Monday, July 23, 2007

St. Girons, France

Friends: After Sunday's brilliant, no-holds-barred racing to the summit of the ski resort at Plateau de Beille, I have felt more honored and privileged than ever to be riding the same roads as these stunningly gifted and conditioned and driven athletes. It was amazing to witness the extra, extra, beyond human effort the elite of the peloton was summoning, trading punches as if there was no tomorrow, with one acceleration and attack and acceleration and attack after another, parried and countered, in an offensive display out-dazzling any Fourth of July or Bastille Day fireworks celebration, as the race leaders tested what each was made of and how much they could take. It was a knock-down, drag-out battle for miles, as the racers careened up an incline most people would struggle to walk up. The suspense was riveting--who would prevail, who would break, who could recover after lagging behind to catch their breath. New heroes were born while old heroes cracked.

Rasmussen proved he has the mettle of a champion, first by shocking all with his time trial performance the day before and then responding to the barrage of assaults against him the next day. And the Spanish Discovery rider Contador proved he is a future star. The Aussie Evans dropped from second to third overall, unable to stick with Rasmussen and Contador. Poor Vinokurov faded again, just as the headlines were proclaiming he was back after his remarkable time trial win. The Spanish hopes Valverde and Mayo fizzled even worse than they did in the time trial. Leipheimer stuck in there, but as has been his history, he was a non-aggressor. Still, he moved up to fourth overall, within striking distance of the podium. It was a great day for the Discovery team, with Popovich also being an instigator and moving into the top ten overall. This ought to bring the team a new sponsor, as Discovery is bowing out after this year after three years in the sport, still searching for a replacement.

There are two telling stages to go--another mountaintop finish on Wednesday and the final time trial Saturday. Today I watched the racers fly past just outside the town of Massat on the flats just after they had finished off the category-two Col de Port. The peloton was strung out, still sorting itself out with the field scattered and breakaways trying to form. It was all-out racing. My ears were singed by the heated words flung by riders not happy that someone ahead was not closing down a gap. I was shaking my head at the intensity level, something television can't fully capture, just as it can't come close to conveying the violence of football. You've got to be on the sidelines to appreciate it, as I did for four years as a football manager at Northwestern.

I was standing across the road from the bicycling hostel, Pyrenean Pursuits, I visited two years ago. I had a grand reunion with the English owners, who I've maintained contact with. They'd been telling their guests about me, the bicycle messenger/touring cyclist from Chicago, that very day. I spent an hour watching the race on the television in the hostel after the peloton had passed, chatting with Austin and Sally and a couple of their guests, before heading down the road, promising to return next year for a longer stay with friends who promise to join me bicycling the Pyrenees in June before The Tour. I watched the final ninety minutes of today's racing over two category-one climbs on a large screen in the parking lot of a Champion supermarket, as Contador tested Rasmussen again, while Vinokurov took the win well ahead of the peloton up the road, as the true contenders let him escape since he was no longer a factor in the race having lost a staggering 28 minutes the day before.

I was joined by a German cyclist such as I've been hoping to meet since I began following The Tour four years ago. And he had been looking for someone such as me. We've both been biking The Tour route these years without encountering anyone else doing a similar thing, but hoping to find another. He said he had noticed me a couple of times, including over today's first summit, but we've never ended up at the same place at the same time. He's traveling much lighter than I without a tent, just throwing a sleeping bag down on the ground where he ends up at night. He has befriended a German television station covering The Tour, which occasionally provides him transport between stages and carries some of his extraneous gear. When German television abandoned The Tour several days ago, upset that another German rider failed a drug test, the German truck with his panniers headed home, so he has had to improvise, just lashing a bag on top of his rear rack.

He's following a different route than I will for the next couple of days, but we will meet up at Saturday's time trial. He said it may be possible for the two of us to hitch a ride with the remnants of the German crew covering the race the 250 miles from there to Paris for The Tour's final ceremonial stage concluding on the Champs Elysees. We talked non-stop for a couple of hours until well after today's stage finished, exchanging tricks and stories, and we barely got started. His name is Roberto. His email address,"girobertour", combines his name with The Tour and the Giro (the Italian version of The Tour), adding a "gi" to the front of roberto and "ur" to the back, as if he were born to be following the two of them, something he has been doing for five years.

Another highlight of the day was adding three team water bottles to my collection, including a Discovery bottle and a Quick Step bottle from Tom Boonen's team. Roberto pointed out that the Quick Step bottle had to have come from Boonen, as it had the world champion stripes on it, distinctive to him. He said he had noticed that Boonen was the only rider on the Quick Step team with such a bottle just a couple of days ago when he came upon the Quick Step team bus before the race and the riders were preparing to head to the start line. He had many, many such insider tips. He was a production assistant on the German documentary from 2003 on The Tour--"Hell on Wheels". We both agreed we had found our alter-ego.

Later, George

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