Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Gourdon, France

Friends: I had no one to cheer with today watching Lance put to rest any doubts as to his supremacy over his chief rivals in the first truly significant stage of this year's race, a mountain top finish on the tenth stage of this 21 stage race.

I had a TV all to myself for two hours in a restaurant/bar in the town of Gourdon, famous for its foi gras. I thought I'd be watching it in St. Cyprien, 25 miles earlier, but the friend of a friend who had invited me to visit and stay over broke her arm two days ago and rushed back to the U.S. It was several hours before the race coverage began on television, so rather than lingering in St. Cyprien, I just paused long enough for lunch of Champion deli fare. Enough tourists frequent this quiet, picturesque town in the Dordogne Valley that the supermarket had signs in English, as well as French, announcing it would be open Thursday morning, Bastille Day. It also had peanut butter, something that isn't always easy to find. I had run out a few days ago. It will be nice to have it in reserve. I may need it Thursday, when most stores will be closed.

I was eager to find a television early today. I wanted to see more than just the last few minutes of the race, as the peloton would be racing over two big passes in the Alps. I was a bit nervous when I came to a big back-up of traffic, more than a mile long. I was able to bike pass as no traffic was coming from the opposite direction. A serious accident had blocked the road. I was lucky that a gendarme more benevolent than some of those minding The Tour route let me go by the carnage, rather than waiting for it to be cleared, as every one else had to. I back-tracked five miles to this larger town of Gourdon, not taking any chances in trying to find a bar with a television in the smaller towns dotting a more direct route to my next destination--Albi, the departure city for Stage 18.

There was a TV in the first establishment I tried and they gladly put The Tour on for me. If the Internet were as common as bakeries, I could have been checking on the race every half hour as I bicycled along. But I hadn't missed anything of significance in the race's first three hours. Lance's Discovery team had the race well under control. There were several inconsequential riders up the road who would be gobbled up well before the finish. In the meantime, it was business as usual, a string of Disco riders, with Lance safely tucked in their draft, leading the pack, forcing the pace, shedding riders off the back.

By the time the lead group arrived at the final climatic Coucheval climb of 13 miles with an average grade of 6.3 per cent, punctuated by stretches of nine and ten per cent, many of those trying to keep up were already showing the strain. It was good to see Lance's stern expression, a nice contrast to his all too relaxed and easy-going expression up 'til now. He'd actually been turning and grinning and goofing for the motorcycle cameramen who patrol the race. Such behavior is unheard of until the final ceremonial stage into Paris. Rarely does anyone acknowledge the cameras that ride right alongside the racers. It is simply not done. All stick to the protocol of staring straight ahead while millions around the world watch. Lance normally has too, but not this year.

One of the cameraman was at the back of the race showing a string of dropped riders, all with contorted faces and all wishing he would go on to the next casualty. Chief among them were the Spaniards Iban Mayo and Roberto Heras, pretenders to the jersey who dropped out of the race last year in humiliation and weren't doing any better this year. By the time the lead group was down to 25 riders and all but two of Lance's teammates had fulfilled their duties and dropped off, Vinokurov drifted to the back of the lead group and then fell off, the first major casualty among the chief players. There would have been wild cheers if my restaurant had been packed with Lance fans. A little later Vino's teammate Ullrich began to struggle and was off, even greater news for Lance. With five miles to go Ivan Basso, the Italian who finished third last year could no longer keep up. It was down to four in the lead--Lance, the Dane Michael Rasmussen and the Spanish teammates Alejandro Valverde and Francisco Mancebo. It couldn't have been more exciting, nor could things have been going better for Lance.

The army of motorcycle cameramen deployed on the course had more stories to follow than there was air time. Lance and Ullrich and the French rider Moreau each had a cameraman tailing them. Moreau entered the stage in second place overall, as he had been in Sunday's breakaway that moved him dramatically up the standings. But he was a no real threat. Another cameraman followed Jens Voigt in the yellow jersey, severely struggling, now over 12 minutes behind and long dead. They ignored Vinokurov and Basso. Lance parried with the final three but was unable to drop them until the final sprint and was just nipped at the line by Tour rookie Valverde. A win would have been nice for Lance, as it would have given him a 20 second bonus. Instead he had to settle for an extra 12 seconds for the second place finisher.

The biggest surprise of the day, besides Vinokurov not having it, was Sunday's winner and long breakaway rider, Rasmussen, who was in the polka dot jersey of best climber, had stuck with Lance all the way to the finish. He moves up to second place in the standings, 38 seconds behind Lance, while everyone else is over two minutes behind. He's not a very good time trialist, but he is proving he has the stamina to be a serious threat in the mountains. If he had prevailed today and had taken first place and Lance had finished fourth in the group, Rasmussen could well be in yellow with the time bonuses. So the race isn't quite over yet, but Lance certainly put his stamp of dominance on it once again. Ullrich lost two minutes and fourteen seconds, Basso one minute and two seconds, Vinokurov five minutes and eighteen seconds. Tomorrow is another crucial stage with a climb over the Galibier, that monster I biked over a month ago that has the memorial of Henry Desgrange. I can't wait.

Later, George

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