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Active Expert: Martin Dugard

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


Posted by MDugard Jul 8, 2006

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

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The Long and Winding Road

Posted by MDugard Jul 7, 2006

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

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Boonen Speaks

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2006

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

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A Great Day for Riding

Posted by MDugard Jul 6, 2006

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

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

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Sunday in Strasbourg

Posted by MDugard Jul 5, 2006

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

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McEwen Speaks

Posted by MDugard Jul 5, 2006

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

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

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Straight Out of Strasbourg

Posted by MDugard Jul 4, 2006

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

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The Yellow Pages

Posted by MDugard Jul 3, 2006

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

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Yellow redux

Posted by MDugard Jul 3, 2006

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

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When The Going Gets Weird

Posted by MDugard Jun 30, 2006

On the same day that George W. Bush visited Graceland with another head of state comes the news that Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso are out of the 2006 Tour de France. Their names appeared in a Spanish doping investigation, and the rules say they cannot race. I don't know which is more weird. Basso's performance at May's Giro d'Italia was nothing short of superhuman, as he climbed some of the steepest and longest summits of this year's cycling season with relative ease. I don't like to say that I'm unsurprised that there might have been pharmaceutical assistance, but nobody who was paying attention didn't ask the same question.Not so with Jan Ullrich. He was heavy in the spring, won a crucial time trial at the Giro, and then triumphed at the Tour de Suisse. He looked liked the Jan Ullrich of old -- that is, the Jan Ullrich who won the Tour de France almost ten years ago. Now, as he quietly stepped out of the Tour with pronouncements about his lawyers taking up the action for him, he looks more like the Jan who was suspended for doping just a few years back. To be fair to Ullrich and Basso, they were just honoring a Pro Tour proviso saying that any rider being investigated for doping can't compete, but the passive way they went down was a little pathetic.I was traveling and didn't find out about all this until arriving in Strasbourg a couple hours ago. The town is quiet, mostly because everyone's in the local "sports cafe's" watching the World Cup games. It is an industrial town where people speak German as easily as they speak French, though the boulevards are lined with leafy elms and the usual army of campers are already lining the city streets in anticipation of the next few days. The people of Strasbourg must have paid quite a bundle (the usual going rate to host a start is one million francs), because they host not just one, but two stages, this weekend.Having said that, the crowds and sense of anticipation were way down when I hit the press room to ask for my credential. It felt like the city was hosting a very well organized 5k instead of the Tour de France. That's a big difference from last year, when lines of vehicles drove to the start, everyone waiting to see whether Lance Armstrong could win yet again. It reminded me of 2001, when the woman in front of me in line requesting credentials wasn't writing for a newspaper or a magazine, but for her homeowner's association newsletter. The weird part is that she was granted a credential on the spot, and asked Lance some very smart questions at a press conference later that day.It was still broad daylight at nine p.m. as my Air France flight was landing in Strasbourg. The city was surrounded by miles of green farmland, all parsed into neat rectangles. It was all very France-in-July. I got to wondering whether I could conjure that sense of wide-eyed innocence that comes over me whenever I cover the Tour. I think this could be the most exciting Tour I've ever covered, and I want to pass that along over the next 23 days.Frankly, I had been a little nervous that I had become jaded, this being my sixth Tour. I needn't have been. I'm a Tour geek, just like I'm an Olympic geek every other year, and get all misty when the anthem plays, even when those nameless gymnasts and freestyle skiers win. So I was relieved to experience a nice swell of emotion as my cab pulled into Strasbourg, and I saw one of the Tour's caravan vehicles; one of those lavish commercials on wheels (this one was a car shaped to look like a giant cornet) that make the Tour somehow bombastic, cartoonish and very cool at the same time. I actually got a little misty when I saw that absurd little vehicle. I was back at the Tour. Now, I can't wait to see the lavender fields of Provence and eat the camembert each morning at the Tour Village, and I can't wait to see what happens in the mountain stages.Ok. It's late. I had some sort of chicken breast marinated in champagne cream sauce for dinner at a little brasserie down the street and it's making me drowsy (it's midnight here). I'm going to get up early, go for a run, walk a kilometer down the street and pick up my credential, then start digging around in this doping mess. I can only think that this is good for American riders like Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis and George Hincapie, but it shouldn't have to be like that. It would be a sort of cartoonish, Graceland-like victory to win without the likes of Ullrich and Basso in the field. Then again, if they've been cheating all along, they're not the cyclists we all thought they were.With that somber thought, I'll head off. I think this is all going to be like the Barry Bonds thing at the start of the baseball season, where all people were talking about were drugs and sports. Drastic as it seems, baseball should be as bold as the Tour. Stop the dopers in their tracks, even if it hurts the game in the short run. Just as no one is talking about Barry Bonds three months into the baseball season, no one will be thinking about Basso and Ullrich halfway into this year's Tour. All they'll be talking about will be the race, and right now it's wide open.I'm still curious about that Graceland thing, but that's another issue for another day.Drop me an email Devin and let me know you got to Syracuse OK.Talk to you all later.

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Blowing Up

Posted by MDugard Jun 30, 2006


I can't believe I'm going back. Every year I say that it's my last

Tour, but every July I find myself on a plane, flying off to what a

friend calls the Tour of Irresponsibility. It's a little bit of that,

I'll admit, because any time you take a twenty-three day road trip the

rules of regular life are suspended. But what brings me back is the

dramatic arc of it all, the way the race starts off with such fanfare,

then becomes a grind, then becomes transcendent as riders push their

way up over the mountains and on into glorious Paris. Every time I come

back from the Tour de France I feel this pull to do a little bit more

with my life, because despite its bombast and politics, the Tour is

inspirational. No matter whether I needed a jolt like that or not, I'm




Well, not yet. I'm writing this from the Minneapolis airport. I lay

over here for another couple hours (a tremendous airport, by the way;

lots of glass and stores and moving walkways) before pushing on to

Amsterdam. I'll arrive just in time to watch the Germany-Argentina game

in the airport, then fly straight on to Strasbourg. It'll be dark when

I arrive but that pre-Tour frenzy will be in the air -- an

international throng of spectators, revelers, etc. All of which will be

accentuated by France and Germany's presence in the World Cup. I have

no clue where to find my hotel. I have this image of me wandering the

streets of Strasbourg like a nomad, dragging my wheeled duffel,

searching its medieval streets for my hotel. I'll find it, sooner or

later. The question is when. Ah, well. That's the adventure of it all.

And the Tour, if nothing else, is an adventure.



By the way, my buddy Austin Murphy from Sports Illustrated will be

joining me next week, making this the fourth time we've driven the




And finally, the French have a way of injecting a boatload of drama

into the Tour each year. It's what they do, and they're very good at

it. Now they've done it again. All the stories about Lance Armstrong

potentially being a doper have been revived just in time to shine the

world's spotlight on the Tour. Now comes word that even guys like Ivan

Basso and Jan Ullrich are under suspicion. What does it mean?

Everything and nothing. It is what it is. Until those charges are

proven, they don't matter. But to start the Tour under a cloud like

that will be difficult for those two... more press attention, more

doping scrutiny. I don't think it means that the French are finding a

way for one of their own to win (Voeckler and Moreau... unlikely), but

it makes like a little easier for the George Hincapie's and Floyd

Landis's of the world. No matter what happens, it's going to be an

exciting three weeks. Stay tuned.



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