Monday, July 20, 2009

Geneva, Switzerland

Friends: There was simply too much pep in the young legs of Lance's teammate Contador and the Schleck brothers for the old war horse Lance to keep up on the climb to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier and the finish line of the 15th stage of The Tour. Lance has looked painfully hollow-eyed and at his limit whenever there has been any climbing during the previous 14 stages. It was no act, as he once famously hoodwinked Jan Ullrich on L'Alpe d'Huez. Lance needed his German teammate Andreas Kloden to pace him the last few miles, finishing over a minute and a half behind Contador, though holding second in the overall standings. Eight riders finished ahead of him, including Cadel Evans by nine seconds. I couldn't tell if he muttered to Lance as he passed him, "c'est fini," as Lance pronounced of Evans' chances over a week ago.

With Leipheimer out of the race with a broken wrist, the next American to cross the line was Vande Velde, a disappointing 22nd on the day, 2:41 behind Contador. He dropped to 12th in the standings, 3:59 back, his podium aspirations gone. The biggest surprise of the day was his English teammate Bradley Wiggins coming in 4th. He's never been known as a climber. Few are stronger on the flats though. He won two gold medals on the track at the last Olympics. Since then he has lost 25 pounds, making him into a potent climber. He is the surprise of The Tour so far.

An English school master, who I met at last year's Tour and rode several hours with after the Dignes-les-Baines stage, and encountered again this year was thrilled by the result. Wiggins had tossed him his water bottle a few years ago when he was on a long solo breakaway. The school master later had him autograph it. The school master spotted me and my loaded bike along the race route just after the peloton had set out from Pontarlier, a veritable miracle. It was the second stage he had seen this year. He's in a camper once again with his wife. He is headed to Lake Annency and a campgrounds right on Thursday's time trial course around the lake. There are two more stages in the Alps before the time trial. Contador is looking so invincible, the race ought to be decided by then, though anything could happen on Mont Ventoux on Saturday, two days later.

Lance has conceded the obvious and vows to be Contador's domestique for the remaining six stages. The question is if Lance can hold off his teammate Kloden and also if this will be his final race or if he will return next year. Kloden has twice finished on the podium. He has served as a super-domestique for both Ullrich and Vinokourov over the years, pacing them up mountains just as he did for Lance up Verbier, sacrificing his aspirations. Lance did let Kloden sprint ahead at the end to finish a couple seconds ahead of him, securing a fifth overall place in The Race.

As I followed the peloton out of Pontarlier I was on the alert for a "L'Equipe," the French daily sports newspaper, along the road. The caravan is passing out copies this year. It is the most exciting item for me that the caravan has ever dispensed. It is a sports periodical without peer that I occasionally even buy. It reports on The Tour with an incomparable thoroughness and intelligence, devoting up to eight pages an issue to The Race. "L'Eqipe" is owned by the same company that owns The Tour de France--ASO, Amaury Sports Organization.

Since The Race was short on sponsors this year, "L'Equipe" was added to the entourage. I arrived in Pontarlier at eleven, 45 minutes after the caravan had set out and an hour before the official race start. It didn't take me long to find a discarded copy in one of the translucent green plastic trash bags hung along the course route. That gave me plenty of reading material as I watched the last two hours of the stage in an Irish bar in a small ski town.

Unlike most of the other items the caravan gives out, the crew distributing "L'Equipe" looks for adult males to hand them to, rather than children and pretty young women. They do toss out refrigerator magnets indiscriminately, one of the few items I will scramble for. I'm also on alert for the food items--crackers and sausage, and also the pen one sponsor tosses. Quite a few sponsors toss key chains. The only one I'm interested in is one with a yellow jersey with "Rotterdam 2010" on it. Rotterdam will be the start of next year's Tour. That will be a sensational starting point, as the Dutch greatly embrace The Tour, almost as avidly as the Belgians. The Dutch start means a couple of days in Belgium as well. The Tour has skipped Belgium the past two years. It tries to make a visit every other year, just as it does to "L'Alpe d'Huez." The Belgians line the road two and three times as thickly as the French and make a wild, boisterous party of it, often with quite a bit of drinking. The best part of Belgium for me is that the Belgian gendarmes are far more lenient than the French in letting bicyclists continue riding on the course right up to the arrival of the caravan.

The oddest item the caravan is tossing this year is a balloon with a plastic nozzle for inflating and a handful of pebbles inside as a noise maker. That is less obnoxious than the long plastic tubes that people clang together to make noise. One of the most popular items, the red polka dot cycling cap, is slightly different from last year's version, as the Champion supermarket is no longer the sponsor of the King of the Mountain competition. Rather it is Champion's parent company, Carrefour. This year's hat includes the Carrefour emblem among all those red dots.

Later, George

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