Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Mourenx, France

Friends: France's daily sports newspaper, L'Equipe, had things in perspective yesterday--eight of its 18 pages were devoted to The Tour and half a page to Woods winning the British Open. Being able to read the extensive coverage L'Equipe gives The Tour is another reason that France is the only place to be in the month of July for anyone who wants to fully appreciate the Tour de France. It is virtually ad free and has full fold-out pages with dazzling photographs, all in color, loads of commentary and stats galore. It costs about a dollar, but is always money well spent.

Each issue this year has some cycling great recollecting their first memories of Lance. His streak of soon to be seven straight wins establishes him as the greatest Tour rider ever. There was considerable doubt before this year's Tour whether Lance would be motivated to win it again, since it would be his last race and his early results during the year weren't the best. The director of The Tour, Jean-Marie LeBlanc, who is only the third person to hold the position and has held it since 1988, was certain he would be. He said, "Armstrong est un veritable American, un competiteur."

I'm presently in Mourenx, today's departure city, about 15 miles from Pau. I will watch the start of the race and then head back to Pau, where the race ends and tomorrow's stage starts. When I get to Pau I will keep riding, trying to get as far into tomorrow's 150 mile stage as I can. I hope to be in front of a TV by the time the peloton reaches today's beyond category climb at about its half-way point, before the relatively flat return to Pau that shouldn't dramatically effect the standings.

Although Sunday was a super day for the Americans Hincapie and Armstrong, it wasn't so great for the Americans Landis and Leipheimer, both still in the top ten, but they faltered in their bid to inch towards one of those top three podium spots. Ullrich barely made a dent in Rasmussen's three minute lead on him for the third spot. If Hincapie hadn't been saving his energy on some previous stages, he could well be in the top ten as well. Despite the difficulty of Sunday's stage, only two riders dropped out, and, thanks to the cool, everyone made the time cut. The last two riders, 46 minutes after Hincapie, came in within one minute of being disqualified, and they celebrated as they crossed the line.

Among my Tour highlights so far is having my picture taken with The Devil, the German uber-fan, the Ronnie Woo-Woo of cycling, who dresses up as The Devil, complete with horns and pitchfork, and is there along the road for every stage of The Tour, and many other races as well, waving his pitchfork and jumping up and down as the peloton passes. He's quite adept at getting on TV and in the newspapers and cycling magazines. I only stopped for the photo op because the Australia I happened to be cycling with at the time recognized him ahead and slammed on his brakes, asking if he could have his picture taken with him. He started a chain-reaction, as suddenly everyone in the vicinity had the courage to have their picture taken with him as well. It is a picture I've wanted and will treasure almost as much as a photo with Lance. He is a celebrity fan I've been aware of for years. His devotion and crazed antics have always given me a jolt of excitement.

I snapped a few photos of him in action at the opening time trial, when I found myself stationed along the course in his vicinity. Unfortunately, he only speaks German, so I couldn't find out how long he's been doing this and why. Maybe his website will have that information. I nearly took his picture last year when I encountered him at the Tour de Suisse hours before the peloton was due, painting a series of his trademark pitchforks on the road to warn the riders and TV cameras that The Devil is nigh. I kept waiting for him to appear in the German documentary on The Tour that I saw in Cannes called "Hell on Wheels." He could have well inspired the title of the movie, but shockingly, he wasn't to be seen, a most grievous omission. He merits a documentary of his own.

Mourenx is in competition for a podium spot among Ville Etapes for the best and most bike art. There are literally hundreds of bikes, each painted a single bright color, scattered all over town. The town hall has about 15 decorated bikes on its roof and a 1973 car from that year's Tour that was one of the official vehicles with three bikes mounted on its back. There are also huge banners hanging on some of the multi-story apartment complexes along The Tour route celebrating great cycling events in Mourenx's past--1999, the last time it was a Ville Etape, one of Eddie Merckx being honored for a stage victory here in 1969, and others of the peloton passing through. There is also a mini-replica of the four cols (passes) today's stage will cross. The tourist office has an exposition of bike related stamps from all over the world including Mongolia and Cuba. There was a special edition of French stamps one year honoring The Heroes of The Tour."

I am very happy to have detoured over here to Mourenx. I could have skipped this stage and started immediately on tomorrow's stage, the longest of The Tour. It was very tempting yesterday, especially since there was a strong tail wind. Instead, I'll have a couple of hard, hard days ahead of me to keep up with the peloton. I will barely have time to stop to eat. I'll have to do as much eating as I can as I pedal along, just as the racers do.

Later, George

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