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Active Expert: Martin Dugard

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

Soak Up The Sun

Posted by MDugard Jul 16, 2006

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

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Personal Favorite

Posted by MDugard Jul 15, 2006

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

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Scenes From An Arrival

Posted by MDugard Jul 15, 2006

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

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Posted by MDugard Jul 14, 2006

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

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Hincapie and Everything After

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2006

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

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A Tarantino Afternoon

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2006

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

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Goat Roads

Posted by MDugard Jul 13, 2006

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

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Mistaken for a Frenchman

Posted by MDugard Jul 12, 2006

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

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Go Aussie

Posted by MDugard Jul 12, 2006

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

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Driving South

Posted by MDugard Jul 11, 2006

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

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Frenchman wins, rest day looms

Posted by MDugard Jul 10, 2006

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

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Posted by MDugard Jul 10, 2006

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

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Easy Red

Posted by MDugard Jul 10, 2006

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

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An Episode of 24

Posted by MDugard Jul 8, 2006

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

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Master and Apprentice

Posted by MDugard Jul 8, 2006

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

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