me," said Landis. "I owed it to them to be a leader."More Landis: "What I did yesterday left a few people stunned. It was a disaster. But I knew that today, after all those mountain stages, other teams would be tired and disorganized. Chasing me down wouldn't be so easy."On the subject of his next tactical gambit, Landis said simply: "If I told you guys, it wouldn't be any fun."So tomorrow the stage is a little on the downhill side, a 120-mile run from Morzine down into Macon. Teams might try to take a little bite out of Landis, hoping to gain a few seconds on him before Saturday's time trial. With Pereiro (with whom Landis ate breakfast this morning, just the two of them) 30 seconds in front and Sastre 18 seconds up, Landis is close enough that a powerful time-trial Saturday will likely win him the Tour. But ... if the race is still close after Saturday, the final stage into Paris on Sunday will not be the usual parade lap we've been accustomed to for so long. Teams will be fighting and attacking up and down the Champs Elysees. Wow. Can you imagine?This race sure isn't over yet. Not by a long shot. Finally, and for what it's worth, I think there's some merit to arguments that Landis didn't eat enough yesterday. Today he made it a point to eat an energy bar and drink a bottle of water at the starting line, then reached over to the team car for extra food throughout the day. Talk to you tomorrow.

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The Pretender

Posted by MDugard Jul 20, 2006

And when the morning light comes streaming in, we get up and do it again...Floyd Landis is going to attack today. He has to. This is his last chance to move up in the rankings, and he needs to be extremely bold. That huge eight-minute gap between Landis and Oscar Pereiro could actually be a blessing. If Landis attacks, the yellow jersey group won't go with him because Landis is so far out of contention. That would open the door for Landis to slip away and use his vaunted climbing skills (which so infamously deserted him yesterday on the slopes of La Toussuiere) to crawl back into contention. So what kind of stage is today? Daunting. There are five climbs, concluding with the Col de Joux-Plane, an hors categorie monster that is just as long and steep as L'Alpe D'Huez. Today's finish, however, is not atop a mountain, but seven miles down the hill in charming Morzine. The wind is up, the clouds are rolling in, and what began as a hot morning in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is turning cool and crisp. The terrain, while brutal, is utterly gorgeous: lush farmland and cold gray rivers in the valleys, pine forests and charming country villages in the mountains. The quality of the roads is very poor, and little has been done to repave them for today (which the Tour usually insists upon). There's an independent spirit to this corner of eastern France (the French Resistance flourished here in the Haute-Savoie), which butts up against Switzerland. Chamonix and Mont Blanc, those legendary ski resorts, are just one valley over from the finish city. OK. I know that not everyone is rooting for Landis. And I didn't realize I was so pro-Landis until last night, in the wake of his implosion and subsequent tumble from first to eleventh place overall. But I was a little blue last night. This morning, as I went for a long run up and down the ski hill atop La Toussuiere, looking out across the deep glacial valley to the summit of the Courchevel on the other side, I tried to shake it. It made no sense to me that I could feel so melancholy about Landis's bad day. The feeling was a little like that emotion that comes the morning after game 7 of the World Series, when your favorite team has lost. But it ran deeper. It took me the whole run to put my finger on it: Ten years ago I was competing in the Raid Gauloises adventure race, when I had a very bad day and was helicoptered off the course. The sense of loss and even shame that accompanied my failure stayed with me for years. Now, obviously the Raid pales in comparison to the Tour's grand scale, but it bummed me out to think that anyone would have to work so hard and want something so bad, and then wear the mantel of failure. Which is what it is. The French press are already calling it the biggest collapse in Tour history. So I got back from the run and hashed it all out with Austin. At first we made excuses for him (he's had a cold for two weeks, a fact that he's shared with very few of us; his team is pathetic; he has that little hip thing), but that was pointless. Then we shifted our attention to the standings, trying to find someone to root for. The situation looked hopeless, but I need someone to root for. Emotional investment makes the Tour fun. But right now the Tour contenders all remind me of Presidential hopefuls slogging through the snows of New Hampshire, counting on attrition and dumb lick to rise to the top. If a future President should have a presidential bearing, then a future Tour champion should ride as if he's the best cyclist in the world. That's the guy I want to root for.  But I can't get worked up about Pereiro because I still can't forget how he whined after George Hincapie kicked his *** up the Pla D'Adet last year, Andreas Kloden came out of the East German sports system (call me old school, but I just can't get behind the guy... plus, he's riding everyone's coattails), and even Cadel Evans, whose cocky Aussie defiance I admire, hasn't been racing as if he's doing everything in his power to win. That leaves Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. If I had to choose between the two, I'd opt for Sastre. His attack yesterday was gutsy and unexpected and successful. Ramblings like that are running rampant around the Tour. One French newspaper ran the headline "Le Grand Suspense" this morning, referring to the fact that anyone can win at this point. Austin and I ate dinner with the Velo News crew last night (the restaurant was only serving cheese omelets. Mine was incredible), and after everyone worked past the ongoing shock about what happened to Landis, it became a name game as we tossed out a laundry list of potential winners. Our table was outside, and we'd closed the pressroom, so it was after eleven. But the day's upheaval had an uplifting effect on our energy levels. We could have debated the matter all night. Then again, that's why they actually have the bike race, to settle the argument once and for all. This morning's L'Equipe ran the best Tour picture I've seen this year: Landis, obviously in agony, is dousing his head with a bottle of water. Meanwhile, a child standing along the road has reached out to lay his hand on the yellow jersey. The look of delight on the child's face and the pain write large on Landis's couldn't be two more different expressions. I've alluded all Tour to wanting to get out on the course and run alongside one of the riders during a climb. It's the most moronic thing anyone does at the Tour. I wanted to know what it was like. Well, yesterday was the day. Instead of a flag or some other banner, I would run alongside Levi Leipheimer while holding a pair of blue jeans up in the air (get it? Levi's?). Austin and I had a good laugh about that one, even it was a bad joke. Anyway, that whole Landis thing pretty much sucked the life out of my running attempt. There was no way I was leaving the TV monitors, because I needed to see every minute of that final climb. In the end, I didn't run with Levi. There are still three stages after today. Maybe there's still hope...Looking at the Road Book, I can see a few small climbs that might work. Alright, just a tactical note before I go: There's a very long valley between the descent of the Category 1 Col de la Colombiere. The headwinds are stiff, so a long breakaway rider might have trouble. Talk to you after the stage.

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Landis ...

Posted by MDugard Jul 20, 2006

And I thought that today's surreal adventures were over....I'm in shock. Floyd Landis's implosion here today has turned the Tour de France upside down. He lost eight minutes. Eight. Minutes. All his top rivals -- Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden, Carlos Sastre, and even Levi Leipheimer, who now ranks above Landis in the standings -- rode away from him on today's final climb. They looked like schoolyard bullies kicking the crap out of a teacher's pet (I mean, who doesn't love Floyd? Even the European press compliments him).  The attack group's energy was palpable and ruthless, especially when word came over the race radio that Landis had cracked and was slipping further and further behind, like a man who has fallen into the ocean watching his rescue boat disappear over the horizon. Landis looked tired and hopeless, incapable of turning the pedals a single bit faster. In those moments, the yellow jersey was lifted from his back. The collective gasp that shot around this ski resort as fans watched the collapse on a jumbotron was unparalleled. It was Landis's race to lose and, more than likely, he did. I'd say Landis's chances of Tour victory are through, and that my invitation to his victory party will not be forthcoming. But too many screwy things have happened here at this Tour. He needs to recover tonight and do somethin utterly audacious tomorrow, or he will go down in Tour history as a man who had victory within reach and then let it slip away. All along he's been saying that he didn't care whether he wore yellow this week, just so long as he wears it this Sunday, at sometime around 7 pm Paris time. How he rallies tomorrow is a chance to show whether or not that was just a glib retort, or something he truly believes. Tomorrow's stage is longer than today's, with four tough ascents, and a final climb up the hors categorie Col de Joux-Plane that will make today's La Toussouire finish look like child's play. Geez, I hope he can do something (and forget making it up in the time trial, because that's just not happening). I like Floyd. He's a man of honor and integrity. Not that those qualities can or should guarantee him a victory, but I like rooting for a guy like that.

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Adventure Is Where You Find It

Posted by MDugard Jul 19, 2006

Adventure, Amelia Earhart once said, is where you find it. It's also been said that a journey is not an adventure until something goes wrong. The last 24 hours have seen a little bit of both for Austin and I: a little found adventure, a few things going wrong, and another dose of surrealism to remind us that the Tour gods have a very twisted sense of humor. It all began when I Ieft the pressroom late, traipsing across a muddy L'Alpe D'Huez pasture and through a maze of campers in the fading evening light. The mountaintop was settling down after a frenzied day of cycling. I was tired and chilled to the bone. All I wanted was to make it to dinner before the restaurant closed, get a hot shower, and hit the rack with a good book. Dinner in the Club Med dining room was spectacular, spicy curried lamb followed by a cheese plate and a blueberry tart. Six Tour teams were staying in the hotel, so with a sweeping glance around the restaurant it was possible to see Floyd Landis, George Hincapie, Andreas Kloden, and various other lesser lights. For a cycling fan it was all very cool to be a part of, particularly because it was so relaxed. The Tour causes the riders to put their guard up, because the minute they leave the team bus they're inundated by autograph seekers and the media. But at the Club Med La Sarenne, it was understood that the press and riders would mingle only on a social basis, and the autograph seekers were kept out of the hotel lobby by large, scowling security guards. So on the way out of dining room, Chris Brewer, Discovery Team's communications guru, asked Austin and I if we wanted to go out on the town. I have to say that in all the Tours I've covered, I've never had a single night out. There's just too much going on, and that time of personal space back in the room at the end of the day is priceless. Brewer, however, is a compelling figure. Austin and I were soon on our way to The Igloo, where rumor had it there was a party going on. The Igloo turned out to be a smoky disco (I actually expected to see a building shaped like an igloo, but it was a long cellar of a place)  Thick smoke, the kind that you smell coming out of your pores in the morning, filled the darkened room. But soon I started making out the faces and realized that pretty much a who's who of people I knew from the Tour -- press, security, Grand Mere girls, sponsor reps, and on -- were there. The rugged security force seemed to enjoy dancing with each other very much, so much so that I thought the Igloo might actually be a gay bar. Brewer filled me: Nowadays, two men dancing together in Europe is somewhat fashionable. Lance Armstrong and Jake Gyllenhaal made their way in around midnight, both wearing baseball caps pushed down tight on their heads. Women said Armstrong's name in heavily accented French as he walked through the crowd, hitting the second syllable harder than the first. As the two men found a spot to talk in a back corner, Brewer shifted into a different mode, setting up a defensive perimeter to keep the crowd back and give them a little space. I had a short conversation with Armstrong, and then headed back out in the crisp night air alone and walked across the mountain to the Club Med. Six hours later the blue Volvo was on the road. So far, so good. I found a promising shortcut down a narrow country lane knnown as the D926. Apparently, many other people here at the Tour also have access to Michelin maps, because soon it became clear that pretty much everyone in France was trying to take the D926 detour. Campers and cars and cyclists soon clogged that winding mountain road, and we were way too committed to turn back. An hour later, where the D926 teed into the Tour course, the traffic reached critical mass. All those people trying to fit on one little road led to one monstrous cluster...er, traffic jam. Most frustrating of all, we could see the course up ahead. All we had to do was make it up to the gendarmes and have them wave us through, and we would leave the crowds behind. The Tour is a race of tradition, and the venerable D926 bore witness to past Tours, even as its madness was very much in the here and now. Old painted slogans on the tarmac still existed from 2000, when the race used the D926 to access the Col de la Croix-de-Fer. It was infuriating and frustrating, particularly when some drivers gave up on ever moving, parked their car in the center of the road, and then walked off to find a viewing spot. "It's actually a very Zen experience," Austin said, as a reminder to himself to take it all in stride. I tried the Zen thing, I really did. Inhaled peace, exhaled conflict. And then I got out of the car and screamed at one of the idiots who'd left their car. At first he was nonplussed, but after three weeks in France I know how they argue. Wagging my finger, refusing to back down, I walked him back to his car so we could continue driving to the pass. Right now I should mention the reason for that outburst (I'd like to say I feel bad about it, because I try to maintain an even strain, but it felt good to vent. Had to be done), wasn't just the traffic jam, or that I wanted to be on the course, or even that Austin and I had stayed out late and risen early, leaving me sleep-deprived. Fact was, the Volvo was almost out of gas. We'd left L'Alpe D'Huez with a quarter tank and with the best intentions of filling up at the bottom of the mountain but, you know, we got talking and then the scenery was so gorgeous and it felt good to be driving an old country road with the music up loud. We just forgot, or chose not to pay attention. And we didn't remember again until that long, long traffic jam, when all of a sudden the gas gauge was showing empty. A moment to discuss today's stage. It's going to be another brutal day in the saddle for the riders. There are four major climbs (the descent of the Col de la Croix-de-Fer is also notable, by the way. Only a guy with a very big set can navigate those narrow, crumbling roads, with their sheer drop-offs, tight hairpin turns, and utter lack of guardrails), and another mountain top finish, the ten-mile ascent of the scenic, tree-lined La Toussuire). Landis will be attacked early and often by the other teams. Look for a Mickael Rasmussen or a Levi Leipheimer to attack. The point is to put Landis on the defensive, but I just don't see him feeling threatened by anyone but Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden and Denis Menchov. By the time Austin and I got on the course, running out of gas was not a matter of if, but when. It was very clear that the tank would go bone dry on some remote stretch of mountain highway, dozens of miles from a gas station. Most likely, we would be blocking the actual Tour de France course. As I began to ponder the logistics of pushing a station wagon on a goat road, we descended the Col de la Croix-de-Fer in neutral, one eye on the gas gauge and the other on the vertical drop-offs just inches off the side of the road. There was no gas to be had in St. Solin-d'Arves, a town without a gas station. We went house to house, asking if someone would allow us to buy some of their private stash (if such things existed). Finally, a nice family awaiting the Tour by barbecuing out in front of ther house, offered to let us siphon some diesel from their car. The hose was too wide by far to get proper suction, though Austin and I took turns trying. (I don't think I need to give you a compelling visual of how all this looked, but I will say that Austin remarked that he felt like a porn queen when all was said and done, and I understood completely what he was talking about. Let's just say I'm glad there wasn't a camera around). The hose was a bust. All we got were lungs full of Benzene. The family let us wash our hands in their kitchen, rinse the benzene out of our mouths with some almonds and a sip of white wine, and we were on our way. The next gas station was thirty miles and the Col de Glandon mountain pass away, but we had to get there. Saying a desperate prayer, I turned the key in the ignition, shifted the Volvo into neutral, and we coasted down the mountain, waving good-bye to our new friends and their siphon hose as we went. Just pulled into La Toussuire, where the riders will finish today's stage. The final climb is steep at the start, entirely flat in the center of the mountain, and then cants sharply upward to the finish area in this ski resort. It's another lovely mountain afternoon, but the clouds are already rolling in. By the time the riders get here around five, it might be a little wet. By the way, we made the gas station. Talk to you later.

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Meet the New Boss

Posted by MDugard Jul 19, 2006

Today marked the first time in this year's Tour that a possible winner showed himself. Floyd Landis didn't win today's stage (that would be Frank Schleck of Team CSC, who had to be talked out of quitting cycling a few years ago), but he owned it. Last year I wrote that Landis was still a few years away from winning his first Tour de France. I don't think that's the case anymore. Clearly, Landis is capable of winning now. Floyd Landis rode, in the words of none less than Lance Armstrong, a very smart race today. Controlling the tempo and pace, knowing when to let lesser riders break away and whom to watch closely, Landis showed that he's in control of this bike race. "I think of bike racing as a tactical sport," said Landis. "Today I rode tactically."That he did. Riding most of the day in a group that included top contenders Andreas Kloden, Cadel Evans, and Denis Menchov, Landis rarely appeared to be working very hard at all. Even during the final, brutal ascent of the L'Alpe D'Huez, Landis controlled the rhythm of the race. Part of that comes with being the favorite -- the other riders are all watching him now, checking to see what he's up to -- part comes from Landis's ability to counter even the slightest attack, and then there was the simple fact that he never seemed to be working hard. But that was all part of the game. "I'm a very good actor," Landis said, making it clear that he was suffering. But while the Russian Menchov was gasping for air, mouth open wide like a bass, looking very much like the Cold War Boris Badinov caricature of what a Russian should look like, Landis made small talk with other riders now and then. His face was impassive and he didn't seem to be breathing hard. All in all, it was a great performance. That performance continued after the stage. Under a threatening gray sky I wandered through the finish area, where individual riders were being tended to by their team doctors and athletic trainers. The scene resembled a trauma unit: Kloden was folded over his bike like a piece of limp origami, barely able to breathe; Oscar Pereiro, who had lost the yellow jersey to Landis by just ten seconds, was drenched in sweat and road grime, barely able to stand; and, Menchov, who lost another minute to Landis in the overall rankings, was thoroughly destroyed. After most stages, the riders simply keep pedaling their bikes back to the team car, but these guys weren't going to be pedaling anywhere. Hard to believe they have to race 112 miles and climb four major mountain roads in the morning. Meanwhile, Landis was safely out of the public eye, sequestered behind the inflatable gray amphitheater where the yellow jersey is awarded each day. His wife, Amber, in a bold move, slipped past security to be with him. She was giddy with delight at his performance (and something of a pro in busting a move past the Tour's vaunted security detail). And while Landis had put on a brave face after the stage, giving his bike to a Phonak acolyte and joking with the crowds, he was a different man once he knew the competition couldn't see him. Landis sat on the steps leading up into the podium's back entrance. At first he sat with his head in his hands, and then he just leaned forward and rested his upper body against his knees. Landis looked exhausted, like he could have fallen to sleep in an instant. The mood around here is that the race is Landis's to lose. But so many things can go wrong. For starters, he had a terrible cough during the post-race press conference. Though Landis was clear-eyed and articulate, he had to stop several times to hack. Whether there's something in his lungs or not, only Landis knows, but that's the sort of thing that can steal energy and competitive efficiency. You'd better believe that other teams will try to capitalize on that soon. They know that Landis's legs are cooked after today, and will send lesser riders out to attack, hoping to find a ***** in Landis's armor. I left the Landis press conference at about six, then wandered down through the finish corridor on my way back to the pressroom. The crowds were all headed for the restaurants and bars, and with thunderstorms threatening, everyone seemed to be in a hurry to find shelter. Plus, it had been a long and exciting day of racing. We were all pretty wrung out. Just then I bumped into Austin, who told me Lance Armstrong was holding a press conference in a hotel near the press center. It was to be a small affair, invitation only, and we were on the list. How could I not go?But all the while, waiting in a small upstairs room for Lance to appear, I kept wondering why he had come to France. The room was warm, and the handful of TV lights combined with the various bodies to make the room a little claustrophobic. If you happen to watch the interview tonight on OLN, you may also notice a picture of a winter landscape behind Lance's head. However, that was not the original painting/poster behind Lance's head. The original picture behind Lance was a cute painting of three squirrels next to a pine tree. Apparently it portrayed a bad image, so the squirrels were removed. I digress. Even though Lance is just a year removed from his latest Tour victory, anytime a retired athlete returns to the scene of his glory it's a little discomfiting. Think of Dennis Quaid in "Everyone's All-American." Anyway, so I asked Lance why he had come back. Just put it out there. I think he knew that someone was going to ask that question, because his answer was pretty good. He said that he came back because he's part-owner of the team, and that he's a fan of cycling and the Tour de France. Lance also said that he doesn't regret in the slightest that remark he made about the French soccer team. And he thought that the French tabloid headline "Welcome to France, *******" that ran in Monday's Paris papers was pretty funny. I have to say that it was good to see Lance here, because he was solid and relaxed and a lot different than during the tension of the 2005 Tour. He's bulked up a bit, because he's added swimming and kayaking, so don't expect him to make a miracle comeback. He looked -- and I know this isn't the best term, but it was the first thought that came into my mind -- like a grown-up. So now it's absolutely pouring here on top of the mountain. Wind is blowing the rain sideways and there's a fair amount of thunder and lightning. I wandered over here to the pressroom from the hotel more than eight hours ago, when the sun was shining. Having neglected to bring a raincoat or jacket of any kind, please know that I will be running at full speed the mile from here back to the Club Med. OK. Tomorrow. Floyd's in yellow, with a two-minute lead over his top rivals (Menchov, Evans, Kloden). As difficult as today was, tomorrow will see even more climbing and yet another mountaintop finish. Bourg D'Oisans, the start site, is here at the base of L'Alpe D'Huez, so basically everyone who watched the stage today has relocated to a spot down there. I would imagine it's a little bit boisterous at the moment. For those of you who've written to ask, yes, I finally found a place that sold running socks. Talk to you tomorrow.

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No Day But Today

Posted by MDugard Jul 18, 2006

I got goosebumps driving up L'Alpe D'Huez this morning. The scene was utterly mad and utterly inspiring. The road was jammed with thousands of cyclists riding the mountain's twenty-one famed switchbacks, some on their way up and others, already finished, weaving their way back down. Campers lined the roads (not the G-rated campers of last week, but the hardcore campers who party and abuse the riders with a fiendish delight, particularly the Dutch group that set up shop on an entire corner). I couldn't take my eyes off the road for a single second. Between the cyclists and the campers and the johnny-come-lately's showing their naivete' by painting slogans on the road the morning of the race (the real pro's do it in the dead of night, so their insults/exhortations will dry before footprints and wheel marks can besmirch it), my entire focus was getting up that road without killing someone. Leaned on the horn like a European while playing the Sopranos theme song, one elbow out the open window. Caught myself feeling like Tony himself for a minute. So why would I get goosebumps? Because the energy in the air was overwhelming and organic, with not an air of contrivance. Everyone -- EVERYONE, which conservatively means 100,000 people -- on this big, bald ski slope knows that the Tour is going to go off today. L'Alpe D'Huez is where it's going to happen. After 106.95 miles of suffering  through a hot and dry afternoon, the peloton arrives in Bourg D'Oisans right around cocktail hour (though for some of the people dancing on the road, it's obviously been cocktail hour since sometime about midnight last night). That rabid little village marks the beginning of the final climb to this summit. There the real racing will begin. L'Alpe D'Huez has a gradient is 7.9% and goes on for 8.5 miles. The mountain is a rocky crag, and the road to the top is a long series of switchbacks clinging to the slope. Each switchback is numbered, with signs at each hairpin bend counting them down (21, 20, etc). The shoulder is negligible, so most campers and tents are on the right side of the road. The first switchback is like a kick in the teeth. It seems to shoot straight up from the valley floor. I can't begin to tell you how impossibly steep this mountain is. A few years back I rode it, and vividly remember standing up in the pedals while sweat literally rained down from my forehead from the exertion. It took me just a little over 90 minutes to finish. The peloton today will climb L'Alpe D'Huez in less than half that time. I saw exactly one (1) fan holding up an American flag and a "Go Floyd" sign. On the other hand, it seems as if all of Sydney has decamped to the Tour, brandishing signs and flags offering their support of Cadel Evans. The Germans, of course, are everywhere, wearing their puce T-Mobile jerseys and painting the horizontal yellow, black and red stripes of the German flag on the road. And Denis Menchov of the Dutch Rabobank team, while Russian, has -- among countless other boosters -- a group known as The Devils wearing orange capes, tails and horns, ready to cheer him on. I don't think Floyd cares, one way or the other. He's always been his own man. Who does or doesn't cheer for him isn't a motivational tool for him. The stage starts in about twenty minutes -- 11:45 local time. The finish will take place sometime between 5:02 and 5:41 p.m. (the Tour is very precise about this, and even publishes a pace chart to show potential finish times based on various speeds). There isn't a cloud in the sky right now, and there's a slight breeze. Stayed in Les Sorres again last night. After the Landis press conference, Austin and I drove back up the mountain feeling famished. Ate dinner at a little restaurant called Au Refuge. My salad was butter lettuce with slivers of cured duck and fresh tomatoes. The entree was sauteed chicken breast served with a most compelling ratatouille (I've never used that word to describe food, not that I know of. But the ratatouille was different from any I've had -- not squishy or soupy), and a tender slice of fresh local cheese. The big surprise, however, were the French fries. The proprietor, Marko (who along with his girlfriend Agatha, a former Olympic figure skater, own the place) explained that he was deeply offended by what McDonald's has done to the simple French fry, so he took it upon himself to do better. He did. And, I mean, in a big way. That dinner at Au Refuge was the best meal I've eaten since arriving in France. It was the kind of dinner where you leave the restaurant feeling balanced and sated. Before we could leave Marko pressed a shot of goldwasser on us -- Polish vodka with bits of fools' gold in the bottle. A very nice send-off, indeed. The thing about the Tour is that when you stay at a beautiful place like Les Orres -- despite its college dorm-type rooms and showers that flood not just the bathroom, but the carpeted floor of the bedroom, too -- it feels wrong to leave. Austin and I both felt a tug of nostalgia as we gnawed on a couple croissants and some thick black breakfast coffee before heading out. Someday I hope to return. That nostalgia turned into anticipation the instance we reached the bottom of the mountain. We were on the Tour course, with signs pointing towards L'Alpe D'Huez. I got a giant nervous anticipation buzz just thinking about being there. So even as we drove past medieval fortresses and castles in ruins and rivers the blue-gray color of a dolphin, I looked forward, always forward to The Mountain. Campers and spectators were everywhere (generally, the camper folks just show up on the climbs or on other parts of the course where riders have to slow down, such as a sweeping turn). Music up (the Alabama 3 playing the Sopranos theme, Van Morrison, Springsteen, The Fugees, The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, and that song from Rent that admonishes us to "forget regret, or life is yours to waste", and on) loud. The scenery was one wonder after the other. At some point, perhaps when staring up a waterfall pouring down the side of a Yosemite-like Alpine crag, I realized that Austin and I were commuting to work -- or what passes for work in our world. Yeah, they pay us for doing this, but it sure isn't labor. I felt like the luckiest guy on earth just driving that winding valley road, window open and a great big goofy smile on my face. This is an e-ticket day, my friends, and I feel very fortunate to be here. So now I'm in the pressroom. We're staying at the Club Med tonight, along with Phonak and Discovery and a bunch of other teams. The town of L'Alpe D'Huez is a ski resort in winter, so gondola wires and chairlift bisect the city. They stand idle today, even as the city below them is a swarming international horde of cycling fans. The sunshine, the tailgating, and the knowledgeable enthusiasm of these people makes it feel like we're all doing some sort of cycling NASCAR event. Alright. The French feed of the race doesn't start for two hours (sometimes they show the whole race, but usually they just pick it up for the last three hours). I'm going to take a walk around and get the lay of the land. Usually when I come to L'Alpe D'Huez I walk down the course a few kilometers to watch the riders suffer. But today I'm going to hang out at the finish line. If there's going to be a tight finish (particularly if Landis or Leipheimer is involved), I want to see it in person. Talk to you later.

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Rest Day

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

What does one do on a rest day? Sleep, for one. Then eat, run, and write. Sometime this afternoon Floyd is holding a press conference at his hotel, and I'll be there (it's the Kyriad Hotel in Gap, if you're in the neighborhood). In the meantime, life doesn't get more elemental. Austin and I got rooms in Les Orres, a ski town forty miles outside Gap. Driving up the mountain in the dark, we weren't sure what we were getting ourselves into, because the road wound through miles and miles of utter darkness before emerging into the lights of this small town (there's a metaphor for life in there somewhere). As if entering some Dante-esque absurdity, the first two cars I saw in the parking lot had ten-foot-high red devils on top. Then there was the car with the pizza, and the coffee pots, and the giant pretzels. We had found the Tour's publicity caravan. Like carny geeks, the caravan employees cluttered the hotel's downstairs bar, glad to be rid of their absurd little vehicles for a whole day. From the look of things as I was checking in, I can tell you that those caravan folks party very, very hard when the day is done. I guess driving around France with a giant red devil looking over your shoulder will do that to you. I needed a long trail run in the worst way. Those riverfront runs that have become a staple of the Tour are all well and good, but at some point I need to lose myself in a dense woods. This hotel, L'Ancolie, sits directly at the bottom of the mountain. In the winter I would be able to ski from the lobby to the lifts. Likewise, finding a solitary trail was as simple as taking the elevator down and stepping outside. I ran up and up and up, slow and steady, traversing back and forth across the slope on service roads and singletrack, past herds of bell-wearing dairy cows (we exchanged moo's. It was all very Dr. Phil, and I felt like I bonded in particular with a small brown cow that couldn't decide whether to charge me or let me pass. She kept chewing on a mouthful of grass as I trotted by, but never took a wary eye off of me). It is sobering, and somewhat splendid, to run up a mountainside until the legs scream that they cannot go any higher, feeling very full of myself, and then look even higher up the mountain and see an eighty-year old man walking down from the summit. He was my reminder to push harder and dig a little deeper (that Kate Miner song "Take Me Higher" began a continuous loop in my head). The old man wished me well as we passed. "Bon journee," I replied, hoping his hike down was a safe one. So that's how the mind works. You push to a point where stopping feels like the only option, and then when something urges you to push past it, something inside is set free. I began composing this missive as I ran, thinking of what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, writing entire sentences in my head, and then editing them, knowing all the while that I would forget the actual words when the run was done, and remember only the broad topics. Take, for instance, books. I was thinking about my Tour book, CHASING LANCE, which is a book very much like these columns, about following the Tour and being in France. It is not a book about Lance per se, I must point out rather honestly, but a book about Austin and I and the Sideways-style jaunt we have taken these many years through the Gallic world. Lance, as you'll see when you get a chance to read it, is someone we spend time with and whose race we dissect, but in the end, Lance is a metaphor for the greatness that lives within us all, and which we struggle on a daily basis to bring forth in our own lives. Man, it felt good to get that explanation out there. Not everyone needs to be filled in on the subtleties of a book. But apparently, after reading some of the knucklehead reviews on Amazon from those two or three people who will only read a Tour book if it's a Lance hagiography, some sort of Cliff's Notes was in order. I could tell you what he eats for breakfast, explain the sort of gearing in which he rides the mountains, and offer a few behind-the-scenes takes on Lance and Sheryl at the Tour, but that's all been done. So buy my book and let me know what you think. That's my naked, shameless plug on this rest day. It's on Amazon and it's out there in the stores. And when you're finished, write and tell me how you liked it. The email link on this site is always good, and I enjoy the feedback, for better and worse.On the topic of books, I'm asked a lot about my take on the Coyle book. I have to say that I intentionally avoided reading it until after my book was finished, because I didn't want any cross-pollination. I finally read it cover to cover during a trip to Italy in May, and enjoyed it very much. The reporting was excellent and I admired the commitment of moving his entire family to Spain in order to immerse himself in Lance's world. As a writer, my only quibble would be those random moments when he loses his own voice, which is most appealing, and slips into Outside magazine's trademark (and distracting) smarty-pants, we-know-more-than-you voice that makes every one of their stories sound the same and makes the magazine virtually unreadable. On the whole, that's a minor criticism, involving just a few chapters. It's a good book. Onward. As much as I like Les Orres, I'm already feeling like it's a mistake to linger here. Tomorrow is the L'Alpe D'Huez. As I write, I am sitting on my hotel balcony looking far across a broad valley at hulking gray Alpine peaks. Toward its right shoulder is an invisible line delineating the Italian border. But straight over the top as the eagle flies, and then down the other side, lies the base of L'Alpe d'Huez, where thousands upon thousands of fans are already setting up tents and campers and riding their bikes up the famous switchback. Austin and I have lodging at the top of the mountain, but to get there we need to push the Volvo through that sea of humanity. It's a traffic jam of epic proportions now, but it's only going to be worse tomorrow. Something inside of me thinks it's very important to be there as soon as possible. As I wrote yesterday, the next three stages of this Tour are crucial. Tomorrow will be the first of those challenges, and one of the top riders is going to tumble down hard in the rankings. Floyd Landis could be in trouble because his team is weak, and the same goes for Cadel Evans. Watch for Denis Menchov's Rabobank teams to send Mickael Rasmussen and Michael Boogerd on exploratory breakaways designed to probe for weakness in Floyd Landis and other top riders the way that advance military patrols probe enemy lines for a soft spot in which to attack. If you only watch one stage of this year's Tour, watch that L'Alpe D'Huez climb tomorrow. I've ridden that road before, and it's impossibly steep. Someone's just going to off on that thing tomorrow, and someone's going to implode. Meanwhile, the crowds along the road will be spitting on the riders, pressing right up next to them, throwing beer on them, waving flags in their faces -- the European version of Raider Nation, right down to the face paint. Which reminds me, I still haven't run alongside one of the riders yet. Stay tuned. I need to do this, even if it makes me look like an utter moron. If Floyd says anything interesting in the press conference I'll pass it along. Otherwise, I'll talk to you tomorrow.

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Mind the Gap

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

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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Bastille Day

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

Happy Bastille Day. Man, is it hot. Africa hot, the kind where you sweat sitting still. It's 105 degrees here at the finish line. Thundershowers are threatening,which would be a nice and dramatic way to cool down. Carcassonne, today's finish city, is something of a tourist mecca. It's the wine-growing center of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. It was founded by the Romans in the first century, sacked during the Crusades, and was a favorite haunt of the 18th-century Romantics. I'm a jazzed because this area is known for it's lamb and fois gras, and also because the city lights a traditional bonfire in the historic citadel each Bastille Day. A little Carcassonne trivia: The movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (Kevin Coster, Morgan Freeman, etc), was filmed here. The talk around here is all about Floyd Landis. He suddenly seems to have been the obvious favorite all along, and more than one journalist has marveled that, for a guy with only a high school education, he's awfully savvy. Landis is not afraid of losing the yellow jersey for a few days. He just wants to make sure he's wearing it when the Tour gets to Paris. Stayed in the same hotel as three French teams last night. Some days the riders are barely fatigued after a stage, and others they barely have enough energy to eat dinner and get a massage before toddling off to bed. Last night was such a night. Yesterday's stage was a killer, and many riders would struggle to make it to the start in the morning, wondering why to keep going when nine more days of suffering awaited. Paolo Salvodelli of Discovery Team crashed while riding his bike to the team bus yesterday, felled by a fan who ran onto the course. He needed ten stitches in his head and is expected to abandon the race if he has problems. today. That's a big blow to the Discovery Team, which yesterday suffered the worst stage debacle they've known in years. It was a throwback to the days of the 7-11 Team, when the new American squad regularly got shellacked by the more experienced European teams. Floyd Landis's move into the yellow jersey only made matters worse. Discovery famously turned their back on Landis after the 2004 Tour. That move seemed vindicated last year, when Landis struggled through the Tour and lost heart. Now it doesn't look so smart. And despite rumors, don't expect Landis to re-sign with Discovery after this season. He doesn't like Johan Bruyneel's tendency to be a know-it-all and is reluctant to give up the hard-won control of his personal destiny, which is part and parcel of drinking Discovery's purple Kool-Aid. Regimentation is a good thing for many people, and Floyd is highly disciplined. But he doesn't like people telling him what to do. This being Bastille Day, French riders are itching to win the stage. They'll attack early and often. The heat will make it tough to sustain a breakaway through the entire course, but that doesn't mean they won't try. I remember looking at the total shock and wonder on David Moncoutie's face when he won this stage last year. He knew that his so-so cycling career had just become something very special, for a Frenchman who wins on Bastille Day is never forgotten in France. Stayed up late last night, well past one. That was partly the function of a late dinner (an interesting meal, starting with a simple pate, followed by chicken and rice soup, and followed by steak served in a pastry shell, a la Beef Wellington. The waiter was from India and spoke perfect English), a long and wondrous call home, and the ongoing energy from the excitement of yesterday's stage. The hotel room was a two-story chalet, which Austin and I shared. It was a nice change from the regular lineup of roadside inns that the Tour offers to riders and journos alike.  When I turned on the TV to find some international news (CNN is on just about anywhere you go, from Hong Kong to Toulouse), all I could find was a French-language dubbing of a Meg Ryan movie, and a local cable access Spanish porn channel where a naked woman danced alone in a hot tub without the bubbles turned on. I opted for Meg Ryan (wondering if her movie -- "Innerspace" -- and the porn channel were all part of some creatively symbolic late-night programming by some guy with a very wry sense of humor) but soon gave up trying to translate and went to sleep. Ran an hour in the Pyrenees at dawn, on a dirt path along the edge of a mountain pasture. The trail soon led me straight up the mountain to the former home of St. Jaime, the local religious icon. The stone cottage had two small windows and walls three feet thick. It was a mile above the town of Lons. Looking out at the view, it seemed a fine place for spiritual nourishment, and could see why Jaime chose it in the first place. Having said that, it must have been awfully cold and lonely in the winter. Then it was time to leave the Pyrenees. They arise abruptly from the earth, so that within an hour of the time Austin and I pushed on for Carcassonne, they were gone. We emerged from the steep pine forests and whitewater streams into a flat land of corn fields and even palm trees. A moment of sublime grace today: After crossing the border from Spain back into France, the Volvo got stuck in a miles-long traffic jam. A quick check of the map showed that Austin and I had navigated at cross-angles to the Tour, and somehow come to the point where police had closed the road. Traffic wasn't moving, nor would it move until the peloton rolled past, which wouldn't take place for three hours. Our only option was to turn back and navigate to the finish through Spain and Andorra, knowing that the trip would take at least eight hours. I was driving, the window rolled down. People in front and behind us were out of their cars, engines turned off, prepared to wait it out. Mountain meadow on both sides of the road. Just as I started to decide whether to make for Spain, a gendarme on a motorcycle (sky blue uniform, knee-high leather riding boots, aviator sunglasses) pulled up right next to the Volvo. He looked at the blue Tour stickers on the window, looked me in the eye, and motioned for me to follow him. Now, driving the Tour (for all France's splendor) is all too often frustrating. Either I'm getting lost or someone's wagging a finger in my face, denying me access to someplace I absolutely have to be. But this gendarme kindly led me past the miles of cars, then ordered another policeman to open the course barricades and let us through. I gave him a wave of thanks and the Volvo pushed on for Carcassonne. Which is where I am now. The city center features a huge medieval fortress, with stone walls and vast courtyards. The last two kilometers of the course make a giant lap around the fortress, through a phalanx of barricades line with sweating and thirsty fans. It's a day when I marvel at the rider's perseverance and sense of purpose, particularly those who are so far out of contention that their participation is noticed only by their team members and immediate families. There's the sound of thunder. Talk to you after the stage.

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If I Should Fall Behind

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

They took my stickers. Understand, this is traumatic. Life at the Tour revolves around access. Those numbered blue stickers on the blue Volvo's front and rear windshields, and the laminated credential hanging around my neck make it possible for me to do my job. Without the credentials, I might as well be watching OLN on television at home. Austin and I parked the Volvo out front of our hotel late last night. Went do dinner, walked around in rain (knowing that we had an extra hour to stay up late because the Tour would start right in front of our hotel in the morning), stepped into a place called the Blue Gin Cafe to hear a French rock and roll band belt out Police and AC/DC. Business as usual. The night ended with me in the hotel lobby at 1:30, checking email and composing the first bits of this missive. All in all, a pretty usual night. Dinner, by the way, was typical of this region of France. After the lamb and steak of the Pyrenees, and the whitefish with apricot and eggplant served that morning in the village, there was more of an Italian feel to this meal. It was a pizza and pasta town, and I had a nice thin-crust pizza with artichokes and peppers. Moving along. The barricades were up early this morning, and every car in that parking lot was gone except for the blue Volvo. It turns out that the team busses would be using that lot, and the tow trucks had been out early to clear the space. Thank goodness for the stickers. Anyway, knowing that the car was safe, I ran for an hour on a gravel path along the Rhone River (a surprisingly brisk run, by the way, given the fact that my legs are drum-tight from five hours a day of driving), and then back into Motelimar. Only now the stickers were gone from my (now beloved) car. I have driven the Volvo almost 3,000 miles around France in the last fourteen days. It is a station wagon, and I haven't been a station wagon guy since the yellow Datsun in high school, but we've bonded, that car and I. The stickers are so much a part of its overall look that at first I thought I was looking at the wrong car. I was sure a souvenir seeker had stolen them. A very polite, and somewhat embarrassed, race official called over to me. "They are gone," he yelled, miming the sticker being stripped off the windshield. "The boss of the start -- do you know Yannick? -- took them. Today you have no stickers."He smiled. It was an attempt to comfort me, but we both knew that I had been cast into Tour hell. Attempting to drive the course without stickers was sheer folly. I might as well just rent a freaking camper and watch the Tour from a roadside pasture. Adding insult to injury, today's stage would take the peloton along narrow mountain roads. The towns would be small and access would be extremely limited. The only thing that would get me anywhere near the race or the finish line was those stickers (FLoyd Landis said it best a few months back: When you get right down to it, the Tour is a three-week traffic jam). "Yannick?" I said, trying to sound calm even though I felt like wetting myself. "That his name? Where do I find him?"Yannick would remain elusive. In time, I may come to see him as a metaphor for France and the Tour's embrace of bureaucracy. The story goes on, and includes the sort of stereotypical incident where a haughty Tour official blew cigarette smoke out the corner of his mouth and then accused me of trying to cadge my way into "parking in the good parking." The long and short of it was that the blue Volvo was in the Tour penalty box. The stickers would be returned, but only in Gap, where the stage would end. I did not like that man. So, somehow, I had to make my way to Gap. Without stickers. On those slender little roads. Adding insult to injury, when I moved the Volvo out of its off-limits parking spot, the reality of my new life without stickers became obvious. Instead of the gendarme waving me through the barricades, pointing officiously (and, I like to think, courteously) toward the press parking, he brusquely whistled at the car and ordered me to find parking out on the edge of town. You know, with the huddled masses, those people without stickers, folks parked so far outside town they sunburned just walking from their cars to the start area. I'd never been out there. It felt like Tour excommunication. It was all starting to feel like a bad episode of "The Amazing Race." I kept looking for the obligatory "couple trying to rebuild their relationship" and "dwarf/clueless Russian chick" to hustle past in their backpacks. I sat down at a brasserie, under the shade of a great elm, and ordered a coffee. Let's take a break for second, just to bring the stage into the story. The riders will pedal 180 kilometers today, leaving the farmland of central France behind as they make their first tentative steps into the Hautes-Alpes. "Not the true Alps," notes Austin, who covers college football most of the time, "just the jayvee." Still, there will be a few minor climbs, along with rivers turned muddy from ongoing winter snowmelt, soaring limestone crags, and the first actual field of lavender we've seen so far this Tour. I have come to admire those purple carpet swatches along the roadside so much that I planted a lavender garden at home. Here, the lavender, sunflowers, wheat fields, vineyards, and local goat cheese shops add a distinctly French ambience I can only hope to duplicate. All those plants are nice, but the lavender is special, filling the air with a calming aroma and adding a subtle beauty to the horizon. The Tour is two weeks old. Paris is a week from today. The mood around here is a sense of collective fatigue. The second week of the Tour is always that way. That all changes during the last week, as we (riders, press, everyone) smell Paris like cows trotting toward the barn. Riders will bring their girlfriends in tonight and have company for the next week. Right now we all have that blase' look roadies wear before and after a concert -- we know the show by heart, and would love to be surprised by some new and bold race twist in the Tour's daily performance. Every day, in every town, the crowds pour in from miles around, eager to see and touch the riders. Montelimar is no different. The centre ville is loaded with fans of all ages, and the race village is set along a tranquil lake, where ducks float to and fro while dignitaries chug coffee and eat fresh apricots and Camembert. I should note that Americans are notably absent at this Tour. Australians are the new Americans, flying their flags and yelling "Go Aussie." I really honestly tried so hard to believe that America's newfound attraction to the Tour de France (Americans were everywhere the past few years), had more to do with a growing appreciation for the race and sports beyond football-basketball-baseball -- not just a chance to worship at the altar of Lance (hey, we all did it). The fact is, Lance was the draw all along. Those frat packs of middle-aged men in their Oakleys and corporate golf tournament shirts are gone for good, off to the next cool thing.  The temperature is still hot, and those forecasted thundershowers probably won't make an appearance (they sky is the clearest blue, with hawks whirling in the thermals, sharing space with gliders and parasailers). The smart racers will take it easy, because Tuesday through Thursday in the Alps will require every ounce of leg strength. Floyd Landis, as the favorite, doesn't have the same sort of strong and dominating team that Lance Armstrong enjoyed the last seven years. Nobody does (T-Mobile has the strongest squad, but as they showed on the Col de Portillon Wednesday, they are clueless when it comes to how to handle that strength because they're so unused to being in charge. That's team's lack of tactical leadership would be pathetic if it weren't downright tragic). So everyone wants to rest their team on this hot and humid day. Look for early kamikaze attacks, and a stage winner nobody has ever heard of. OK, back to the stickers. I forgot that we had an ace in the hole: Austin had received a set of press stickers along with his press credential. We plastered them on the front and back windshields, gave the gendarme a friendly wave, and pushed on for Gap.  By the way, Lance Armstrong flies into town tomorrow, just in time for L'Alpe d'Huez. Talk to you after the stage.

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It's A Loan, Not A Gift

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2006

I just called home to talk with my wife. When I told her about Floyd Landis giving up the yellow jersey (this, by the way, was not the opening topic of our discussion. I am capable of looking beyond the Tour from time to time throughout my long weeks here, engaging in warm discussion about domestic matters and getting the latest update. But then, inevitably, talk turns to the Tour, because I'm pretty much the Tour version of a Trekkie at this point), Calene paused for a minute. "I don't get it," she said, sounding as appalled as a Tour fan could be. "He did what?"Along with my wife, sports editors, and weekend sports anchors (who wouldn't know a bike race from a sled dog race) across America won't understand what happened today. Yet it was Floyd's best and smartest hope for winning the 2006 Tour de France.  It was smart and it was bold, but Jehovah help him if it backfires. He'll be branded the biggest chump in Tour history. It won't backfire.Floyd, you see, gave up the yellow jersey. Voluntarily. His Phonak team rode with the stolid tempo I see more often from the elderly club cyclists who ride through my town on a Sunday morning, on their way to hog all the good tables at Starbucks (note to you guys: Lose those rearview mirrors on your sunglasses and all those couples on tandem bikes. They make you all look -- and this needs to be said -- freaking weird). It was a hot day, and the stage was 142.6 miles long. You try chasing down a breakaway when the temperature's 107 degrees and you've spent the week riding through the Pyrenees. Floyd made a selfless command decision.It makes perfect sense that Phonak would give up the jersey today," said stage winner Jens Voigt after today's stage. "Otherwise his team would have had to ride hard today, would have to ride hard tomorrow, and then they would have the mountains, where they would be too tired to compete. He knows he can get it back."Thank you, Jens Voigt, for summarizing the stage in a single sentence. Floyd Landis let the yellow jersey go, knowing that his team is exhausted. To demand that they ride at the front of the peloton, setting the pace each and every day, just so he can wear a certain yellow swatch of fabric on his back would ultimately be self-defeating. Yes, the yellow jersey must be good for Landis's ego (I mean, come on, it's the dream of every cyclist), but his teammates have to do the hard work of defending it: sprinting after breakaways in this intense Provencal heat, always riding at the front of the peloton, and pretty much suffering in the Name of Floyd. For the record, Oscar Pereiro Sio is now renting yellow this evening. He'd better sleep in it, because it may be off his back as early as tomorrow evening. More likely, he'll keep it through Monday's rest day. Landis is not a popular man with the Davitamon-Lotto team. His decision to, in the words of Robbie McEwen "stop for a piss" yesterday afternoon just after a four-man attack escaped, was an intentional act to wear down Davitamon-Lotto. They would be forced to chase down the attack so McEwen could win the sprint finish and ultimately keep his green jersey all the way to Paris. So after the race, both McEwen and his teammate (and top Landis rival), had strong words for Landis. Evans disparaged Landis for giving away the yellow jersey ("I'm not sure he gave it a way on purpose," said Evans, with the insinuation that Landis was actually weak today), and McEwen made it clear that the offense will not be forgotten. Just so you know, most cyclists are either small or of average height. Magnus Backstedt of Liquigas, however, looks like a tight end. He towers over his fellow racers. And just a note for all you dreamers out there. The idea of being a writer is something a lot of people aspire to, but that most people abandon at some point, probably because they thought they couldn't match up to Hemingway or they thought they didn't look the part. Well, I'm looking around the pressroom right now, and I'm here to tell you that writers come in all shapes and all levels of ability. I'm sure some of these men and women are great, and some are hacks. But the point is that they're doing it. The work is out there, so if you want to write, then write. Don't let anyone stomp on your dreams. If a linebacker like Magnus Backstedt can ride the Tour, you can write its history. While I'm on the subject of dreams, I should respond to the emails from those afraid-of-flying's out there hoping to make it to Paris for the final stage. By all means, go. Charge it, sell a car, mow a few lawns... whatever it takes, be there. Paris is crazed and it doesn't really represent the essence of the Tour like, say, L'Alpe D'Huez, but if you're a serious Tour fan you have to go at least once in your life. My last name has a French quality to it, and there's even a French Nobel Prize winner who shares my name. But my heritage is Irish (long story, but the last name comes from a distant relative who assumed a new identity. Pretty cool, eh?). Anyway, there's a famous Roman aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard, and today's stage passed through the Gard region of France. There's even a large local castle bearing my last name (I'm going to have to stop in one of these years and see if I'm in line for an inheritance). Anyway, the Pont du Gard has taken on a somewhat elusive quality in my life. Every time I pass through this region during the Tour, I mean to stop and give it a look, but I never have time. But this year was different. Stuck in traffic this afternoon, thinking we could spare a half-hour, Austin and I pulled the Volvo off the autoroute and followed the signs for my Pont. It's a formidable limestone stone structure, built by the Romans and spanning the lazy Rubion River. Very cool. I even bought a t-shirt. Montelimar, site of today's finish, is known as the nougat-making capital of France. Now you know. Backtracking to Beziers, where we started the day, I've been poking around and found that it was the scene of a horrific massacre in 1209. Crusaders besieged the old Roman town and slaughtered every man, woman, and child in sight. "Kill them all," a Crusader said so famously at the time. "God will recognize his own." On a lighter note (an awkward segue, but it had to be done) tomorrow's stage follows the "Route des Fruits et des Vins" -- the fruit and wine route. It's famous for vineyards and hilltop villages. The plains of Remollon and Monetier-Allemont and the hills of Theus and Valserres produce whites, roses, reds, and a sparkling wine. Needless to say, we're all looking forward to the pressroom spread. We're going to Gap tomorrow. I think we were there last year, though I have to say that all these Tour cities blend together after awhile. It marks the entry into the Alps, where we'll spend the final week of this grand drama. The stage has been set and I think it will be a phenomenal and exciting conclusion to this very unusual Tour de France. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Soak Up The Sun

Posted by MDugard Jul 16, 2006

Driving the A9 through the South of France, caught in beach traffic. Vineyards line the roadside as far as the eye can see, little green grapes baking in the sun. It is Saturday, and the Tour de France is aiming north. Most of these cars are from Paris or Germany, full of tourists who've traveled a long way to windsurf or slather on sunscreen at the Cote d'Agde. Mix that crowd in with the throngs on their way from Beziers to Montelimar, following the Tour, and you have a hot, dawdling day in traffic. A perfect time to roll up the windows, turn on the A/C, and write. The starting area in Beziers was an inferno, with temperatures soaring well before noon and the riders staying in the shade before the race -- when they ventured outside their team busses at all. The pace will dawdle this afternoon, as the riders are tired from a hard week and already looking forward to an easier day.Beziers is close to the Pyrenees, was part of Spain five centuries ago, and celebrates that heritage by having its own bullfighting ring. Interestingly, the bulls and matadors have a different sort of relationship in Beziers. Unlike in traditional bullfights, the bulls are not slain during the course of the contest. In talking with Johan Bruyneel, it became clear that yesterday marked a turning point in the history of the Discovery Team. Because the team lacked a clear leader at the start of the race, George Hincapie was given a chance to prove himself. But when Hincapie fell 23 minutes back in the Pyrenees, that strategy went out the window. Now the team is working for Yaroslav Popovych, a rider whom many considered Lance Armstrong's inevitable successor. "We don't think about the GC http://community.active.com/blogs/MartinDugar/2006/07/16/soak-up-the-sun/general classification, or overall rankings anymore. We're working for a top ten finish," Bruyneel said. "A few stage victories are a very good possibility."That's quite a comedown for Bruyneel, whose team has not only stood atop the GC rankings for the past seven-year, but also controlled the very tempo of the race. Discovery reigned over the Tour de France, pure and simple. Now they've got no team leader, an untried young Ukrainian (Popovych) as their last best hope, and had two riders up and quit the race yesterday. This is an amazing figure when you consider that Discovery/U.S. Postal (its former name) only had a grand total of two riders abandon the Tour between 1999 and 2005. Bruyneel even admitted the hopelessness of the situation yesterday when he gave Benjamin Noval permission to drop out. So what's next for the once-great Discovery? Bruyneel says the team may not focus on the Tour de France in the future, though those were just the words of a despondent man. Discovery's sponsors are almost all American corporations, and the only bike race major American corporations have heard of, let alone care about, is the TdF. The other option Bruyneel mentioned is getting a bunch of brand new riders. That's more likely. Basically, he plans to clean house, jettisoning the vestiges of the Lance Armstrong era. Noval will probably be the first to go (right about now he's on a plane home to Spain, well aware that his professional career is in tatters), and even the beloved Hincapie may be on the block. It's just as likely that two other possibilities will take place: Bruyneel himself might move to another team; and, Floyd Landis will receive a sizable offer to ride for Discovery. Landis says he's happy with Phonak, but if he could make peace with Bruyneel and was allowed to rebuild Discovery with riders loyal to him, anything's possible. Landis looked relaxed and calm in the pre-race village area. Standing in the shade of a sycamore, chatting with Frankie Andreu, Floyd was set to begin his second day in the yellow jersey, knowing that the jersey is probably safe for today and tomorrow's flat transitional stages. Since Monday is a rest day, the first real test of the jersey will come during Tuesday's L'Alpe d'Huez ascent. It's a steep mountain and Landis admits that steep climbs put a lot of pressure on his bad hip and force him to stand up in the pedals, which also causes pain. Landis showed a bit of strategic genius yesterday. When a three-man breakaway (which included Popovych) had a very small gap on the peloton, Landis called for the peloton to pull over for a potty break. As the man in yellow, that's his call. Well, Robbie McEwen, the sprinter from Davitamon-Lotto, was upset. He wanted the stage to end with a sprint finish.Cadel Evans, one of Landis' top rivals, is on McEwen's team. Landis answering the call of nature at the moment he did was a coy olive branch to Bruyneel and Discovery, thanks to Popo's presence in the break. But it was also a jab at Davitamon-Lotto, which had been drafting behind Phonak, resting while Landis's team did the hard work of setting the pace on a blistering summer afternoon. Landis, in effect, was making it clear that if McEwen wanted the sprint victory, Davitamon-Lotto would have to cowboy up and take over pace-keeping duties. They refused, and McEwen was denied his fourth stage victory of this Tour. All that stuff was unsaid, by the way. Gamesmanship is a Tour byword. On that note, Bruyneel denied that Discovery would return the favor if Floyd needed a little help in the coming Alpine stages. "No one helped us for seven years," he sniffed. So that was the morning in the pre-race village, talking to Johan because he's one of the two men whose life has been turned upside down by this Tour (the other being Floyd Landis), giving George a little space because his wife is in town, and just gettting a look at Floyd to see if he's getting jittery. Johan looked utterly at a loss, like some Super Bowl football coach who's trying to convince the world he'd be happier coaching at the high school freshman level. Spent the night in Narbonne, after leaving Carcassonne at 10 p.m., just as the Bastille Day fireworks exploded over the city's great castle. Thousands of locals stopped what they were doing to watch, so as Austin and I drove away the roads were utterly empty. Narbonne turned out to be a city of fantastic history, with fluted Roman columns rising randomly throughout the city, a holdover from the days when Narbonne's founders controlled the Mediterranean. The city was alive for Bastille Day, the streets closed and bands playing outdoors next to the canal boats. Entire families lounged in outdoor cafes, reveling in the holiday. If I weren't so beat after a long day I would have joined them. OK. Pulling into Montelimar, scene of today's finish. We've left the Med far behind. We've even left Provence and that fabulous lump of limestone known as Mont Ventoux.

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Personal Favorite

Posted by MDugard Jul 15, 2006

Brilliant. This is the stage we've all been longing to see. The Tour's top riders battled it out for six long hours and five major summits. The valley roads were largely empty of spectators, but fans lined the Pyrenees' steep mountain grades, chugging sangria and waving orange Basque flags at the riders, matador-like and defiant.  Most important of all, it was the day that the Tour moved out from under the shadow of Lance Armstrong, introducing America to an iconoclastic new cycling hero who couldn't be more different from Armstrong if he tried. Floyd Landis keeps his own counsel and is notorious for doing things his way. That ride today was vintage Floyd. To rest his teammates, he opted to take the final climb alone, depending upon other teams to set the pace; he had words with a tired Denis Menchov when the Russian rider refused to exit from Landis's draft and take a turn setting the tempo; and, he calmly countered each and every attack, never appearing out of control. The Tour isn't over, not by a long shot. Landis's one-minute lead is a bit slender right now. But he's not worried. The most important thing to him is wearing yellow at the end of the race, and he's confident he can win. Landis often races like a mountain biker, elbows angled outward and totally self-dependent. That sort of independence pervades so much of his life. When he met John Kerry shortly after the 2005 Tour, where Armstrong whipped Landis soundly, Landis informed Kerry that they had something in common. "What's that," asked Kerry. "We both got our asses whipped by a Texan," chortled Landis. For the record, Kerry laughed. I should have known that George Hincapie might have trouble today when his teammate, Vietceslav Ekimov, suggested before the stage that the Discovery Team was still without a leader. Hincapie reminds me of Scottie Pippen to Lance Armstrong's Michael Jordan: a very capable number two who floundered when asked to take on the lead role. Getting dropped on the Col du Portillon put an end to George Hincapie's chances of finishing among the top three. "It's just not coming together," he lamented after the stage. Hincapie is now 23 minutes back. I have often used the term "pressroom" to describe my workspace (sometimes I write in the car, sometimes outside under a tree or sitting on a rock, but usually it's in the special space the Tour provides for journalists). The room is a vast space, usually the size of an arena floor, with long rows of tables and chairs, a dozen flat screen monitors, and a power outlet for every seat. But there is no one-size-fits-all facility. We have set up shop in gymnasiums, velodromes, convention centers, and concert halls this Tour. Today, however, was the best of all. We are in an ice rink. More specifically, we are on an ice rink. My ankles are numb. All weather carpeting has been laid over the surface, but the temperature has been kept low to keep the ice from melting. Condensation has caused ice cubes to form on the carpeting, the plastic chairs are frosty wet and frozen to the floor, and a great white tarp anchored down with curling stones serves as a partition between the press and the hockey penalty box area. Thought I'd give you a visual. Thunderstorms were forecast, but the rain held off throughout the stage. Now it it looks like the skies are about to open up. Tomorrow is Bastille Day. Look for the French to attack early and often. So what is Bastille Day? I did a little research. Bastille Day marks the moment in time when the people of France overthrew King Louis XVI and France became governed by the people. It happened in 1789. A mob of citizens stormed the Bastille, an infamous fortress originally constructed in 1382 to defend the east side of Paris. Just thought you'd want to know. I've gotten a few emails asking about the rider's bathroom breaks. The peloton generally stops as a group the minute it leaves the start town and relieves themselves along the side of the road. Later in the race, when things are more competitive and stopping isn't so smart, many riders have mastered the precarious act of steering with one hand and aiming off to the side of the road with the other. Try it some time... not so easy. Other emails center around OLN. Apparently, a whole lot of you think the world of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, and think that OLN is trying to phase them out of prime time coverage because OLN's primary viewing audience, the bull riding and bass fishing public (can we say Red State without sounding pejorative and political? I mean, that's what it is) can't stomach two men with Limey accents broadcasting a sports event. OLN's viewing audience is down 50% from last year, a statistic one of their executive producers shared with me this morning (strangely, the Tour still beats NHL hockey in the ratings). They're about to change their name to something like the Versa or Versus Network, and hoping to shed their niche-sport branding. Apparently, making the Tour accessible means American voices talking about American riders. As much as I love Bob Roll and Al Trautwig (and Craig Hummer and Frankie Andreu), I think that stance doesn't give Americans enough credit. Liggett and Sherwen are the gold standard. They belong in prime time. Spending the night here in Vielha. We're in the Catalan region (legend has it that Columbus was a Catalan), and this is the biggest ski resort in the region. The thick local pine forest looks like it has some great running trails and tomorrow's starting line is just twenty miles away in Luchon. Tomorrow we leave the Pyrenees behind, heading back into France and a finish line in the medieval fortress of Carcassonne. It's a hilly stage, but loses altitude along the way. Total distance is 130 miles. I've been to Carcassonne once before, and remember it for its gastronomy. I think I had some sort of cassoulet with beans and turkey hearts. I know it doesn't sound so good, but trust me...Looking forward to taking a long walk and exploring Vielha. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Scenes From An Arrival

Posted by MDugard Jul 15, 2006

At the Tour, the riders don't really start and finish. They depart and they arrive. Today's arrival in Carcassonne was spectacular, a time to revel in being alive, feeling the rain on your face and the breath in your lungs. Here's what it looked like:Spectators waiting patiently along the barricades for the first riders to pass. They are stationed at a turn precisely one kilometer from the finish. It's a great vantage point, a place where the riders will have to brake and lean into the turn, giving the crowd an extra few precious seconds to observe them. A squadron of police motorcycles whizzing around the corner, followed closely by the Tour's official red lead car, a Skodia. A hundred yards behind them, Yaroslav Popovych churns into the turn with a large lead, on his way to win the first stage of his career. He is a member of the Discovery Team, which has been decimated by poor performance after years of dominating the Tour, and has had two key riders quit the race today. The loss Benjamin Noval and Paolo Savodelli is a devastating blow to Discovery, but the win by "Popo" ends the day on a high note. As if on cue, a soft summer rain begins to sprinkle on Carcassonne. Thunder booms in the distance, one concussion after the other, sounding like Black Cats on the Fourth of July. The fans look up at the sky in surprise, for it was blistering hot just moments before. Mothers step back from the barricades and take young children out of their metal-framed strollers, then hug them tight and shield their heads from the drops as Floyd Landis whizzes past in the yellow jersey. European History 101: A walled city is, literally, a city with walls around it. This fact somehow eluded me when I parked the Volvo next to the 50-foot high walls. But as I race from the pressroom to the finish area, I enter a rabbit warren of cobbled medieval streets jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with spectators and tourists and shopkeepers. The air smells of lamb barbecueing on an open sidewalk barbecue. Worn out fans sit in brasserie seats, chugging beer out of half-liter mugs. I wander the walled city in random fashion, a little boy lost at Disneyland. My press credential is my saving grace at all times here at the Tour, granting me access to almost every possible behind-the-scenes place and activity. But pressing through the city crowd, losing my bearings in the labyrinth of people and buildings, the credential hanging around my neck means nothing. I become my own lead-out man, weaving through the throng like Robbie McEwen. As I walk, I make a note to myself that the "soft summer rain" reminds me of "Jungleland," and then another when the thunder strikes, about "Night Moves." It feels derivative and evocative at once, and I opt to revel in the poetry. The rain stops and then starts and then stops again as I reach the finish line. My goal is to find the interview trailer and get Floyd Landis's take on the race. Each and every day, the stage winner is interviewed after the podium ceremony, followed by the man wearing the yellow jersey. The stage winner is obligated to attend. The maillot jaune has to the option of skipping them ever once in a while. And while I can see the interview trailer, a vast gulf of spectators and six-foot high barricades separate me from it. I press through the crowd and wave to a security official inside, asking him where to find an opening in the gate. "A droit," he says, pointing to his right. The spot turns out to be more than 200 yards away. I press through the crowd once more, only now it is not just people, but motorcycles, bicycles, and team cars trying to get wherever it is they are going. The rain starts again, and keeps falling. It is an easy patter, and while I am not wearing a jacket or hat, I am wet. On the other side of the inflatable podium, Bob Roll stands bare-chested atop the OLN broadcasting studio, looking out on the sea of people. A bronze war memorial rises in the foreground. I have made a turn and am on the course, which has been opened up so that spectators could watch the award ceremony. The crush is enormous, that endless mass of humanity that swarms out of a big city coliseum after an NFL game. Only this mass isn't moving, they're all standing outside the doping facility, which is basically the sort of mobile office trailer used on construction sites. And they're all staring at its lone door, waiting for it to open. It swings open. Floyd Landis emerges, having successfully given his urine sample. I wonder about the absurdity of it all -- a grown man exiting the men's room and finds a crowd of thousands outside the door -- as Landis clops awkwardly down the metal steps in his cycling shoes. Phonak team officials escort him into the crowd, leading him to a waiting car. We exchange greetings as he walks past. His face is tense, a little freaked out -- which is understandable. It's not normal to encounter such adulation, every single person trying to touch or just look at you. Floyd's lead is one minute. That's nothing. One minute is a flat tire, the wrong breakfast, a summer cold, a lost hour of sleep, a nagging worry about something going on at home, and a thousand other bumps in the road -- including a bump in the road. I wonder to myself how badly it will hurt Landis is he happens to get involved in a crash and bangs his injured hip somehow. It's Bastille Day but I see no French tricolors or other overt signs of patriotism at the finish. I stop to stare at a huge bronze statue atop a war memorial built in remembrance of French citizens from World War I, the Holocaust, the Resistance, and the Algerian conflict. The statue towers above the landscape, watching over a roundabout next to the TV trucks and milling crowds. But no one seems to see it, and no flowers have been laid at its base. I run into another journalist. We catch up on rumors as the rain falls, the Noval/Savodelli dropouts being the big news. Later I will find out that Popovych's breakaway group escaped because the Phonak team ordered a pit stop when the Popo's group had just a fifteen-second lead and seemed destined to fail. The pit stop basically ensured their success. With a political motivation for every action, and Robbie McEwen supposedly against the stop because rival sprinter Oscar Freire was part of it, I can only wonder about Floyd's motivation for ordering the peloton to take that short break. I finally make it to the interview room. Popovych has just finished, and is being interviewed by a Spanish journalist outside the small trailer. I open my notebook and take out my pen, prepared to ask a few questions. Popo catches my eye and smiles, then takes my notebook and signs it. This is the second time in as many days that a rider has done this. I wonder why this is so, and what I am doing that makes me look like an autograph hound. The rain pours down. An OLN cameraman confides that his good day is usually somebody else's bad day, and tells me that he managed to get footage of both Noval and Savodelli abandoning. I start back to the pressroom. The crowds in the streets are fewer, but the bars are all crowded and the mood is festive. I look for a store to buy sock as I walk past the shops, but all I can find is a place for Levi's. Finally, I make it to the pressroom, drenched to the bone. The pressroom is inside Carcassonne's basketball arena and my seat is right about where one of the three-point arcs should be. Tomorrow's stage, I find with a quick check of my Tour Roadbook, is a fast and flat 142-mile dash from Beziers to Montelimar along the shoulders of the Mediterranean. The course will be crowded with weekend traffic and tourists visiting to the South of France, and the sprinters will battle it out for the win. But that's for tomorrow, where the Tour will start again with a "depart."Talk to you then.

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Knee-capping

Posted by MDugard Jul 14, 2006

Step into the Volvo for a spin. We're driving the N125 through the village of St. Beat. Austin is at the wheel so I can write. T-Rex is on the stereo singing about dirty sweet girls. The Volvo navigates the narrow roads of St. Beat, a town tucked neatly in the cleft of a valley, with a clear mountain stream flowing through the center. The sun is shining, not knowing that rain was forecast for today's eleventh Tour de France. In an hour we'll be in Spain, site of the finish atop the Pla-de-Beret. Check that. We just crossed the border. "ESPAGNE" reads the French sign, corrected a moment later by "ESPANA" on the Spanish side of the line.  "New country!" exclaims Austin, who is making his first visit to Spain. He riffs a line from The Sun Also Rises and we bump knuckles. There's always something cool about going to a new land. If this is Thursday it must be Spain -- I think. Until I saw that sign I honestly had no idea where I am or what day of the week it is. This is not unique to today, but an ongoing theme at each and every Tour through which I've traveled. The days become a blur and time is measured by the gap between the start and end of a stage, and then the number of hours until the next stage begins. Tour gossip is everywhere, at all times ("Which rider has a cold? Who was out partying last night? Who was calling a Tour groupie at 3 a.m.?"), and the necessities of food and sleep begin to pale next to questions about the bike race itself. But always, in the back of our minds, there is Paris. Lovely, bustling, debauched cosmopolitan Paris, such an unlikely city in which to end a bike race that takes place in the mountains and countryside. But now the mood has shifted here at the Tour, so that people are not looking backward toward what happened the first half of the race, but forward, toward our eventual arrival in Paris just a little over a week from now. You hear snippets of conversation about plane reservations and The End of the Race ("When are you flying out? Do you think we can get into the team party if Floyd/George/Cadel wins?"), but those are just a subcurrent. Mostly, we are more in the here and now than humans are usually capable, fixated on the big question confronting the 2006 Tour so far: When will this Tour go off? Today.  That's the word from Floyd and George and Cadel and Johan and anyone else who has something to say about how that question is answered. Ah, but they've said that before. Let's wait and see. Spent the night in Lons, a suburb of Pau last night. In the press room yesterday and at dinner (roast duck, French fries, baked tomato, and chilled Bordeaux), the talk was all about today's five climbs. It will be a big day. This morning at breakfast, the riders from Francaise des Jeux looked very quiet and drawn. Yesterday was draining, but today will see many riders quit the Tour altogether. Hincapie says that the team pre-rode this stage a few months ago, and he considers it extremely tough. The riders started at eleven this morning and will be on their bikes almost seven hours today. "Some guys are going to go early, and others might wait until the last two climbs," he predicted just before the start. He plans to ride with Floyd Landis and the other top riders. Levi Leipheimer's performance, or lack thereof, has been so confusing this year that Floyd Landis rode alongside him during a recent stage and asked him if everything was OK. And just this morning, Leipheimer denied that he was hiding some sort of illness. Weird Tour conversations: The start area in Tarbes is just down the road from Lourdes, also known as Six Flags Over Jesus for its garish Catholic tourist attractions. It turns out the Lourdes, thanks to the elderly pilgrims who flock to its healing water, is an epicenter of hip replacement surgery. When word of that got around this morning, there were jokes that Floyd Landis should have his surgery done here. Along those surgical lines, just as Lourdes does hip replacement well, it turns out that the best place to have knee replacement surgery is Northern Ireland, thanks to the popularity of "knee-capping" -- shooting out a man's knee caps -- by the IRA and their adversaries. On that note, Stuart O'Grady of Team CSC is riding with a cracked vertebrae -- if he decided to start today. Not sure where to get that fixed, and I can only imagine the sort of pain he's in. CSC is the bad luck team of this year's Tour, their months of training and their annual wilderness survival course all for naught after the losses of Ivan Basso and Bobby Julich. They would be down to just six riders if O'Grady bows out. As you can imagine, being a member of the Discovery Team means giving a lot of autographs. So many, in fact, that it becomes second-nature to absentmindedly grab any pen and piece of paper in their immediate vicinity and sign. A good example happened this morning, while I was talking with Chechu Rubiera. Without realizing what he was doing, he took my notebook and pen from my hands and began signing his name. When he realized what he was doing, a chagrined Chechu apologized. Not in the least offended, I told him to keep signing. After their dominant performance yesterday, the T-Mobile team is feeling pretty confident. Word is getting around that they're actually glad Jan Ullrich is out of the race because he was undisciplined and rarely attended team functions. That might be spin control designed to placate their German sponsor and deeply passionate German fan base, but it has a ring of truth. Ullrich is a physically blessed individual, but doesn't have a lot of common sense sometimes. You may notice a similarity between my stuff today and those of other American journalist and TV types. Without intending to, we all gravitated to the Discovery Team's bus this morning (how far has Disco slipped in the Tour's esteem since last year? They used to command a prime parking spot each morning at the start. Today they were next to the porta-potties). It became a mini-American enclave. The Volvo just made the turn onto on the course, and now we're driving the long valley leading up to the Pla-de-Beret. It's slightly uphill the whole way, with a powerful wind that will be in the rider's face. The sun is still bright and warm, but clouds are forming atop the mountains. The reason that yesterday and today's Pyrenees climbs are being staged midweek instead of on the weekend, per tradition, is that the Basques shat the bed last year. By the conclusion of the Sunday stage atop the Pla D'Adet the Spaniards were wrapping up a three-day drunk. They threw bottles at police cars and fights broke out. The Tour responded by taking away what has long been a favorite Basque party weekend. Feeling hungry. The drive from Tarbes to the finish line has taken two hours. Breakfast in the pre-race village was braised lamb served over green beans, camembert, sausage, and coffee. In spite of all this food, I'm actually leaner than when I left home. Part of it's from the nervous energy of chasing the Tour from dawn to dusk, but it's also because I've been walking so much, like the French. I notice that even older people walk everywhere (I came upon an eighty-ish couple in the middle of the countryside the other day and stopped to ask if they wanted a ride. They brushed me off, claiming that they were just around the corner from their village. That village, I learned as I drove down the road, was two miles from where I left them). Just a random observation, made by a guy from the plastic surgery mecca of Orange County, but I haven't seen a whole lot of Botox faces in France, and augmentation appears to be a rarity. Having said that, an ambitious orthodontist could make a killing here. Ah, there it is, the press center. We're in the mountain village of Vielha, which has the A-frame chateaus and winter accouterment befitting a winter resort. It reminds me of Mammoth Mountain. Today's they're putting us up in an ice rink. Should be quite interesting. It dawns on me that knee-capping is what the best riders want to do today. Perhaps not win the Tour just yet, but cut the unworthy down at the knees, so the real game can begin. Talk to you after the stage.

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Hincapie and Everything After

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2006

So now we move east for a week... George Hincapie's first day in yellow promises to be a challenge. The heat is intense, the peloton is in a frisky mood, and all Thor Hushovd has to do to get it back is win a time bonus. There's a real funny vibe about this year's Tour. It doesn't feel like a real Tour yet. Sure, Hincapie's in yellow, Landis and Leipheimer and others are yapping about winning the whole thing, and the fans are turning out in force, but there's no sense of cohesion. This fragmentation will likely last the whole first week, when that time trial sorts things out. Frankly, it's frustrating. Sure it's a week of hope for the unknowns, but I don't see a whole lot of drama right now. I know it's heretical to say that the Tour is dull, but this Tour is, if not dull, unsatisfying. Like talking to someone with ADD. Need some cohesion. Then again, the Tour used to be like this all the time until Armstrong took over. So perhaps this is just a return to normal. Ran for an easy hour around Strasbourg this morning. I stuck close to the river, where it was cool and there were no cars. I've never seen a lock before today. Makes me sound like I just fell off the turnip truck. They're something of an engineering marvel, aren't they? The travel adventure began an hour later, right after checking out of the hotel. I went off in search of the Gare Centrale, Strasbourg's mammoth train station. I needed to catch a train to the airport so I could pick up my rental car. I looked kind of like a dork, wheeling my big duffle through the crowd of commuters racing off to their morning train. I got utterly lost, almost got on the wrong train, found my bearings and made it happen. A very pleasant train ride later (Strasbourg's trains look just like the Disneyland monorail), I was driving away from the airport in a jet black Volvo station wagon. Travel problems -- and travel problem solving -- are a daily aspect of life at the Tour. People have been emailing me, asking for Tour travel tips. I've got a few good ones, but the most important is to be flexible and have a good attitude. You will get lost. You will get frustrated. You will be honked at by an angry Frenchman when you inadvertently run a red light (or, as one TV crew did yesterday, nearly run him over). But there's a feeling of accomplishment, for lack of a better word, that comes with figuring things out (especially in a place where you don't speak the language) that actually makes the experience rewarding. The pre-race village was about a mile from the start, so the action was very mellow. Very few fans hung around to get autographs or hang out around the team busses. Most of them were fighting for a spot near the starting barricades, which were jammed. The riders stayed in their busses until the last possible minute, not wanting to come out into the blazing heat (the race started at 11:40 local time). I took advantage of their reluctance to enjoy the local cuisine that chefs were preparing in the village: Aiguillettes de Poulet au Miel de Sapin, with sorbets. Not sure what it means, but it was marinated chicken stir-fried and served over potatoes, with sorbet on the side. Very good. I'm still looking for the camambert, but there was none. Had to content myself with a chunk of dark bread and some very stinky local cheese that had been baking in the sun too long. I instantly regretted eating it. Before the start, some riders were expressing their hope that CSC and T-Mobile continue sponsoring those teams. There's talk that they may pull out of cycling entirely, just like Liberty Mutual (Liberty Seguros). Levi Leipheimer predicts that today will belong to breakouts. Says he doesn't believe the sprinters will be able to dominate the way they would like, thanks to the climbing sections. There's a little tension between some of the American riders and OLN. Not sure what that's about. I do, however, think it odd that OLN is an official sponsor of the Discovery Team. Seems like a pretty blatant conflict. Having said that, Discovery isn't giving OLN any preferential press treatment that I've seen so far. Maybe it's coming across different on TV back home. Speaking of TV, time to leave the press room and the flat screens and walk over to the finish and watch these guys wrap it up. Talk to you soon.

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A Tarantino Afternoon

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2006

To set the scene, Juan Miguel Mercado of Spain outsprinted France's Cyril Dessel to win the opening mountain stage of this year's Tour. Floyd Landis dropped to fifth place, 4:45 behind the leader, but the relative gap between him and the other favorites stayed the same. That will all change tomorrow.OK, now let's go back. As Dane Cook would say, let's Tarantino it...There is a moment between the time I settle in to write and the moment I am lost in my PowerBook. All writers do it. Sometimes it's a long moment, sometimes it's not much at all, but that flicker of time is when a writer decides what to write about and how to tell the story.Just now though, I got a little stuck. The Tour has been odd thus far, a slow and wary circling by the top riders that makes perfect strategic sense, but still feels a little slow. In a nutshell: The Tour is exactly halfway finished. Ten stages are in the book. Yet we're no closer to picking a winner than we were so long ago in Strasbourg.So I wandered out of the pressroom here in Pau to get a little fresh air. It's a city that was liberated by Wellington in 1814 and became a British playground during the Victorian Era. In look and feel, it still has a very British design. There's a great big park next door to the pressroom, with an acre of grass and a little playground.  I lay on the grass and looked up at the clouds and tried to make sense of the Tour.It's been years since I've laid on the grass and looked up at the clouds, but it was either that or try to sort things out next to the chain-smoking Aussie who set up shop next to me in the non-smoking pressroom. All in all, the cloud thing was rather refreshing.Here are my conclusions: First off, the Tour isn't odd, but I need to change my expectations. I like it best when a rider ruthlessly asserts his will on the peloton. That's the way Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault and Lance Armstrong all rode. This just isn't one of those years. The top riders -- Floyd Landis, Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden, Denis Menchov, and even Christophe Moreau (OK, not Christophe Moreau) -- are too evenly matched. It makes you wonder how different this Tour would be if Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso had been allowed to race.Also, the Tour has historically followed years of consecutive victories by a single rider (Armstrong, in this instance), with two or three years of one-time winners. This could be one of those years, meaning that the next great Tour champ could be here now as a domestique, or just some nameless rider who's crazy about his bike.Today was important because a sense of order began to set in, although you had to be looking for it. It came via the T-Mobile Team, which currently has four riders in the top ten of the overall standings. By riding powerfully at the front of the pack, setting the tempo, they let their dominance be known.T-Mobile happily let a breakaway group of no-name riders attack, and even gave up Sergei Honchar's yellow jersey when that breakaway led to a stage victory for Spain's Mercado. They were more interested in protecting top riders Michael Rogers and Andreas Kloden than worrying about yellow.It should also be said that there have been few outright disappointments this year. Levi Leipheimer notwithstanding, everyone seems to be where we thought they'd been when this whole thing began. George Hincapie may have been overachieving during that prologue, and maybe his day in yellow will be the only time in his career he'll everwear it -- though I hope not. I picked Hincapie to win, didn't I? Right or wrong, I'm sticking with him.Today's third place finisher was Spaniard Inigo Landaluze. Whenever I see the name Inigo, I can't help but think of Mandy Patinkin's character in The Princess Bride ("my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die...").I'm just looking at the profile for tomorrow's stage. It's going to be a monster. There will be five major climbs, thunderstorms, and a mountain top finish. At 128 miles it's plenty long, and the whole thing ends up in Spain (making that the sixth country the Tour has visited in 2006). It's all going to b every uncivilized, especially because: a) the Spanish fans that were notably absent along the climbs today will definitely line the slopes of the Pla-de-Beret; and, b) all thoseclimbs make it the ideal day for the best riders to draw blood.Tomorrow's first climb will set the tone. It's the Col de Tourmalet, the most climbed mountain pass in Tour history. It's a terrifying ascent that not only goes on for almost eleven miles, but drops off sharply on the left side of the road. It was the first mountain higher than 6,500 feet to be climbed at the Tour.The Tour de France discovered the Tourmalet by accident. An official sent out to reconnoiter the course during the spring of 1910 almost perished in a freak snowstorm. His sufferings notwithstanding, he eagerly added "the bad detour" to the course for that year's Tour.Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, a summer resort through which riders will pass after descending the Tourmalet, is another of the Tour's notable footnotes. In 1913, when riders rode as individuals instead of in teams, and were responsible for all their own equipment, Eugene Christophe broke his bike's front fork. He ran eight miles before finding a blacksmith who could fix it, then got back on the bike and continued racing.Just something to think about, but the longest stage at that year's Tour was 470 kilometers -- some 291 miles. Until fairly recently, riders sometimes started a stage in the dead of night, or contested two stages in the same day.Thanks for the Big Yellow Taxi trivia.Usually Pau isn't known for their food here in the pressroom, as if their local cuisine was negligible. But today they came out strong with ham carved on the bone, salami, fresh peaches, a carrot salad, and some very delicious boiled potatoes. Really, really good stuff.I bought a straw cowboy hat today. Cost me three euros. It has a thin red band that advertises the name of a local newspaper, and though well ventilated and perfect for keeping the harsh mountain sun off my face, makes me look like a total geek. Frankly, I'm not sure why I bought it. Let's just say it spoke to me.The Volvo pushes east in the morning, aimed for the start in Tarbes. Legend has it that Tarbes was founded long ago by an Ethiopian queen who met Moses on the Ethiopian border. Having failed in her attempt to charm Moses, she fled her country to hide her despair. Her long journey took her to the banks of the Adour River. That legend may or may not be true, but it's a great story. Historians, by the way, say the Romanssettled the place in the third century.Bringing it back around ...Look for Phonak and T-Mobile to set a solid tempo tomorrow. One way or the other, the yellow jersey will change hands again. I know that there's bound to be a lot of hand-wringing in the press when Landis drops back the way he did today, but I talked with him this morning and he looks very strong. Today was never meant to be the day (and tomorrow may not be, either; a good rider never gives away his strategy). I'mjust saying that he looks very, very confident.Talk to you tomorrow.

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Goat Roads

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2006

Greetings from Pau....Just took a drive along the course, having my first look at the Pyrenees of this year's Tour. I'd forgotten how charming they can be, with stone farm houses, great valleys and forest, and pastures full of white dairy cows and freshly-sheared sheep. The villages are so small that the entrance sign and exit sign are often just a few hundred yards apart. But the Pyrenees are also a very daunting mountain range, justas steep and long from a cyclist's point of view as the more acclaimed Alps. The course may be beautiful, and the drive may have been one postcard view after another (I'm told that the road is also known as the "route de fromage" for all the cheesemakers along the way), but the peloton will be sorely tested as they climb up and down those great mountains in the next few days.There are two major climbs today, the Col de Soudet and the Col de Marie Blanque. Right now, both of them are shrouded in warm fog. The first is a somewhat spartan road that labors for the almost 8 miles upward at a nearly 8% incline. The second is shorter, just five miles high and a 7.7% gradient. Just the fact that the peloton will be climbing after ten days on flats means that some riders will quit the race, while others will fall very far behind. But in terms of action, their positioning along the course means there will be some odd strategy choices today.The riders begin climbing the Col de Soudet just 60 miles into the 119-mile stage. But that's only halfway to the finish. That makes it almost impossible for a rider to break away on the first climb without getting caught by the peloton before the finish. There's too much downhill and flat space for the peloton to not utilize its superior speed to restore order by reeling in the rebels. Look for the eventualstage winner to make his move on the Col de Marie Blanque, which is just twenty-five miles from the finish.Even then, it's a long way into Pau, where the race will end near the city center (which is currently under reconstruction after being heavily damaged in the nationwide riots a few months back). It will be difficult for a breakaway so succeed.Look for T-Mobile and Phonak to ride at the front of the peloton, controlling the pace. Discovery Channel (whose waning glory but powerful sense of purpose inspired those lines from "Ulysses" yesterday) have quietly made it clear that they will do their attacking in the Alps.If Levi Leipheimer drops any further back, look for him to quietly exit the race.Also, look for a shakeup in the overall rankings, but only among the lesser riders. Tomorrow is the day when guys like Landis and Australia's Evans want to be dominant.I stayed in Dax last night, in an odd little Best Western next to a large lake and a small casino. Oddly, there was a small Tex-Mex place nearby. Scenes from the American West lined the walls, including pictures of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. I was inspired to try their fajitas and guacamole, which were both done rather well (the guacamole was served with exactly six tortilla chips, all dusted in paprika). The meal got points for presentation and historical intention, but I sure would have loved some refried beans.The plan this morning was simple: dash through the course to better appreciate what the riders would endure (I love driving through the Pyrenees. The Basque crowds with their orange shirts are always plentiful and crazed, and I am slowly coming to the realization that the Pyrenees, not Provence, are my favorite part of this country. Ihave images of buying a small farmhouse on a mountainside, with a stream running across the green fields, and a forest behind the place. I would come here with my family to write my books and slow down each summer. This fantasy, by the way, is still in the works and nothing I really put into words until just this moment, but the Pyrenees are the Montana of France -- the last best place).But the drive got a tad complicated when the advertising caravan left the start area a half-hour early, effectively blocking the narrow road the riders would follow up and over the mountains. Obviously, a detour was in order. My traveling buddy Austin Murphy and I took a quick look at the Michelin Atlas in search of this grand detour, knowing that it would likely be a gravel farm road or one of the notorious "goat roads" -- barely marked, clinging to the side of a cliff, likely to dead-end in a Basque pig farm.The Michelin (a 420-page cartographic behemoth that should be required of any serious traveler to France) displays every nook and cranny of the country. Sure enough, we soon came upon a faint gray squiggle parallel to the course. We would leapfrog ahead of the caravan on that mystery road, and then hook up with the course at the base of the Col de Soudet. But we had to drive fast. If the caravan got to the Col de Soudet first, we would be stuck behind them once again.That narrow gray line turned out to be a twisting one-lane farm road. Our impromptu "hors couse" (off course) journey was done at a high rate of speed, music playing loudly, with a stop only for diesel and Orangina. The route was all forests and farms, snaking past a landscape so green that it reminded me of the jungles of Borneo. We slowed down through the small village squares, with their towering stone churches and war memorial fountains, then raced on over more hills and valleys.Then we picked up the pace once again, desperate to beat the caravan, slowed only by the occasional tractor hauling a wagonload of fresh manure.Scenes from the road: a young boy stroking his pony's mane as the animal nuzzles his shoulder; a stone farmhouse three stories tall; the Col de Marie Blanque jutting above the foothills like a shark's tooth, summit in the clouds, reminding me very much of the Grand Teton.The village of Oloron had signs plastered on storefronts advertising an upcoming half-marathon. OK, the village was tiny. Really small. All I could wonder was where they were going to get the runners.The village stores were closed and the streets were empty everywhere along our drive. Almost everyone within fifty miles of the course was off to the Tour (along the same note, I have been wanting to buy more running socks. Problem is, all the sporting goods stores along the course for the last week have been closed due to the Tour. I thought that was a nice bit of irony).That drive was the best two hours I've spent at the Tour so far this year. It's a shame that most visitors to France will never follow the same path (there are no great monuments or hotels, just simple and sublime beauty), because it was simply marvelous. Having said that, we never forgot about the caravan.We arrived back at the course, triumphant, waiting for the gendarme to remove the barricade and wave us through. He held up one hand, motioning for us to turn around and go back the way we came. Behind him on the course, the first vehicles of the advertising caravan began their snail-like ascent of the Col de Soudet.Talk to you after the stage.

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Mistaken for a Frenchman

Posted by MDugard Jul 12, 2006

I don't know about you, but I loved Zidane's headbutt the other night. It was the last game of his career. He was tired. What better way to bow out than with a typically French act of grandeur?Onward. It's a glorious morning. I'm writing from the Tour's pre-race village, near the starting line of today's Bordeaux-Dax stage. The city is historically chic, with great old cathedrals and soot-covered buildings. The village is situated in a broad plaza, a gravel expanse (not sharp gravel, but those small smooth pebbles that line a fine dirt path) lined on both sides with trees and broad pedestrian thoroughfares. The weather, once again, is hot and humid. A towering limestone memorial with a bronze statue on top and a vast fountain at its base is the plaza's centerpiece. So I sit in the midst of all this, laptop on my lap, coffee and pain du chocolat on the table, feeling a certain quiet joy wash over me. It's great to be at the Tour. Perhaps because of my name, which is written on the Tour badge dangling from my neck, an American tourist just came up and mistook me for a Frenchman, asking information in loud, slow English. I didn't know whether to be flattered or to correct him. The timing of Floyd Landis's hip replacement announcement is odd. My first thought -- that Landis released the news Monday to give himself an out if things don't work so well in the next two weeks -- was a tad too cynical, knowing that Floyd isn't the sort to make excuses. So why? Though the story broke yesterday, the full version comes out Sunday in the New York Times magazine. Magazines have a long lead time (writing, editing, production), so the story was written at least a month ago. If Floyd has kept the secret so long, why release the news at all?Johan Bruyneel, his former team director when Landis rode for the Discovery squad, was surprised by the timing of the announcement. "I wouldn't have talked about it," said Bruyneel. "If you're the favorite in the Tour de France, you try to hide your weaknesses instead of telling the world."I tracked down Floyd. We talked at the starting line, in the shade of an elm. So why release the news mid-Tour? To throw a bone to the story's author, an old friend of Floyd's who has a book to promote. Landis secretly snuck home to Southern California in June and trained for two weeks. He didn't fly to France until just five days before the Tour began. While home, he decided to put the story out there, figuring he wanted to be up front with the news instead of having it leaked to the press during the race. "This is the last year of my contract," he told me, "it seemed like the honest thing to do."A quickie strategy primer, for those who've written in with questions: the peloton is the name given to the collective assemblage of bike racers. Everything about the bike race begins and ends with the mood of the peloton, and their objectives on a given day. Today, for instance is a flat stage. The teams of sprinters like Tom Boonen (especially Boonen, who wore the yellow jersey for a few stages but has yet to win a stage) tend to control the pace on flat stages, because flat stages invariably end up with a sprint finish. Teams control the pace by riding in a group at the front of the peloton. Often they will share those duties with another team having similar objectives. Today that will mean Boonen's Quikstep and maybe Davitamon-Lotto. Despite saying they won't work hard to help Robbie McEwen win his fourth stage, preferrig to rest so they can help Cadel Evans in the mountains, Davitamon-Lotto will probably do just that. An attack is when a rider or group of riders sprint away from the peloton. It's done with the intention on helping one of those riders win a stage, or to meddle with an other team's strategy. Teams sometimes sends individual riders out to counter the attack, and sometimes the peloton, which is a very tightly knit community, works as a whole to kill it. But sometimes an attack escapes, at which point it becomes a breakaway. The attackers have left the peloton so far behind that they're, literally, out of sight, sometimes miles and miles ahead. But it's punishing to ride alone like that. The peloton takes great pleasure in letting the breakaway riders gain an advantage, and then reeling them in within sight of the finish. However, when a breakaway rider wins, especially after racing along for hours, it is a day both glorious and memorable. Had dinner last night at a brasserie in front of the Gare St. Jean, Bordeaux's train station. It is a seedy section of town, with sleeping drunks, and urine puddles and used condoms in the alleys. So there was a very precarious charm to it all. But the brasserie served a fine salade nicoise, and Austin and I split a carafe of white wine after he arrived from the States. We talked until almost midnight, catching up on life, and sharing stories about wives, children, and career. All in all, a fine evening to be in the warm night air -- even in front of the gare. Went for a run this morning out along the Rue Aquitaine (a muddy and swift river, swirling with eddies and as wide as the Missouri). The broad footpath also fronted Bordeaux's grand, 16th-century buildings and the St. Michael Basilica, with its 374-foot tower and mummies in the crypt. Crossed the river to see what was on the other side. Tried to take a shortcut across a railway bridge on the way back, but thought better of it when the TGV suddenly streamed in my direction. A very Stand By Me moment, and a good reminder that train tracks aren't running trails. Why is that I needed to be reminded of that every couple years?The village featured a nice breakfast menu this morning. I watch a lot of Food Network at home (a little Rachel Ray, but I like Giada -- did I spell that right? -- and Alton Brown), so I had a question for the chef about how the scrambled eggs came out with such a sublime texture. The answer: use only eggs, salt, and butter while cooking (lots of butter), and cook the eggs over a very low heat, stirring every thirty seconds. Anyone know who sings the female vocals on the Counting Crows version of Big Yellow Taxi? She sounds familiar. OK. Off for Dax, which takes the Tour very close to the Spanish border. Talk to you after the stage.

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Go Aussie

Posted by MDugard Jul 12, 2006

I don't know if you watched the coverage yet, but Robbie McEwen was electrifying. He slashed halfway across the road in the final meters of the stage, taking advantage of a needle-thin gap in a bold quest for victory. The dazzling maneuver brought forth a collective roar of approval in the pressroom. Sprinters are known for being ballsy, but that was one for the highlight reel. Just the slightest mistake and the crash would have been horrendous. McEwen's move was dynamic and it was inspiring and it was exactly the chutzpah this race needs to launch it into the mountain stages, where being bold pays monster dividends. McEwen, alas, finished second. Spain's Oscar Freire won the stage by the length of a bike seat, giving him two stage wins for the Tour. The drive south from Bordeaux was supposed to be a sprint of our own, but Austin and I got lost. Don't ask me how. Somehow we drove off the autoroute, into an impound yard or some other sort of road construction facility that was clearly marked as off limits, then ended up in a residential neighborhood that befuddled us like the Hogwart's labyrinth before spitting us onto a country road. But we finally paid proper attention to the maps, and made it to quaint little Dax, with its sharp corners and cycling mad citizens.  The finish area here in Dax is actually a French Air Force base just outside town, with the route ending right next to the flight line. American tourists are making their way over here, but it's not like in the Lance Armstrong days, when all you needed was to see a guy in Oakley's and a baseball cap to know he was a Yank. Yet it may be too early to make a judgment. The all-glamorous mountain stages don't begin until tomorrow (although they start in the Pyrenees, while it's more common to see Americans in the Alps). One trend I like is that many fans will run with the bulls tomorrow morning in Pamplona, then make their way into France for the stage. The bulls run promptly at eight, while the stage starts just before noon. I asked Geraldine, the woman at the Tour's hebergement department who helps arrange hotel rooms for riders and journalists, where to find the press lunch today. Only I tried to say it in very literal French, so it came out as "where is the food?" Geraldine, who also speaks Spanish and English, immediately corrected me. "We French do not say `where is the food,'" she shot back incredulously, as if I had insulted France's culinary tradition. "Just say `ou est le buffet?'" So I did. I've mentioned before that the press tends to evaluate a city's worth based on the sort of pressroom buffet they serve. Big cities don't seem to care much, and either serve nothing at all or just a few snacks (Bordeaux fell into the former, and Pau will likely hold to tradition and serve cans of beer with plastic containers of pre-packaged cold chicken curry). But it's the small towns that usually go all out. Dax was no different. A man dressed in local garb, a sort-of Miles Standish thing with a big hat and vest, served glasses of the local wines while chicken breast wrapped in foie gras and steamed vegetables was being served at another. Good stuff. Loved the hat. Today was the Tour's ninth stage. Tomorrow's, the tenth, marks the halfway point of this year's race. I know, I know, I keep saying that things will change around here, and we'll see the real contenders make themselves known, but this time I mean it. The climb up the Col du Soudet is an hors category ascent, meaning that it's so long and steep (14 kilometers at a 7.9% grade) that you or I would be better off doing the thing in four-wheel drive vehicle. Unfortunately for the riders, that epic climb comes only halfway through the ride to Pau. If you're George Hincapie, tomorrow is a good day to ride conservatively, not lose contact with the lead group, and look for a way to move up in the rankings, even if it's just a few seconds. If he can gain time every day, he'll definitely be a factor in this bike race. Levi Leiphemer absolutely positively has to find some dynamic fiber in his being and ride with gusto. That doesn't mean attacking tomorrow, but the man is in 72nd place, some 6:43 behind the yellow jersey. His strength is climbing, and he's really only got five serious mountain stages to prove that he's better than that.Same with David Millar. I've had a few questions about the OLN coverage. Apparently, there's a lot of Bob Roll and somebody else on the air, but not so much Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. I can't tell you why that is (though I would guess money is at the top of the list). The TV guys and the journalists live and work in two different worlds. I walk by the OLN set from time to time. We're all friendly, and this morning Craig Hummer and I had a rather unique conversation about home exercise equipment while we waited for George Hincapie to come out of the Discovery Bus. So I'm not sure why OLN makes the personnel decisions it does. Personally, nothing against the way they do business or the talents of any of the on-air guys, but I think the Tour de France and NHL hockey deserve something easier to access than a three-digit cable network. And they certainly deserve bike race cover that doesn't gloss over the doping issue, which is talked about constantly around here. Of course, no matter which network does the broadcasting, Liggett and Sherwen have to be part of the coverage. The two things I miss when I'm at the Tour: Hanging out with my wife and sons; and, hearing Liggett and Sherwen call the Tour. Here, I either watch the race in person or check out the French-language feed. A couple years ago I was really jones-ing to hear Liggett and Sherwen report a stage. I was a little homesick and I figured it would make me feel like I was back with my family for awhile to hear them in person (a stretch, of course, but we all know how crazed things get during the depths of homesickness); and, I mean, really, they're that good. Who doesn't need a Liggett and Sherwen fix now and then? So I asked Phil if he would let me come sit in the booth for awhile. He was more than happy to oblige. I ended up hanging out for an hour in their cramped workspace (they sit side by side in a room six feet wide, each watching and reporting the race on a different TV monitor and checking stats on their laptops, then shifting to another screen when they call the action as a team; the way they do it is seamless). If you listen closely, you'll notice they take turns calling the action, not talking with one another very often. To see it in person is to witness that childhood concept of parallel play, where two children play a single game at the same time, but not together. Finally, I just reread this today. It's "Ulysses", by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Though much is taken, much abides; and thoughWe are not now the strength which in old daysMoved earth and Heaven, that which we are. One more equal temper of heroic hearts,Made weak by time and fate, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.There's a power and grace in the final line that takes my breath away. It's after eight and I'm off to find my hotel. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Driving South

Posted by MDugard Jul 11, 2006

Greetings from Bordeaux, and a pressroom in the middle of a velodrome.  The great wooden track rises all around us, and the air smells of fresh lumber. Making the scene all the more surreal, Mario Cippolini, the fabled Italian sprinter known as The Lion King, just pulled up a chair next to me and is having a conversation in Italian with another journalist. Pretty cool. First off, thanks to all of you for posting comments. They're much appreciated and I savor them all. Keep them coming. Mickael Rasmussen, to answer a question, is here. He had another horrible time trial on Saturday, and will put his own ambitions second to teammate Denis Menchov in the mountains. If Menchov falters, look for Rasmussen to attack on the climbs alone, hoping to earn the polka-dotted jersey signifying the best climber once again. Bordeaux, scene of today's rest from competition, is a grand European city, gloriously awash in sunshine and decay. The grand town squares and great spires recall another time in history, and are stunning to see. I feel like I'm walking through the 17th century. The streets are jammed with tourists, and a small red trolley gives tours. As I write, road crews are busy repaving the main streets so the riders will have smooth pavement for the departure. With the temperature almost a hundred degrees in this port city today, paving a road is one tough gig. The big story right now is about Floyd Landis and his degenerative hip condition. He still has four-inch pins in his hip from a 2003 crash (his wife, Amber, told me that Landis can sometimes see the pins pushing up against the skin). The problem is being compared with Bo Jackson's career-ending hip surgery. While Landis downplays the problem, and his employers at Phonak knew about it, he is having hip replacement surgery after the Tour. Landis held a press conference here today and discussed the issue. Essentially, there's no blood getting into the ball of his right hip, and it has decayed. Each day he puts up with a bone-on-bone grinding when he walks. Tour officials have allowed him to take cortisone for the pain. He's a good guy, and just about as tough as they come. Landis told me that after the accident he didn't even go to the hospital for two hours, preferring to pop Aleve and put ice on the hip because he thought it was "only" dislocated. Teams took it easy today, heading out for a two-hour ride and then hanging out in their hotels. Team Discovery is next door at the Mercure, which is situated in a quiet woods on the edge of Bordeaux, in a park known as Le Lac. You know, because it has a big lake in the middle of it. In contrast with year's past, there were few journalists hanging around Discovery's hotel. Part of that is lack of Lance, and the other part is the poor performance by George Hincapie in the time trial. Look for some nice surprises from Discovery this week. Hincapie desperately wants to win a Tour, and Johan Bruyneel desperately wants to win one without Armstrong. There's no single overpowering team this year, so that three minutes between Hincapie and the yellow jersey will shrink once Discovery makes a few bold moves in the mountains. Here's how this coming week is shaping up. Tomorrow is a rather short 105-mile stage from here to Dax. There is almost no incline at all (it starts at 35 meters at sea level, finishes at 45 meters above sea level, and only goes as high as 74 meters all day long). Strategy-wise, this will be a day for conservative riding by the top teams (Phonak, Discovery, Davitamon-Lotto, T-Mobile, Gerolsteiner). The reason is simple: there are three hard mountain stages in the Pyrenees on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The climbers will need their legs fresh as well as those of their teammates. The lesser teams, however, know that tomorrow is their last chance to get any attention for the next week or so. Look for some unknown riders to go off the front early and often. Not only are they hoping to snag victory with a breakaway, but their sponsors will enjoy all the free advertising that comes with five hours of their brand logo being splashed all over worldwide television. I'm pulling for Robbie McEwen to win in a sprint, but his team director at Davitamon-Lotto has made it clear that McEwen's teammates will be working to help Cadel Evans win the Tour from here on out, rather than chasing down breakaways so McEwen could get a sprint victory. I can't remember the last time a single team had the yellow and green jersey winners, but that's what will happen for Davitamon-Lotto is McEwen stays in green and Evans moves up to win the Tour. The Pyrenees seem steeper than the Alps, and the roads have a more narrow and haphazard quality. Frankly, I'm scared just driving them in a car because guardrails are few and far between, and the drop offs can be hundreds of feet in some places. I've always wondered about how the publicity caravan transports their vehicles over long distances. It's one thing to drive along the course at 10 mph, throwing candy and samples to spectators, and quite another to journey 300 miles on the autoroute, driving flat out. Well, today I found out. The more oddly shaped vehicles (the small vehicles shaped like water bottles, for instance) are transported by flatbed truck. The rest drive down the autoroute, doing the best they can. The VW Bug with the ten-foot-tall stuffed lion was looking a little top heavy, as if a gust of wind was going to knock it sideways. Lance Armstrong is hosting the ESPY's this year (I think it's next Sunday). Just received word from my publisher that CHASING LANCE, my book about the Tour experience, is going to be in the gift bags given to the celebrities and athletes in attendance. Apparently, I have Lance to thank for that. So, dude, thanks. True story: In 2004, just after returning from the Tour, I took the family to Las Vegas for a vacation. My wife and I were getting some sun at Mandalay Bay's wave pool when I told her that I thought the Tour was the ultimate way to see France. The Tour is more than just the bike race, I told her, etc, etc. I mentioned that it would be cool to write a book about what it's like to follow the Tour from start to finish, including the bike race, politics, history, food... everything. It would a book about the world's greatest road trip, pure and simple. Just then, she reached under her beach chair to get something or other, and instead found a single piece of paper: the title page to Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD. Apparently, it had fallen out of someone's book and the wind had blown it under Calene's chair. No matter how it got there, its appearance seemed like fate. My book isn't anything like Kerouac's, and wasn't meant to be. I've always like the way Peter Mayle wrote about France (check out A YEAR IN PROVENCE), and wanted to combine that sort of commentary on French life with the sort of sports writing John Feinstein does so well. The result is a sort of SIDEWAYS-style adventure. If you're looking for a book about the blow-by-blow of the race, and what sorts of gearing the riders use in the mountains or their favorite breakfast food, don't read my book. But if you want to know what it's like to be at the Tour, every day, mingling with the riders and seeing all of France... well, I think you'll enjoy it. I'm always flattered when people who've followed the Tour tell me that I got it right. I watched the World Cup final along with 5,000 other people last night. The city of Lorient erected theater-sized screens in the town center to show the game. Things went a little nuts during the penalty kicks, and then the crowd quietly went home once Italy won it. I made the drive south from Lorient to Bordeaux in a little over four hours. Fields of sunflowers lined the road, broken up by golden wheat fields. The cities of Cognac and Bordeaux also attested to the area's winemaking prowess. There are 333,000 acres of vineyards in the Bordeaux region alone. When most people think of France, they think of cosmopolitan Paris. But most of France is either undeveloped or agricultural land. The cities are far apart, and urban sprawl is rare. Made a couple of nice mix CD's for the drive: Springsteen, Beck, Counting Crows, Marshall Crenshaw, Sinatra, Coldplay, the Clash, Pogues, samples from the Les Miserables and Rent soundtracks, and a whole bunch of other stuff. I think I've heard Thunder Road a thousand times, but I never get tired of that opening harmonica. I think I had the volume up a little too loud. My eardrums hurt. Staying in a little hotel near the gare (train station) in the heart of Bordeaux. After I leave the pressroom I'm going to head back into the city and take a long walk around. It is a bustling, happening place to be, particularly with the Tour in town.  Tomorrow's stage starts at 1:15, and should last about four hours. Dax, the finishing city, has been a famed for its waters (which are radioactive, by the way) since the Romans. They first settled the city in 56 B.C. The locals are fond of having bull races in the city streets, and their shepards are legendary for working the fields while wearing stilts -- I'm not making this up. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Frenchman wins, rest day looms

Posted by MDugard Jul 10, 2006

A Frenchman won the eighth stage of the Tour de France, on a day when France will play for the World Cup title. Sylvain Calzati of Team A2R dashed off the front with a breakaway group just 29 miles into the stage. As the peloton closed in on the escape group, he boldly sought the glory of a stage win. As he crossed the line, Calzati reached back into a jersey pocket and held up a picture of his daughter.Something tells me that years ago, when he first became a cyclist and dreamed of winning a stage in the Tour de France, Salvati never dreamed that he'd be the sort of guy who would hold up his child's photograph while he did so. Kids ... they change you, they make you more substantial.Floyd Landis finished with the peloton. He's still one minute behind Honchar in the overal standings. For a while there, Dave Zabriskie was the virtual leader of the race. Shortly before being stung by a bee thirty miles in, the gap between his breakaway group and the peloton surpassed the 2:03 breach between the American CSC rider and the yellow jersey. If he had attacked with Calzati and managed to stay relatively close, Zabriskie would be wearing yellow right now, the first time since last year's team time trial in Blois.There are now 170 riders left in the race. That figure should drop substantially in the next week, perhaps by as much as ten percent. The sprinters will drop once they realize they can't win the green jersey, but most riders who abandon will do so because they fall too far behind.There is an award known as the Medaille de la Fidelite du Tour de France. It is given to individuals who had participated in 20 Tours. Today is was given to a gentleman known as Jean-Pierre Moinet, who's with an outfit known as Force Ouvriere, of which I know absolutely nothing about. Anyway, I have to tell you I admire Jean-Pierre. The Tour is an all-consuming beast, requiring stamina and devotion. I'm taking vitamins and drinking lots of water, but I can feel myself getting run down. Almost every journo who's ever covered this says it's the toughest event in the world to cover (the Raid Gauloises and Eco-Challenge being but a memory). So good for Jean-Pierre. He deserves that medal.To make a point, following the entire Tour involves lots of days that involve driving great distances, watching the bike race, talking to the riders, writing about the bike race, then driving a couple more hours to find a hotel. It's like waking up in Los Angeles, driving four hours to Las Vegas, watching the race and writing about the race, then driving two hours down the road toward Flagstaff, hoping to find a hotel. But I can think of absolutely no better way to see France.Forget those package tour groups. If you ever come over and really want to see this country in a whole new way, simply follow the Tour de France for a week or two or even three. I guarantee that you'll see it all, and that you'll end up in Paris. All journeys should end so romantically.As I wrote that last section I was about to make an analogy that covering the Tour was like being in a race, and a person had to pace themselves. But then I remembered that the Tour IS a race... which, you know, would have made the analogy rather comical. Challenging as it is, none of us in this vast press room entertain notions that we're working harder than the cyclists.A week ago I was having a conversation with Craig Hummer of OLN about rest days. You'd think that we'd look forward to a day off (though it's not really a day off, just a day without bike racing), but Hummer and I agreed that they're a nuisance. They break up the rhythm of covering the Tour. The Tour is about forward motion. It feels weird to stay in one place.A strange sight this afternoon. Immediately after the stage, teams were taking each rider's bicycle, removing the wheels, and then stuffing the bikes into vans and inside team cars. The reason is simple: the bikes have to be in Bordeaux first thing in the morning, when teams will take a lazy two-hour ride to cleanse the toxins from their legs. The mechanics left this morning in their special trucks. With the distance  from here to Bordeaux almost 300 miles, the team cars and vans will travel faster with the bikes inside the vehicles rather than in racks on top.In French, that bee sting Dave Zabriskie (who has to be one of the hardest luck riders in history. I mean, there's a whole story that could be devoted to his crashes and calamities) is known as a piqure d'insecte.As I write this, the riders are already at the airport, ready to board one of two charters to Bordeaux. The stage finished just an hour ago. Here's how it works: as soon as the stage ended, the cyclists aimed straight for their team busses. Levi Leipheimer was a study in hasty exits, riding to the bus, stopping his bike right at the base of the steps, unclipping from his pedals as he handed his bike to a mechanic, while simultaneously stepping onto the bus.Total time from finish to bus: 30 seconds. Number of comments about his time-trial woes: 0. Rumors that Leipheimer has a strategy to make up time by attacking hard in the mountains: Priceless. Without a strong team to control the attacks, the mountain stages are going to be a tad chaotic.Anyway, most of the busses have showers, but the riders prefer to towel off. They slip out of their cycling gear, which is given to a team functionary who places them in the bus washing machine (each morning at breakfast, riders are handed a mesh bag with their clean uniform and socks). Then they put on a pair of sweats as the bus makes for the airport.Speaking of laundry, I've been very good about washing stuff this year. But tomorrow everything gets cleaned, whether it needs it or not. Rest days should be called "washing days" instead.I'm also cleaning out the Volvo on a regular basis. I used to make a game out of throwing water bottles in the back seat, only cleaning them out when I turned the car in. But last year, when Austin and I had Neil "The Legend" Leifer in the car for three entertaining days, the back seat became a place where someone actually sat. The water bottles have looked a little trashy ever since. So I clean them out, along with the diet coke cans and other paraphernalia of a three-week road trip.A word about Austin Murphy: This will be the fourth time Murphy and I have traveled through the Tour together. He writes for Sports Illustrated, where he also covers college football. We're meeting in Bordeaux tomorrow night, and will navigate the rest of this race together. It will be good to see my old friend, whom I have not hung out with since Paris and the end of last year's Tour.The drive tomorrow will be long and scenic. The route will take me due south along the French coastline, following the Bay of Biscay on the flat coastal plateau between here and Bordeaux.Bordeaux fun facts: Huon of Bordeaux, who lived more than a thousand years ago and was known as the Duke of Aquitaine, was the inspiration for Oberon, Shakespeare's King of Elves.Even better is the story of Louis and Alienor, who married in 1137. Louis' father was Kind of France, and he himself would go on to become Louis VII. But after celebrating a great wedding to Alienor in Bordeaux, he divorced her upon returning from the Crusades. Alienor was a capable women of guile and beauty. She demanded that Louis return her dowry, which he did, and then she married his best friend, Henry Plantanegent. Alienor and Henry together controlled more land than Louis.It gets better. Henry soon became King of England, making Alienor his Queen. The inevitable war -- the infamous Hundred Years War -- between England and France soon followed.Alright. I'll be posting tomorrow, so please check in. I can't follow up on every request, but if any of you have any Tour questions you'd like answered, please feel free to post a comment. And tell a friend or two. It's a rush being over here, and it's just as big a thrill to share this incredible journey with all of you.Talk to you tomorrow.

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Bonjour

Posted by MDugard Jul 10, 2006

A man 5,000 miles from home shouldn't wake up on a Sunday morning and have his first thoughts be about Levi Leiphemer's mental condition, but I did. His horrid (a fine Roald Dahl expression to convey the woes of that man-child) ride yesterday leaves him far out of contention, forced to spend the next two weeks taking enormous competitive risks if he wants to get a spot on the podium, let alone win this thing. What happened to him? His team makes it clear there were no mechanical issues. It's a sign of the times: I find myself wondering whether Serhiy Honchar has been doping. This isn't to take away from his accomplishment in the least, and there's been absolutely no talk about such a thing. But to not wander down that avenue when a 36-year-old rider facing the end of his career suddenly rides better than he has since 2000 would be folly. Spent last night in Rennes, scene of yesterday's finish. The city is having an enormous open-air arts festival, and after dinner (a salad whose name I did not write down, but featuring a dijon mustard dress, foie gras, slices of cured ham, and baked potatoes. Very, very good. Also, a nice red). I just kind of wandered the streets to take it all in. My favorite guy was the guy juggling fiery batons while balancing on a six-foot-tall unicycle. He was very good and drew a large crowd. When all was said and done, I noticed that he had no hair on his face or head and a sort of perpetual sunburn. That's a tough way to earn a paycheck. Heading straight for the finish in Lorient. It's on the ocean, and is sure to be a wonderful way to spend a Sunday. The race begins at 12:25 and ends at 5 pm. It's 112 hilly miles from Saint-Meen-le-Grand to the finish. Then, of course, all of France will find a place to watch the World Cup final between France and Italy. Allez les Bleus.

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Easy Red

Posted by MDugard Jul 10, 2006

The first week of any Tour is like the opening act of a play. It sets the stage. So far this year's Tour drama has seen a doping scandal and two victories by likeable Aussie Robbie McEwen. However, the pacing has been, if not dull, deliberate. That's actually a good thing. Everyone around here is chomping at the bit, eager to see what happens at tomorrow's individual time trial. No one can win the Tour tomorrow, but boy can somebody lose it. Today's stage started at 12:50 in the afternoon, which is late even by Tour standards. The stage goes southwest from Lisieaux to Vitre, and looks to be uneventful. It's 117 miles on a rainy day, and the top riders just want to make it to the finish without crashing. I awoke at dawn to the cries of seagulls. Yesterday, when were out in the country, it had been songbirds. But now we're so near the ocean I could smell the salt air. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep, but my little two-star roadside hotel was offering free WiFi. The Tour is charging an astronomic fee for journalists to use their wireless network, so we've become like junkies, searching high and low for alternative sources of free internet. Anyway, that's what got me out of bed this morning (a bed, by the way, designed for a five-year old. I felt like it should have had a cowboys and Indians bedspread). The connection in my room was poor, so I sat in the hallway and typed for an hour. Geez, that makes me sound like a geek. Drank a coffee and drove west for Omaha Beach, where American forces suffered their worst D-Day losses. I wanted to get there before the tourist busses. I realize that we are all tourists once we leave our hometown, but I've been to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery on the bluff overlooking it before. It's a narrow, tree-lined road that meanders for miles off the N13 before reaching the beach. When it backs up, the pilgrimage becomes a chore, and I didn't have time for a traffic jam. I'm happy to say that there were only two other cars -- and no busses -- in the vast parking lot. I paid my respects at the cemetery, followed the paved path down the bluff to the beach itself, and went for a long run down along the coast. It was raining and the wind was blowing, but I had the place to myself. Just me and the ghosts. Then it was off to Lisieaux for the start. Made it there just as the Discovery and Phonak busses pulled in and set up shop: team cars alongside the bus to keep away spectators, awning lowered to keep the riders dry. A word about the Grand Mere women, the Soup Nazis of the Tour de France. Their job in the exclusive pre-race village is to wear bright red tops, tight black skirts, and pour coffee for anyone and everyone who wanders up the the Grand Mere coffee booth. This has been a village staple for years. They work inside an oval space that is broken up by countertops and burners for brewing fresh coffee. To the untrained observer, it's just three French women pouring coffee. But if you head into the village each morning, depending on that little Dixie Cup of powerful joe, sooner or later you will be struck by the fact that they could care less whether you ever get a cup of coffee. This morning the stand-up counters were filled with eager coffee drinkers, but the ladies of Grand Mere were ignoring us, eagerly sharing cell phone photos with one another. Yet none of us said a word. Why do we put up with it? Perhaps it's their uniquely Gallic beauty (they are all tall, handsome women with noses of character, broad shoulders, and Edith Piaf hips), but I believe it's their insouciance. This is not a cafe, they seem to be reminding us, and the women of Grand Mere will pour the coffee when it is convenient for them.  You've gotta respect that. I passed the great island castle at Ste-Michelle on my way south into Brittany. Lots of time to drive and think. First, I came to the profound realizations that Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul are one of the great overlooked bands in history, and that June Carter could really sing. Listen to her on the live version of "Jackson."But I also thought a lot about tomorrow's time trial. It's a flat 32-mile circuit, and easily the biggest day of this year's Tour so far. I think Dave Zabriskie will win, but beyond that, it's the most wide-open time-trial of the last seven Tours. It will be a day for the contenders to sort themselves out. The guys who really want to win will do something spectacular, and when that happens I think this year's Tour will take on an exciting new edge. Talk to you after the stage.

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An Episode of 24

Posted by MDugard Jul 8, 2006

A palpable sense of disbelief hangs over Rennes...On a day when rumors were spreading that Floyd Landis will shift to Discovery Team next year, the whole Tour seemed to go a little crazy. One top American crashed out of the race, another rode as if he was dragging a tire behind his bike, and the world's best time-trialists were beaten by a Ukrainian in need of dental work. The Ukrainian was Serhiy Honchar (Russian: Serguei Gonchar) of Team T-Mobile. The 36-year-old time-trialing specialist was world champion in 2000, but his career was thought to be waning. Today, however, was outstanding. He hammered the course on a windy afternoon, finishing the 32 miles in 1:01:43. Floyd Landis, who made a bike change early in the race, finished a minute back. That all-American podium suddenly looks very far away from becoming a reality. Landis was the only American who really came through today, and now stands second overall in the standings, exactly one minute behind Honchar. But George Hincapie's performance was sub-par, Levi Leipheimer's was abysmal, and Bobby Julich is out of the race after a horrendous high-speed crash. That's the bad news. The good news is that Honchar, who also led the Giro d'Italia just before the mountain stages began, is not a climber. He won't stay in yellow very long. So Landis is in the driver's seat, with Hincapie just 90 seconds back. That gap could close with a little creative cycling. But Levi ... man, I hope he's got a back-up plan. The guy who looked so stellar winning the Dauphine Libere a month ago is now 6:17 out of first place. His only hope, obviously, is prayer. Beyond that, he needs to go ballistic in the mountains, attaching himself to breakaways and even launching a few surprise attacks of his own.And make no mistake about, the mountains will be crazy. The race is wide open, and it looks more and more like it's going to stay that way for awhile. The contenders who had a good day -- Michael Rogers, Andreas Kloden, Cadel Evans, Denis Menchov, and even Christophe Moreau, who rode as if all France was whispering in his ear -- are all within a minute of Landis. Poor Rogers. The three-time world time-trialing champion definitely has the talent to win this bike race. But he's an Australian rider on a German team. When push comes to shove, T-Mobile will work to help their top German rider, Andreas Kloden, before they'll work for Rogers. In response to a reader's request, I yelled very loudly for Floyd today. In the name of spreading it around, I also cheered for Cadel Evans, Michael Rogers, David Millar, George Hincapie, and Levi Leipheimer. I'm not much on that journalistic thing about not cheering in the press box. Sport is one of those rare avenues in life to express emotions honestly, powerfully and immediately in an emotionally satisfying way. How could anyone not want to cheer?Amber Landis, Floyd's wife, is a feisty woman who is fiercely proud (and protective) of her husband. One of her favorite pastimes is checking cycling sites and chat rooms anonymously to see what people are saying about Floyd. For all I know, she's behind that request. A bit of confusion doubling as irony during today's stage. Race radio was reporting that Landis had punctured a half-hour into his ride. The press criticism of Landis's preparation began immediately. Remember, Landis was late for the start at last week's prologue because he noticed a cut in his tire, a bit of prudence for which he was roundly criticized. Then the race radio was saying Landis hadn't flatted, and that it had all been a mistake, which had everyone kind of chuckling at how absurd it was that we all thought that fate was conspiring against him. Then, once the stage was over, we find out that Floyd really did change bikes. Something to do with his handlebars. I would have rooted for Bobby Julich if he hadn't crashed. He's a good guy and a solid rider who looked like he wore the cloak of team leader heavily. He was taken from the course in an ambulance, holding his wrist. Tomorrow's stage from Saint-Meen-le-Grand to Lorient is the last we'll see of France's northern half until the finish in Paris. From here on out, all the action will take place in the south and the Alps. The Tour has chartered two planes to fly the teams to Bordeaux for the rest day. It's going to be a tight connection: the stage ends a few minutes after 5 pm and the plane leaves at 6:15. Anyway, tomorrow's stage is rugged, with four rated climbs. But the last half of the course is largely downhill, which might give the sprinters a chance to claim the day. Robbie McEwen will be looking for his fourth stage victory of this year's Tour, while world road racing champion Tom Boonen is still looking for his first. Man, my head hurts. Too much thinking. Nothing went like it was supposed to today. But I have to say that it's interesting. There's little drama in one guy winning the time trial and then controlling the race all the way to Paris. This year's Tour reminds of an episode of "24", where just when you relax a little because you think you know what's about to happen, something out of left field happens that has you sitting on the edge of your seat. I love "24."And for the record, Floyd Landis says he's not signing with Discovery.  Talk to you tomorrow.

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Master and Apprentice

Posted by MDugard Jul 8, 2006

Robbie McEwen thrust three fingers into the sky after his victory today. This is significant for a couple reasons. First, and most obviously, it's his third stage win of this year's Tour. He's won stages two, four and six. This give him eleven Tour de France career stage wins. The amazing thing, however, is that McEwen also won three stages at this year's Giro D'Italia (literally, the Feast of Italy, it's their version of the Tour, held each May). Just like here, he won stages two, four and six. Those victories also gives him a career total of eleven for the Giro. That running motion McEwen made with his arms after crossing the line was the result of a running dialogue with Levi Leipheimer. Each has pledged to perform the Dumb and Dumber salute when they win a race. It's supposed to mime them running in place, in slow motion. McEwen felt that his chances for victory yesterday were sabotaged by Belgian teammate Gert Steegmans. It is the job of the up-and-coming Steegmans to pace McEwen toward the starting line by setting a torrid pace. When the time is right, McEwen shoots off Steegman's draft and rockets toward the finish. It's the same slingshot technique used by NASCAR drivers. But Steegman went too early yesterday, which earned him a brisk lesson in tactics from McEwen. At 34, McEwen knows he's entering his last years of competition. He sees Steegman as his heir apparent, albeit one who's a little rough around the edges. So McEwen's taken it upon himself to be Steegman's tutor. Steegman was told that, under no circumstances, was he to make his move before more than 400 meters left. But at precisely 400 meters, Steegman was to pounce. He did. Steegman sprinted so fast that McEwen had a hard time keeping up. But when the time came to launch forward to the line, McEwen blasted around Steegman and won by five yards. It was brilliant to watch. "I really had to jump to stay on his wheel," McEwen said later. "It was like I was sitting on my own personal TGV. I'm the only one with a ticket and I just have to get off at my station."I couldn't be farther out in the country than I am right now, even if I owned a farm. Vitre, site of today's finish, is a small town in the Brittany region. It is a vibrant town ("A Young Town Which is Resolutely Modern" being the town motto), with castles and narrows roads and the TGV whispering into the train station. But there's not much in the way of vast open spaces. Those are the kinds of things the Tour needs to conduct a proper finish.So while the finish accouterment, such as the podium and doping control and the play-by-play television booths where Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen and the teams of international announcers sit (their booth is always positioned right next to the finish line, no matter the town, no matter the Tour), have been plopped in between a feed store and a heavy equipment rental concession, the press have been dispatched to a vast cornfield five miles away. I actually like it very much. It reminds me of being in South Dakota. I'm struck by the irony that in France, where the same towns have thrived for centuries, they struggle to present themselves as modern. In the States it's the other way around. New towns struggle to find a sense of tradition. The start and finish towns for tomorrow's time trial are nearby. Fans have already begun arriving to set up their spot for cheering. The road was jammed with campers and cars with bike racks. These people are professional when it comes to watching a bike race, just like some folks back home excel at pre-football parking lot tailgate parties. They've got satellite dishes, they've got portable tables and chairs, they've got flags and banners, and they've got lots and lots of food and wine. As I've noted before, the Tour likes to finish each stage in time for the evening news. Tomorrow that means the first rider will go off at 10:48 in the morning (last place Sebastien Joly; the order goes from last to first) and overall leader Tom Boonen chugs out of the starting house at 4:28 in the afternoon. It's important to note that morning tempartures are supposed to be cool, while it's supposed to be in the 80's when Boonen begins. Names to watch: Levi Leipheimer begins at 3:40; Bobby Julich starts exactly one hour in front of Boonen; time-trial ace Dave Zabriskie at 3:56; Britain's David Millar at 4:02; Floyd Landis at 4:14; and, George Hincapie at 4:20. Just to make it easier to figure out when to watch it all live on TV, we're six hours ahead of New York here. The riders start two minutes apart. The 32-mile course is long enough that some riders will catch the man in front of him. And while it would be interesting if Tom Boonen won his first stage of the Tour tomorrow, he's still very much a pure sprinter. Tomorrow's a day for guys like Zabriskier and Michael Rogers of CSC (start time: 4:24). Rogers, for instance, begins just back of sprinter Oscar Freire, winner of yesterday's stage. He will likely catch Freire and even put a little bit of time into George Hincapie. Hincapie, Landis and Leipheimer are all very calm about tomorrow. Keyed up, maybe, but outwardly stoic. If, by some outrageous quirk of fate, the possibility of three Americans on the podium in Paris starts to look like it really may happen, it could become quite a sports story. But anything can happen. A flat, a crash... it's crazy what they must be thinking right now. I was mentioning yesterday that I was thinking of camping out with some of the fans tonight. Still seems like a good idea 24 hours later, so I'm going to give it a go. I brought a sleeping bag for times like this (in previous Tours, traffic jams getting down off Alpine summits has meant spending the night in fields of clover). Of course, I don't want to just camp -- I want to find a really good corner of the course where the people are having fun and see how they do this camping thing. What does one do with a group of international strangers the night before a bike race? I'd like to know. I'll let you know how it goes. Talk to you tomorrow.

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McDrive

Posted by MDugard Jul 8, 2006

The rain started at ten past six this morning. As road crews labored in the early morning darkness to close the course to vehicles -- blocking roads and intersections, lining tricky corners with hay bales wrapped in bright red and white plastic -- the downpour intensified. After an hour it stopped, but the skies are still very dark and it should rain on and off throughout the day. The start town of St. Gregoire is a city of flowers and romantic canals that extend a hundred miles to the Atlantic Ocean. Hanging baskets and manicured beds of bright flowers line the roads. This is the sort of small town that makes you want to buy a paper, sit down at a cafe, and spend a good hour or so savoring the ambience. The finish area in Rennes, however, just ten miles away, goes through such a bad area of the city that the McDonald's has steel grates on the drive-thru window (McDrive, to the French). If the McDonald's back home served the same rich black coffee they do here, I'd be hard pressed to visit Starbucks. The pre-race village has a diverse menu this morning, reflecting the fact that the start area will be open from dawn to dusk due to the six hours it will take for all the time trial riders to get underway. Breakfast, surprisingly, is scrambled eggs and small spicy sausages, terrine de canard, Camembert, salami, and Grand Mere coffee. Something you don't see every day: Two of the Tour's stilt women taking a break. They wander through the starting area on six-foot stilts, dressed in make-up and various costumes each day. Instead of taking their rest on a park bench or in the shade, they merely walked over in stilts and sat down on top of a van. Rennes is the capital of the Brittany region, and scene of conflict for centuries. In 1491, Charles VII, who was then being pressed for funds to support Christopher Columbus's first voyage, sacked Rennes so he could abduct and marry a 14-year-old duchess. A Christmas Day fire in 1720 destroyed most of the town, and when it was reconstructed, the architect doing the design work was Jacques Gabriel, who also designed the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Finally, the obligatory WWII reference: General George S. Patton liberated Rennes on August 14, 1944. It's culinary specialties are cold meats and buckwheat pancakes. Just thought you'd want to know. I did the camping thing last night. It was past nine when I rushed out of the press center (leaving a poorly edited second post in my wake) to find today's course and secure a camping spot for the night. No time to sit down for dinner, so I enjoyed a very fine McDonald's McDrive experience. At first I thought that camping out with the spectators was going to be a bust. It was almost dark, the rain had begun to fall, and as I drove the first miles of the course I didn't see a single camper. But that's because I was in the city. As soon as I got into the farmland, those shiny white campers were arranged neatly on every broad shoulder and grassy lawn. I drove on for ten miles, just checking things out. Then I pulled over next to a golden field of freshly cut wheat, set the parking brake, and got out to meet my neighbors. But absolutely no one was outside. They preferred to picnic indoors out of the rain, watching their satellite dish. The only human voice I heard all night was the British guy tent-camping across the road, talking to his girlfriend on the cell. But by half past ten, he was out for the night, too. There wasn't so much as a streetlight or the sound of a human voice. A stone crucifix across the road with "1929" engraved on the bottom was visible from a farmhouse porch light. It was very, very peaceful, and a sharp contrast to the Tour's bedlam. I wouldn't have traded it for a hotel room, that's for sure. Now, of course, I need to sample that bonfire/dancing scene in the mountains. So there is more camping in my future, perhaps as soon as the Pyrenees next week. I'm looking forward to it. I'd intended to sleep outside, but the rain was too strong. Ended up folding down the back seats of the Volvo and spending a rather comfortable evening. I'm just under six feet tall, but was able to stretch out comfortably. Got up just before six and said goodbye to the camping life, eager to get off the course before the roads were sealed. I literally just made it. The final barricades were being set in place just as I drove out. Those crews must have worked all night. Here's what impresses me most about the course: It's tricky. There are loads of sharp left turns and roundabouts. Very little of the course is actually flat, it's either rising uphill or down, ever so slightly. The country roads are narrow, with blind turns; the city roads have that haphazard layout of a medieval village. The rain will only make matters worse. I like the observation that George Hincapie is a grinder in the tradition of Sean Kelly. I couldn't agree more. But George is a better climber and time-trial rider. He could win. He's the obvious sentimental favorite. Having said that, I think Floyd is the most talented rider in the field, yet Hincapie has the mental edge. Unlike Floyd or Levi, he doesn't fluster easily. And he knows how to manage his time, having spent all those years as part of the Armstrong media circus. I'm writing this at a table in Nike's village booth. Metal chair, Dixie cup of coffee, umbrella to keep the mist off my computer. Fifty yards to my right I can see the riders roll out of the starting house. It's worth noting that even the guys in last place get nervous before time trials. It's such a test of character. No wonder it's called "the race of truth."Anyway, time to go watch the race. It's a long time until the favorites roll out. Talk to you later.

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The Long and Winding Road

Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2006

As you may or may not be able to tell from these daily postings, I've been having trouble finding my rhythm at this year's Tour. Part of it may be the lack of a Lance Armstrong to give the race a daily focus, part may be traveling alone (an oddity, as I usually travel with another writer or with my wife, the navigator extraordinaire; it's to the point that I sing out loud in the car and carry on conversations with the small blue stuffed animal my youngest son wanted me take to the Tour), and part of it may be the residue of a drastic time change. Whatever. This morning I think I nailed it. Out of bed at 5:30 (the birds are singing and the sun is rising at 4:30 here), downstairs for a quick baguette and cup of coffee, then off for Caen, home of William the Conqueror. Feels good. Can Robbie McEwen win his third stage of the Tour today? The odds are against it. If the peloton reels in a breakaway, the sprint finish will be one for the ages. But the final straightaway is more than a thousand meters long, meaning that the top sprinters (Boonen, Hushovd, Zabel, McEwen, among others) will need to be paced to the line by a lead-out man. McEwen doesn't have one, thanks to the loss of Freddie Rodriguez. But McEwen's a smart rider, capable of pulling a rabbit out of the hat, like he did with yesterday's bold surprise attack. Sure will be interesting to see how he plays it today. In his book, A Year In Provence, Peter Mayle suggest that a traveler in France can spot the best restaurants by the trucks out front. His theory was that truckers know the best places to eat, and like a good bargain. I followed his advice when stopping at La Auergine de Marie, but the old and kind Marie was the exception to the rule. The restaurant was full of truckers, but the food (barley soup, cous-cous, braised chicken thigh with mushrooms and green beans) was inconsistent, and I only finished my soup out of courtesy. However, Marie made up for the lack of cooking by being a good Tour guide, pointing out that the restaurant was just a kilometer away from the Somme battlefield. Marie was also a hotelier. Spent the night in a small upstairs/attic room that had a small window to let in the air. It was affordable and a nice change from the chain hotels that I've spent the last two nights in. My rental car, a Volvo station wagon (don't know why National gave me a station wagon, but I like having room to spread out, so it's a good thing) is the same model and midnight blue color as the one my parents drive. Every time I see it sitting in a parking lot I find myself looking around, as if my folks were here (yes, as if they miraculously drove their car over the ocean). Never fails. Right around eleven last night the horns started honking and the kids started banging pots and pans out in the street. France had just beaten Portugal to move into the World Cup final. The honking went on for hours, with every car passing through the village on the way to Amiens adding their own sounds to the symphony. By the way, thanks to all those who filled me in on Old Hickory and Maastricht. Pretty cool stuff. There are so many battlefields and so many signs of wars in this area that it's like walking through history. As I write this, I can see the cathedral here in Caen, which still bears the scars of artillery fire from sixty years ago. So on to the bike race. It's cool and overcast here in this tourist mecca. The riders will be here in about five hours. They'll be riding almost 140 miles today. Talk to you later.

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Boonen Speaks

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2006

Here's all you need to know about today's stage: It was hot, there were lots of crashes, and a Spanish guy won a tight sprint to the finish, beating the man wearing the yellow jersey by half the length of a wheel. The Spanish guy was Oscar Freire, who races for Rabobank. Tom Boonen, who is aching for his first stage victory of this Tour, rode brilliantly but was denied. However, by finishing up front Boonen will stay in the yellow jersey for another night, probably two. He looks like a surfer dude, all blond hair and goofy Spiccoli grin, so it's weird to hear that thick Belgian accent when he starts talking. He is articulate, though, and strongly disputes the notion that this week has been much less intense than during the Armstrong era. The pace may be off, he says, but that's because of the heat. I talked with Floyd Landis after the stage. For a guy that just rode 140 miles, he looked remarkably fresh. He said that it wasn't a hard stage for his team and they were right next to a very big crash that occurred just before the finish, but no one was hurt. He wanted to know about the crash, and who went down, saying that it sounded horrible. I'm actually considering driving the course the night before Saturday's time trial, in search of people camping out to stake claim to their viewing spot. It all depends upon how tomorrow goes, and how late I wander out of the press room, but I'm tempted to find a fun-loving and well populated section of the course and camp for the night. I want to experience that dedicated spectator vibe. It's one of the things I've always wanted to do at the Tour, and have never gotten around to it. The other thing I want to do is run alongside a cyclist during a mountain stage. I know, I know, the people who do that are the most wretched form of humanity, lower than whale droppings on the bottom of the ocean, and should be banned from all bike races. But I'm kind of curious about the whole experience. It seems there's a certain logistics and physics to finding the exact perfect spot, selecting a rider to cheer, and then exhorting them while running up the mountain, making sure not to trip or make them crash. I think it's harder than it looks. Stay tuned. So I got to thinking about who might win. The top three riders from last year's Tour are not racing in 2006, so it's going to be a total changing of the guard come Paris. Barring injury, I'm going to predict an American sweep. Why not? It's time to be bold, so I'll go out on a limb: Hincapie, Landis, and Leipheimer, in that order. Others to watch: Andreas Kloden, David Millar, and Cadel Evans. Picking Tour winners at this point is like filling out a Final Four bracket the night before the tournament starts: harmless fun that invests you in the race by giving you someone to root for. And maybe, just maybe, a true Cinderella story will emerge, some unknown rider with a heart of gold who will make us scratch our heads and look at the race in a whole new light. Send me your predictions. Put it out there. Take a stand. And don't put Anonymous next to your name. Lance Armstrong says he's not coming to the Tour this year. Makes sense. He'd only be  a distraction, and the team is gelling just fine without him around. But I think he'd have a hard time staying away if George Hincapie wins it all. I'm not making a World Cup prediction, but I'm pulling for France. Three reasons: I'm tired of seeing the Italians take a dive and fake injuries every time someone looks cross-eyed at them; I thought the way Italy beat Australia on such a bit of theatrics was disgraceful; and, I'm in France. I'll be watching the game with a French crowd. I want to see them all go nuts. How cool would that be? After the way they rioted when France won their semifinal game last night, the fans just may burn down Paris if France wins the final. I should add that despite what those AYSO have been praying for since they fielded their first league, soccer will never be a major sport in the U.S., even if we ever won the World Cup. Don't ask me why, but that's just the way it is. We're not soccer people. Heck, we're barely cycling people. A big hello and lots of love to Callie, Devin, Connor and Liam. Well, it's just past seven. Off to find the village of Herouville-St-Clair, and a small hotel whose name I cannot find at the moment. If all goes well, I'm going to get up early and head over to Omaha Beach. Talk to you tomorrow.

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A Great Day for Riding

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2006

Hey all. A great day for riding. The course roughly travels in a southwest direction, hewing close to the historic Meuse River. Lots of farmland, golden fields straight out of a Van Gogh painting, and small towns with lots of spectators.Today is the first time in the history of the Tour that two reigning world champions are ranked first and second overall. Road champ Tom Boonen is in yellow, while time-trial champion Michael Rogers of Australia (Team T-Mobile) is in second.But first, the medical reports: Freddie Rodriguez was examined for head trauma after his crash yesterday. Though out of the Tour, the tests showed no head injuries.Erik Dekker, the veteran Dutch rider who crashed out of the race yesterday, had surgery last night to remove gravel from his face and fix badly chipped teeth. Dekker's crash was thought to have been caused by a fan, but it turns out he hit a pothole and fell so quickly he had no time to react.Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde also suffered a severe crash yesterday. He flew to Valencia to get medical advice on his broken right collarbone. At this point, doctors are saying it's a clean break and Valverde should make a quuick recovery.The Saint-Quentin Canal is a navigable waterway linking the Somme with Escaut, was once the busiest in France. Napoleon considered it one of his Empire's finest engineering achievements.The Basilica here in Saint-Quentin is a beautiful, yet very beat up, 13th-century cathedral. It was burned in 1669 and bombed in 1917. Though the interior is still cavernous (the nave is three feet higher than that of the Notre Dame in Paris), chunks of stone have fallen off the exterior. Originally named after a 4th-century martyr (skewered on a spit, then decapitated), a local cardinal by the same name is also buried beneath the stone floor. In one alcove, safely contained inside an airtight glass contained, is the preserved hand of Saint-Quentin (severed at the wrist, skin still stretched over the long delicate fingers), though I'm not sure which Quentin is currently missing a hand.There are certain climactic conditions one likes to experience at certain sporting events. It should snow during playoff games in Green Bay. The altitude at Coors Field will always be a mile above sea level. And it should rain cats and dogs during the first week of the Tour de France. It's part of the Tour experience. But though there are clouds in the sky, and thunderstorms were predicted, it just feels hot and humid. It's a day when the smart riders will drink whenever they feel thirsty, as Floyd Landis points out.Hey, check out my website. I'm not very web savvy, so it's taken me since the introduction of the Internet to actually have a website. It's come to the point that a writer isn't really savvy if he doesn't have his own site, so it feels more like something to check off my to-do list than some great big self-promotional push. Go to www.martindugard.com and check it out.Every year the Tour organizers select a theme for the race. This year it's Tour history. But such is the animosity between former race director Jean-Marie LeBlanc and Lance Armstrong that the seven-time champion's name and photograph are conspicuously absent from the official Tour Road Book.The site of today's start was Huy, a splendid little city on the Meuse River. The city fathers call it la Belle Ville, and it truly is beautiful. Huy is set in a small forested valley that extends down to the river. A great castle overlooks the Huy, and the river is filled with barges, sailboats and sculls. The relaxed setting had quite an effect on the riders. After signing in, many of them chose to detour into the prerace village and relax in the shade rather than retreating to their team bus. They never walk and always take their bikes wherever they go. It was intriguing to watch riders navigate through the thick crowd, knowing that their tires had too much air pressure in them for the grass and gravel to cause a flat. Notably, the only team who didn't relax their discipline and enter the village was Discovery. They're still a vigilant bunch.Which brings up an interesting point. For seven years, Johan Bruyneel has been slagged for being a lucky team director instead of a talented team director. The thinking is that anyone could win if they had Lance Armstrong on their team. But Bruyneel has always been a tactical wizard, possessing an eerie ability to predict months ahead of time how the Tour will break down. He seems to be on a mission this year to change how he's perceived. Bruyneel is taking more time to talk and joke with the press. He's so relaxed and easygoing this year that I thought he was a different person when I ran into him a few days ago -- not behaving like a different person, but truly someone else. The transformation is startling, and it would be quite a coup if a Discovery stands atop the podium in Paris.Paris still seems a long way off, and in race terms it is. But we're actually just an hour north right now. All day long, signs on the autoroute have announced the turn toward Paris. That day will come soon enough. There's a whole loop of the country to make in the meantime.After paying homage to the Amstel Gold and Fleche-Wallon cycling classics by detouring into Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands over the last two stages, we're back in France. Other than a detour into Spain next Thursday to climb the Puerto-de-Beret, we're in France for good. That's a nice thing. I literally didn't know which country I was in most of the time yesterday. Started off in Luxembourg, passed through Belgium, into Holland, then back into Belgium (I think) to spend the night in Maastricht. The borders seem a little superfluous now that the European Union is in place. Crossing from one country to the next happens with far less fanfare than crossing from California into Nevada. France, of course, has a great big sign announcing that you are formally entering their nation.And unlike the other countries, they haven't torn down the customs outposts at the border -- just in case that whole EU thing takes a tumble, I guess. Then again, it makes sense. These nations often take the long historical view, having been around long enough to see borders and attitudes change. In ten years or in a hundred, the EU may be no more, and vigilant France will be ready.The course today is relatively flat and perfect for a solo breakaway group to dart ahead. They may not win the overall stage, but there are three sprint bonus sections. It would be a perfect way to slash a few seconds from their overall time.That Germany-Italy game last night pretty much brought Maastricht to a standstill last night. And even though Germany's border was just a few miles away, the fans were overwhelmingly pro-Italy. Tonight's France-Portugal game, however, will be even bigger. French flags are everywhere, and are even being sold in the street. The Tour press room is setting up a special big screen to show the game, and if France wins it will blow the lid off this place. No telling what will happen if they win the final, too.Random driving thoughts: last May I was in Italy, covering the Giro. I needed to get to Barcelona to interview Floyd Landis, and the quickest and easiest way to get there (thanks to scheduling issues), was by car. So I drove all the way from Genoa to Barcelona and back to the Giro, twelve hours each way, to spend time with Floyd. It was great, he was personable, I was happy with the way the story came out, etc. My point is that French radio in the south is all European pop music, and I only had one CD with me (Springsteen's Seeger Sessions) which I pretty much knew by heart when the drive was done. Well, once again I forgot to bring any CD's with me, and I'm trying to rely on French radio. I'm glad to say it's better and more eclectic in the north. I'm listing to artists I usually wouldn't pay attention to. I've got a new appreciation for Eminem, and Shakira, and wonder how come I haven't paid any attention to Carly Simon lo these many years. And while it was nice to turn the music up loud, I thought the hour-long Bon Jovi tribute was a tad excessive.You know that theme in French Kiss, the Lawrence Kasdan movie about France, where Meg Ryan is constantly hoping to see the Eiffel Tower, but keeps missing out? (I should point out that Kevin Kline's Luc Tessiere is the best and most accurate portrayal of a Frenchman by a non-French actor that I have ever seen). I sort of felt like that about Holland and windmills. I've been through here before, but I must have been sleeping on the train or something whenever we passed one by.Well, this morning when I went out a run I saw one. I was about a mile  from my hotel, at the exact spot where the city sidewalks ended and the countryside cornfields began, and there it was. They're very large, just in case you're curious.And finally, as the first cycling tour groups start to arrive a the Tour, a couple words of advice for those of you who've signed up for one and will be coming over. First, tell me you've trained. I don't have to tell you how embarrassing it is, year after year, when American tour groups are always the ones walking their bikes up a mountain. Second, if you have trained, please don't enthrall your tour buddies about your new speed while eating dinner in a quiet cafe. Remember that old football saying about scoring a touchdown: when you reach the end zone, act like you've been there before. In other words, if you're a talented athlete, let the riding speak for itself. And finally, please don't get anal about the food. Last year in Lourdes I heard one group go on and on about how proud they were that the had been in France five days without touching a bit of butter or sip a glass of red wine. Hey, a week of butter and red wine won't hurt the active training lifestyle. In fact, it might just help. Those are just my two cents. If you're coming over, have fun. Just looked up at the flat screens here in the press room and saw that Floyd Landis has flatted.Talk to you soon.

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Had a little wireless problem last night, so the second post didn't go. Today has been a very crazed day (more on that later, but for now all you need to know is that the final climb today is thronged with thousands of drunken cycling fans and that the road is littered with debris in spots. It is astounding how nuts it is. Maybe they're all celebrating the Fourth of July) but here's last night's to set the scene:I'm all turned around. Being from California, I think of the Atlantic Ocean as being east. So now, with the Tour pushing toward the Atlantic, it feels like we're moving east. In fact, we go north into Belgium and the Netherlands, then push west...It's always nice seeing Robbie McEwen win a Tour stage. Today marked his ninth, and he's always so happy to win. That look of utter ecstasy on his face is genuine. Afterward, he's always bubbling over with joy, never looking dour or down at the mouth. Today he lambasted a journalist from the International Herald-Tribune for being overly eager to ask a question. McEwen did it with that biting Aussie wit that can be extremely funny if you're not on the sharp end. But he wasn't mean, and he made it all a rather nice joke that involved a sense of community in a cycling world that has been a little beaten down this month. It was the first time I saw laughter at this year's Tour. The icebreaker was timely, and it was fitting that it came from McEwen. McEwen just turned 34, and said that today's victory was especially nice because sprinters are known to slow down with age. "I haven't slowed down," he said afterward, visibly relieved. I was reminded of how Shaquille O'Neal, who is often held up to the world as one of the greatest living athletes, recently complained that Father Time was catching up with him. Shaq Daddy and Robbie McEwen being the same age, I would suggest that unconditioned Shaq train a little harder. McEwen and Thor Hushovd bumped each other in the final sprint.  It was a weird moment. McEwen sat straight up and thrust his arms out as he crossed the line, while Hushovd pumped his fist because he'd just taken the overall lead. But Hushovd was actually angry that he'd been denied the stage win. After looking at the tape he realized that he'd been wrong -- his front wheel had come in contact with McEwen's left leg. Hushovd was scared into rage by the near crash, but enthusiastic about donning yellow again. All this from a guy who was doped up on pain medication in the hospital last night, getting stitches for a finish line accident involving a fan.  Hushovd had stomach pains in the morning but chose to ride anyway. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions.  I made a bundle of driving errors this afternoon that would have cost me dearly on The Amazing Race. I was feeling all good about myself because I navigated to the start and finish successfully, but then I somehow stopped paying attention. My hotel is in the city of Luxembourg (in the nation of Luxembourg, which can be a bit confusing). I somehow managed to drive almost forty miles past the hotel, sure that I was reading the map properly. I wasn't. By the time I found the Parc Hotel I felt a whole lot like the journalist who, a few years back, got so frustrated with getting lost while covering the Tour, that he began hitting himself repeatedly while driving. When he eventually found his hotel, he had two black eyes. I should note that I ran into that guy in Strasbourg. He was swearing a blue streak. After managing to get a twenty-minute interview with Discovery's team director, Johan Bruyneel, he got back to the press room and learned that he'd forgotten to turn on his tape recorder. Bruyneel, by the way, is on the same sort of mission as George Hincapie. Both of them have labored happily in the shadow of Lance Armstrong for so long that they're eager to prove their worth. Bruyneel looks so completely different from last year's Tour that I though he was a different person. Not just that he looks thinner and happier, but that I actually took a look at him and thought that there was no way Johan Bruyneel could be that calm figure wandering through Discovery's team area, handing out media guides to the press. For so long people have disdained his accomplishments, thinking that any team director could win seven Tours with Armstrong as team leader. I think he quietly -- for he has said absolutely nothing of the kind -- wants to show Tour fans that he is a talented man in his own right. It was Bruyneel who ordered Hincapie to charge forward and take the time bonus that vaulted the American into the yellow jersey. And it will be Bruyneel making several very cagey decisions between now and Paris. This is a Tour that favors creativity, and Bruyneel strikes me as someone who sees the Tour with the loose aesthetic of an artist. Somehow I wound up in the same hotel as four Tour teams: Lampre, Euskaltel, Credit Agricole, and Phonak. Here's how you tell the difference between teams that have a legitimate shot of winning the Tour and teams just happy to endure the notoriety that comes with three weeks of suffering: the room numbers of each rider for Lampre and Euskaltel are posted on a white board in the lobby, for pretty much the whole world to see. There is no such posting for Phonak and Credit Agricole. When I watch cycling on TV, the riders always look so majestic. Some, like the retired Mario Cipollini, actually live up to that image. But in person most riders look like normal guys with great forearm tans. They're skinny right now, but more lean than marathoner emaciated, which they'll be at the end of the Tour. So when a bunch of Euskaltel riders gather in the lobby, or when you walk past an open hotel room door as riders go in and out, they actually look like a bunch of really fit frat guys. They're loud and there's a brotherhood among them. They tend to dress casually but sharp, and there are a lot more girls than normal hanging around the lobby. It all looks very normal. While I was lost in the Luxembourg wilderness on my little afternoon driving adventure, I got to thinking about this first week of the race. I was thinking about that ADD aspect, and how it all feels so unsatisfying to see the race proceeding without a known leader. I came to a few conclusions. First, even after Saturday's time-trial, this year's Tour is still going to have a loosey-goosey feel (I feel like my grandfather using that expression, but you know what I mean). No rider is vengeant enough to impose his will on the others. Too many nice guys. Too many hesitant nice guys. I don't see any rider of winning the time trial by more than a couple dozen seconds, and then following it up thrashing the peloton about the heads and shoulders in the Pyrenees and beyond. The second conclusion I came to was that it's good for the race to be wide open and a little unsettling right now. What's wrong with a sprinter like Thor Hushovd swapping the yellow jersey with a climber like George Hincapie? Hushovd is like that kid in fifth grade who grew too early, but then stopped growing. Five-eight at the age of twelve and not an inch taller. Same with Hushovd. Let him wear yellow right now. Let Robbie McEwen take a go at it tomorrow. Maybe even Tom Boonen. Bottom line is that this is the biggest week of the year for those guys. But when the time trials and mountains begin, their day is done. Having said that, it would be sad if that first stage was the highlight of George Hincapie's Tour. The knock against him is that he's not aggressive enough and can't accelerate in the mountains -- in other words, he's too nice to break another man's will. Time will tell if we'll see Hincapie's -- the Big Hink, as he is nicknamed -- mean streak. The Tour is, by all appearances, one of the healthiest events on earth. But they've gone one better year, banning smoking in most places and selling apples and bananas at many of the concession stands.Once again, tomorrow will be another hot ride. Robbie McEwen says he likes to think of it a as day to get thirsty, drink a lot of extra water, and feel sorry for the domestiques who will be ordered to ride back to the team cars and ferry extra water bottles to the top rider. But Levi Leipheimer thinks the heat is the least of tomorrow's obstacles. In particular, "Dutch roads are known for being narrow and full of obstacles. Let's hope tomorrow the roads are more like French roads than Dutch roads." Levi, who is obviously not considering using the Netherlands as a training base, adds that tomorrow will be a stage to watch. Tomorrow's start is right around noon. If the pace is fast, the Tour predicts a 5 p.m. finish. If it's slow, they think it'll be right around 5:27. I have the feeling it will be the best stage so far in terms of competitive excitement. Can't wait. Talk to you later.

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Sunday in Strasbourg

Posted by MDugard Jul 5, 2006

I ate dinner last night in the shadows of the gargantuan Cathedral de Notre Dame, a sandstone structure that towers over the local skyline and took four centuries (11th-15th) to build. The brasserie fronted a cobbled courtyard, and among the pigeons and cyclists was a very drunken English soccer fan that somehow convinced five very angry gendarmes that he should not be arrested, despite the fact that they were very close to doing just that. Just then, in a moment straight out of Casablanca, a loud crowd of Frenchmen began singing the French national anthem at the top of their voices. The France-Brazil game World Cup game was about to get underway, and patriotism was in the air. A few quick highlights from the advertising caravan that precedes the Tour each day: The studly Aquarel water fireman spraying the crowd suggestively with his hose; the sacrilegious Aquarel priest dousing the crowd with "holy water"; and, the Prodir Pens cars, which have six-foot long fiberglass replicas of the company's product bolt to the top. On first glance, however, they don't look like pens, but like enormous red penises. The appearance is somewhat alarming. Just thought you'd want to know.Today's stage is 114 miles long, and makes a big lazy loop around Strasbourg. The weather is extremely hot. There's no wind here in the city, but the riders should see a fair amount on the open road, particularly after pedaling across the broad Rhine and into the open roads of Germany. They soon cross back into France. The finish is actually just a mile from the starting line, and the riders cycled past the flame rouge, that red triangle indicating the start of the final kilometer, as the race began. It hung from a blue banner over an empty side street. In a few hours, that street will be packed, and they'll all be pedaling with what can only be called more intensity. George Hincapie, who is racing in the green jersey today, was noticeably looser this morning, and he admitted it. "I'm a little more calm," he said as he wheeled his bike up to the starting line. "It was a good ride." Last night, however, Hincapie was angry with himself for losing the prologue. "I was very disappointed, but when I thought about it, I realized it was a good ride. Maybe I could have shaved another second off by riding harder through the turns or not pedaling in such a big gear at the finish, but maybe he http://community.active.com/blogs/MartinDugar/2006/07/05/sunday-in-strasbourg/prologue winner Thor Hushovd could have taken off a second somewhere, too." Floyd Landis was late for the start yesterday because of a cut in his rear tire. He noticed it at the last minute, and immediately ordered it changed. Dave Zabriskie (Shy? Reticent? Stoic? Aloof? Discuss) wasn't saying much at the start. Never a big talker, Zabriskie leaned over his bike at the starting line, content to let all the media attention be showered on Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer, who straddled their own bikes just in front of him. Life on the Road 101: I felt an abrupt pang of remorse this morning because I forgot to moisturize my face. Crazy, but true. This, perhaps, shows that I have finally become domesticated after years of being a cave man. To make matters more interesting, I actually debated whether it was OK to use the tube of body moisturizer in my pack because it was, you know, body moisturizer and not facial moisturizer. I am told there is a vast difference. Just to let you know that I haven't fully evolved, when my hair was doing funny things this morning I used a spot of sunscreen to push it back off my forehead. UV 30. I thought it did the job rather well. My Strasbourg moment this morning: Walking the stone pathway along the leafy banks of the Ill River, shortly after the stage began. A tourist barge plied the slow green waters, while classical piano played softly in a nearby home, the sound flowing delicately out the large open windows. I was instantly calmed. I stopped to let the scene wash over me. Strategy-wise, here's what should happens this week: Lots of breakaways. It's a week for glory and riders who don't usually get much of a chance to shine. And though the sprinters' teams will work to control the pace in hopes of snagging the green jersey, this is also a prime opportunity for a young unknown rider to go off the front in the hopes of snagging the maillot jaune. After this week, the door slams on such an opportunity. The Tour pecking order will be properly established during Saturday's time trial, and the gap between the front-runners and the rest of the peloton will be measure in minutes. Now, with that gap mere seconds, the brave and the foolhardy know that if they charge out there alone, ride a hundred miles at breakneck speed with little or no help from other riders, and somehow manage to hang on for the win, they will end their day atop the podium. A pretty French model will hand him a stuffed lion, kiss him on both cheeks, and then, as the music swells, five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault will slip the yellow jersey over his shoulders. That's the sort of moment most of these guys have dreamed of their life. This week is their chance to see that dream come true. Talk to you after the stage.

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McEwen Speaks

Posted by MDugard Jul 5, 2006

Robbie McEwen's sprint victory today was masterful. He had previously scouted the course, and spent the last two days plotting the best way to win. Even when his lead-out man, Fast Freddie Rodriguez, went out of the race, McEwen stuck to his outrageous plan of hugging the left (inside) barricade, and then sprinting all-out toward victory with precisely two hundred meters left. The move caught the field by surprise, and McEwen won by 10 meters. This marked his 10th Tour stage win.McEwen says his team's morale shot up last night when their sponsor invited wives and girlfriends to spend the night with their cyclists in a chateau outside Liege. But after chatting amiably about that night of mid-Tour recreation, McEwen's mood turned when he was asked about the addition of non-cyclists' names to that list of suspected dopers in the ongoing Spanish invasion."It's about time they named riders from other sports. I find it a scandal that names from football or athletics http://community.active.com/blogs/MartinDugar/2006/07/05/mcewen-speaks/track and field aren't being named until now. If they were going to name names, they should have done that from the very beginning."But I think that's the point. The Tour gets more publicity when only cyclists are named. Good or bad, publicity drives this race. Small wonder that the other names weren't released until after the Tour began. Or, should I say, after the Tour became front page news.Moving on. Does September 13, 1944 mean anything to anyone? When I was out for a run this morning in Maastricht I came upon a small memorial in the middle of a oundabout, dedicated to an infantry company called Old Hickory and mentioning that date. Not sure what it meant.Talk to you tomorrow. Another flat, hot day, but we end up in William the Conqueror's hometown of Caen, just twelve kilometers from the Atlantic. Can't wait for Saturday's time trial, when this race is sure to get shaken up drastically.

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Matthias Kessler won today's stage with a last-ditch kamikaze attack. His teammate, Michael Rogers, finished second, just in front of Belgium's Tom Boonen. The result pushed Rogers up to second in the overall rankings and Boonen into first. He becomes the fourth man to wear the maillot jaune in this Tour.The most overlooked American, Fast Freddie Rodriguez, was involved in a crash with Erik Dekker on the approach to today's third climb. Preliminary reports show that both men are out of the Tour with broken collarbones.Fast Freddie is Robbie McEwen's lead-out man. For those unfamiliar, a lead-out man's job is to pace his sprinter into position for the final dash to the line. This often involves threading the needle through tight packs of jockeying racers. Think of the lead-out man as that savvy friend (we all have one) who you follow through a crowded mall or bar, because they know how to find an opening in the crowd and squeeze through before it closes. It's a gift, and McEwen will suffer for the loss.Spain's Alejandro Valverde also crashed and broke his collarbone. That's one more favorite out of the race.Today's route took the riders from Esch-sur-Alzette due north to Valkenbourg, site of this year's cycling world championships. It turned out to be a splendid place to get lost. The land was forested in Luxembourg, covered with rolling green hills and thick forests of old-growth pine. There is an almost Germanic efficiency to Luxembourg, as if the country is so small that they want to get every last detail because they have no excuse not to. This efficiency did not, though, extend to traffic signs. For some reasons I was part of a caravan of cars that were pointed toward a new, as yet unfinished, highway. SO new that the concrete was wet. I should point out here that highway workers in Luxembourg wear running shorts, running shoes, and nothing else in the summer. To have these sun-bronzed men, with their ample beer bellies, poke their head into your car window and tell you how incredibly stupid you are is a real treat. But not a Dutch treat. That would be another country entirely.Got out of that jam. Got lost again. By now I was tired of being lost, and all those pine trees didn't look so majestic anymore. Stopped to clear my head in Bastogne, the town made famous during the Battle of the Bulge when the American commander refused a German surrender demand with the famous reply of "nuts." I made my way into the town center. A Sherman Tank from that battle is on display next to the cafes. Thought that was pretty cool.Back on the road. Got lost again when I missed the sign for Maastricht. Came up with the bright idea that I would get off the autoroute and find the actual course. So I find the course, pull up to the barricade and a policeman pushes it aside to let me through the crowds and onto the actual Tour de France course. What he didn't tell me was that the publicity caravan was already in the process of passing through. From now on, when I think of the N648 road between Vervier and Valkenburg, I will think of Dr. Oetker's Pretzels, because I spent a good hour trapped behind a flatbed truck decorated to look like a giant pretzel.It is what it is, right? I was lost, then I was stuck behind a giant pretzel, and by now it was almost 3 pm.I just kind of went with it. The crowds along the roads grew with every passing mile. It was a scene much more common to the weekend mountain stages than to a midweek race through Luxembourg and Belgium. The land was no longer forested, but mile upon mile of golden pasture. The air smelled of manure and dry grass. Children played along the roadside, waving at every passing caravan vehicle. Entire families picknicked in the grass, despite the heat. Belgian flags flew from tree branches, cranes, store fronts. Three girls say in the bucket of a backhoe, their feet dangling twenty feet off the ground. And in every town, behind the barricades erected to prevent crashes, the people partied. It was a most festive site, and not at all jaded -- those people were just out there to celebrate the day.That celebration took on new heights for the last climb into Valkenburg. The fans there had been drinking for quite a while (the families were back in the villages; this crowd would have been just as at home at a soccer game or in a bar fight). Barricades covered the last five kilometers of the course, which was good, because these guys would have pressed right up to the middle of the street and made it hard for the riders to pass. The turns were tight and the roads narrow. Beer was thrown at every car (I was so taken with the scene that I was doused by warm beer. Only then did I remember to roll up my window). All of this begged the obvious question: Don't these people have jobs?Tom Boonen being from Belgium, the locals went into patriotic spasms when he moved into the yellow jersey. His name had been painted on the roadside throughout the course, and big banners pronounced his glories. Good for him.I finally got to the finish a couple hours ahead of the peloton. My hand must have accidentally flicked some sort of switch on the dashboard as I parked, because this console rose up out of the dashboard. On the face of the console was a map showing my precise location. It turns out my rental car has a GPS navigational system.Not having eaten since breakfast, and my blood sugar just about rock bottom, I was very relieved when the press buffet was a huge spread of cheeses, pate, salads, and something spicy that looked like beef stroganoff. I had seconds.Tomorrow the race travels 128.34 miles from Huy to Saint-Quentin. Huy is the finish of the annual Fleche-Wallon cycling classic, while Saint-Quentin is an historical city with a sense of humor. The city fathers annually create an artificial ocean beach each summer and a Christmas shopping village each winter. The route is mostly flat. Rain is forecast, with a hint of thundershowers.As Dave Alvin sang, Hey Baby, it's the Fourth of July. God Bless America.Talk to you tomorrow.

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Straight Out of Strasbourg

Posted by MDugard Jul 4, 2006

The first person I saw as I walked up to the Tour this morning was El Diablo, the German gentleman who parades around in a devil costume. Usually you don't see him until the mountain stages, where he positions himself twenty kilometers or so from the finish, then chases the riders with his pitchfork. It's a visual that anyone who watches the Tour knows all too well. So this morning I saw him out there, painting his trademark pitchfork on the road with a roller of white paint. He has a brand new uniform for this year's Tour, and two sponsor logos splattered on the front. Despite the horns, cape and Grizzly Adams beard he's not very frightening in person. Families were stopping to have their picture taken with him, and he even signed a few autographs.  A quick segue: The Tour has never been one to shy away from publicity, good or bad. I can't help but think that these doping suspensions were a pre-emptive strike, designed to kick suspected riders out of the race now, rather than a week or two from now when they might be in contention or wearing the yellow jersey. I honestly believe that the Tour's organizers are serious about cleaning up doping (but really, is that possible? I don't think anyone thinks they can stop it entirely. They can only keep it in check from time to time), but I also think that this bit of publicity works in their favor. The eyes of France and Germany aren't on the Tour, but on the World Cup. The Tour doesn't have a Lance Armstrong trying to win eight in a row to shift that focus back to cycling. So doping will have to do. Like an old friend once reminded me, there's no such thing as bad publicity.  The Tour, by the way, did not suspend Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, or any of the other riders. They insisted that each rider's team do the deed. This keeps the Tour's hands clean in case of future lawsuits if those guys are proven innocent.  There is no sense of outrage about the suspensions. The mood in Strasbourg is that the Tour is bigger than any bike racer. It's all very blase. Everyone just wants to watch the race get underway.  The prologue is generally held in the evening. It's being held in the afternoon this year so the Tour doesn't have to compete with tonight's World Cup games. The first rider rolls out of the start house at 1:15 (Cedric Coutouly, wearing bib number 193). Riders follow in one-minute intervals. The last man to ride the 4.4-mile prologue course will be George Hincapie, who starts at 4:10. He will be wearing number 3. The winner of last year's opening stage, Dave Zabriskie, starts just before Hincapie. It should take most riders somewhere around eight minutes to finish.  The pre-race village just opened up. It's a place for the Tour officials, local VIP's, and even the media to hang out before the race. There are internet stations, free newspapers, a local cooking demonstration (today's special had something to do with potatoes, green beans and marshmallows), and other amenities. Since this is the first day of the race, there was a big ceremony to mark the occasion -- a band playing, girls on stilts, the usual French fanfare. With the temperature heating up, the Aquarel water booth was a popular spot, as was the bar serving German beer and French wine. I searched in vain for a piece of camembert (sometimes I think it's the camembert that keeps me coming back to the Tour; with all due respect to Wisconsin and California dairy farmers, nothing matches French cheese). Settling for a piece of hard brown bread and a few thick slices of salami, I left the village behind.   Who's going to win this year? Someone who time-trials and climbs well, as always. This could be a bold Tour, with riders attacking constantly. It could actually be a blowout if someone has the balls to attack early on a big mountain stage.  It all starts with today's prologue. I ran the course this morning, and was astounded by the number of very sharp turns. If it was raining today, someone would probably go down. But it's going to be brutally hot, and the riders were sweating hard as they pre-rode the course this morning. The top riders are all unusually tense. They know that without Lance Armstrong in the picture, and with Ullrich and Basso gone, any of the top riders could win. George Hincapie and Floyd Landis had serious game faces on this morning, and even glib Chris Horner was tense. Should be a great race.  Talk to you later.

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The Yellow Pages

Posted by MDugard Jul 3, 2006

After every stage of the Tour de France, a small army of Tour interns swarms through the press room, handing out pages of official results. Some, like the overall standing and a profile of the next stage are on simple white paper. But those dealing with the race for the jerseys are color-coded. So the sprinter's results are on green paper, because they're chasing the green jersey. I think you can guess what goes on the yellow paper. I keep staring at the yellow sheet which has just been placed in front of me, not quite used to seeing George Hincapie's name near the to top of the rankings. In fact, if he had pedaled just a breath faster, Hincapie would be the man in yellow after today's opening prologue instead of Thor Hushovd.  The prologue course was a 4.4-mile wind tunnel. Gusts rocked the riders, pushing hard on their solid disc wheels as they cornered, and pushing into their faces as they accelerated back up to speed. It was a day that heavily favored sprinters like the 28-yearold Hushovd, because their heavy preponderance of fast-twitch fibers were vital to accelerating out of the tight turns. But Hincapie, a grinder, finished just .073 behind the Norwegian rider, suddenly making the world aware that he is serious about trying to win this year's Tour. A single prologue does not a Tour make, but Hincapie is riding aggressively and confidently. The knock against him is that he can't accelerate in the mountains, putting forth the sort of instant surge that was once the Lance Armstrong trademark. That may or may not be true. But Hincapie has improved immensely as an all-around cyclist in the last couple years. He time-trials with the best, and his tour de force on the Pla D'Adet last July showed that he can definitely climb. Maybe he never showed the ability to surge because he's never had the chance.  Floyd Landis decided to make a last-minute wheel change and was late to the start. He finished ninth on the day, nine seconds behind Hushovd. His best friend and training partner, Dave Zabriskie, finished third. It was Zabriskie who won last year's opening time trial in Fromentine, then crashed during the pivotal team time trial and dropped out of the race soon after.  Hushovd is riding his sixth Tour de France. He won the green jersey last year, and now has 37 career victories to his credit.  Agritube, the new sponsor of a French-Spanish squad, makes bovine feeding tubes. They actually travel with a sponsor's van that has big pictures of cows grazing. It looks rather odd.  I'm trying to let this doping issue play out, not writing too much about it until more details come forth. After all, those riders who were kicked out of the Tour on suspicion of blood doping are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, though lately it's been the other way around. But when I ran into Frankie Andreu about an hour ago, I couldn't help but think about it again. Both Frankie and his wife testified in court that Lance Armstrong admitted to using performance enhancing drugs. Now, I don't know whether this is true, and I don't want to venture a guess, but just seeing Andreu made me think of doping. What I'm trying to say is that we have reached a point in cycling where drugs and the sport are synonymous. Obviously, this is not a good thing.   Today's hot weather is expected to continue tomorrow, meaning that the 115-mile stage which begins and ends here in Strasbourg should be a tad uncomfortable. The stage is relatively flat and fast, winding across the Rhine into Germany's wine-making region before heading back into town. A footnote to all this, strangely, is sauerkraut. The Alscace region through which the riders will be pedaling is the known as the epicenter of sauerkraut. It is the cornerstone of the local diet. No less than Alexander Dumas referred to is as "the Alsation specialty." Just thought you'd want to know.  In talking with the riders today, everyone looks oddly fit and confident. The usual pre-Tour nerves were everywhere, but all the top contenders appear to be healthy and strong. There's an eagerness to the proceedings, a very optimistic sense of hope.  Now that the prologue is done, I'm looking forward to a week traveling through northern France (and Belgium, and Luxembourg, and the Netherlands). It will be a different kind of Tour than any I've ever covered, because without Lance Armstrong (and Ullrich and Basso) in the peloton, team directors will be free to use an entirely new set of tactics. Should be rather exciting.  Talk to you soon.

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Yellow redux

Posted by MDugard Jul 3, 2006

Wow. Here it is, the second day of the 2006 Tour, and an American is in the yellow jersey. George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong's top lieutenant for about as long as anybody can remember, made a heads-up tactical move with less than six miles left, sprinting hard to grab a two-second bonus. Well, they call it a bonus, but it really means that those seconds were subtracted from his overall time. This pushed him over Thor Hushovd into first place overall. "It's still the Tour de France," he noted, reveling in the moment but reminding listeners that there were still three weeks to go. "You still have to race hard to win."Cool seeing George in yellow. Not because he's an American, but because he subordinated his career to Armstrong's for so many years. That sort of selflessness is rare in life, and particularly unique at the Tour de France. It was so hot today. It was the kind of day where only crazy men and professionals get off the couch. The wind wasn't any help, either. It blew hard and hot, like a blast furnace door was being opened with every gust. Hincapie says he wasn't thinking about 1998 as he sprinted for the banner. It was his near-miss in the prologue that propelled him forward. "I thought about the disappointment of yesterday," he said later, "and how mad and frustrated I was." Make no mistake, George Hincapie is now officially Discovery's team leader. That may all change with a bad time trial Saturday, but that's not likely. Hincapie has never publicly lobbied to be Discovery's team leader, but it's a role he has long coveted. On a lesser team, his track record as a great classics rider, and now a great climber and time-trialist, would make him an obvious choice for team leader. Now that he's in yellow, his team won't work that hard to defend the jersey (the lead is only a couple seconds , and defending against the reckless breakaways we're going to see over the next few days would punish his teammates' legs unnecessarily). But he will have the advantage of sitting in their protective draft each day rather than riding out in the wind. Waiting for the race to finish, I walked into a small cafe on the Rue de Republique for a sandwich. The television was on, meaning I could watch the race on the flat screen or turn my head to the left and see the actual course right outside the open window. I always think moments like that are pretty cool. Anyway, I asked what kind of food they had. I spoke in English, and the guy behind the counter spoke a sort of Turkish French. There was no way we were going to communicate. I spoke slower, thinking it might help (why is that always the first thing I do in a foreign country?). He spoke slower, too. I tried my bad French. He looked at me like he couldn't understand a single syllable. Finally, he blurted out, "chicken or beef?" Immediately, I told him I wanted the chicken. He shook his head. "No chicken, only beef." Now that we were safely in Belushi country, I knew where all this was going. So I got the beef, really not sure what sort of meal I was getting. Turned out to be strips of sauteed steak stuffed inside a thick pita-style bun, then covered with spicy mayonnaise. Not only was it fabulous, but it only cost me three euros, which I considered quite a bargain. No one has quit the Tour so far. The field still stands at 176 riders. Tomorrow is actually a fairly tough stage. As the riders move north and east into Luxembourg, the terrain will test their legs. Two third-category climbs and three fourth-category climbs lay in the 141 miles between Obernai and Esch-sur-Alzette. The toughest is the Col de Pandours, which rises for 7.8 kilometers at a 4.1% gradient. Back home, a climb like that would be killer. Here it's just an excuse to pedal hard. Never been to Luxembourg. I don't actually keep track of how many countries I've been to, but it's always nice to cross the border into a new one. It signifies some sort of new adventure even if it's just tiny Luxembourg. Esch-Sur-Alzette, site of tomorrow's finish, is one of those really old European with nothing but past. It dates to the 11th century, and was once ruled by John the Blind and, later, Louis XIV. It was hotbed of the resistance movement during World War II, and is known for its cultural diversity (French, Belgian, German, Polish, Italian, and Portuguese populations) and rich local forests. Cool.Alright. It's late. The day has been exciting, and the race is taking shape (did you notice that none of the upper echelon teams like Discovery, Phonak, CSC, and T-Mobile sent riders off on breakaways? They're saving people for later). I'd say I'm off to get a glass of wine someplace, but this area's only known for that sweet stuff only my brother-in-law drinks. Then again, swet or not, a tall glass of wine sounds pretty good right about now. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Paris

Posted by MDugard Jul 1, 2006

Paris. It's raining lightly, with more showers forecast throughout the day. Through a lucky twist of fate I can see the Eiffel Tower out my window. I haven't been outside yet, but can tell you for certain that crowds are already lining the barricades along the Champs Elysees, despite the weather. For today marks the end of Lance Armstrong's illustrious cycling career. After today's 100-mile stage he will stand atop that podium in La Place de la Concorde and hear the national anthem played in his honor one last time. The moment should be emotional and unforgettable. Hence the millions who will turn out today, despite the rain.I don't think much needs to be said about yesterday's time trial. Lance dominated, Ulrich rode very strong (Lance later joked that Discovery Team should hire Jan next year), and Mickael Rasmussen had the sort of comical misadventures that ensure his name will forever be etched in Tour history. Lance dominated, plain and simple.The press conference was poignant. Lance let on that his children may have been a driving force behind his return for a seventh title. He wanted them to see him in yellow one last time, so they would remember that he went out as a champion. Armstrong also stated that he is an athlete, and will still compete to keep himself fit. He specifically mentioned doing a few running and biking events in his hometown. Then he joked about maybe doing an Ironman in a couple years. He quickly brushed that one aside, but I thought it interesting that he'd been thinking about it. After Lance stepped down from the podium, members of the press, seeking autographs, swarmed him. I've never seen such behavior. Very often in this last week, the word "hagiography" was used to describe the media's treatment of Lance. Some of those charges were true (I must say that I thought Craig Hummer of OLN was a very notable exception), but the fact is, Lance had the race in the bag. There was nothing else to report, other than the fact that the greatest bicycle racer in history (Barry "The Cannibal" Muzzin notwithstanding) was in the final week of his career. A certain sentiment crept in. This was understandable. But yesterday's press conference was a veritable love fest -- as it should have been. No six- (and soon to be seven-) time winner of the Tour de France should be treated less than heroically after a performance like yesterday's.Jumped in the Passat and drove up here after Lance's press conference. Paris was still very much awake when Austin and I arrived a little after one. The area around the Place de la Concorde was teeming with pedestrians, and a carnival was underway, complete with Ferris wheel. Gendarmes were tending to a young woman who was lying on her back in the middle of the Rue Rivoli, crying after being hit by a car. The barricades were already in place. Austin and I were staying at different hotels, so we parted ways after this long, incredible journey. The two of us made a formidable team as we navigated our way around the maddening roads of this beguiling country. Our conversations veered from the poignant to the profane, and my only regret is that his calf injury put him on injured reserve status and precluded participation in the daily runs. He's a great friend and a phenomenal writer. Make sure you pick up a copy of Sports Illustrated this week to check out his Lance piece. As we speak, he's holed up in his room, trying to beat a New York deadline. So pick it up. I guarantee it's going to be a keeper.Thanks, Austin.And that's the end of the journey for us, too (unless something unprecedented takes place this afternoon, knocking Lance off the podium. Then I''ll be scrambling for the laptop). I have been overwhelmed with the warmth and wit of the emails I've received from around the world. It is a slightly surreal situation, for instance, to send off a dispatch from some remote French pasture and get a response from Singapore. What I've tried to do is give you all a feel for the Tour from a fresh perspective. Hopefully, I've succeeded. I must admit, however, that as much as I've written online, I've been holding back the best stuff for the book (shameless plug coming up). Chasing Lance will be in stores come November. I hope you'll all check it out, and maybe tell a friend or two. Thanks for being such a thoughtful, knowledgeable group of readers.I need to thank Bob Babbitt at Competitor Magazine (in addition to helping make these dispatches happen, he's a longtime friend and forthright critic); Ben the Webmaster; the folks at Active.com, who carried these dispatches along with Competitor; Dr. Steven Brady, for his insightful emails into motivation; Jeremy Schaap (a formidable historian, by the way), Rick Reilly, and even The Legend; Gordon Wright and Jeff Bentley; J. Austin Murphy III. Geoff Shandler and Eric Simonoff are a pivotal part of all this. The Bongo Boys -- Devin, Connor, and Liam. Most of all, of course, I need to thank my wife, Calene. How many wives encourage their husbands to grab a buddy and drive around France for three weeks? Words cannot express the magnitude of my love. All the best,Martin Dugard

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