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Oh, Mighty One

Posted by MDugard Jul 23, 2005

St. Etienne. Saturday morning just before noon. The sky is overcast and the air is warm, the sort of day when a sunburn sneaks up on you. Just walked through the pre-race village and then on over to the team area. The busses are parked at odd, protective angles, with stanchions and ropes set up to form a comprehensive perimeter. The time-trial bikes for today's 55-kilometer stage perch on stands; buffed, polished, tires pumped, and ready to go. Dense crowds surround each bus. The mood is patient, curious; in team areas like Davitomon and Euskatel, where riders are already out of the bus and warming up, they are gazed upon with a mixture of awe and deep scrutiny. It's a cycling zoo, though I don't know whether it's the cyclists looking at us like some sort of bold new species or the other way around.The race started three weeks ago today. The peloton numbered 189 riders. Now it's down to 155 and unlikely to change. As one Euskatel rider told me yesterday, "we all want to go home, but we don't want to go home yet." Meaning that the fatigue will soon be forgotten, but the memory of tomorrow's ride up and down the Champs Elysees will last a lifetime. My point is this: The Tour de France is the pinnacle of cycling achievement (please, no emails about the RAAM). To ride in this event an aspiring cyclist has a lot of leeway. He doesn't need to be the best racer in the world, just one of the top 189. It's not easy to make it that far – not by a longshot (the numbers are daunting: anybody who ever pedaled around their local cul-de-sac could be considered an aspiring cyclist), but I would think that seeing it from that viewpoint would make the goal seem a little more attainable. Or maybe not, now that I think of it. The odds and numbers might be the same as making it to the NBA.My boys are going to love this: Just saw a "More Cowbell" shirt on some guy at the finish line. Half expected Christopher Walken to be somewhere in the vicinity.The race today starts and finishes in this athletic hotbed 300 miles south of Paris. Alexandre Vinokorouv is a Kazak, but calls this city home. We're in the industrial north end of town, which is rather drab. I'm told that the place to see is St-Etienne's old town, with its 15th century church of Forezian sandstone and Museum of Modern Art. This city is a wall of pedestrians and closed roads, so driving there might be tough, but I'll take a walk over there if it's close. More germane to how I will spend my afternoon is that the start is on one side of the media center and the finish is on the other. Nestled in the sweet spot right next to us is the pre-race village (for the first time all Tour, it will be open throughout the day. I'm happy to report that Camembert is back on the menu). So it's possible to do as I just did: close the laptop, walk out the door to my left and watch riders roll down the ramp, wander through the village for a cup of coffee at the Grand Mere booth, then on to the finish to see riders come up that long straightaway to the line. The Tour is never this self-contained (the press center tomorrow will be almost three miles from the finish line).  I am loving today. It's going to be something special.A personal note: I thought Dan Coyle's new Armstrong book was riveting. He was my first editor back when I wrote for Outside, and is a fine individual and writer. His reporting is very strong, indeed.France Telecom has hired a small army of pretty young girls to hand out free phonecards before and after every stage. I have become a veritable junkie – whore might be a better word – for those cards. Each is good for ten minutes of free phone time. Austin and I take turns hitting those women up for the cards. We like to think they don't notice that we come back again and again, but I'm sure they do. But hey, free phone time is free phone time. And they haven't actually begun rolling their eyes when we abruptly stop the car at the mere sight of them, thrust our hands out the window, and ask for a phone card in very bad French.Fans began lining up at the finish line barricades early this morning. Just met Jeff and Jackie Roberts of St. Louis, and Mark and Martha Anderson of Westminster, Maryland. They got a great spot about 50 meters after the finish line, almost right in front of the award podium. For the Roberts', this is the first time they've ever actually been outside the United States (Can you imagine? Now, that's a great first-time travel experience). After their long day on the barricade today (they'll be leaning on that thing for at least another six hours; during the last hour the crowds around them should get especially ferocious) that foursome heads for Paris on the TGV from Lyon. I'm hoping they don't want to get sleep, because that's going to be a party train. Everyone I've talked to is bugging out of here right after the finish and taking that train north.Austin and I are going to drive instead. We wanted to take the train, but it doesn't leave late enough (there's talk of a secret midnight train) for us to talk with Lance, then find the Lyon gare. The drive will be long, a great deal of Red Bull-ish energy drink will be consumed, and our new batch of road mix CD's will be played at a very loud volume. But we're hoping to make it by midnight and take a walk over to the Left Bank to take in the scene.Today marks the 24th time the Tour has visited St-Etienne. This particular time trial course has been contested just once before. That happened in 1997, and the stage winner was an up-and-coming German rider named Jan Ullrich. He went on to win it all that year.The terrain around here is rolling, but not jagged. It reminds me a great deal of driving through the Black Hills of South Dakota. For some reason it felt calming.More later ...

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Tougher Than The Rest

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2005

Lance Armstrong was conserving his strength after today's stage. Tomorrow is a very important day for him (without fail, riders use the term "tomorrow is a very important day" but this time it's for real), and he was eager to get back to his hotel and rest. But he talked briefly about the past week. "It's hard," he said, his face belying an impatience to stop answering questions. "You have to pay constant attention. It's hot. There are constant attacks from the riders struggling for position. No one's throwing a retirement party for me quite yet."Tomorrow's time trial is just over 30 miles long. Hilly. Long downhill to the finish.This week was supposed to be a farewell tour, of sorts. Not that Armstrong expected that sort of warmth would ever materialize, but he certainly expected this week to be easier. Instead, Tour officials designed a course that demands a vigorous stage each and every day. Their hope was to avoid a farewell tour to the Tour (though if Armstrong was French the course might have been juggled to suit that sort of bon voyage). "Am I sad?" Armstrong said about the final days of his cycling career. "No. There's just too much for me to be thinking about. I don't have time to be sad. There's no time to be sad when you're racing the Tour de France. It never gets easy."Chris Horner of Saunier Duval was all set to do something bold this week – and did, jumping out front with a solid breakaway on Tuesday's stage to Pau. But just when it looked like he might have a chance to win, he had to drop back with severe stomach sickness. Horner feels better, but says it's too late. "Once you lose your conditioning at the Tour, you don't get it back. The only reason the riders can do it is because they're so much better than the rest of the field."Ivan Basso has reportedly signed a three-year contract extension with Team CSC, which would take him out of the running to replace Lance on Team Disco. It was open knowledge that Lance wanted the young Italian rider to replace him. But Bjarne Riis, the doleful Dane who serves as team director at CSC, is widely recognized as a paternal figure with a talent for getting the best from his athletes.The French have a television series called Fort Boyard. Sort of a mixture of Amazing Race and that NBC show where they eat all the bugs, but the setting is medieval fortress, complete with hidden passages and catacombs. Can't understand a single word, but it's pretty cool to watch. Just thought you'd want to know.I just want to say that it's only nine p.m. and I'm already hunkered down in a hotel room. How great is that? Austin and I cut out of the press room early today. It felt somewhat heretic not to close the place, but he has a big Lance feature to write for the coming issue of SI and I've got to start taking that deep breath of introspection before I begin the book. Better to cut out early and prepare us for tomorrow's all-important time trial.Back when I first hung a map of France on my office wall back home and charted out this year's route with a yellow highlighter, the time trial seemed oddly situated. But now it makes perfect sense. The pressure is on Lance to win his first stage of this Tour (and not click out of his pedals or otherwise flirt with disaster). Ivan Basso will be striving to show he can ride like a champion. And Jan Ullrich will be aiming to walk Mickael Rasmussen down to take that final podium spot.I'm pulling for Ullrich.The Tour, by the way, has become a news story. What started off as a very large bike race three weeks ago has become an international gathering. The sports guys have always been here, making the press room a fully-packed and vibrant place to be. I like to hear the different national tongues being spoken, or to walk down the aisles between those long tables and see stories being written in German, French, English, and languages like Chinese and Japanese that have a completely different script. I like the omnipresent bottles of Aquarel water we drink to stave off the heat, the utterly ridiculous piles of stat sheets handed to each one of us after every stage, and even the imperious behavior of Mathieu, the bearded and bespectacled Frenchman who makes that machine hum (last year he earned my everlasting respect when a woman from some radio station began broadcasting back home via her cell phone. Her voice was a shrill distraction, and all of us wanted to hurl that special little phone to the far side of the room. It was Mathieu who did the dirty work, wagging his finger in her face and loudly remonstrating her in the middle of a live broadcast. She stopped. Sucked for her, but I was quite impressed). So anyway, our fraternity has grown from unwieldy to overpopulated since Grenoble. That was expected all along. But this week the reporters have ceased to be merely sports journalists. "Hard" news people have infiltrated our midst. On the one hand, it's rather awkward making space for these people who know little about the Tour. On the other hand, it's nice to see a race like this rise and find a global audience outside of cycling and Lance fans.All this makes me realize that following Lance can sometimes be too easy. He doesn't indulge in train wreck behavior and he doesn't really lose at this race. So though his career has had its share of dramatic moments, (other than the opening time trial, moments that are sorely missing from this Tour, which gives his farewell an anticlimactic aura) Lance's faithful have never had to deal with that moment when he utterly fails at the Tour. But is that such a bad thing? He's setting a phenomenal precedent. Not even Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky (or Ted Williams or John Elway or even David Beckham) had a ride like this.Talked to Chris Brewer of the Lance Armstrong Foundation today. Chris and Lance were diagnosed with cancer just ten days apart. Brewer, a tall and self-confident man who exudes quiet personal presence, says 1999 marked one of the most important moments in Lance's career. "When he stood on that podium," remembered Brewer, "it marked the moment when "cancer survivor" took on a whole new meaning."Here's what I like about guys like Lance and Chris: They exude purpose. The little things don't seem to scare them as much. My little sister was like that when she got sick.Lance knows how he wants to be remembered by the Tour. "It wouldn't be a picture from the race. It would be a moment with the team or the mechanics. Or a picture from a training camp, with just a few guys working hard together in the early season, training together in really bad weather when no one's looking."Right now, everyone's looking – as well they should.

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Final Countdown

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2005

The story today is simple: Lance Armstrong is praying not to crash. With just three stage left he looks terrible, all drawn and sleep-deprived. Many of the riders say that the hardest part of the Tour is the time off the bike, not the riding itself. I think that's the case with Lance. While George Hincapie looked loose and happy before the race, chatting with other riders and making jokes in some language that sounded like a composite of Spanish and Italian, Lance looked haunted as he rode to the line. He brightened when a very pro-Lance crowd roared his name, but the smile was fleeting. Lance Armstrong has been all business this year, but never more so than today. He wants to wrap this thing up without incident. Watch for the Disco Boys to ride in extremely tight formation, making sure no one jostles The Man.There was an extremely large Australian coalition at the start this morning. They waved their flags and yelled Aussie chants and generally just looked thrilled to be there. In a touching gesture, many of the Australian riders made it a point to ride over to the barricades, sign autographs, and pose for pictures.The course today is a hilly (five climbs) 153.5-kilometer stage from Issoire to Puy-en-Velay. That's just a little shy of 100 miles. The course is in the shape of a fish hook, with Issoire being the top (we actually backtrack today, which feels weird. The course moves in north-south direction instead of continuing our inexorable march toward Paris). The weather this morning was cold enough that I thought of slipping on a fleece. This is an abrupt change over the past few days and signals that we are definitely moving north towards Paris. One interesting note is that we come quite close to France's only volcano. The Puy de Something-or-Other -- can't find my notes right now is just west of today's course. I had no idea France had such a thing.Thank you for all the emails (and I mean that in the best possible way; my abilities as a stat guy are limited. I can't tell you how indebted I become to copy editors and fact-checkers during the editing process for my books) about Lance and his number of days in yellow. I erred, to put it lightly. Just so you know, Lance now has worn yellow 80 days. Bernard Hinault wore it for all of 78. But the legendary Belgian rider Eddie "The Cannibal" Merckx wore it for 111 stages. Some say he just wore it 96 days, but in the old school Tour de France there were sometimes two stages in a day.Random sighting at the start this morning: Floyd Landis shooting a TV spot wearing the new Oakley radio glasses (or are they a telephone? My wife mentioned something about them on the phone, but I couldn't find an Oakley rep to fill me in. They look sleek); A kid trying to talk George Hincapie out of his LiveStrong bracelet; Jan Ullrich slaloming through the crowd at three-quarters speed on his way to sign in; a man eating lunch at the Bar de Francais, his pet terrier cradled in his lap; and, the Spanish Euskatel team leaning against their bikes in the shade. "I want to go home," one of them told me. "I want to take two days and not ride a bike, and lie on the beach all day."That's the mood among the riders. They're exhausted. Austin and I stayed at the same hotel as Cofidis and Lamprey last night. They didn't come down for breakfast until 9:30 (race start was a wonderfully late 1:30). They walked slowly and had that faraway look of zombies. Their meal was simple and a little bland: mueslix, orange juice with ice, plain yogurt, ham, and croissants. They ate without speaking. Honestly, if I hadn't known they were Tour de France cyclists, those blank stares would have had me thinking they belonged to some sort of cult.The reason I'm so familiar with what the riders are eating is that I ate it, too. You know, my French isn't what it could be. So when the hostess told me in which part of the dining room to eat, I had no idea she was asking me to leave the room altogether (breakfast was also taking place in another section of the hotel). So I walked over to that team buffet, thinking it was for all the guests. I helped myself to a little ham, a croissant, some juice. The riders weren't up yet, but the team mechanics were looking at me kind of funny. It wasn't until I was halfway through that croissant that I figured out my mistake. Ah, well.The hotel was known as the Hotel du Garabit. It was perched overlooking a river, but far beneath an enormous steel bridge. The supports and arches had that same rivet-and-steel look of the Eiffel Tower (in fact, the woman at the front desk told me that Gustave Eiffel constructed the Garabit first. It was considered one of France's greatest wonders until he built the Eiffel Tower five years later). The dining room was closed when we arrived last night, but the staff was kind enough to put a plate together from the kitchen leftovers of the rider's dinner a few hours earlier. So what do the riders eat for dinner? A green salad with cubes of ham and cheese; baked chicken, a large plate of pasta, and just a little broccoli (boiled, not steamed). The food was bland, with no spices or sauces. But it was good, and it was filling. And I never fail to be touched by the extra lengths hotels here go to for Tour de France people. It was really very nice of them to feed us.The food at the pre-race village this morning had no lack of flavors and spices: gnocchi with bleu cheese sauce, some sort of potato and ham dish, and a nice apple and yogurt dessert with a berry sauce. Yum.For one rider to "flick" another (the word has the same general connotation as a more celebrated word beginning with "f") is to extract vengeance. It might mean forcing a crash, it might mean sabotaging their strategy. Lance has spent a considerable amount of this Tour in a flicking mood. Early targets were Floyd Landis and Bjarne Riis. If possible, he'd like to flick the author of that new book about him (no one in the Armstrong camp will admit to having read it, and Lance's comments on the subject veer to the profane). And right now he's trying to flick Jan Ullrich. Humiliating his German rider in the opening time trial wasn't enough. Now Lance wants to see Mickael Rasmussen hold on to third place. Ullrich is hovering in fourth, hoping to move up during tomorrow's time trial. The difference between third and fourth is simple – and symbolic: Third place stands on the podium Sunday afternoon. Fourth place goes back to the Meridien and grabs a shower.A reader yesterday wrote how my personality seems to change quite a bit while I write these dispatches. I hadn't noticed, but couldn't agree more. It's more of a reflection of how the day progresses than any sort of psychiatric condition (that I know of). I don't always sit down and write these in one sitting. Sometimes I'm in the car, sometimes sitting in a hotel or meadow, and sometimes sitting next to some Dutch guy in the press who hasn't shaved or bathed in three weeks and chain smokes as he curses at his WiFi. Sometimes the Tour can be vexing, sometime wondrous, and sometimes a little routine. So that's what you see.Or, like yesterday, I was really struggling to fill space. It was tough. Yesterday's stage marked the first time on this whole Tour when that was a problem. Usually there's something weird going on in the peloton if I get stuck, or some journalist said or did something that provoked a thought (like the poor guy who got so sick on the Pla d'Adet that his clothes were beyond salvage. He ended up throwing them away, wrapping a t-shirt around his waist, then hitching a ride down the mountain with a French ambulance crew; You know, stuff like that). But there was a noticeable lack of energy throughout the Tour yesterday.If my comments wandered a little, it was because yesterday was the first time I caught that same end-is-in-sight the riders have. I was pleased to notice a new air of enthusiasm in the riders and myself this morning. Like I've said so many times, every day is a brand new day at the Tour: new racing, new scenery, new food. At least once a day I look around and marvel that I'm in France, at the Tour. As demanding as all this can be, it's the greatest pageant in the world, and I don't want to miss an instant. Fell asleep last night to the full moon shining in through the hotel room's sliding glass door. The Garabit was lit up (like they do the Eiffel Tower, but which has a more stunning effect in the dark environs of the French countryside), turning all that steel a bright yellow color. Their reflections gleamed on the river. And all was still and silent. There'll be plenty of commotion and crowds in the days to come. It felt like the calm before the storm.Talk to you after the stage.

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Once More, With Feeling

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2005

Marco Serrano of Liberty Seguros won today. Bold move. Nice guy. Impressive victory. Do you care?Sorry, that sounds cynical. It's not meant to. It's just that Serrano is exactly one hour, sixteen minutes, and thirty-three seconds behind Lance Armstrong in the overall standings. He's the tenth-ranked Spaniard in the race, and third on his team. Let the TV guys craft some drama out of all this, but now is the Tour equivalent of the NBA's garbage time. Most of the peloton isn't competing, they're praying they'll make it to Paris. A guy like Serrano, with nothing to lose, is supposed to win a nothing stage like today.What I want to see is real drama: Like Lance Armstrong attacking his rivals, even though his victory is in the bag. I want to see Lance win a stage (or Levi, or Floyd, or even Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso – or perhaps all four together in an intentional tie). From the very first, I've longed for a big heaping of drama at the 2005 Tour. Maybe something spectacular will happen in the next three days. This being the Tour, anything can happen. Remember Jan Ullrich's crash in the rain a couple years ago?Having said all that, the highlight of the day was Ivan Basso's attack on that last climb. The climb was just two miles long but preposterously steep and packed with fans. Basso (or, "The Gentle Prince," as the press here calls Armstrong's heir apparent) is 2:46 back, in second place. The attack was his way of taking one last stab at winning yellow. But Armstrong, Cadel Evans and Jan Ullrich quickly caught Basso's wheel. The four of them charged hard up the mountain, leaving behind the race's other top contenders. At the end of the day, Armstrong and Basso are still 2:46 apart, but Jan Ullrich picked up 30 seconds on Denmark's Mickael Rasmussen. Ullrich may not be riding to win the Tour anymore, but a strong showing in Saturday's time trial could vault him into third place overall.A word about that time trial. It's a 55.5-kilometer loop (Saint-Etienne to Saint-Etienne) which features almost 15 miles of climbing. Riders start in ascending order, from last place to first. That means Iker Flores of Spain will go off at 10:45 Saturday morning.  Lance Armstrong, providing nothing disastrous happens tomorrow, will begin at exactly 4:22 pm. The riders start two minutes apart, with the exception of the last twenty riders. There will be three minutes between them. Average speed is expected to be about 27 mph, and a fast guy like Lance should finish in an hour and fourteen minutes. From the looks of things, the Saint-Etienne spectators should be a little on the freaky side. It's considered the most sports-crazed city in France, outside of Paris. It has more than 600 cycling clubs, and 48,000 competitive cyclists. Now, combine that with the stage's proximity to Germany and the fact that it's being held on the final Saturday of the 2005 Tour, and it sounds like the TT will be greeted by a bit of volume.The Tour had its first totally nude streaker today. The guy ran alongside Serrano during an early breakaway. There was another fellow a few weeks back who ran without his pants on, but that was more an act of misguided passion (advertisement? Personal pride?) than streaking. As far as I can see, being a fan at the Tour is almost a competitive event unto itself. At the bottom you have your families and picknickers, who merely sit along the road and wave as the peloton passes by. Then there are the camper people, following the Tour in a squadron of small white RV's. Then you have your sign-makers and flag wavers. Then there's the big national groups congregating together on a climb. Just below the top are the runners, those committed sorts who paint their bodies or put on a costume or just run alongside a cyclist because being a part of the race makes them feel special. At the very top, however, is the total commitment of that streaker. I like to imagine that a guy like him has a staid, boring job in real life. Maybe he's afraid to fly, so adventure travel isn't an option. What he does is get his fulfillment running alongside professional cyclists in the altogether. OK, maybe he's just a whack job, but I'm trying to give the guy the benefit of the doubt.Armstrong was terse during interviews this afternoon. Like yesterday, this was a long stage without shade or other protection from the sun. He was tired, and chose his words carefully. Trying to deflect pressure from himself, he picked Jan Ullrich as the favorite in Saturday's time trial.A note on helmets: They're mandatory at the Tour. Used to be that riders could take them off just before the last climb if the stage finished atop a mountain. That changed this year. Helmets must remain strapped to a rider's head any time his bike is in motion.Breakfast this morning was hard bread smeared with fig jam, and a small press of coffee. It was fresh and very good, but all carbs. Needed a little protein to balance out my blood sugar. So we stopped a couple hours later and picked up a chunk of salami at a roadside butcher stand (honest, such a thing exists). Austin and I divvied that thing up like a couple of fine carnivores, then arrived at the finish just in time for the media buffet. More salami, a big slice of pate, some dry cheese that tasted a little like Swiss, and some sort of legume and ham dish. I know that the French are trying to serve regional delicacies at the end of each stage, but it seems like we're eating a whole lot of salami, cheese, and brown bread. It's not really Atkins, is it? And it's certainly not South Beach. But I notice that no one here really loads up their plate, and they don't chug big goblets of wine. The air of moderation is noticeable. Which reminds me of that Oscar Wilde line: "Everything in moderation – including moderation."Last thing on Serrano: His buddy and training partner, Oscar Pereiro, won the Tuesday stage. Serrano said that the victory made him "very happy." It also prompted him to go out and get a win of his own. Serrrano added that he expects his friend to return the love. Even if he doesn't, how cool is that? Your riding buddy wins a stage, then you go out a couple days later and bag one, too. They must be doing something right on those training rides.Lance Armstrong now holds the all-time Tour record for most days in yellow, with 87. He breaks Bernard Hinault's record. (ed note: Lance is actually second all-time, with 80 yellow jersies. Eddy Merckx is the all-time leader with 96 yellow jerseys over seven Tours.)We're not really stuck up here at the airfield, but if Austin and I head back down the mountain now we'll probably end up sitting in traffic. It usually takes three to four hours for a modest-sized final climb like today's to clear out. So we'll hang a bit, then do that nightly search for accommodations.Tomorrow's stage from Issoire to Le Puy-en-Velay doesn't start until 1:30, which is nice. However, as the Tour moves towards Paris, the stage starts are a hundred or so miles apart, not just forty and fifty. I kind of dreaded this going in, but it's become a blessing. Those extra miles mean more hours of driving and exploring the French countryside each morning. When it was first begun, the Tour de France was an attempt to be the ultimate way for cyclists and fans to see this nation. They've succeeded. There's nothing like chasing the Tour to see France.A demain.

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The Stones

Posted by MDugard Jul 22, 2005

On the surface, today's stage victory by Discovery Team's Paolo Savoldelli was reward for a job well done. He has worked selflessly for Lance Armstrong since this Tour began (no easy thing for a man used to being a team leader and having others do his bidding). He won the Giro d'Italia last May, giving Discovery a nice grand tour win that quieted rumors about overall team weakness. And, like George Hincapie on Sunday, he was given the green light by team director Johann Bruyneel to go for the win. But scratch beneath the surface and you'll notice that it was Team CSC's Kurt-Asie Arvesen he outsprinted to the line. Just two weeks ago, CSC team director Bjarne Riis was calling Lance Armstrong "lucky" to be wearing the yellow jersey this year. Armstrong was so ticked he saved the comment on his computer as a sort of motivational screen saver. Since that day, CSC has not won a single stage at this Tour de France. You can bet that Savoldelli had to dig deep for the win, but the fact that he reeled in Arvesen during the final sprint was just another Discovery dagger aimed directly at Bjarne Riis. Long after this Tour is over, what will amaze me most is how Lance Armstrong and Johann Bruyneel used strategy and spite to control every single stage. They couldn't have choreographed today's finish any better.Savoldelli is a sincere man, with an honest face and the habit of speaking from the heart. After the race he talked about the overwhelming joy of winning a Tour stage. And he spoke just as honestly about Ivan Basso. Savoldelli feels that Basso is Lance Armstrong's heir apparent (no Italian has won the Tour since Marco Pantani in 1998), and is destined to win the Tour in 2006. As for Savoldelli, who has won the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) twice, his aim is to focus on winning many more of his nation's premier race.Of the 155 cyclists still in the Tour, the man holding down last place is Iker Flores of Euskatel. The Spaniard is almost four hours behind Lance Armstrong. The man in 154th, Wim Vansevenant of Belgium, is six minutes ahead, so Flores seemed destined to remaining last. As a man who has finish last in the Raid Gauloises, I can honestly tell you that the sting doesn't last long. All I remember is that crossing the line had a life-altering effect. So I'm rooting for Flores to avoid a crash or random pedestrian encounter in the four remaining stages. I want to see him make that finish in Paris.A bored intern just handed me the stats for tomorrow's stage: 189 kilometers from Albi to Mende. The temperature is expected to be in the low 80's throughout, with nary a cloud in the sky. There's a surprising elevation gain, with the course rising from 500 feet about sea level at the start, to about 3500 feet at the finish. There are, in fact, five rather difficult climbs. So it's not like the peloton is coasting into Paris. The Tour organizers design their course with a certain malevolent intent each year. Their aim is to tax the riders while making sure the world doesn't take their eyes off the Tour. By making the final stages just as demanding (in their own unique way) as anything the riders have done thus far, they are making it possible for something very crazy to occur.Between you and me, I don't think the Tour organizers would mind a little calamity at this point. The story isn't the race anymore, it's Lance's countdown to Paris. But Lance isn't talking these days, so we don't know if he's being nervous or nostalgic. His face was drawn at the end of today's stage. He looked wary of those who gathered to cheer him at the yellow jersey ceremony. His smile, though genuine, was taut. Someday he might look back on this last week and wish he had savored his last days in the peloton, but as I watched him stand atop the podium on this hot July evening in the heart of France, Lance Armstrong looked like a man who wished the Tour would end tomorrow.Tomorrow, by the way, looks to be another day of caution for Lance (who recently made the faux pas of admitting to the European press that his victory Sunday was imminent). Today his group finished 22:28 behind Savoldelli. However, it looks like a perfect attack day for Chris Horner (I've given up on Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer – ninth and sixth overall, respectively. They'll make their mark on cycling some day, but this isn't their year). Horner has absolutely nothing to lose. He's brash. He's cocky. He's got a little bit of that selfish streak all winners possess. And, above all else, he believes he is destined to win a stage at the 2005 Tour de France. Look, he probably won't. But I'm cheering for him to have a go tomorrow.You can imagine my chagrin when the media had to actually pay (!?) for today's mid-afternoon meal. But it turned out to be money well spent. This is farming country, and the locals turned out to serve sausage and peppers for about $10. The media can be a spoiled bunch, and I tried to tell my rumbling stomach that we could hold off until much later in the evening. But after I broke down and went to the Tour ATM (the Tour has its own bank, which travels with us from town to town. It's the only bank in all of France allowed to remain open on Bastille Day). I wasn't disappointed. There's a difference between the sausage I might buy at my local supermarket back home, and the stuff a farmer makes fresh. Sure it's pig entrails. I know that. But it tasted very, very good. Wash it down with a sample from the local vintner, and you have a most fulfilling afternoon meal.There was a sharp corner 450 meters from the finish. I wanted to watch the riders come around that turn, because they'd be struggling to hold as much speed as possible without crashing. It was a blazing afternoon and there was a patch of grass nearby. I sat down to write as I watched the helicopters get closer. The one great delusion of travel, I have learned, is the that nothing bad can ever happen in a foreign land. This is why I run through overgrown mountain trails over here, completely disregarding the presence of some poison oak-ish plant that will make my life an itchy hell for the next week. I know in my rational mind that snakes must exist here, and I know for a fact that wolves can still be found in the forest. But I pretend I am impervious because I am a traveler. So today, as I sat down on a nice patch of cool green grass to jot a few notes, I was reminded once again that this theory is nonsense. The spot I parked my bottom was the Mecca for the local species of ant, a large brownish creature that immediately began scouting the remote crevices of my torso for new places to build a colony. I quickly moved on.A little travel tip: Don't check your bank balance on a public computer. The guy who used the free France Telecom online service at the start this morning didn't log out properly. When I tried to log on his bank information came up.Austin and I are heading down the road a few miles to Soreze, a little bitty dot on the map. As I've mentioned before, the Tour is always full of surprises. So even though that little town won't have, say, a Border's, I'm really hoping that the hotel is one of those charming little places we've had such good luck finding since Fromentine. The rooms aren't always big, the showers are often those handheld things the Euros love so much, and sometimes the hotels are downright freaky, they're so old. But the breakfasts are always filling, the people are about as warm as the French can be (they brighten considerably when they see Tour stickers on the car; the French in these parts LOVE the Tour. Parisians, on the other hand, act like they could give a rip), and there hasn't been a single place that I didn't wish I could hang around for an extra day or two. At this point in the race, I can feel the tractor beam of Paris sucking us all in, so I won't be in the mood to linger anywhere. But tonight I have simple dreams: to drive to the hotel without getting lost in some medieval alley; eat a meal that doesn't cost $100 (that strong Euro is killing me); sleep for more than five hours; and, most of all, wake up at dawn and find a really great running trail.Finally, a non-Tour thought, the sort you get when you're outside of America, appreciating our values and ideals more deeply than ever: I keep seeing these "Free Tyler" banners. They allude to Tyler Hamilton and his drug suspension. The banners are funny and slightly tragic, but never fail to make me smile. What I'd really like to see is a "Free Judith" banner (Google "Judith Miller"). When Americans wave the flag over here and cheer for Lance, we're cheering just as much our country and the values we hold so dear. One of the most precious is the First Amendment. And the First Amendment is the First Amendment, no matter which side of the political fence you're on. Being in France, seeing how their embrace of compromise has diminished their national character, I can't help but admire the backbone of a patriot like Miller. Given the same predicament, I hope I would have the same sort of stones.Until tomorrow.

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This Hard Land

Posted by MDugard Jul 21, 2005

Today is the longest stage of the 2005 Tour de France, and it will be remembered as one of the prettiest. The start is Pau, scene of yesterday's finish. For the first few miles the course has a familiar feel: small farms, pockets of forest, towns consisting of just a dozen stone buildings. The riders will be able to see the Pyrenees off to their right, in silhouette. But then the course presses due east.The Pyrenees, where we have spent the last four days, will be a memory ("Au Revoir, Les Sommets" read the banner headline in this morning's L'Equipe). The land becomes sun-drenched and dry. Sunflower fields outnumber cornfields. The last thirty miles march up and down winding lanes, many of them framed by tall sycamores on either side. They shade the road and look like natural cathedrals. As with every day at the Tour, camper shells and motor homes have already staked out the primo viewing spots. Look for the four guys wearing diapers at the 5k mark.The finish in Revel has a few sharp turns, but the last straightaway is several hundred yards long. If no breakaway group has succeeded, the sprinters will love that stretch.The distance today is 239.5 kilometers, or just under 150 miles. It's stage 17, which blows my mind a little bit. Have we progressed this far? There are only four more stages to go after today: two tricky passages in the Massif Central, the time-trial in St. Etienne on Saturday, then the finale in Paris. It's been said that this is the part of the Tour when the lesser riders are just hanging on, doing anything they can to make Paris. The reason for that is simple: In the cycling world, a Tour de France finish is a most special achievement, no matter whether a rider finishes first or last.Been getting a few emails and comments about my typos. I hear you. Sure wish I were catching them before I send these out. But I'm asking for just a little bit of grace. I'm doing these dispatches on the fly. It's fun to write fast, not fussing over every word. Know that I'm not at all happy with the typos, but my mind's eye seems incapable of catching them when I read and reread before hitting the send key. Having said that, I appreciate the feedback.Onward. Dinner last night was another midnight meal. Austin, myself and Kevin Blackiston of the Dallas Morning News made our way back from the finish late. We were staying in Lourdes for the third straight night, a most unusual sensation here at the Tour. Unlike most small cities in France, Lourdes is open late, and we found a small café on the River Gave that was still serving hot food. It was one of those places perched on a busy street corner, so if a driver missed the turn he would have plowed into our table. It became a sort of game, watching the headlights aim our way on that warm summer night, holding our breaths until the turn was done. Austin did the salad and duck combo, Kevin just had wine, and I had a salmon, anchovies and shrimp pizza. It was salty, and the taste was a little unusual at first. But it turned out to be a most enjoyable meal.Former Tour rider Davis Phinney took note of the tailwind that will push the riders from Pau to Revel. That not-so-gentle shove, he says, will dramatically increase the pace. The long hills will add a measure of suffering. So though Tour organizers intended this day to be on the easy side, Phinney guarantees that they will suffer.Those radio earpieces the riders wear came into use during the early-1990s. Phil Anderson was the first Tour cyclist to use one. The Motorola Team, of which a young Lance Armstrong was a member, used their sponsors' technology to follow suit. Now every team uses them. The team director is in radio contact with each rider, barking commands and exhortations as he follows behind in the team car.Here's what it looks like inside Johann Bruyneel's team car: a radio, a satellite television (small screen) to watch the feed, a roster with each rider's team, name, number and position in the overall rankings, and a course map.The starting area was pretty cool this morning. Set in a public park, the media village had the feel of an outdoor carnival. The local cuisine they served was some sort of meatballs with pearl onion dish, and a shredded carrots and potatoes with bacon thing. All quite good. Unfortunately, the Tour is no longer serving my beloved Camembert before each stage. In its place is hard sausage. The sausage is good, and I try a piece now and again, but oh, how I miss that gooey cheese.On the sign-in stage, I was astounded to see the normally stoic Jan Ullrich waving to the crowd and smiling. When he descended the steps and climbed onto his bike, he rode across the street to the barricades and signed autographs. I've never seen him do that. Since I happened to be standing there, I got one, too. Why not?Maybe Ullrich was smiling because he's finally rid of his team's two divisive sub-lieutenants. Alexandre Vinokourov informed his T-Mobile teammates over breakfast that he's leaving the team at the end of the season. Shortly before that, Andreas Kloden pulled out of the Tour with a fractured wrist. Both Kloden and Vino had been trying to topple Ullrich as team leader. And though Jan isn't having his best Tour (he's currently fourth, the exact same sport he finished last year), he's still smarter and more powerful than those two. Vino used to be a threat, but he's put on weight and his tactics are so predictable (attack, get caught, attack, get caught again) that he's become a caricature of himself. Kloden's always been a bit of shooting star, sometimes burning brightly and other times burning out entirely. Their departure means Jan is free to be in command.Lance Armstrong's coronation week continues. The Discovery Channel team bus is being mobbed by larger and larger crowds each morning (the start is the best time to see the riders. They tend to disappear afterward). American flags, Texas flags, autograph books, and more. On days when Lance comes out to his bike by himself, they go nuts. But when Lance steps out of the bus with Sheryl a step behind, the flashes really start popping.There is no start command at the Tour. Instead, the riders gather somewhere close to the official start banner, and then pedal casually for a couple miles. This is known as the roll-out. When everybody's safely down the road a flag is waved by the lead escort vehicle, and the serious riding begins. This morning I wandered out to the roll-out and stood among the peloton. Some of the riders were silent, leaning over their handlebars and staring at the ground. But most were sitting astride their bikes, resting a butt cheek on the top tube and chattering with riders from other teams and nations. Everyone knows one another, and the atmosphere is very relaxed. When the final riders show up – today it was the Disco Boys, led by George Hincapie – all you hear is a communal click as everyone clips into their pedals. And then they just begin rolling forward. No one says a word. It just happens.The drive from Pau to Revel was mile after mile of scenic eye candy. Just a gorgeous day to be in the car. Unfortunately, our tunes are getting a little stale. Need to find a record store.Talk to you after the stage.

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And a Couple of B-58's...

Posted by MDugard Jul 21, 2005

It is my sincere wish that all of you could see today's stage. The roads are empty of spectators for miles on end, because this region has a somewhat remote vibe (they're out there, but mingled in sudden clusters around towns and feed zones). But the terrain is yet another stunning reason why France is such a beautiful nation. Every day I say that I've seen the prettiest part of France, and every day I see some new aspect or view that makes me gape in awe. For instance, today's finish. The riders will pedal up the Tarn Valley, and then begin forty miles of abrupt climbing and descending. But when they reach the town of Mende, with its Notre Dame Cathedral (one of the oldest in France, it is built on the spot where Saint-Privat was martyred by barbarian invaders in the 3rd century), the racers begin a three-mile, 10.2% gradient climb. The spectator pack along that climb seems friendlier and less dense than the Basque horde from Sunday's Pla d`Adet, but their numbers are very strong.  But the race doesn't end on top of the mountain. The racers will power over the top with less than a mile left and sprint downhill. Instead of a city center or municipal stadium, the finish line is in the middle of the local airport runway. Should be one to remember.For the first time all Tour, the course comes within spitting distance of the press tent. Austin and I are taking bets to see how many of the media will race outside to lean against the barricades, and how many will lazily watch it all on the flat screens.Austin and I cleaned the Passat at a local aire (rest stop) when we stopped for diesel. It's our longstanding tradition that the backseat remain a trashcan until the night before Paris. But that vestige of college road trips was starting to feel a touch slovenly. So the water bottles and energy drink cans and assorted bits of sandwich wrappers were dumped. However, we did keep that sprig of lavender from the base of Galibier. It was a Bastille Day gift from the local people and it's supposed to be calming. That, and because those purple buds makes a fine natural air freshener. Believe me, there are days when that car needs a subtle dose of fragrance.When Austin and I checked into the hotel last night, we were surprised to see T-Mobile hanging out in the lobby. Normally those guys are sullen and quiet, refusing to speak to anyone but their own. But last night they were the pictures of mirth – strange behavior for a team that lost two of its top athletes yesterday. It was almost like a sense of relief had overtaken them. The rumor is that there was some sort of team showdown in the last couple days. The team's top malcontents, Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden, were summarily ousted. They didn't jump from the team, goes the thinking. They were pushed. Albi, site of today's start, was once the hub of the Tarn region. It is the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, the painter. More important, in my point of view, the great French navigator Jean Francois La Perouse was born there. La Perouse has been largely forgotten by history, but his 1785-1788 voyage of discovery (a young military cadet named Napoleon Bonaparte applied for a place on the crew and was personally turned down by the dashing La Perouse) charted almost the entire Pacific Rim. He arrived in Botany Bay, Australia shortly after Britain's famed First Fleet. Had he gotten there earlier, Australians might be speaking French these days (probably not: La Perouse had just two ships. Captain Arthur Philip had eleven vessels, two of which were gun ships. A Sydney suburb and a windblown Maui snorkeling spot, however, are now named for La Perouse). The French explorer sailed off, only to drown a few months later in a storm. Still, his voyage was one of the boldest and most thorough in history.Yesterday saw us on the fringes of the Massif Central, that craggy bastion 150 miles north of the Mediterranean. When I went out running this morning I climbed to the top of a local summit to inspect a chapel dedicated to St. Staphin, a local cleric. Looking out into the distance, I could see the rolling farmland of the Toulouse region before me. But when I turned and looked in the other direction, the hills rose far higher than where I stood. The terrain is rugged, but hardly the equivalent of the Alps or Pyrenees. It reminds me of Flagstaff, with its pine trees, red soil, high altitude, and hot sun. I kept expecting the day to get cooler as we drove up the D225 from town. Instead, the sun just seemed to get brighter, and feel hotter on my face.I either saw it on TV or as the subject of one of those in-flight documentaries, but today I saw the brand new Millau Viaduct in person. This futuristic bridge is the highest in the world, rising more than 1,000 feet above the Tarn River. Designed by the English architect Lord Norman Foster, the span cost a half-billion dollars to build and stretches almost two miles in length. When I first looked up at it (we were below, driving a back road through the Tarn Valley, the bridge seemed a little superfluous. Why not just have the autoroute wind down the mountainside, cross the Tarn just above water level, then climb back up into the Massif Central? It turns out that this part of France is extremely popular in the summer, particularly with Parisians and Britons making their way to the South of France to sunbathe (topless, in many cases. Went into a newsstand looking for a paper this morning and looked down to see a local newsweekly with bare-breasted photos of visiting celebrities on the cover). Millau had become the sight of a most famous bottleneck, hence the big gleaming bridge.Just in case you were wondering, Millau is the center of France's glove-making industry. My history text says that the period between 1896 and 1929 was the "golden age" of glove making. Who knew?A lot of dogs out along the course today. Lance is worried about a crash in these final four stages. Some of the worst such incidents in Tour history have been caused by dogs running onto the course.The final climb of today's race is known in Tour lore as "montee Lauren Jalabert" (very roughly: "Lauren Jalabert Ascent") because he won here on Bastille Day in 1995. Jalabert, a great climber whom the French refer to fondly as "Ja Ja", is her commentating for national radio.Austin and I wondered whether Lance Armstrong might do something impulsive like go for a win today. It's not likely, because all the top GC riders are resting their legs for Saturday's crucial time trial. But that final climb is his sort of steep, and his team is strong enough to put him in position.I've been here at the Tour so long that it feels odd knowing how little time remains. That start in Fromentine feels like it happened last Christmas. I can't imagine what it must feel like to be riding this brute every day.There are banners flying at the finish line; press tents and VIP tents and sponsor tents on the broad grassy field along the airstrip; and, cars and people lining the runway. It feels just like an air show to me. All it needs is the Thunderbirds.

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Once More Into the Breach

Posted by MDugard Jul 20, 2005

As Jimmy Fallon would say, "we're baaaaaaack."Man, I needed that rest day. It took Austin and I almost all night to get off Pla D'Adet Sunday. The traffic stopped moving for an hour at a time coming down that one-road mountain. The traffic continued from the base, then up the valley for 30 miles to the A64 (the autoroute), like our own little spectator peloton. Tensions were high. Tempers flared. When one guy got the bright idea of passing us all on the shoulder, a Spanish woman went Tiananmen Square on him. She jumped out of her vehicle, stood directly in his path and held her hand up in a "halt" until he got back in line. It was that kind of night.If this is Tuesday it must be Pau (as in Edgar Allan, not "pow"). Pau is a regular Tour stopover. It was here that I picked up my press credential back in 2001. The woman in line before me was from Savannah, Georgia, writing an article about the Tour for her homeowner's association magazine. She presented her business card and was, after a time, granted a credential. That would never happen now. Thanks to Lance's popularity, credential applications are due March 1. The deadline is strict, and we all scurry to be on time. Covering the Tour without a credential would be akin to staying home and watching OLN. The credential allows access to the riders before and after stages, entry into the pre-race village and post-race media center, and just generally makes life easier. I am paranoid about losing my credential, and watch over it like I do my passport. One night I even slept with it on. The thing is invaluable.Had a long talk with Chris Horner this morning. The Saunier Duval rider is a ray of sunshine in a sometimes dour sea of riders. The San Diego native, who now lives in Bend, Oregon with his girlfriend and three young children, is enjoying his first Tour. Horner is skinny and balding, with a quick laugh and sharp wit. More than anything, he wants to win a stage this year. "I don't know about today," he told me, rubbing his distended belly, "I got a little bit of a stomach thing." At this point in the Tour, I've learned that whenever a rider tells me his strategy beforehand, it means the exact opposite. I've got a feeling Horner might jump on a break and make a go. I'd love to see it happen. He's got an incredible passion for cycling and has struggled to make ends meet his entire career.The hardest part of being a professional cyclist is the time away from family. When he's on the bike, all he thinks about is riding. But now, in his third month away from home, he finds the time between races miserable.If not Horner, then someone has to do something bold. Everyone around here's been waiting a week for The Bold Move. It's amazing how much grace the peloton has extended to Lance Armstrong. His presence is so forbidding (he never misses a chance to keep another rider down. After following Ivan Basso to the line Sunday, Lance made it clear that he let Basso beat him. This is probably true, but it also guaranteed that the Italian was thinking along the same lines) and his team is so strong that even the strongest riders are terrified of attacking. But the number of stages between now and Paris is dwindling, and with them the chance to move up in the rankings. The Floyd Landis's and Levi Leipheimer's (nice, talented men who should be sitting two or three places higher) can no longer afford to be diplomatic. Now is the time to be gutsy. Now is the time to risk the wrath of Lance.Today's stage is 180.5-kilometers long, with two very difficult climbs. The Col de marie-Blanque is a first-category climb that is relatively simple for the first three miles and painfully steep for the last three. The Col d'Aubisque is a relatively even ascent, but a longer and daunting 7.2% grade. Either way, the riders will suffer.   Technically, this is Lance Armstrong's last true mountain stage. But tomorrow and Thursday are also very hilly. Not mountainous; hilly.The French are dumbfounded by George Hincapie's stage win Sunday. So dumbfounded, in fact, that the newspapers all but accuse him of doping. Sure, anything's possible. But Hincapie has a long history of pacing Lance up long climbs. But 2005 has marked the year he's shown skill as a classics rider and time-trialist, too. Lance has always preached a power-to-weight ratio, a la Top Gun. It seems that 2005 marks the year Hincapie adopted the same philosophy. He's notably leaner, with calves so defined that his muscles and varicose veins are clearly delineated. And he's spent hour after hour practicing his climbing near his South Carolina and Spanish domiciles. It's all part of being a Disco Boy. "If you can't climb the mountains on this team," he said just after winning Sunday, "you don't ride the Tour de France for this team."A few team notes: Liberty Seguros is known as Liberty Mutual in the States. Liquigas is pronounced "Leakey-gas." The French press has dubbed Basso "the gentle prince."The press is referring to this week as "Lance's coronation." He should win, barring a crash. Lance is openly fearful of the narrow village lanes of the upcoming stages through the gut of France, and the chance of falling and breaking a collarbone. "If that happens it's all over," he says.The course travels in an odd direction during these final stages. Our westward push has finished. We'll be in Paris (a long way northeast from this remote corner of France) come Sunday, but we're taking the long route. Today sees the riders loop out from Mourenx in a southerly horseshoe that takes them into the Pyrenees one last time before doubling back to finish in Pau. But instead of pushing north we head directly east tomorrow. We go so far in that direction that by Saturday's time trial in St. Etienne we almost return to Grenoble, near the Alps, which we left a week ago. Austin and I will drop the Passat at the Lyon gare and take the TGV to Paris for Sunday's finale on the Champs Elysees.Stayed in Tours the last couple nights, and will again tonight. It's not a bad little town, but certainly not the spiritual hotbed I anticipated. There's something cheesy in a place that has a Vatican Parking Garage, a Grotto Trolley, and where a guy with a Jesus beard and crucifixion loincloth prowls the streets at midnight. The pilgrims, however, see beyond all that. They come to Lourdes for the healing waters, I stood next to a long line of wheelchairs yesterday, walking as they rolled forward into the city's famous blessed grotto. Signs forbade talking and the mood was very hopeful. The rest of that ticky-tack city feels like a religious theme park, but I was humbled by the simple displays of faith at the grotto.Ate at a quiet restaurant alongside the river that winds through Tours (can't find the name in my notes). Austin and I split a carafe of the local white, which was sweet like a desert wine. My salad was a meal unto itself, with ham and hard-boiled eggs served on a nice lettuce mixture. The entrée was baked duck leg and dessert was a cheese platter. The duck was great – tender, etc. – but the cheese was a little on the dry side. What made the meal notable was when the quiet suddenly disappeared. An American bicycle tour group sat at the next table, and pretty much took over the restaurant. They were boorish and entitled, acted as if the entire world were glad they had deigned to pay the Tour a visit, and lacked the simple ability to modulate their voices. Just from sitting there with my nose in my wine, I now know their training regimens back home, how far they rode their bikes yesterday, and exactly which expensive components adorns their bikes. So does everyone else who was in the restaurant last night. Strangely, like the knuckleheads who run alongside the riders (did you see that guy get run over by the motorcycle the other day?), I'm curious about their little subculture. Thankfully, I'm staying in Lourdes again tonight, and so are they. In fact, we're all staying at the same hotel. Every day at the Tour seems to possess at least one moment of that coincidental anthropology.The Australian riders have a heavy heart today. Word has come that a group of Australia's female cyclists was run down while training for a race elsewhere in Europe. Most of the Aussies are a tight bunch, and they all came up  through the same cycling program. There is talk of wearing some sort of memorial armband.The finish in Pau is a lap of the entire city. As it looks, now the riders will be within the barricades the last four kilometers. Tall buildings and narrow streets will protect them from the late-afternoon winds. The locals are out in force, filling the cafes and prepared to pound their palms on those barricades (the noise is like a wall of thunder). Should be prime for a breakaway.Talk to you after the stage.

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Beautiful Reward

Posted by MDugard Jul 20, 2005

OK, so Pereiro's got that one off his back. Someone once said, "a man is never old until regrets take the place of his dreams."If Oscar Pereiro Sio had failed to win today, he would have been saddled with a serious bout of regret. First, he was part of a bold six-hour breakaway in the Pyrenees on Sunday. He is a Spaniard, and there is no greater honor for a Spanish cyclist than to win before their loveable and slightly demented fans (these are, after all the people who brought us the Inquisition). Then today, his legs still aching from Sunday, he jumps on another breakaway, through this year's final Pyrenean stage. As I watched the four leaders enter Pau, he looked the most vulnerable. At least it seemed that way. None of the others (Cadel Evans, Eddy Mazzoleni, Xabler Zandio) had worked as hard on Sunday. And Evans, an Aussie, had the advantage of emotion, wanting a win in memory of a fallen female member of the Australian national cycling team, killed on a training ride yesterday. But Pereiro was desperate for a stage, and today he got one. I can't wait to find a copy of the Madrid papers tomorrow. It's going to be front-page stuff.But I was rooting for Cadel Evans. Two reasons: the obvious emotional factor; and, as Austin and I have labeled him, Pereiro is a "woosy-boy." Pereiro earned that description by rendering himself a victim after Sunday's stage. He expected George Hincapie to let him win because he was Spanish. Hincapie, the hardest working man in the peloton, was having none of it. Discovery Team director Johann Bruyneel had told him that "today is your day," and Big George was not about to let his first-ever stage win slip away against a lesser rider. Hincapie's was the most popular and unexpected victory at the Tour in years. Even Bruyneel (a hardened sort) choked up. Yet Pereiro whined to the Spanish press that Hincapie "refused to work" with him. And even today, after winning his own stage (though a stage far less glorious and attended than Sunday's Pla d'Adet), he said he "never expected Hincapie to attack." I don't know about you, but if I've labored like a dog for others riders my entire career (as Hincapie has: selflessly, without complaining, always having a kind word), I go for the victory when my team director tells me it's my turn to win a Tour de France stage. Call me crazy.Finally, the Spanish press is still indignant that Hincapie didn't let Pereiro win. "How do you feel about what he did to you?" was the first question of today's post-race press conference.Lance Armstrong finished 36th today, 3:24 behind the winners. He looked strong and relaxed, and seems to be gaining power every day. Chris Horner of Saunier Duval jumped on that early break with Pereiro. But he faded and fell off the back. Horner finished in Armstrong's group. He's still looking for that all-important Tour stage win.So is Armstrong. If he fails to win one this year, Armstrong will be the first Tour winner since Miguel Indurain to win the general classification without a stage victory.The riders go everywhere on their bikes (Greg LeMond once told me that "a cyclist without a bike is like a soldier without a gun"). A good example was this morning, just before the start. Things are getting loose in the peloton and those teams without a chance of winning aren't keeping their riders on a tight leash anymore. As the start bell rang (a large bell is chimed in the pre-race village when the race is ten minutes off) they stopped making phone calls and checking email at the France Telecom booth, stopped drinking water at Aquarel, and stopped lounging in the shade. The riders clipped into their pedals and rode slowly to the start, which was several hundred yards away across a large public lawn. They wove in and out of pedestrians like salmon swimming upstream, but never seemed the least bit frazzled or worried.As another example, Disco and T-Mobile parked their busses several miles from the finish, on the other side of Pau. I wasn't really interested in finish quotes today, but I was walking toward there down an open public street, just to gauge the local mood (no surprise: there wasn't a soul in sight. Everyone was at the finish). Then, like guys out for a weekend ride, Jan Ullrich pedaled past. Then came Alexandre Vinkourov and Andreas Kloden. The Disco Boys were next, with Hincapie waving over to Austin and I ("Hey!"). The thing is, these guys had just ridden more than 100 miles over two impossible mountains during the Tour de France. Yet they all looked as if they could clip in and ride a whole lot more.These guys and their bikes are inseparable, and their comfort in the saddle is as much a given as their farmer tans. I have to wonder how Lance can walk away from all this so easily. He makes quiet comments about wanting a life change, and it's pretty cool that he wants to do the Jim Brown thing and go out on top. But the peloton is like a family -- a highly dysfunctional family where everyone wants to cannibalize the others, but a family nonetheless. He'll remember these cyclists the rest of his life. Lance says that betting on him to come back would be a colossal mistake, but who knows how he'll feel after re-charging his batteries.On the subject of post-retirement cyclists, Richard Virenque take a fair amount of abuse from his former teammates. Virenque retired last year and is doing commentary for local media. He is handsome in a slightly menacing way (small teeth, narrow eyes, shorn head, constant air of befuddled expectation), but dresses with a David Beckham flair and can be charming if the wind is blowing the right way. He is, above all, lean. But lean is a relative thing, and the peloton loves to mock retired riders as being "fat" (again, a relative thing). I can tell you that there are many former Tour winners currently in attendance who could stand to push away from the table a cheese platter or two earlier, but Virenque is not one of them. In competitive cycling it's vital to be as light as humanly possible without losing strength and endurance. Mickael Rasmussen is the most extreme example. The guy needs some food. People are blaming his angry disposition on a lack of calories. In real life, however, a little layer of body fat isn't a bad thing.We (at this point, that word means the entire Tour contingent, not just Austin and I) leave the Pyrenees tomorrow. I will miss them. Provence has a pure beauty that gets more attention. Paris is sophisticated and alive, which has an appeal much like Manhattan. But when the day comes that I buy land in France, it will be here. The rivers run clear, the mountains are visible without being claustrophobic (sometimes living in the mountains can feel like living on an island), there is astounding beauty around every bend, and it is (Lourdes notwithstanding) understated. I love understatement.Ran early this morning. The sun was just rising as my wake-up call came. In the north of France the sun is up at five a.m. this time of year. Down here in Pau (southwest corner but not on the ocean; think of a warm and low-altitude Flagstaff) the sun is up at about 5:30. Putted around town for a few miles, then headed up into the hills. I wasn't really going anywhere special, but it was nice to put some miles under my legs. There were no spectacular topographical details; a river, of course, but no trail or scenic overlook or one of those intellectual epiphanies. I just ran until the sun was over the mountains then followed the river back through the woods until I stood in front of the Hotel Christina.The media buffet never ceases to amaze. Some days it's a feast of local delicacies. Some day's its pre-packaged local food – like today. Lunch here in Pau was cold cooked lentils with duck, served in plastic Costco containers. There were cans of Kronenburg beer and airline screw-top bottles of Cordiere red wine, but I opted for the water bottle because presentation is everything and today's was definitely lacking. Every town at the Tour competes to present their local cuisine in the best light. It's almost like a test of how much people really love them. But in a town like Pau, where the Tour makes an annual stop, they know the Tour loves them a great deal. They don't really try to hard to wow people anymore.I am often perplexed by the French ambivalence about their faith. If they didn't have some representation of their beliefs it would be one thing, but this is a country with a great stone church in every village and massive cathedrals at the heart of every city. Statues of Christ on the cross line roadsides. So you would think this would be a part of their cultural fabric. But the churches (again, Lourdes being the exception) are empty on Sunday. As a student of history, this intrigues me. So I scanned writings about France's religious past this morning. The answer came in a single, repeated phrase: Wars of Religion. France was once a devout nation. Then, in the years after the Reformation, France became a religious battleground. Protestants battled hand-to-hand against Catholics in a religious civil war. This war, fought about the same time the Pilgrims were setting out for Plymouth Rock, seemed to make lazing about the farm on a Sunday morning a whole lot preferable to getting killed for going to church. The effects still mark the country today.Tomorrow the Tour rides from Pau to Revel. The course is a very long 239.5-kilometers. There are several rolling hills as the peloton moves into that region of France known as the Central Massif. The Massif is a land of farms and charming villages, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera. How many times have I written those words? This whole country is beguiling and beautiful; medieval and modern; sublime and gaudy. Every day I fall in love with some sleepy little town or some romantic view. Every day I see something that turns my head and makes me gape in awe. Some times that's a good thing. Sometimes it's a little weird.Until tomorrow.

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Hero for a Day

Posted by MDugard Jul 18, 2005

Without meaning to, I cased the finish line this afternoon. There was a spot about 175 meters down the hill with unobstructed sight lines, close proximity to the riders (about five feet), and a near certainty that no other journalist would be there because the finish was still up the road. Me, I'm through doing finish interviews. There are never any good comments because the international media scrum around the winner is too thick and taking a video camera to the head seems a silly way to begin an interview. So I waited at my spot and was rewarded with a clear view of George Hincapie's decisive sprint. I've seen a lot of bike riding since I've been here, but I think of Hincapie as one of the most solid and deserving guys in the peloton. His victory made me grin from ear to ear. It was the most sublime moment of the Tour thus far, bar none. "I'm in total shock," he said later.The Tour is a cutthroat place. Hincapie's candor and lack of ego have made him a fan and peloton favorite. He rested his head in his hands as he crossed, the look of disbelief and happiness so utterly charming. His was a popular victory, and the roar at the finish line exuded warmth.I thought the day would be way different. It seemed like Lance would go for the win and be attacked mercilessly by his rivals. But while Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich clearly showed their power, Armstrong stayed well within himself on his way to a seventh place finish. I think everyone's afraid of him, plain and simple. He can do whatever he wants at this point.Hincapie's job is to be Lance Armstrong's enforcer. When a rider capable of threatening Armstrong's lead attacks (namely, someone within striking distance in General Clasification, or CS, standings), Big George's job has been to chase them down and bring them back. But today Hincapie went off on his own breakaway, figuring he would drop back soon enough to help Lance. It's well known that Armstrong has a deep appreciation for Hincapie's loyalty, and when it became clear that the peloton would never catch the break (the gap was eighteen minutes at one point), Armstrong was more than willing to root Hincapie on to a stage win. "He was ecstatic," Hincapie explained when they met at the finish. "He gave me a big hug and just said, `unbelievable.'"Hincapie and Oscar Pereiro began gabbing a few kilometers from the finish. The conversation was initiated by the American. Hincapie wanted to work together up the climb then duke it out in a sprint. Pereiro, however, is a Spaniard, was competing in front of thousands of Spaniards, is a pure climber, and was worried about his contract for next year. He wanted that stage. So he tried to out-climb Hincapie rather than trade places up front. Pereiro still gets the glory of finishing second and riding well. But he didn't get the win. And for the first time in his long career, Hincapie did.The standings currently have Lance in first, Basso in second, and Mickael Rasmussen third. There's a three-minute gap to the fourth place rider, Jan Ullrich. This could very well be the overall order of finish.Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer showed today that they're still a few years away from winning a Tour.Landis's coach, Allen Lim, was exasperated when Floyd couldn't keep up. "I coach him, but I can't ride the bike for him," snipped the generally calm Lim.Those predictions of finish line thunderstorms never came to pass. The wind up here has been brisk, but there are exactly three small white clouds in the sky.French kids wear replica cycling jerseys the way U.S. kids wear replica baseball or basketball gear. Thing is, their garment of choice is not the maillot jaune. Why should they? If that child is under the age of sixteen, a French rider hasn't won the Tour in their lifespan. Instead, kids wear the polka-dotted jersey of the top mountain climber, a category France has dominated of late. Still, it's sort of like living in LA and wearing a Clippers jersey instead of a Lakers jersey. Or, these days, being a Dodgers fan instead of an Angels fan.The riders passed through the village of Saint-Beat today. Its local consul's balcony was the place that inspired Edmond Rostand to imagine the celebrated scene in Cyrano de Bergerac between Cyrano and Roxane.The media lunch was simple but filling: small squares of salty cheese-and-olive pizza and squares of Quiche Lorraine. Black coffee, bottled water. Strangely, it gave me a stomach ache.Tomorrow we rest. I'm sleeping late, washing every single item of clothing I own, and catching my breath before the final push to Paris. I've been in Pau a couple times before,. It's the unofficial gateway to the Pyrenees. Very lovely. Very old. Great castle. There's a really great running trail up the road a couple miles, connecting Pau with Lourds. I was thinking about taking the train somewhere tomorrow morning (Bilboa? Nice? Barcelona?) but I think it would take me off my game. I'm totally immersed in the Tour's rhythm. To go someplace else, if only to study the stained glass inside a cathedral, would feel rather odd.Pau was once a fashionable winter resort for British tourists. It was 1814 when the Duke of Wellington took control of the city during the Napoleonic Wars. Though Napoleon had been also been through Pau, the locals were more partial to the bombastic Wellington and his forces. That sentiment endured as the British made it a favorite winter resort for the next hundred years. "Pau is not a French town," wrote a British humorist in 1876. "Pau belong clearly and emphatically to England." Now, of course, the Brits prefer to get on a plane for Mallorca. It's much sunnier and the whole island's open all night.Back to George Hincapie for a second. He's a great sprinter, has become a great time trial rider, and is among the best climbers in the Tour. Lance Armstrong considers him one of the top bike riders in the world. So there's been talk between Lance and team manager Johann Bruyneel about maybe making George the next capo of the Disco Boys. "Some people are whispering about that," Hincapie said, deflecting the question with an embarrassed laugh. "But I'm just happy for what happened this afternoon. Let's just get through today."Stood on an overlook near the finish line a couple hours after it was all over, gazing at the beauty all around: deep green valleys, mountain cabins dotting distant hills, and the slightest hint of a clear river snaking toward the Atlantic. But I couldn't take my eyes off those mountaintops. I have never been attracted to the concept of mountain climbing, but looking at the summits above and below, I understood mankind's urge to trudge up sheer, uncharted faces to get a better view. The moment passed when I saw a helicopter churn my way. It seemed a much smarter method to see the world and be back in civilization in time for dinner.The media's all stranded up atop the mountain until the spectators drive back down. It's almost nine and it's probably going to be a couple hours. The sun is still up, so this might be a good time for a run.Finally, just received word that I'm an uncle again. Pilar Clair du Gard came into the world a little early and a whole lot underweight (32 weeks and just four pounds) but my little brother the M.D. says everything should be cool. Knowing Matt, the end of the hockey strike and the birth of a new daughter will make this the most memorable July he's ever known.Until tomorrow.

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American Skin

Posted by MDugard Jul 18, 2005

There is the temptation, now and again, to think of Lance Armstrong as a celebrity instead of an athlete. We see him in People. We see him hanging with Bono and Ashley Judd (and that woman, Sheryl Crow). But today was another reminder that he is the greatest endurance athlete of all time (there, I've jumped on the bandwagon). Armstrong rode a smart, powerful race. This was the sort of grueling stage where only elite riders were capable of handling the pace.Every single one of his top rivals was within striking distance with just 50 kilometers remaining, but none were mentally or physically tough enough to attack. In fact, their profound fear and respect for his abilities was their downfall. Lance Armstrong beat those guys with his body and his presence. The results show that Georg Totsching won the stage by almost a minute, thanks to a bold breakaway. But, really, the guy who came out on top was Armstrong.Not sure if you saw it, but the most beautiful moment today was all-American. Levi Leipheimer found himself in the middle of an attack, but without a water bottle. Water was all-important today. The sun was that sort of harsh high-altitude glare that gives a man sunburn and dehydration on a day hike. Riding the Tour de France without water under today's conditions was like demanding a comeuppance. The riders call that "blowing up," and it looked like Leipheimer was a man on the verge. He had two simple choices: drop back or stay with the attack. Leipheimer, a gutsy man from Montana, made the gutsy decision. He clung to the attack with every optimistic fiber in his being.Then a most amazing thing happened. Lance Armstrong passed Leipheimer a water bottle. Floyd Landis gave him one, too. Now, these are three men that barely speak to each other. But Armstrong's weakened Discovery Team wasn't there to help him and Landis's Phonak has been an iffy bunch at best. So these three Americans, riding in a pack of three T-Mobile riders that were poised to destroy their Tour hopes, worked as a team once again. They helped each other because they needed one another.The plan worked. Had T-Mobile worked as a team, Lance, Floyd and Levi (does that sound like a band of outlaws, or what?) could have been destroyed. In retrospect, T-Mobile will look back on this stage and on last Saturday's stage in Germany as two great missed opportunities. But they are incapable of working as a unit, because Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden and Alexandre Vinokourov are all competing for the role of team leader. On paper, that leader is Ullrich. But the unreliable Kloden and the mercuric Vino don't respect him and won't work for him. That's an imbroglio Armstrong is happy to exploit. Today, simply by sharing a water bottle, he did.I was talking with an American woman. We were standing a few kilometers down the mountain from the finish. She was bemoaning that American television networks don't really say much about what's going on at the Tour (meanwhile, every other person I meet here is American. I've spent time with them, listened to their stories. Most are cycling fans. Some are here because they just ran with the bulls in Pamplona. And a good percentage are cancer survivors or friends of cancer survivors who didn't become cycling fans until Lance. The cancer stories have a particular power. Not kidding: sometimes I have to stop the interviews and pretend I'm wiping phantom sweat from my eyes (("Man, what a hot day up here on the mountain…)). The stories are that life affirming). Well, after today it would be downright strange that American networks don't start paying attention to the Tour. In addition to the abnormally high percentage of Americans among the 20 million spectators, three of the top six riders in the overall standing are from the United States. Think about that: Three out of six. To give you a sense of perspective, France has only one.There was a time when Americans embraced endurance sports, but that was more than 30 years ago. Guys like Jim Ryun, Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter were inspiring people to watch their sport and attempt to push their own personal limits. In Ryun's heyday, 1966, more than 100,000 people packed the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch a United States-USSR track and field duel meet. Now we have become NASCAR Nation and Red Sox Nation and Raider Nation. More succinctly, we have become Lowest Common Denominator Nation. Look, I'm a TV junkie. I watch as much SportsCenter as I can handle. But the networks can do better. We need a major sports presence covering the Tour de France.As fantastic as they are covering the Tour, OLN doesn't count as a network. I mean, not really. It's not even basic cable. America needs at least an ESPN to ante up for the Tour.Along those lines, once again the top American newspapers have sent their "B" reporters to the Tour. The exceptions would be the lovely and talented Suzanne Halliburton of the Austin Statesman (who can not only flat-out write, she's something of a Lance confidante), Bonnie DeSimone out of Boston, and a small handful of others. Some of the American writers are even phoning the whole thing in from their hotel rooms. They watch EuroSport, filch Lance's interviews, then file. Again ... the American media can do better.Austin and I not only got to the finish in plenty of time, but I spent a very fascinating afternoon with the Basque spectators down the mountain. If you were watching OLN just before the final 2K mark, you might have even seen me. I was the guy in red and sunglasses cheering for Lance amid the sea of orange-clad Basques. I made new friends. I was invited to join them tomorrow on the Pla d'Adet. I had, in fact, the most euphoric Tour moment I have ever known. It was like seeing the Tour through brand new eyes.There was a moment there among the Basques – the slightest hint of a moment – when I was tempted to experience the moron sensation and run alongside Lance's group. What stopped me was the morbid fear that I would knock him down and be forever cast in the same villainous light as that foul ball guy who cost the Cubs the pennant. But one of these days before this is all over, if I'm very careful ... OK, nuff said.Yesterday's hero, Chris Horner, lost almost 25 minutes to Armstrong today.Tomorrow will decide the Tour de France. The last time the peloton finished atop the Pla D'Adet was 2001. The stage winner was Lance Armstrong. Tomorrow marks the last mountaintop finish of his career and he desperately wants to win. Thing is, EVERYBODY else that matters not only wants to win, they have to win. Jan Ullrich is getting stronger with every passing stage, but he's still 4:34 back. Mickael Rasmussen is just 1:41 behind. Ivan Basso is 2:46 back. The bottom line is that they have to commit some sort of bold act or they're essentially just riding for second place.There's more to the drama. Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis would dearly love to make it an all-American podium next Sunday in Paris. They know that winning would take some sort of miraculous intervention. But they sit just a few seconds behind Ullrich in the standings (fifth and sixth respectively) and are prepared to go off. This is the stage that both of them – and Leipheimer, in particular -- have aimed towards. Leipheimer rode it on a seven-hour training ride in the rain some months ago. Landis rode it often from his training base in Girona, Spain. These guys circled tomorrow on their calendar months ago. It's going to be a dogfight.I sat in the passenger seat of the Passat this morning, writing and navigating while Austin drove. Then we switched places so he could write. I have to tell you that those last two hours of two-lane country roads were simply spectacular. Sometimes when I travel I'll take along a Lonely Planet or a Rick Steves' guide book. They're very good, but they never take you to the offbeat roads of the Tour de France's guidebook. It was one mile after another of whitewater rivers, quaint villages that have changed very little in centuries, and that transition from flatland farms and vineyards to the Pyrenees' mountain valleys (the roads all followed the low contour, so that we were constantly looking up at peaks and hilltop fortresses).Like I was telling Austin, just when I think I've seen the most beautiful spot in France, I turn the corner and see someplace just as splendid, if not better.At last year's Tour I tried terrine de canard. Grayish and fatty, I thought it had the taste and consistency of dog food. Today, just for the sake of experiencing every culinary wonder this Tour de France presents, I tried terrine de canard again. I choked it down, but it still looks, feels and tastes like dog food. But the rest of today's lunch – sliced and dried pork sausage, apple tart, rare hamburger, gruyere cheese – was another lesson on the wonders of French food. It's been pointed out to me that the French culture is very much like that of Native American living on the Great Plains. As the Native Americans once made use of every single part of a buffalo, so the French do now (as they have for centuries) with cows, ducks, chickens, pigs, and geese.Anne Lamott, in her new book Plan B, mentions that the key to a long life is to keep moving – walks, bike rides, etc. France is a good proof of her theory. I've never seen a more physically active geriatric population. I watched an 80-year old woman -- in a house dress -- hike up a mountain yesterday as if it were no big deal. Amazing.Saw a guy today with "Free Tyler" written in Sharpie on his calves. Though I thought it witty and original, the fact is that nobody railroaded Tyler Hamilton. He was a guy with a long peloton history of not paying attention. It proved to be his downfall. Having said that, I hope he makes a comeback when his blood doping suspension is over. I've got to root for a guy who wears his dead dog's tags around his neck when he rides.OK. It's late and this is my favorite time of day. Time to sip a glass of something red and watch the sun set over the Pyrenees. Until demain.

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Smokin'

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2005

We're definitely in the South of France. The weather is hot, hot, hot. The sun was beating down back at the starting line and it's even more intense here at the finish in Montepellier. This was supposed to be a boring day at the Tour de France, one last chance for the sprinters to control the roads. Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen were talking big about making a big breakaway, which had big Thor Hushvod worried, for his linebacker's body will truly suffer in this heat. But it's Friday and this is the 13th stage, so it's technically Friday the 13th. Anything can happen. Who knows? The Sprinters may sit back and rest, saving their legs so they can survive this weekend's mountain stages.Team Discovery's Manuel Beltran's crash yesterday was more serious than it was originally confirmed. The crash was caused by a T-Mobile rider who veered into his path during the day's first climb. Beltran got back on the bike right away, but didn't know where he was, what stage it was, and whether he was in first place. Beltran was climbing at just five mph and proving a danger to himself. So Discovery pulled him from the race and took him to the hospital. After a night of observation for a concussion, Beltran was released. At just about the same time that the Disco Boys were signing in for today's start, Beltran was boarding a plane home to Spain. This will mark the first time since 2001 that Discovery will finish with less than a whole complement of nine riders.Lance Armstrong looked fresh and relaxed this morning. This region of France is traditionally a tourist bastion in the summer, and the Discovery Team bus was surrounded by triple the usual number of fans. It's all a little numbing and surreal to see the crush around the bus each day. Spectators hold up pictures to be signed, reach out striving to touch Lance so a little of his juju will rub off, blow horns, and, most of all, scream "Lance." He's been doing this for a long time, and knows when to listen to the crowd and when to be inward. Today was a day for the fans, with lots of autographs signed. A very large contingent from Texas will be going home happy.There are eight stages left after today. Lance wants to win this thing badly, but he also wants to go home. He makes frequent allusions to his eagerness to have this final Tour behind him. This, of course, conflicts with the sense of nostalgia that attends his actions before and after most stages. But the gist is this: There's a lot of pressure on him to win, and nobody's about to roll over for him. Though he may want to revel in this farewell tour, he must suffer if he's going to get the job done. It's a sort of suffering most of us have never, and will never, know. I've written quite a bit about the fractured relations between the American riders. But as the Tour marches on its merry way to Paris, the schism is widening. Bobby Julich is quietly mocked for speaking in clichés and being intimidated by Lance; Floyd Landis can't seem to mention the Discovery Team without dropping an f-bomb before the word "Discovery"; Levi Leipheimer is tight-lipped about the American presence, preferring to say nothing rather than speak his mind; and, Lance Armstrong has precise opinions on each of them. Some of these feelings can be chalked up to gamesmanship. Some of them have to do with being highly competitive individuals competing for the same vaunted crown. But a lot has to do with the intense and personal nature of elite cycling. These guys have spent a lot of time in the saddle together. Sometimes they just get on each other's nerves.The lone exception, simply because he's new, is 34-year old Chris Horner. The Saunier Duval rider was called up to the big leagues after a stellar performance in the Tour de Suisse. After mistaking the Cofidis bus for Horner's Saunier Duval team bus (the Cofidis team director slammed the bus door in my face and screeched at me in French. Strangely, I found the experience a minor Tour highlight) I spoke with Horner as he sat in the shade. He is freckled from years in the sun, and balding. But Horner has a refreshing candor that comes with being new to the Tour. After all, he has nothing to lose. "When I race the Tour of Redlands http://community.active.com/blogs/MartinDugar/2005/07/17/smokin/a top Southern California race I'm the best climber there. Here I'm the 20th." Horner was stunned to give his all during an attack up the Col de Madeleine, and reaching the summit with just a 35-second gap over Armstrong and the Disco Boys. "I thought for sure I'd have two, three minutes. But 35 seconds?"Horner also said that his legs have been toast since that last Alpine stage Wednesday. Yesterday he was content to spin in the peloton. He says he hopes to do the same today. As a climber, he says he wants to save his legs for the Pla d'Adet on Sunday.  And though it's rational to think that may be the case, I've learned that whenever a rider tells you what he plans to do, he has something exactly opposite in mind. Horner desperately wants to win a stage here. Who knows what he'll do on Friday the 13th.There's a lot of curiosity about Jan Ullrich's head these days. He crashed into a team car the day before the Tour began, he failed to attack Lance Armstrong when he had him alone (and was surrounded by three T-Mobile teammates of his own, who could have tag-teamed their breakaways to crush Armstrong and regain the time gap he lost on the first day), he crashed a few stages ago, and has shown absolutely no inclination to be the sort of bold individual it takes to win this race. This is not the Jan of old.Many here are crediting the Spanish riders' poor showing in the mountains to stronger drug and blood transfusion testing.Met a guy named Sepp Probst today. He's something of a star on either Swiss or Austrian television. I couldn't tell which. Thought you might appreciate that, Jeff.Had a talk with Levi Leipheimer's mom today. Levi is something of an introvert, preferring to sit alone at team meals and have his own hotel room ("There are nine guys on the team," the plain spoken Montanan shrugs. "Someone has to have their own room"). His mother is very much the same. She is, however, one proud woman. She stood at the starting line in a Gerolsteiner-blue "Levi" t-shirt.  "It's very exciting," she said softly. Then she walked over to hug her boy, who has very special plans for Sunday's stage.The Tour travels along the Mediterranean coast today. I was rather thrilled to see the sign noting that our route was passing the "Departement (the French equivalent of a state) du Gard." Seems I've got some local relatives.The press room is sweltering. I've sweated through my shirt and need to get some fresh air. Talk to you after the stage.

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Sunburns, Speedos and Cycling

Posted by MDugard Jul 17, 2005

Today is Sunday, July 17th. It will be, quite possibly, cycling's biggest day all year. I'm at the summit of the Pla D'Adet, a peak that appears to have had its backside sawed off. The peak shears away, just like that famous picture of Everest climbers approaching the Hillary Step. To one side is the utter desolation of a jagged cliff dropping miles down to the forested valley floor. To the other is a sweltering, beer-soaked assemblage of cycling fans. They line the 10-kilometer, 8.3% grade of today's final climb like so many movie fans lining the red carpet on premiere night. They have ridden up on bikes, in campers, run, or walked on foot. At the center of this congestion is a mile-long line of Spaniards poised just below the 2-km banner (meaning, two to go). Many of them have camped since Friday night. Beyond the Spaniards are the barricades lining that final mile to the summit. Today, like yesterday, is scorching. (Though thundershowers are predicted for the 5 pm finish).By the time the riders get here they will have contested four Category One climbs and the final Hors Category (beyond categorization; meaning, wretched and steep. Don' try this at home) assault of the Pla D'Adet. For the riders, it will be a very long day in the saddle (about six hours and more than 120 miles). For the fans, it will mean sunburns, exposure to extreme body odor (lots of sweating going on here, folks), traffic jams, fat men in Speedos, furtive strolls into the evergreens to answer the call of nature (no porta-potties along the route, but lots of telltale tissue scraps among the pine needles) – all that, and one unforgettable afternoon of cycling.Lance Armstrong has yet to win a stage at this Tour de France, but has guaranteed that he will do so. The obvious stage would be next Saturday's time trial, but a win today would be far more poignant. It was on the Col du Portet-D'Aspet, today's first climb, that his teammate Fabio Casartelli crashed and died a decade ago. The peloton will pass the site (Casartelli lost control on a descent. His head hit a stone roadside pillar) of the tragedy. Armstrong has publicly admitted that he will make some sort of gesture to honor his fallen friend, as he has when riding here in the past.The Col du Porter-D'Aspet features a memorial where Casartelli died. It also features some of the Tour's steepest riding. Several pitches are at a 17% grade.The Pla D'Adet is nearly as daunting in spots. That 8.3% average grade includes a kilometer of brief downhill, skewing that average somewhat. The obvious conclusion drawn from yesterday's race was that Lance's Disco Boys quit on him. Far from it. Rumor has it they were ordered to take it easy and and enjoy the scenery. Today is a much more important stage. Better to have Lance form a grupetto with the like of Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso than to tax his teammates too early. Levi Leipheimer's family is here from Montana. He appeared spent on yesterday's climb, but got a magical second wind as he rode by their minivan adorned with Montana flags and a "Go Levi" banner. His mother, needless to say, was very proud of her son.The race has begun. French TV is showing clay court tennis, but with a scrawl at the bottom of the screen that says George Hincapie is leading a breakaway group.Saw George yesterday during his climb up to Ax-3-Domaines (so named because three regions of the Pyrenees converge in one spot). The native of Queens looked stoic and workmanlike, just going about his business, shutting out the crowd. The team busses were parked at the bottom of the mountain, which meant that the cyclists finished then rode back down to the bottom. They passed fans and oncoming riders the whole way, which made for an interesting moment (I love how those guys descend at 40-plus while chatting and keeping just one hand on the bars). Most of them lingered at the summit, but Hincapie, as per his style, turned right back around and cruised down. It's the cycling equivalent of not stopping to make small talk.Austin and I walked down the mountain last night, just to get a sense of the scene. The sun was setting over the Pyrenees, giving the valley below a soft hue that reminded me of the cover of Cold Mountain. To tell the truth. We didn't think it would take all that long, but we ended up walking for almost three hours. Got down to the village of Aix-les-Thermes just in time to convince a small café to feed us (they were stacking the chairs and distributing checks to the final diners). She not only fed us, but brought out steak coated in a chunky cheese sauce, green beans with an odd hint of curry (they don't usually do curry in France), and a nice salad. Almost fell asleep during the 90-minute drive to our hotel in St. Girons. It wouldn't have been so long if we hadn't gotten lost in Foix, which was having a very large street festival. But then, if we hadn't gotten lost, we wouldn't have spied the castle on the hill watching over Foix. It was stately and grand, lit up by floodlights. The stone had a yellow-ish hue and the castle looked like it was built just last week.St. Girons was yet another city I wish we could have hung out for awhile. Small, old, quiet. Turns out our hotel (a scary place with snaking halls leading to wings that had that added-on feel. If it wasn't haunted, it should be. I kept thinking a ghostly bellhop would rise right out squeaky floorboards) is the place Lance stays when he trains for the Pla D'Adet.The past half-century has marked the first time in history that mankind has been capable of producing and sustaining high decibel sound. Think, for instance, jet engines and pneumatic drills. This must mark the first true test of the eardrum's performance limits. I mention this appropo of nothing have to do with the Tour, except to note that that there have been moments during the past few days when the decibel level in the Passat has reached deafening levels as Austin and I rock our way around France.On the CD today, a mix playlist: the Killers, Digital Underground, Tom Waits, Dwight Yoakam, the mandatory Bruce, and on. Flatt and Scruggs is a nice grace note. And I should add that, though I am not much of a Doors fan, opening the windows and cranking Backdoor Man on a Pyrenees country lane adds a savage menace to any Sunday morning drive.There was a heavy morning mist hanging over the road as we approached the mountain. Church bells were ringing as we passed through a village square, and four locals were talking to the priest after Mass.  A Sunday market was underway, all awnings, fruit stands and butcher shops (think of the Pyrenees as the Wyoming of France. Same abrupt mountains, like Jackson Hole. Same fondness for beef). Then, as if on cue, the mist parted. A triangular Pyrenees' peak, sharp and serrated like the tip of a very sharp knife, announced itself directly ahead. The moment had a dramatic feel, like that moment in a movie when the villain is introduced. As my crazy next-door neighbor used to say, "it was rather grand."OK. I'm taking a walk down the mountain to hang with some folks from Texas. Half the fun of a day like today is that walk down the mountain, stopping at the various campsites on the way. Somebody always has a satellite dish. And there's always a multinational crowd gathered around, watching TV and waiting for the race to pass on by.A European broadcaster was talking about what it takes to win the Tour. "Big balls," she said unabashedly. "Lance doesn't have two, but the one he has is very, very big." Just thought you'd want to know what people are saying over here.The wind is really kicking up. Perhaps it portends the coming storm. Talk to you after the stage.

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Turn it up loud, Captain

Posted by MDugard Jul 16, 2005

Driving from the start in Agde toward the Pyrenees. Stuck in a long traffic jam. Vinyards flank the road on either side, stretching as far as the eye can see. We have a long way to go to make the finish. Most of it will be narrow, congested mountain roads. Frankly, I'm not sure we'll get there in time. Every Saturday brings out the crowds here, but today is exceptionally congested because of beach traffic.The start was unusually early today. The peloton rolled out of Agde shortly after 10:30. A Sheryl Crow record was playing over the loudspeaker, and her sentiments about wanting to "soak up the sun" were the Tour organizers playful acknowledgment that its going to be very hot on the road. The riders are openly wary of today's stage. The best examples were the Lotto and Cofidis riders who pedaled into the pre-race village and made a beeline for the France Telecom booth. They lounged on chairs in the shade, taking advantage of the chance to make free phone calls, looking a whole lot more like a bunch of guys heading out for a leisurely training ride than the 14th stage of the Tour de France. They didn't hang up those phones until just minutes before the start. Fin du bouchon, I am told, means end of danger. The next two days should tell us whether or not Lance Armstrong will be fin de bouchon for the last week into Paris.The final climb up to the finish in Aix-les-Thermes today is 7.9 kilometers at an 8.3% average grade. A friend I used to ride with was fond of saying, "this is where it gets bloody" at the bottom of a brutal climb. Meaning, we're all about to suffer. That final climb today will definitely draw blood, particularly after more than 100 miles on a hot, cloudless day. It's estimated that the stage will last almost seven hours. Man, that's a long time to be pressing those sit bones into the seat.Had dinner at the Discovery team's hotel last night (a simple buffet: asparagus, olives, baked chicken legs, and a Languedoc red I had never hear of). Sheryl Crow was doing television in the hotel bar. Left late last night. Austin and I were confident that we'd have no problem finding our hotel. The maps showed that it was less than a mile from the Mercure. All we had to do was navigate through downtown Montpellier. Simple, right? Well, Montpellier is a town straight out of Les Miserables, with tangled streets that dead-end without warning. It was near midnight as we finally found the centre ville. Grizzled hookers; backpackers fresh off the trains from Spain, Nice and Paris; and, a certain menacing vibe attended our travels. I'm surprised we didn't see Jean Valjean himself. Finally found the hotel. The room was large but reeked of smokers (I'm not an anti-smoking vigilante. In fact, there are moments I find the aroma appealing. But hotel rooms that smell of cigarettes have a singularly insidious way of passing that aroma on to clothing and luggage for days to come). Watched Tiger on Eurosport, then crashed at around 1:30.Went for a stiff, cursory run around Montpellier at 6. It looks a lot better in daylight: a Roman aqueduct, a gorgeous opera house, farmers setting up for the Saturday market in the large plaza. Ran past the café across from the gare where my wife and I had lunch a couple Octobers ago (hey, Callie. Love you and miss you). There were three McDonald's within a mile of one another, which is not unheard of in France. However, I have yet to see a Starbucks.The scenery has changed dramatically in the last three days. Driving through the sun-drenched south of France en route to the Pyrenees feels a whole lot like driving through central California. Lots of farm land and sunburned hillsides. Hard to believe that a week ago we were all in rainy Germany, and that just last Wednesday found the Tour passing over the frigid and forbidding Col du Galibier. By days end, however, we'll be back in the mountains. The Pyrenees are a different beast than the Alps, and the finish today is just a couple miles from the Spanish frontier.One last note on the peloton. It's a huge rumor mill. The riders know who is sick and who is about to crack. They knew yesterday that Thor Hushovd had an upset tummy and wouldn't be a factor in the sprint. They knew that Valverde was on the verge of dropping out (having given just a wee bit too much on the Courchevel. And they know who's ready for today. Word is that the usual suspects: Basso, Armstrong, Ullrich, Landis, and Leipheimer have their game faces on.I should take a moment to say how flattered I've been to get such a steady stream of emails. Now comes word from the folks at active.com (these dispatches are posted at active.com and competitor.com) that many of you have been posting questions and feedback via the blog "comments" section. I had no idea (frankly, as great as they are, I never really look at either Web site. There's just too much going on here. I haven't even been obsessively tracking Last Voyage on Amazon or checking set lists on Backstreets since the Tour began). So for all of you who've posted comments, I'll start checking your comments and address some of your feedback in future dispatches. So feel free to keep posting, or just drop me an email at the ChasingLance7@aol.com address. I'm a little behind right now, but I'm trying to answer every email. Again, I'm flattered. Thanks to all of you for checking in each day.Talk to you after the stage.

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Bike Spike -- almost

Posted by MDugard Jul 15, 2005

I like Chris Horner's style. Though a climber, and entering the 13th stage of the Tour de France with tired legs, he helped his team by chasing down Juan Antonio Flecha's breakaway on this searing Friday afternoon (the stage began at 1:20 local time, late by Tour standards). Then Horner let it all hang out, dropping the indomitable Flecha and racing ahead with Cofidis's Sylvain Chavanel. The two were nipped just before the line. And though Horner ended up finishing tenth, he says he's not through yet. "There's plenty of time to win another stage. I'll do it again."I can only hope so. Horner's trademark is the "bike spike." When he wins he lifts his bike over his head, throws it to the ground, then screams like a madman on the podium.  So now you know.Though this is Horner's first Tour (at the relatively advanced age of 34, he's older than Lance Armstrong) he's a savvy racer. As he and Chavanel pedaled into the finish, Horner refused to take the lead, knowing that Chavanel would draft off him and slingshot past (think NASCAR) in the final moments. Chavanel slowed down, seeking to force the issue. Still, Horner refused. So instead of finishing second, he got that ten spot. Horner was unphilosophical. "Second or last, it's all the same. They only put the winner on the podium." Sure, he's a guy with nothing to lose. Horner's on a second-tier team and almost no one knows his name. But in a Tour when most interview questions are diplomatic or off the record, Horner is like a breath of fresh air. And on this withering July afternoon, fresh air is a very good thing.Robbie McEwen won the stage, giving him his third victory this year.Today was not the boring stage most people anticipated, but it was lightly contested. Lance Armstrong and his Disco Boys weren't risking anything in this weather. Armstrong is known to be suspect in the heat, perhaps as a result of his cancer treatments. Thus he hydrated well last night, rode safely inside the peloton, answered a few questions, then set off for his hotel. Most other teams had the same mentality. With tomorrow sure to be hot and uncomfortable (there are six climbs, including an Hors Category ("beyond categorization") climb up the Port de Pailheres, the teams were eager to get back to their hotels and off their feet. Team busses were driving away from the finish line less than ten minutes after it was all over. The exodus was unmatched so far in this year's Tour.Will Horner attack on Sunday's dramatic climb up the Pla D'Adet? Perhaps, but not on the final climb. "There's no way I'm going to be able to attack on that last climb when Lance is throwing it down. His team is just too strong."There have been questions about Lance's ownership stake in Discovery Team. Here's how it works: The Team is owned by a company known as Tailwind Sports, which obtains sponsors to pay the bills. Lance has a minority share in Tailwind. It was not always this way, but Lance gained that sort of bargaining chip as he became more and more of an icon.The address said that our hotel was in Aix-en-Provence last night, and I was looking forward to one of those late café dinners in the warm summer air. But the hotel was far outside of town – an inn, really – in the country. A freshly plowed hay field was next to the gravel driveway, and there wasn't another light for miles. Frankly, it was a little spooky at first. But the restaurant was still open (we always hold our breath; most places close by ten, and we rarely arrive by then), the room looked out onto a small forest, and the food was exceptional (olives smeared on thick bread, thin steak and roasted vegetables, some sort of custard/ice cream desert). We make each other laugh, even when we're talking about missing our wives and kids. We closed the place (there were only two other tables, so there wasn't much competition).I love the bread here.Ran this morning just after sunrise. I was searching for a trail, but was quite happy to stick with the single road connecting Aix to Beaurecouil. There were no cars, and the countryside looked like a mix between the Arizona desert and Southern California's sun-dried hills. I passed vineyards, small farms and large homes with private driveways. I finally found my trail at the top of a hill, and looped back down to the hotel.Rick Reilly from Sports Illustrated stayed with us last night. He was riding in the Discovery Team car today, so I agreed to drive his rental car from the start to the finish. It was a Mercedes sedan, though I'm not enough of a car geek to know which kind. All I can tell you is that it accelerates quickly, the air conditioning works very well, and the ride wobbles ever slightly as you push through 165 kilometers per hour.Not sure where we're staying tonight. We're headed off to the Discovery hotel for some late night interviews, then it's on to our own place. Tomorrow will be an early start with a mountaintop finish, which means it might be wiser to break out the sleeping bags (never attend the Tour without one) and camp in a pasture afterward, rather than brave the traffic jam coming back down. But that's tomorrow, and tomorrow is another day. I'll worry about it when it comes.There's a lot of time to think here at the Tour, what with all the hours wandering from town to town (by the time this is all done I will have driven nearly 6000 miles, roughly the same as driving across America and back again). We get lost on a regular basis, sometimes so lost that it feels like we'll never find the way. It can be quite maddening, and every journalist has dozens of stories about losing their car or sleeping in their car or wandering for hours in the dead of night, looking for a hotel that may or may not exist. But it dawned on me that the Tour's great lesson is to push forward, always forward. There's always a way. You just have to keep looking for it.OK. Enough Jack Handy. Talk to you tomorrow.

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