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Active Expert: Martin Dugard

43 Posts tagged with the 2006-tour-de-france tag

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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