Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tours, France

Friends: Of the twenty stages and Prologue of this year's Tour, I managed to make it to the finish line before the peloton for six of them. I witnessed the other fifteen finishes on television. Finding a television was often a saga of some sort, occasionally cutting it very very close. I was engaged in one of those races to the finish Sunday for The Tour's last stage. I had to ride seventy miles before I found an open bar, a genuine scarcity in France on Sundays.

I thought I might find one in Gençay after I'd biked a little over fifty miles, especially since it was large enough for there to be signs to a "Centre Ville." But that Centre was a ghost town, forcing me to push on to Poiters, a city of 120,000. Even it had me nervous, as it was dead and deserted for three miles from its outskirts until I reached its center. There were open bars, but the first three I came to did not have a television. The fourth had a pair of televisions, but they were tuned to something else, though no one seemed to be paying them any attention. I am always concerned I might encounter resistance when I ask a bartender to change the station to The Tour. I fear the bartender might be among those fed up with the doping, and is boycotting the race as some newspapers and TV stations and the Danes have done.

But not this one fortunately. It was 4:45 and the peloton was just reaching the Champs Elysees, over half an hour late, for the first of its eight laps, led out by Discovery elder Hincapie--a most pleasing site. I tried to scan the spectators looking for Roberto, but that was an impossible task with the racers flying by at thirty miles per hour. Roberto hadn't been able to come up with a ride the 250 miles to Paris from Angouleme for either of us, so he was going to try to get there by train.

As much as he loves to ride his bike, he likes even more close contact with the racers, as if some of their energy and power and mystique might fly off onto him as they speed past. As we were watching the time trial Saturday from the same hillside vantage I had watched the previous day's action, he excused himself after Leipheimer passed us fifty feet below, saying he wanted to be on the railing, close-up, when Evans and Contador came by, just inches away, as he knew he wouldn't be able to get so close to them the next day in Paris. I liked it just where I was, staring at the jumbo screen and seated right beside the exit route for the motorcycles and team cars leading and following each rider as they turned off the course ninety meters from the finish. The team cars often had guests in the backseat. Their faces were unfailingly wreathed with expressions of supreme delight, if not ecstasy, after having been in the wake of a rider for an hour who had been cheered non-stop for 34 miles by the thousands of fans lining the course.

My strongest memory of the day before was the Orange Euskatel team car when it passed by me leaving the course, its passenger side splattered with blood. Evidently one of its riders had taken a fall and was spurting blood while being tended to as he rode alongside it. Blood is not an uncommon site at The Tour. The Discovery water bottle I found along the road earlier in the week had blood on it. When I saw a close-up of the swollen, blood-clotted lip of Popovych as he left the starting ramp for the time trial, I knew whose bottle it had been.

Blood was in the face of those watching Friday's stage, as one of the four riders in the day-long breakaway, the French rider Sandy Casar, who won the stage, suffered an early crash when a dog ran out on the course. The pavement ripped a gaping hole in the right buttocks of his shorts, turning his flesh into red hamburger meat. Its a tough, demanding sport. The drugs make it no easier. They only allow the racers to push harder, making it harder on all of them.

Once the peloton entered the Champs, I had a final 55-kilometer, one-hour, dose of racing to watch in the Poiters bar, then an hour of post-race ceremonies--the various trophies awarded, interviews and the teams making a ceremonial circuit, some with their coaches accompanying them on bikes in their civilian clothes. The Contador, Evans, Leipheimer podium had to have been the least ecstatic, almost glum, podium in Tour de France history. They all looked uncomfortable and none-too-pleased.

Leipheimer, who finished a measly eight seconds behind Evans for the third spot, had just a hint of a forced smile, undoubtedly bemoaning those ten seconds he was penalized for hanging on to his team car while a mechanic pretended to be working on his bike. And besides those ten seconds, he had to be thinking of countless spots over the race's 2,000 plus miles where he could have gained another 21 seconds, which would have placed him atop the podium with all its glory and millions of dollars of endorsements. Third-place isn't much better than 25th.

The frog-faced Evans was utterly expressionless, staring blankly, unblinkingly, perhaps at a fly that he might suddenly leap at. Contador seemed embarrassed, barely summoning a smile, perhaps fearing that in a day or two the results of one of his drug tests would put an end to his fairy tale as happened to Landis last year. It wouldn't have been any happier of a podium if Rasmussen were still around. His results would have been tainted, not only by drug suspicions, but by the placement of the time trials later than usual in this year's race.

Ordinarily the first time trial comes before the mountains. If that had been the case this year, everyone would have been alerted that Rasmussen had transformed himself in this discipline and the peloton would not have let him escape on the second day in the Alps, as it has allowed the past two years, thinking he was just racking up King of the Mountain points without being a threat to the overall standings.

He wouldn't have gained those minutes that put him in the lead. And if he hadn't been in yellow, there wouldn't have been all the furor about his missed drug tests. He would have finished the race as King of the Mountains for the third straight year and Contador could have been an ecstatic 24-year old winner, the youngest since Ullrich ten years ago, and the racing world could celebrate this new great talent.

Roberto was very much soured on The Tour, pained that the rider's heroics were often fraudulent. When I met him Monday, before Rasmussen's dismissal and Vinokourov's positive drug test and the ouster of the Cofidis team when one of its riders tested positive, he thought following The Tour would be a life-long pursuit. Now he's not so sure. I told him I'd be back for at least one more year, as it was such a pleasure to bicycle in France. He said as much as he liked biking in France, he didn't like it that the road signs did not give distances to towns and also that the skimpy shoulders of the narrow roads were often gravely, unlike the roads of Germany.

The Tour is a French institution that the public fully embraces. It is an opportunity for a day-long gathering and road-side picnic when The Tour comes to their region. But if television interest plummets, the money-interests will withdraw and the magnitude of The Tour could be jeopardized. Money is at the root of the drug woes. There is so much to be gained, millions, by those who excel, that they are willing to take great risks and spend lots of money on means to artificially boost their performance.

That has been the history of The Tour from its very start. The first four finishers and eight others of the second Tour in 1904, including the previous year's winner, were all disqualified a month after the race for cheating by taking trains. The Tour was wildly popular even then and people feared it was dead. It will persevere, and I'm sure I'll be seeing Roberto next year. Now I get to enjoy the company of Florence and Rachid, as I've done the past three years here in Tours.

Later, George

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