Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cahors, France

Friends: If there hadn't been a newspaper laying around the bar/cafe where I was watching yesterday's final mountain stage, I would have been wondering where in the hell the Astana riders were in their distinctive turquoise uniforms. But I couldn't have missed the front page headlines of Vinokourov being the latest rider to be caught with banned substances in his veins. Like Landis last year, he was desperate for some results and evidently went overboard in his usual regime and tested positive after his startling two-minute win in Saturday's time trial after struggling the first two weeks of the race.

Its no great surprise that he has gone down, as it was his former director sportif Manolo Saiz last year who was deeply implicated in the Spanish Operation Puerto scandal. Saiz was caught on tape visiting the notorious Dr. Fuentes and also arrested with some 30,000 euros in a briefcase entering his office. Four of the nine riders on Vino's Spanish team last year were linked to Fuentes, resulting in the team being ejected from The Tour the day before it began, sending Vino to the sidelines even though he was one of the favorites to win The Race and a popular personality with his aggressive attacking style. Miraculously, Vino wasn't linked to Fuentes, when it was obvious that if the team director was dispensing illegal substances to his racers, he would have been dispensing them to everyone on the team.

Vino has long been a fan and French favorite. His name is written on the roads as much as anyone's, and he animates the racing, so The Tour organizers like having him in The Race. Now he must live in shame the rest of his life, though he is a bigger national hero in Kazakhstan than even Borat. There was no mention of Vinokourov and Astana during the two-and-a-half hours of the telecast I was watching with a mob of Germans in Lycra who were following The Tour with a tour group. The lone German hope, Kloden, was no longer in The Race, ejected along with the entire nine-man Astana team Vinokourov led. The Germans were all rooting for Rasmussen and cheered heartily when he soared away from the two Discovery riders Contador and Leipheimer in the last kilometer.

For the last six miles of the climb to the finish the race had boiled down to the top four riders in the general classification with Contador hoping to put a dent into his two minute deficit to Rasmussen, and Leipheimer hoping to edge past Evans to third place. Evans finally fell off the pace, but he labored most heroically, keeping his deficit to a minimum. He only lost seventeen seconds, plus the twelve second bonus Leipheimer received for finishing second in the stage, maintaining nearly a minute advantage on Leipheimer for that crucial final podium spot. Evans edged Leipheimer in Saturday's time trial, and, in fact, becomes its winner now that Vinokourov has been eliminated, so its not too likely that Leipheimer will be able to overtake him in a similar time trial this Saturday. The final standings most likely will be Rasmussen, Contador, Evans and Leipheimer. Evans will become the first Australian to podium.

I will be curious to see if Roberto, the German Tour fanatic, will still be wearing the Astana cap he was wearing when I met him three days ago. He was rooting for Kloden and also Vino. One of the many other strands of conversation I'll wish to pursue with Roberto when we meet up at Saturday's time trial in front of the big screen is the story behind the several bracelets he had on each of his wrists. He already told me about one, his yellow Livestrong bracelet. Noticing mine, he proudly pointed to his and said it had been on his wrist for three years, ever since Sheryl Crowe removed it from her wrist and presented it to him. It happened on the morning of the team time trial in 2004 that concluded in Amiens. Roberto had been camping in the town park when he noticed a slight woman out for an early morning jog. When she passed by him, he struck up a conversation. She was wearing a hood, so he didn't immediately recognize her, but when he did, she offered him her Livestrong band. He said he's had several brief encounters with Lance over the years with his access to the racers through his German television connection. He commented, "Lance has evolved from being a brash, arrogant, typical American to a decent guy."

Roberto is the second person I've met who met Crowe on the day of that team time trial. The other was a former professional racer from Ohio who was trying to follow The Tour by bike, pulling a Bob trailer. We rode most of the fifth stage together, the day after he had shared a pizza with Sheryl, her parents, and Lance's former coach, Jim Ochieweicz, who was a friend of this guy. He, too, did not immediately recognize Crowe, but was also impressed by how nice and down-to-earth she was.

My yellow wrist band has attracted comment as well. When I walked into one of the bars where I watched a stage, a waitress immediately zoomed in on it and ushered me over to a French patron who was wearing one. He heartily greeted me as if we were in the same brotherhood. I occasionally notice them on mechanics assisting racers during a stage. The French rider Moreau also wears one. The Lance era has faded in many respects, and his wristbands aren't anywhere as ubiquitous around The Tour as they were up until last year, but they are still a regular site.

Another indication that Lance is no longer at the forefront of people's thought is that not once this year has someone exclaimed as I rode past ahead of the racers "Lance" or "Armstrong" as I used to frequently hear. Now its mostly "Le Premier" or "Le Maillot Jaune." Some also draw a laugh from those around them when they respond to me with an exclamation of "Bobet" or "Pou-Pou" or "Jalabert," old favorite French riders, though never Anquetil or Hinault, who never really endeared themselves to the public as these others did, even though they were bigger winners.

Cahors is the start of tomorrow's stage. I'm 24 hours ahead of the peloton. It is 130miles to the stage finish in Angouleme, which will also be the stage finish for Saturday's time trial, starting 34 miles away in Chablis. After Saturday the peloton takes a TGV train to within one hundred miles of Paris for the finale. With luck I may be able to accompany Roberto there in the back of a German TV truck and see the peloton on the Champs for the first time.

Later, George

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