Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Albi, France

Friends: I have discovered a formula for euphoria--start my day with 50 to 70 miles on the bike, stop and watch the final two or three hours of The Tour, bike another 30 or 40 miles until dusk and camp somewhere off the road. Those last hours of the day, when the wind is settling and the temperatures cooling and the traffic nil and my thought reveling in another fine day of bike riding and bike watching are sheer and utter bliss. My legs pump with effortlessly glee and my spirit soars at how wonderful life can be.

I'm well into another heaping dose of the Big E, having ridden 70 miles today through the incomparably glorious French countryside to the sizable city of Albi where I've just watched Lance and his teammates put on another clinic in managing the Tour de France. They allowed Vinokurov to salvage some pride after his "jour de merde" yesterday, letting him escape and win today's stage. But he's still over five minutes down and not even in the Top Ten. His escape companion Botero moved up a few places and the French hope Moreau slipped into third ahead of Basso by claiming the eight second bonus for winning the sprint for third. Otherwise the standings remain the same and nothing happened to alter Lance's grip on the race.

The peloton had come 60 miles after starting its day at 12:20 when I settled in front of a TV at 2:45 this afternoon after an eight a.m. start. They were just starting their climb up the category one Col du Télégraphe, the second of the day's three climbs. The other two were Beyond Category. But since today's finish wasn't at a mountaintop, like yesterdays, we did not have the High Drama of Lance putting extreme hurt into everyone and shedding them one by one. Instead, he had his team just ride a hard steady pace all the way to the finish in Briançon, 25 miles, all down hill, from the summit of the Galibier. Only about 25 of the 174 riders left in the race were able to keep up. There was still a sizable group just summitting the Galibier after Lance and company had finished the race, 40 minutes after they had crossed the summit. It was a cold descent. Many of the riders stuffed newspapers under their jerseys after crossing the summit. One of Lance's teammates, whose work was already done and was in no hurry, actually stopped for his newspaper stuffing.

There should be no more Lance heroics for the next two days, as the stages have no significant climbing. But this weekend, when the peloton enters the Pyrenees, all hell could break loose, especially Sunday when there are six big climbs. Both Saturday and Sunday the race will conclude at the summit of a ski resort. The Spanish fans will be going berserk cheering on yesterday's winner Valverde. Their former hero, Mayo, is well out of it after another miserable day today. The cameras still find him important enough to focus on despite losing 21 minutes yesterday and gobs more today.

Tomorrow is Bastille Day. I'll be sorry not to be riding the course, as last year it had more people massed along it than any other stage, as everyone within miles flocks to the race on this great French holiday. This year I will be hoping to find an open bar or restaurant with a TV. If the stage were of much importance I would consider a hotel room with a TV. Instead, I will head to the large city of Toulouse, about 50 miles away, where I am certain to find something open.

Today's only disappointment was not seeing the Desgrange Memorial a kilometer below the summit after the racers had begun their descent. The racers flew past it so fast, at over 50 mph, it would have been just a blur, but still, the helicopters are always zooming in on hill-top castles and chateaus and letting their cameras linger on them. Vinokurov began his descent about 40 seconds before Botero, but Botero, a Colombian who can fly down the mountains, was able to catch him in no time. They then united forces for the remaining miles to the finish. Vinokurov
easily won the sprint.

Later, George

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