Friday, July 21, 2006

Macon, France

Friends: Just when it was beginning to look like no one wanted to win this year's Tour, nor was worthy of winning it, Landis astounded everyone with a ride that ranks among the most amazing and heroic in Tour history, proving that he will be a most eminent champion.

He pulled himself up off the mat after a disastrous performance the day before, exploding on
the day's final climb, losing ten minutes (an eternity) and falling from first to eleventh, seemingly out of contention, and maybe so wasted that he might not even finish the race. All of France and European bikedom was rejoicing, or at least felt relieved, that not another American was about to win the Tour and establish a dynasty. Everyone had written him off and many were regretting having given him as much praise as they had.

Landis had to learn many things from Lance the three years they were teammates. Something he may have been reluctant to adopt, or that was contrary to his character, was to race with anger and rage, Lance's favorite motivational tools. But yesterday they fueled Landis to such an incredible ride that "L'Equipe" screamed "Incredible" and "The Ride of the Century." He set off on a seemingly suicidal solitary break, such as destroyed Pantani the year he and Lance had a tiff over Mont Ventoux. Landis made his bold attack forty-five miles into yesterday's stage, with eighty miles to go at the base of a category one climb. "L'Equipe" called it a "supreme act of defiance."

No one could latch on to him when he made his move, nor could be much concerned that it would amount to anything. Landis may be respected, but no one believed he had such an effort in him. He caught up to an earlier breakaway group and then left them all behind, eventually finishing over seven minutes ahead the yellow jersey group, holding his lead over a beyond category climb while all the contenders worked as furiously together to try to catch him as they had the day before when they dropped him. He gained an extra twenty second bonus for the win, moving him up to third, thirty seconds out of first, about the amount of time he lost when his bike broke in an earlier time trial and he had to get another. The two ahead of him are very mediocre time trialists. He ought to easily overtake them in Saturday's time trial and ride into Paris triumphant in yellow.

When Landis crossed the finish line, unlike most winners, he did not rise off his handlebars to show off his sponsor's name and revel and exult with arms heavenward. Only his right hand left his handlebars in a ferocious round-house swing that could have leveled the Sears Tower. There wasn't a flicker of a smile on his face. "Take that," he was telling all the world, a world that had given up on him, just as Lance would have done. Besides, this was a mere stage win. He had more important matters to tend to. At the awards ceremony afterwards, though, he was all smiles. The fans responded with thunderous applause.

It was such an inspiring ride it kept me on my bike last night until 10:30, well after dark, riding more than half of the next day's 123-mile stage to Macon. After four days in the Alps with at least two category one or beyond category climbs a day my legs felt pulverized and the ovenish heat had further sapped my energy. My chain spent more time on the 34-tooth ring on my freewheel than usual the past two days. Like the peloton, I was happy that today's stage is the last of the climbing, and has only three rated climbs, with the worst a category two. When at 9:30 last night I encountered a three-mile category three climb, I barely noticed it. As always, it was a joy to be riding past all The Tour followers encamped along the road, some solitary and many in clusters sitting in lawn chairs outside their campers as the day finally cooled off.

My easiest day in the Alps was the day I climbed L'Alpe d'Huez, a beyond category eight-miler that I was able to do without gear, making it a ride to savor. There were thousands of us riding up it, all fulfilling a dream. There wasn't all the music from revelers along the road as two years ago. This year's feature was kids with squirt guns offering to cool riders off and adults who would pour a bottle of water over rider's heads. I welcomed them all. It took almost as long to descend L'Alpe d'Huez after the race as it had to climb it, as two miles from the top the gendarmes were halting the thousands of cyclists and then letting us go in groups, a worthwhile safety measure. Still, it was wheel-to-wheel bikes, two lanes wide, everyone riding their brakes at fifteen miles per hour, considerably slower than if the road were clear.

I went straight to my tent and rushed to take it down as dark clouds moved in. A local hotelier, who happened to be in the park, thought I was afraid to camp in the rain and offered me a room. He couldn't believe I was planning on setting off on my bike up the Col de Glandon, a climb twice as long as L'Alpe d'Huez and just as steep. The rain did come, but it was only a sprinkle, and it felt good as I strained up the climb, camping at a rest area half way up the climb that I had camped at two years ago. Climbing in the spectacular beauty of the high Alps was a wonderful way to end a day and start another. There were thousands of others also encamped on the mountain that night, claiming their spots for the next day's stage.

It is 45 miles from Macon to the end of tomorrow's time trial. I'll ride most of the way there in the cool of evening after the peloton arrives here in Macon in a couple of hours. Landis ought to don the Yellow Jersey once again and wear it into Paris on Sunday. I will have four days to bike the 300 miles to Paris for my flight home Thursday after another fabulous July in France.

Later, George

No comments: