Thursday, July 7, 2005

Tours, France

Friends: For the first time in the two years that I have followed The Tour I was on hand for a stage start yesterday in Chambord. Usually, I've started riding the course first thing in the morning, if not the night before, well before the peloton sets off sometime around noon, plus or minus an hour, depending on the length of the stage. Since I wouldn't be following this day's stage on its route to Germany, but would be doubling back to Tours to rejoin Florence and Rachid, I was in no rush and could luxuriate in all the pageantry and hoopla of a stage depart.

I couldn't have picked a more magnificent setting, as the departure point was on the grounds of one of the more striking of France's many chateaus. It was built in the early 1500s by King Francoise 1 as a hunting retreat. It was no modest lodge, but as grandiose as any chateau around, topped off by a spectacular cluster of spires and minarets. Leonardo da Vinci, who lived the last three years of his life in the region, contributed to some of its interior design. The chateau provided a breathtaking backdrop to the yellow stage that all the racers mount and sign in on and take a bow to the crowd. For better than an hour each of the 180 racers trickled to the stage, in no particular order, fulfilling this obligation. Each was acknowledged by Daniel Mangeas, the official announcer of The Tour. He'd rattle off a quick list of their credentials--victories, nationality and significant accomplishments.

When I arrived at ten, three hours before the race start, the grounds were already mobbed. As always, I was completely awed by their numbers and wanted to immediately start taking pictures, but knew enough to wait, as this wasn't anything yet. For those who weren't interested in staking out a prime viewing spot in front of the stage or at the start line, there was a vast field where the many sponsors were gathered offering entertainment and goodies. Many of the crowd chose to seek out the team buses a distance away to catch a glimpse of the racers.

The Tour is a showcase of the many splendors of France. This chateau and its grounds are among its most sensational. It has to be difficult for The Tour organizers to let more than a couple of years pass without including it in The Tour.

My only disappointment for the day was that Lance declined to wear the yellow jersey he was awarded yesterday when the Discovery team just edged out the CSC team to win the team time trial. Lance didn't feel he rightfully earned the jersey, since Dave Zabriskie, who had been wearing it since winning the first stage, crashed shortly before the finish line. If he hadn't taken the fall, he wouldn't have lost the jersey. It is a Tour tradition to wait a day before donning it in such circumstances, something that has happened a couple of times. Each is an intrinsic part of Tour lore. I was disappointed not to see Lance in yellow, as it would have positively identified him in my photos when he appeared on stage, and when he pedaled past me to assume his spot at the head of the peloton. Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc ordered Lance to put it on once the race started, halting the entire peloton. Since Lance was the present guardian of the jersey, it was his obligation to wear it. He owed it to the thousands of fans along the route who wanted a glimpse of it. It is one of the few jerseys that can be identified as the peloton flashes past in one big blur. I only wish Leblanc had been more forthright and ordered him to wear it from the moment he left his team bus.

After the race began, I biked 40 of the 50 miles back to Tours before stopping to watch the last 20 miles of the stage on a television in a bar. I was surprised to see Lance in yellow, as it was only later I learned about Leblanc's edict. Lance said there was no debate, as Leblanc told him if he didn't put on the jersey he wouldn't be allowed to start the next day.

After riding the length of the first four stages of The Tour and then witnessing yesterday's start, I am going through Tour withdrawal today, though I was able to watch all four hours of the TV coverage with Florence and Rachid in their apartment, another first for me. It was a memorable and worthwhile experience, since they could translate all the commentary. It wasn't entirely necessary during the race, but made a huge difference during the hour-long post-race show. I usually watch no more than the highlights at the start of the show, as I can only guess at what is being said by the panel of journalists and riders and team officials. The show is held before a live audience in a temporary studio at each stage finish.

They had a most dramatic day to discuss. Just three blocks to the finish in Nancy, Christophe Mengin of the Francaise des Jeux team, who had just barely been holding off a fast-charging pack crashed in a rain-slick corner. It was a horrible tragedy, as Mengin lived in the area and was near the end of his career. Winning this stage would have been a monumental victory for him, maybe the highlight of his career. Everyone watching had to be rooting for him, especially the French as it is so rare for a French rider to win a stage these days. A local guy winning the stage was the story line for the day. Local riders always have the extra incentive of wanting to win a stage when it finishes in their home town. Rarely though are they strong enough or do the circumstances allow it.

The producers of the broadcast knew that there was a possibility it could happen this day. They placed a camera and microphone in the car of his directeur sportif, Marc Madiot, a very animated fellow, to watch the race from his perspective and with his commentary. It was like having a camera and microphone on a baseball manager in the dugout during a game. It offered an extraordinary insight into the day's events. Each rider has an earphone so his director can communicate with him. Madiot, a former two-time winner of the Paris-Roubaix classic, was screaming and urging him on with as much energy as he was expending on his bike.

The drama had been building all day. Mengin had been in a five-man breakaway that formed early in the race. Ten miles from the finish on a short climb he went off on his own. All was going according to plan. He was having the ride of his life, pushing himself as hard as he could. It appeared as if he could actually pull this off. It would have been the greatest moment of his life to win this stage. He had been pointing towards it ever since The Tour route had been announced last October. For months he had been visualizing victory on this stage, and he was about to realize the dream. The pack had closed to within eight seconds of him as he neared that final turn, but it looked as if he was going to hold them off. All he had to do was make it through that turn, as it would slightly slow down the pack. Madiot was exhorting him with more and more vigor the nearer he got to the finish. He had invested almost as much energy and emotion as his rider into this stage. He was exulting, "You can do it, you can do it, you are going to do it." Victory seemed certain, so when he crashed, neither could have been more devastated. Madiot shouted in horrid despair at the top of his lungs, "Merde, we are damned." In the post-race interviews, both coach and rider were in tears, totally wiped out and crestfallen. It was another stirring chapter in the high drama of The Tour.

Later, George

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