Friends: Back in his heyday Lance dominated The Tour with his legs. After a three year absence, despite returning with not quite the same dynamite in his legs, he is still dominating The Race, but with his personality and his legend.
After faltering in Tuesday's stage, falling behind the leaders by 30 seconds on a category one climb, but then recovering and rampaging back like the Lance of old to rejoin them before the summit, the front page headline in the next day's "L'Equipe" was "Armstrong does not abdicate."
Yesterday's third and final foray in the Alps on the Tour's most challenging stage with four category one climbs and one category two was a bit much for Lance, as he lost two minutes to Contador and the Schleck brothers, falling to fourth overall. He could regain a podium spot though today in the 25-mile time trial around the unspeakably beautiful alpine Lake Annency. Whether or not he finishes on the podium, he is not dispirited. He has demonstrated he is more than competitive and a force to be reckoned with. He has vowed to return next year in better shape. That's exciting news for all race aficionados. Lance is most definitely an animator in all respects. He lives up to his motto--"Go hard or go home."
I arrived at yesterday's finish in the ski town of Le Grand Bornard by eleven after finishing off the category one Col de Colombiere, 15 kilometers from the finish. I arrived in ample time to find an Internet and file a report, but in this touristy town the only Internet outlet was charging three euros for 15 minutes, way beyond my budget. That's about my limit for one hour of Internet time. Just after I arrived, clouds moved into the valley and a light drizzle began, the fourth mountain stage with rain. It was an off and on rain for several hours, just effecting the early part of the race, causing a few falls, including Menchov turning on a painted line.
The day's broadcast on the huge screen at the finish line began at one o'clock, giving us four-and-a-half hours of virtually uninterrupted racing action. The camera was focusing on Thor Hushovd in the green jersey when the telecast began. My first thought was that he was off the back and in trouble, as he is not a climber. But he was off on a solo breakaway gobbling up a few more intermediate sprint points to sew up the sprinter's jersey.
He was all tuckered out when the peloton hit the final two category one climbs 25 miles before the race finish. The first was the Col de Romme just outside of Cluses. It had never been included in The Tour. It began with a killer grade of better than ten per cent for its first two miles, a steeper start than L'Alpe d'Huez. Sastre attempted to repeat his heroics of last year on L'Alpe spurting ahead, but it was too much for him. The afternoon before it took all my might standing on the pedals to manage the climb. It was just under six miles. There was a four mile dip after its summit to the start of the Col de Colombiere, another killer with an average grade of just under nine per cent. Those back to back at the end of a 100-mile stage would be tougher than Mont Ventoux.
I camped on the descent from the Col de Romme, doing something I rarely do, setting my tent up right alongside the road. If the race had come from the opposite direction, my sliver of turf would have had a couple of RVs already parked on it, but few care to establish a watching point on a descent with the racers flying past at 50 miles per hour. I had camped the previous two nights on narrow ledges just above the road in gorges with a minimum of flat spots. There is so little traffic after dark in the mountains, I didn't have to worry about my sleep being interrupted, and the terrain so steep, there was no worry of deranged wart hogs on the loose.
As I began my day climbing the Col de Colombiere it hardly seemed like a weekday, as there were hundreds of people on foot and on bike flocking to the mountain. As always, it was a thrill to be a part of this throng of devotees, thousands of them gathering for an all day picnic on the mountain. Only official cars were allowed on the road even at that early hour. There were police barricades at the top and bottom of the climb.
The large screen in Le Grand-Bornard was in a semi-graveled parking lot alongside the race course. It was one of the larger viewing areas I've encountered. I tried several different spots for my vantage. I left the first as the exhaust from an idling truck was drifting past. I abandoned my second spot as there was a nearby smoker. Body odor sent me scurrying from my third, before I finally settled on a corner location on a slight rise. I flattened a cardboard box for a dry and soft cushion to sit upon. I was near a booth that was tossing small packages of biscuits to the crowd.
I was hoping to finally connect with Jesse the Texan, but we continue to miss each other. I did run into the English school master though once again, with his son and daughter-in-law. He was as exuberant as ever, thrilled that Wiggins could finish top five.
There was a huge exodus of cyclists from Le Grand Bornard after the finish all flocking down hill to Lake Annency. Once I reached the lake I followed the yellow course markers for the next day's time trial around the top third of the lake before breaking off and heading towards Mont Ventoux. Friday's stage begins 60 miles from Lake Annency, another most unfriendly transfer for me. But I'll make it well before the peloton and be on schedule to reach Saturday's finish atop Mont Ventoux before they do. I'll be content to watch the time trial in a bar later this afternoon.