Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pauillac, Ville Arrivée

Friends: The 2010 Tour has one stage to go, but fans can already start anticipating next year's Race and another battle royale between Contador and Schleck. Schleck is just 25, winning the best young rider award again this year, and Contador just two years older. Contador and Schleck finished one-two last year. It was an easy win for Contador last year, but not this year as Schleck considerably narrowed the gap between them.

He gave a valiant effort, giving it his all, holding back nothing on the Tourmalet as well as in yesterday's time trial. He was not willing to settle for second, and risked overextending himself and going kaput, but he nearly pulled it off. He actually closed to within four seconds of Contador early on as they battled each other and the clock three minutes apart on the course. If he had overtaken Contador it would have been as momentous as LeMond overcoming Fignon in the final time trial in 1989.

Maybe he found extra inspiration from all the road graffiti cheering him on. Nearly all of it was devoted to him. It even gave me extra energy as I biked the time trial course Friday night into a wind and the setting sun. I was over 100 miles for the day, but felt no fatigue as I was urged on by the fan enthusiasm--the writing on the road and the many campers parked along the roadside.

Schleck will be haunted for the next eleven months by those 40 seconds he lost when his derailleur failed him. If brother Frank hadn't crashed out of The Race on the cobbles in Stage Three, he would have been there with him to give him his bike or help pace him back to Contador. If not for those lost 40 seconds Contador would have been forced to attack on the Tourmalet, rather than simply riding on Schleck's wheel for half an hour the final six miles when they were a duo ahead of everyone else. Then we would have seen for sure who was the strongest.

Andy and his brother Frank will be riding for a new Luxumbourg-sponsored team next year. Everyone will wonder if they can maintain such a high level without Bjarne Riis as their director and without the support of their veteran teammates Voight, O'Grady, Sorenson and Cancellera, four of the toughest, most hardened riders in the peloton. When Sastra left Riis after winning The Tour two years ago, he's hardly been a factor in The Race, finishing seventeenth last year, the second worst finish by a Tour winner in the year after his victory. He did even worse this year finishing twentieth, three places ahead of Lance.

It was well that I biked to the time trial finish in Pauillac the night before, as the road was closed by nine the next morning with the first rider on the course by 10:15. The caravan started much earlier and reached the finish line about the same time that first rider was hitting the course. The large screen didn't come alive with Tour coverage until 1:30 with a 40 minute pre-Tour show. It largely focused on the wineries of the area that the time trial course passed.

There was a feature though on Ryder Hesjedal, the revelation of The Tour, coming in seventh. His Garmin team director, Matt White, was interviewed wearing a t-shirt with a red maple leaf and "Ryder" above it, acknowledging his Canadian heritage. Christian Vande Velde has been quoted as saying he looks forward to riding with the "new Ryder" in the upcoming Tour of Spain.

Finally at 2:20 the actual Race coverage commenced. I had laid claim to the shade and back rest of a plane tree facing the screen four hours earlier. I was just five steps from the barrier lining the course at the 200 meter to go marker. I could hop up for a quick look at a rider when he whizzed passed, alerted that he was coming by the fans pounding on the sponsor signs lashed to the barriers.

In year's past I have invariably found myself beside an English speaking fellow aficionado of The Tour for several hours of the time trial rehashing the preceding three weeks of racing. No such luck this year. I was hoping to be joined by a couple of young English fans I'd met the day before at the finish line in Bordeaux. They had driven down from the UK arriving in time to set up a campsite on the Tourmalet Monday night, three days before the dramatic stage in the rain.

Last year they had done the same on Mont Ventoux, experiencing extreme heat their first day and then plummeting temperatures on race day. They said they were surrounded on the Tourmalet by Spanish Basque fans who drank wine and coke out of goatskins non-stop, explaining their crazed behavior chasing after the racers. The runners were the worst ever as they had plenty of room to run with the rain thinning out the usual mobs. They said they would have gladly tripped any they could, but there was too much of a gap between them.

They were Cavendish fans and worried that he might not win the sprint in Bordeaux without his lead out man Renshaw, who had been kicked out of the race for head-butting a competitor in the last sprint finish a week ago. I assured them he would find someone else's wheel to launch himself from, which he did indeed, winning so easily he looked back two or three times to see where everyone was, an insult of a sort to his competitors. It was his fourth win this year. Only he and Eddy Merckx have won four stages three years in a row.

I did have one final good conversation with an English fan, though not until the next day out at the Bordeaux airport. I stopped by the airport, just six miles from the city center, to confirm my British Air flight for the next day and to verify that they could provide me with a plastic bag for my bike.

I saw a cyclist with a bike wrapped in a plastic bag. I was hoping he'd just arrived and I could have his box or bag if I needed one, but he was preparing to leave. He was a Welsh school teacher who'd just finished a week's ride from Barcelona, coincidentally connecting up with The Tour in Bordeaux and a little in the Pyrenees.

When he learned I was American, he said, "I was hoping to be biking across America this summer. I had it all planned out. I was going to do it in three stages over three years--Los Angeles to Denver, Denver to Chicago, then Chicago to New York, taking three weeks for each stretch. It was to celebrate turning fifty. But my wife would have nothing of it. She threw quite a fuss. She'll only allow me to go off for a week at a time. I don't suppose you're married."

"No, that's not a mistake I've made."

"It has its advantages and disadvantages. My wife just doesn't have the passion for the bike that I have and can't understand it. I bought us a tandem, but that didn't work. I've ridden it with my 14-year old daughter, but she'd prefer to be on her own bike. I know I'll eventually do the America ride, but it will take a while before I can get permissions from my wife."

This was Russell's first time flying with his bike. All his other excursions on the continent had come after taking the ferry or train over from the UK. He ordinarily stayed in bed and breakfasts, but spent one night in a barn on this trip and had also spent the previous night sleeping at the airport. I could do that tonight as well if there wasn't such easy and plentiful camping nearby.

Biking in Bordeaux kept reminding me of my imminent return to Chicago. In the central district I couldn't go a block without seeing a painted cow or a mini-billboard advertising "Night and Day," a Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz movie. The two stars were in town for a gala opening and to attend The Tour. Barriers had been lined up leading to the theater where the opening was Friday night. It was mobbed with people at six pm after the stage finish. If I didn't have 32 miles to bike before dark I could have stuck around and gotten a glimpse of them.

Now its time to find a bar for the finish on the Champs Elysees in Paris and Cavendish's fifth win. It will be interesting to see if the Sky team leads out the sprint again as they did in Bordeaux for the first time this year. It is an audition of a sort to Cavendish, as they will be doing everything in their power to pry him from the Columbia team, even though he has a year left on his contract with them.

Later, George

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