Friday, June 30, 2006

Strasbourg, France

Friends: I feared stiff legs this morning after standing for over three hours last night watching the grand presentation of the Tour participants, but they awoke with nary a complaint.

Greg LeMond one year blamed his poor performance in The Tour for having to stand for a couple of hours on the train he took to the start of the race. He was a former champion at the time and still a seat could not be found for him, nor did he care to simply find a corner to plop down in as I would have done. But he has always been a whiner and continues to be one in his on-going feud with Armstrong. It had been mere petty jealousy at one point, but its gone way beyond that now with accusations that Lance threatened him that if he didn't desist with his bad-mouthing he'd come up with ten people who would say he had taken EPO back in his day.

The drug specter continues to hang heavy over bike racing. The latest scandal involves a Spanish doctor who has just been indicted for supplying illegal performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of cyclists, including Jan Ullrich. Its already resulted in one team being ejected from the Tour and possibly another.

Still, there were thousands of fans cramming the streets opposite the stage where the team
presentations took place last night. They were already three deep two hours before it was to commence when I arrived. I was fortunate to find a spot in the shade right in front of the stage, though separated by a river. I sat on the curb of the sidewalk and read for an hour before the crowd started closing in, forcing me to take to my feet.

There were two large screens flanking the stage, carrying the cable feed of the proceedings,
making it easier for all of us to watch. An hour before the program started, we were treated to videos celebrating the Tour and also the city of Strasbourg, population about 500,000 and seat of the European Parliament.

Each of the 21 nine-rider teams were individually delivered to the stage by boat, unlike last year when each team bicycled on to the stage and then pedaled off to make a ceremonial three-mile circuit through the town past throngs of fans. Even bikeless the riders arrived in uniform, though not wearing helmets. It took over 90 minutes to introduce the 189 riders and two directors per team, with the announcer rattling off the accomplishments of each with the machine-gun rapidity of an auctioneer on EPO. The camera gave us a several second close-up of each rider's face as he was announced. All received generous applause, but there were extra jolts for a couple of the French favorites, Voeckler and Moreau, plus the Germans Ullrich, Zabel and Voights. There were many Germans in the crowd as Germany is right across the Rhine River from Strasbourg.

Fan favorite Vinokurov, the swashbuckling Kasathan, also received a great burst of applause
even though he is the leader of the Spanish team Tour officials are campaigning to disinvite. His Spanish teammate, Belocki, a former multiple podium finisher until he broke his femur three years ago in the horrific crash that sent Lance cross country, also received a little louder cheer than most from the appreciative and knowledgeable fans, even though he is a very conservative and dull racer.

There were a smattering of boos for the Discovery team, but none for any specific riders, not even its lone American George Hincapie. Each team has a designated leader. There was much speculation who would inherit that role at Discovery from Lance. There were four strong possibilities. The Portuguese rider Azevedo, who finished fourth at the recent Dauphine-Libere stage race was granted the honor of wearing a race number ending with the digit number one, though, of course, if he falters Hincapie, Popovych or Salvidori could all assume the role.

Two Americans are leaders on other teams--Floyd Landis for the Swiss team Phonak and Levi Lepheimer for the German team Gerolsteiner. They both finished in the top ten last year and ought to be considered contenders, especially based on significant victories earlier this year, but the official Tour program does not include their faces on its cover, just Basso, Ullrich, Valverde, Cuenogo and Vinokurov. That slight ought to give them a little extra motivation. I'd be most happy to see a Discovery rider or Landis win, but the results and the participants are incidental to the event. What draws me and matters most is the event itself and its celebration of bicycle racing and the bike. My biggest thrills aren't watching the racers pass, but riding the route with the non-stop array of tributes to The Race and the bike.

And that is how the French regard it as well. The most common signs along the race route are Vive Le Tour and Merci. One of their own hasn't won it, or barely even contended for the title, since Hinault in 1985, yet the French remain as devoted to it as ever. Local newspapers and publications regularly have a feature asking people from the common man to celebrities what the Tour means to them. It is a significant part of their culture and heritage. Some refer to childhood memories and others herald the bravery and courage of the riders. Others mention the camaraderie of family and friends and strangers gathering for an annual day-long picnic out
in the country along the race route. Everyone looks forward to it and any year it passes through their town is a momentous occasion to be treasured for as long as they live. The thrill and excitement is contagious.

Later, George

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