Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Albertville, France

Friends: Two years ago when Lance was all the rage going for a record sixth Tour title, I was surrounded atop L'Alpe d'Huez by cocky, rich, know-it-all Americans and loud, obnoxious, drunken Germans all there for the event and making a spectacle of themselves. This year things were back to normal.

When I reached the summit at 11:30 yesterday, five hours before the racers were due, I was fortunate to find a spot in the shade under a ledge 250 meters from the finish linefwith a view not only of the final stretch but also with a view of the giant screen broadcasting the proceedings from 12:55 on, a bit after the racers set out from Gap. To one side of me were five Australians in their forties, four of whom were women. They had been biking about France the past month catching glimpses of The Tour here and there. They were all busy writing postcards. And when they weren't, we had hours of experiences to share. To the other side of me was a 23-year old German racing cyclist with shaved legs, who gave me the lowdown on each of the fourteen Germans in the race. And in front of us on a blanket were two Dutch couples in their sixties in orange Rabobank hats, sponsor of the Dutch team.

There were a few Americans, but they were a rarity. There was a couple from Colorado, who had rented a camper to follow the final week of the Tour. They had nearly canceled their plans when Basso and Ullrich were non-starters, but they were extremely happy that they hadn't. They were avid cyclists, occasionally riding with Tyler Hamilton on their training rides in Boulder. This was their first stage. Also seeing their first stage was a young couple from Florida, who had biked down from Grenoble. They were exhausted, even though it had entailed little climbing. Both couples were thrilled and in awe to be here at L'Alpe d'Huez, recognizing it as the shrine that it is. They were a marked contrast to their American counterparts of two years ago, the big swinging-dick, master-of-the-universe types, who thought it was their divine right to be there, gloating in the supremacy of Lance, as if they had contributed to it.

Two years ago anyone who had attended a stage at L'Alpe d'Huez before raved that it was the largest gathering by far that they had seen there. They weren't exaggerating. Even though there were several hundred thousand people there this year, it seemed about a third as many as two years ago. I camped in a small park with a children's playground three blocks from the center of Bourg d'Osians. There were eight or nine other tents in the park with loads of room for more. Two years ago there had been fifty or sixty tents crammed into the park with little space between.

Still, there were thousands of cyclists biking around and clogging the lone supermarket less than a mile from the start of the climb. One could hardly imagine that it could be more mobbed, though it certainly had been. Just as two years ago there was a huge migration of thousands cyclists up the Alpe the morning of the day's stage, dwarfing any group ride, even New York's Five Boroughs Ride or Chicago's Bike the Drive. It is the ultimate ride for many. There were several professional photographers taking photos of every cyclist who passed at one scenic bend near the summit, handing cyclists a coded card if they wished to purchase a photograph of their momentous ride.

Unlike two years ago, the route wasn't totally lined by vehicles and spectators. If I had known there was space, I could have made the climb the night before and camped along the road or in one of the fields overlooking the route. And if I had, I would have been treated to the site of Lance anonymously riding up the course that evening with Jake Gyllanhall. I had a chat with a couple of Germans wearing Postal Service jerseys who had seen him. They were ecstatic at the memory of it.

I could have had another worthy Lance experience if I had been willing to linger in Gap on Monday's rest day before biking the 75 miles to Bourg d'Osians. A local cycling club was hosting a "Le Passage Armstrong" ride of forty-five miles that included Lance's overland detour in the 2003 Tour. It was a fund raiser for the Lance Armstrong foundation, entry fee ten euros.

The Aussies beside me were avidly rooting for their countryman Cadel Evans and the German for his countryman Kloden, who both had aspirations for the yellow jersey. At one point they and Landis were in a pack of their own for several miles of the eight-mile Alpe climb. Kloden, who had finished on the podium two years ago, was leading, with Landis on his wheel and Evans behind. Kloden had an expression of agony while Landis seemed to be riding effortlessly, looking as serene as if he hadn't a worry in the world.

We had no close-up of Evans, but Landis must have sensed him weakening, as after a couple of miles he finally attacked. Evans couldn't respond. When Landis looked back Kloden was gaining on him. He allowed Kloden to rejoin him for a partnership the rest of the way. The two were riding so well together it looked as if they would overtake the breakaway leaders whose three plus minute lead at the base of the climb had faded to forty seconds with less than two miles to go. Lance certainly would have, but that would have just been frosting for Landis, as he had once again shown to be stronger than all who were a threat to him. He and Kloden ended up fourth and fifth one minute back.

Landis bore an expression of such ease, in contrast to Kloden's agony, I expected him to ride away from him at any moment. But for the second mountaintop finish in a row, Landis declined or was incapable. He also failed to win the sprint at the finish line for third place and its eight second bonus against a rider who had faded from the three-man breakaway. He did hold off Kloden and gained time on all his rivals, reclaiming the race lead and the yellow jersey. Once again, Landis rode a very tactical and conservative race, not expending more energy than he needed to. He is new to this leadership business, and may be resisting overly exerting himself and doing anything dramatic that might put himself in trouble the next day or day after. He doesn't have the brash Lance personality that needed to deliver a knockout blow, demoralizing all contenders as well as the French and the race organizers.

The headline in yesterday's "L'Equipe," the sensational sports daily newspaper, was "Judgement Day in the Alps." Landis passed that test. Today he has one more big test to pass with the Tour's final mountaintop finish at another ski resort, preceded by a fifteen-mile climb over another pass that I just finished off. It would be nice to be there at the finish, but I'm already thirty miles into tomorrow's stage, the last mountain stage of the race. After today four stages remain, the last the ceremonial ride into Paris that doesn't count, and also a time-trial the day before, where Landis has been dominant. I look forward to seeing Landis on Letterman. He's also due to race in Downer's Grove in August, though he could well bow out and get that hip surgery taken care of.

Later, George

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