Lance, le patron du peloton

Many of us arrived in France concerned that the race was turning into a rout, but now, a week later, I couldn't be happier having watched Lance dominate. He has won an unprecedented four stages in a row in the mountains (broken up only by a stage victory for Gonzalez in the flat stage 14 to Nimes), and today he was a human bullet in capturing the long, final individual time trial. Our entire group watched Stage 17 on a projected screen in a hotel conference room, and we were screaming our lungs off as Landis led Armstrong over the Croix de Fry and then as Lance screamed past Kloden in the final sprint. It may be the most exciting stage victory I've ever seen Lance capture.
When I arrived, Lance was in blue. He zipped past me in Villard-de-Lans, in a turn in the final leg of stage 15, still in blue...

...but just a few minutes later, he was in yellow.
That's the color he was wearing when he streaked past me on his way towards the base of Alpe d'Huez in the stage 16 uphill time trial.

I would rank this as Lance's most dominating Tour victory of his six. He has the form he had in 2001 along with by far the strongest team, superior even to than the original Train Bleu of 2002. With the exception of time trials and the later mountains in the long mountain stages, Lance has been flanked by a sea of blue riders. It's a beautiful thing to watch, as in this shot of US Postal passing me on the Col du Glandon.

Tomorrow, we'll watch the race finish on the Champs Elysees from a special viewing area reserved for friends of Jean-Marie LeBlanc.
Cycling trips that follow the Tour de France are both exhilarating and exhausting. The logistics leave little time for lying around unless you're content to sit in the hotel and watch the race on television. Instead, everyday we're riding and then watching the race, and every other day we're packing for van transfers to the next hotel, chasing the peloton around the country. It's a breakneck pace.
I haven't slept much. Early on it was the result of jet lag, and more recently it's been due to our tight schedule. The morning always start early, usually with a breakfast at 6:30 to 7:00, and we're out on our bikes by 8:00 to 9:00. The ride usually finishes two to four hours later, with lunch at whatever town we've arrived at. It's similar to the schedule almost all the bike tours adopt, similar to the regimen of the last two Tours I've attended, but for some reason I'm more fatigued this year.
Yesterday, Oleg and I left for a 100km ride to Lons le Saunier from our hotel in Macon. Almost as soon as we departed into the French countryside, the rain began to fall. The severity of the storm spiked quickly, and soon the sky was being split by forks of lightning every ten to fifteen seconds, the wind whipping the stalks of corn this way and that. The booming gongs of thunder added to the soundtrack of terror. We had nowhere to hide.
I put on my rain jacket, but soon it simply clung to me like frozen saran wrap, weighed down by water. Both of us started shivering, and without glasses, I could barely see. I tried squinting, but several times I simply opened my eyes quickly and then shut them and rode several seconds at a time blind, hoping Oleg wouldn't brake ahead of me. After 24km, we finally found an abandoned farmhouse with an overhang to hide under. Eventually Mitch rescued us, and an hour or so later, the storm passed and we rode the remaining 50km to the race finish in Lons le Saunier. Today I'm sick as a dog, my throat on fire, but at the time, I felt like a tough guy.
I rode Alpe d'Huez again this year. It was tougher than I remembered it being last year. Cyclists use "epic" to describe certain races, stages, and climbs. Alpe d'Huez is a mountain that earns that adjective. In addition to some lesser known climbs, we also ascended the Col du Glandon and Les Deux Alpes. The descent down the Col du Glandon was incredible, long and just straight enough to achieve warp speed. I reached 76 km/hr, while Oleg, thanks to a leadout from a gendarme, hit 87 km/hr! Achieving that while sharing the road with other cyclists and automobiles moving in both directions is a knuckle-whitening exercise.
A few times during the descent, I contemplated various ways I might meet my end: brake lock-up in a switchback, launching me across the road into the path of an incoming vehicle; cyclist ahead swerving across the road and clipping my front tire; missing a switchback and launching myself off the road into a ravine; front tire blowout. Despite all that, I couldn't stop grinning the whole way down.
Without a doubt, there are more Americans at the Tour this year than ever before. Lance has single-handedly tripled or quadrupled the number of American tour groups. During the Alpe d'Huez time trial, nearly a million people must have been camped out in town and all the way up the road, through all twenty-one switchbacks. That must be one of the largest live audiences to witness any sporting event.
Other memories I'll carry away from this Tour: the courage of Thomas Voeckler, the new French hero, who dug deep to retain the yellow jersey in stage 13 despite being dropped on every climb. His face was almost always frozen in a look of pure suffering, yet somehow he hung on to the white jersey until today. I'll remember the strength of the US Postal Team: not only did they stay out front and control the race, but a rider like Azevedo retained enough energy to hold 5th in the overall classification. I'll also remember this as the coming out party for the next great American hope, Floyd Landis. It was looking bleak for the future of American cycling post-Lance, but Floyd's performance up Croix de Fry in stage 17 was an instant legend. He set such a hard tempo that only Sastre could attack, and he quickly blew up. Then, today, Landis had the time trial of his life. Either he or Azevedo are looking at assuming the team leader position post-Lance.
I'll remember how relaxed and happy Lance has been this entire Tour. It's a stark contrast to his stressful race last year. He has owned this race from the Prologue on. He is the strongest, toughest, most well-rounded and prepared rider in the peloton, and his preparation and focus are second-to-none. His success has allowed him to surround himself with perhaps the best team in TDF history. We're seeing all sorts of new tricks from Lance, from winning tactical sprints to asserting his role as le patron by chasing down Simeoni and forcing him to back off the breakaway in stage 18 (because Armstrong is a GC contender, the peloton would not let him stay in the breakaway, and that would condemn all the riders in that group. Lance backed off only after forcing Simeoni to fall back with him, thus allowing the others in the break to stay away and try for the stage victory, won by Mercado. Armstrong and Simeoni have a long history, and currently the Italian is suing Lance because the Texan called him a liar.)
More later--I'm half conscious and the party on the Champs Elysees awaits in just over twelve hours. Six TDF victories, it's history unfolding, the coronation of the greatest Tour de France cyclist ever. Hemingway called the Tour de France the greatest sporting event in the world, and after three years of witnessing the race live, I understand his sentiment.