Le Tour de France

I returned from France late yesterday afternoon, and now I'm wide awake at 3 in the morning, as expected. For exactly three days I'll indulge in life as a morning person, until a bachelor party in New Orleans this weekend transforms me back into a vampire, as New Orleans is known to do.
I hope you all have been following the Tour de France, an event so respected that even ugly Americans don't refer to it as the Tour of France. It's by far the most dramatic Tour in recent history, and definitely the most competitive of Lance's drive for five. His recovery from cancer to win the tour was a great story, of course, but let's be honest--he's blown away the field the last two years and it's almost been as dull as the days of Miguel Indurain's domination. To win five in a row and tie the all-time record, he'll have to earn it, and that's as it should be.
Highlights from the Tour:
--Last I wrote, Tyler Hamilton had broken his collarbone. No one thought he'd continue. Well, he proved us wrong by sticking in the Tour. Then everyone thought he'd drop out as soon as the Tour hit the Alps since he wouldn't be able to stand up out of the saddle, and it would be too painful to climb because he'd have to pull or push on his handlebars. Well, not only did he conquer the Alps but also attacked Armstrong on Alpe D'Huez several times while still seated in the saddle. Unreal. It probably helps that he chose to ride a higher cadence up the mountains this year: 52x26 chainrings instead of a 53x39. Smart--I should have done that for the mountains. He made a pact with his coach and wife: if he lost more than 15 minutes in either of the first two Alp stages, he'd drop out. No worries, huh? Of course, we should have seen this coming. Last here he had a broken shoulder and still finished second in the Giro D'Italia. Afterwards he had to get many of his teeth capped because he had ground them down from the pain in his shoulder. Cyclists have the greatest pain tolerance and capacity to suffer of any athletes I've observed. They have to, because many of the drugs they'd like to take to kill the pain are illegal on the pro tour and would disqualify them from the race. Hamilton has proved he is not afraid to challenge his old boss, and even if he doesn't win this year he has to feel great about his chances next year.
--The early flat stages of the Tour were all about the coronation of Alessandro Petacchi as the new sprint king of the peloton. He not only won every sprint, taking four of the first 6 stages, but he dominated the competition in a way we haven't seen in the Tour since the last Italian sprint king, Mario Cipollini, won five sprints in 1999. He was winning so easily he could raise his hands in victory about 10 meters from the finish and just coast through each time. Unfortunately, he then emulated Cipo in a less admirable way and dropped out on the first mountain stage. Sure, sprinters don't like to climb, but Zabel and Mcewen have stuck it out in the past and earned the respect of their peers for being willing to suffer the Alps and Pyrenees. Petacchi cruised in, grabbed a few stages, and plopped himself down in the back seat of the team wagon. It's one of the reasons the Tour probably didn't invite Cipo's team back this year.
--Lance failed to make his signature decisive attack on Alpe D'Huez, as many expected. Instead, it was Iban Mayo who put the hammer down and pulled away for a 2' 12" gap over Armstrong. I was watching the satellite feed of the race from just above turn 7, and everyone was waiting, waiting, waiting for Armstrong to attack. Instead, he was the one under fire from countless attacks. Beloki, Mayo, Vinokourov, Hamilton...everyone decided not to wait for the fabled Armstrong attack and went on the offensive from the start. Armstrong didn't have what he called the super-jambes (Franglais for "super legs") and so he just gritted it out, sitting on Beloki and Hamilton's wheel the whole way up. He didn't panic, and he gave a gutsy performance, but the rest of the podium contenders had to gain a huge dose of confidence from finally detecting some vulnerability in the Texan. US Postal looked fantastic, though. They controlled the peloton up the massive Col de Galibier, and the pace that Beltran set at the bottom of Alpe D'Huez was insane. It shattered the peloton and exploded French poster boy Richard Virenque. That entire climb up Alpe D'Huez is the most exciting mountain stage in the past five Tours. Estimates of the number of screaming fans on the mountainside range from 400K to 650K! It was madness in the mountains.
--Joseba Beloki, who's finished third, third, and second in the past three Tours, crashed out in spectacular fashion in Stage 9, forcing Armstrong to make an amazing emergency detour down a grassy hill. You've probably seen it. I had to watch it on TV several times to believe my eyes--it will go down in Tour history as one of the most significant accidents and near-misses ever, and the highlight is destined to be played over and over again. European race TV coverage is a bit more comprehensive than US coverage (though the gap is closing) and they showed one close-up clip of Beloki lying on the ground, and you could hear him crying and screaming in pain like a child. It was gruesome and gave me flashbacks to my accident with the dog, when I was bleeding and rolling around in agony on the pavement, worried I had broken my neck. The pain is immediate and terrible, but the psychological effects are more enduring and challenging. I'm still nervous on descents now (Maverick: "It's no good, it's no good!"). Beloki was in great form and looked set for another podium finish, so he was probably crying also in sorrow at seeing a year's worth of preparation gone to waste. No one is certain what caused Beloki's tire to skid and his tubular to roll off, but the heat is the primary suspect. As for Lance's detour down the mountain, it is for me the most amazing highlight of the Tour thus far. The man has nine lives; that could easily have been a cliff he rode over.
--Ullrich is back. The German is unlikely to win, especially after the time he lost on Alpe D'Huez, but his promising prologue and solid climbing show that he's on his way back to being a serious GC contender. He also looks trim, a good sign for a supremely talented rider who has battled the bulge in the past.
--Gilberto Simoni and Santiago Botero have disappeared. Botero was expected to be the primary GC contender for Telekom after his strong showing in last year's Tour, but Telekom has shifted its support to the surprising Vinokourov. It's very fortunate for Telekom to have another contender. Simoni talked a big game before the Tour, promising to attack Armstrong, but it looks like he's going to drop out any day now. Cycling is such a macho sport--it makes for great drama, all the bluster and chest-beating and testosterone. And hubris.
Highlights from my personal tour with Breaking Away...
I was in lousy riding form at week's start, but after logging about 200 miles over 6 days, including several huge Cols (a col is a mountain), I'm feeling stronger. My legs were sore all week, and it still smarts a bit to walk up stairs. But I left for my trip with a chip on my shoulder and a desire to channel some anger into personal suffering, and the Alps are a temple to cycling self-flagellation. At the same time, nothing cleanses the soul and renews one's love of cycling like a cycling camp in Europe, the mecca of two-wheeled religion. I rode alongside grassy fields...

...past cows...

...and farm fields...

...and vineyards.

It was scorching hot in France, and I can testify that the heat radiating off of the tar on the roads was enough to melt rubber. Climbing the Alps is tough, but in 95 degree heat and humidity it's a torture test. No one needs to convince me that the construction of so many paved roads has led to global warming. On every climb the sweat would be soak my headband within minutes and soon begin rolling down my face in never ending rivulets, burning my eyes. But the warmth is part of the challenge of climbing the Alps during the Tour, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm a terrible climber--way too heavy, not powerful enough, but I enjoy the enduring mental and physical exertion of uphill riding in a way I can't explain.
French drivers respect cycling in a way that's so refreshing. Unlike in America, I never had to worry about rednecks throwing fruit or beer bottles at me, or swerving their giant trucks and SUVs towards me and honking their horns in an attempt to knock me off the road. French drivers let you share the lane with them if you can maintain your speed, and they'll leave spaces for you to merge or pass. Americans have a culture in which they feel like kings when they're in their automobiles, and it's not attractive. The French fans cheer and wave as you ride by, shout encouragement when you're suffering up the climbs, and offer a push or a water shower if it appears you're about to fall over.
My new favorite people are the Dutch. Eric, Rod, and I were riding down Alpe D'Huez, looking for a good spot from which to watch the race, when we happened upon a crowd of Rabobank fans dressed in orange up above turn 7, near the famous little church which is always shown on TV during stages on Alpe D'Huez. The Dutch crazies were all dressed in bright Rabobank orange. They were dancing to Euro techno music blasting from speakers hooked up to their van, cheering and dousing water on every passing rider, and pounding beer to stay hydrated. This was definitely the place to be. Before I had even learned their names, three crazy Dutch guys wearing crazy hats asked me what I wanted to drink and quickly handed over several ice cold cans of Coke, Perrier, and Orangina. Proost!

I also met the cow guy, a Dutch fan dressed in a cow costume. That he managed to avoid heat stroke is testament to Dutch fortitude.

Turns out the Dutch had driven 12 hours down from Holland and camped up on Alpe D'Huez for several days as part of their annual pilgrimage to the Tour. The music? Pumped out by their very own DJ, working out of the back of his van.

One of the favorite tracks was Boogerd is the Best, a tribute to Rabobank rider Michael Boogerd. Every Dutch fan knew the words, and now I do too: Boogerd iiiiiisssss the best, he is the best! They also brought their own beer kegs and were kind enough to supply Eric, Rod, and I with a constant supply. Getting drunk just before descending Alpe D'Huez on a bike with hundreds of thousands of other fans in your way is not smart, but it was too hot to refuse the liquid refreshment. Soon I was dancing and screaming and cheering the passing riders just like everyone else. How the professionals manage to ride a straight line up between the tunnel of rowdy fans in the road is a mystery to me.

Needless to say, my day on Alpe D'Huez will forever be etched in memory.
Another highlight of the trip was getting to visit the US Postal team buses after stage 7. We didn't get to see any of the riders, but we were too busy cooing and drooling over their bikes, getting a post-ride wash and tune by the team mechanics. The Treks were all sporting the new 2004 Shimano Dura Ace gruppo, not yet available to the public. All of us gearheads were circling every component with lust in our eyes, as if ogling a supermodel. Everyone wanted a photo with Lance's Trek which was the only to sport a hot custom paint job.

The most visible changes are the brake levers (longer) and crankset (two pieces, reverse threaded, and designed to be stiffer and lighter). Reactions from the group were mixed, though the only consensus was that the new group would be more expensive than ever.
The last ride of the trip was gorgeous. After a short climb up the Col de Leschaux (check out my helmet hair)...

...Andy and I flew down a twisty descent to end in the lovely little town of Annecy. File that name away as a perfect romantic getaway destination, the little Venice of France. I strolled through town, grabbed a great French meal (including some foie gras, of course), and wandered in and out of cathedrals and parks.

I was really sad to have to fly home, though British Airways did a great job (count me as a big BA fan; unlike Air France, they delivered my bike on time and in one pice). The entire trip went by much too quickly. Don't they always?