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July 2, 2005 Fromentine-Noirmoutier-en-l'Île 11.8 Miles
THE TOUR DE FRANCE travels around France in a clockwise direction in odd-numbered years and counterclockwise in even. As the race unfolds, the three-week duration entwines the Tour with the three-part structure vital to all great dramas. Week One is the setup, contested in the flat (and usually rainy) northern regions and known for sprint finishes and hard crashes. Week Two sees the agony of the long mountain climbs and descents. This is when a true leader emerges. Week Three is the final dash to Paris, where the winner is crowned. By then the riders are exhausted and have lost almost all their body fat. The third week is one of attrition. The rider who most desires victory must find it within himself to rise above his pain and fatigue.
As Charles de Gaulle once noted, "France is not France without grandeur." The Tour is a daily confirmation of those words. Pageantry on the grandest scale attends its progress. A mileslong advertisement caravan of absurdly decorated cars, buses, and motorcycles precedes the peloton (as the main pack of cyclists is known) each day. An entourage of mechanics, masseurs,managers, doctors, cooks, journalists, race officials, the Tour's private police force, and the mobile Tour bank (the only financial institution in France allowed to remain open on Bastille Day) accompanies the riders from town to town. Helicopters fill the skies. TV cameras document every moment of the action, broadcasting live to dozens of countries. Twenty million spectators stand alongside France's narrow country roads to witness the race in person. Many will have camped there for days, eating picnic-style from hampers of food, waiting for that blink of an eye when the riders whiz past. The spectators spread banners exhorting their personal favorites and paint their sentiments on the roadway in great brushstrokes. It is as if a giant force blows through France each July, unencumbered by traditional standards of scale, perspective, and passion - a metaphor for France itself.
The Tour typically comprises an opening prologue followed by twenty stages. Two rest days are held along the way, making the Tour twenty-three days soup to nuts.
If the Tour were a symphony, the prologue would be the overture. Starting alone, one minute apart, cyclists race against the clock. The distance varies from year to year, but Tour rules stipulate that a prologue can be no more than five miles long. Over such a short course, the gap between the first-place finisher and the last is rarely more than seconds. But competition isn't really the point. It's all about the great drama soon to unfold. Sending cyclists off one at a time is their introduction. Each man enjoys his sliver of glory before relegation to peloton anonymity, which happens to all but the elite in the three weeks of riding that follow.
Which is not to say that competition is absent. The yellow jersey denoting the overall Tour de France leader is awarded to the prologue winner, and wearing the maillot jaune is a dream of every professional cyclist. The chance to snatch it, if only for those mere twenty-four hours until the end of the next stage, when their talent catches up with them, compels many a middling rider to race out of his mind, turning in a performance far beyond any reasonable expectation.
Lance Armstrong appeared to do just that when he won the prologue in 1999. It was Armstrong's first year back after his battle with cancer. At the time, most people thought the prologue victory was a fluke or a gift. It was only later, when he punished the competition in the mountains and went on to win his first Tour, that it became clear there had been no gifts.
But Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc had announced a break from tradition for 2005. There would be twenty-one stages instead of twenty. The first day of riding would still be an overture. The riders would make their entrance one at a time, allowing spectators and fellow racers to get a glimpse of who was fit and who was not, who was confident and who was not, who was hungry to wear the yellow jersey into Paris three weeks and a day later - and who was not.
This would be accomplished through a brutish contest known as the individual time trial. Cyclists call it "the race of truth." There are two at the Tour each year. A rider cannot possibly hope to become champion until he masters this event.
The individual time trial differs from a prologue only in its greater length. But therein lies the truth serum. With each additional mile in the saddle, a cyclist's relative strengths and weaknesses are revealed. It is possible to bluff one's way through a three-mile prologue, willing the legs to turn the pedals at a superhuman tempo for a scant seven or so minutes. But an individual time trial may last more than an hour longer. The gap between first place and last is not measured in seconds anymore but in multiples of minutes.
I feel a vulture's fascination watching lesser riders contest an individual time trial. They decompensate over the final miles, stop pedaling hard through turns, raise from their aerodynamic tuck more often, and sometimes just plain crash. Hubris and bravado vanish, done in by the brutal public display of mediocrity. Nothing in cycling, with the exception of a mountaintop finish, is as dramatic.
Leblanc was a professional cyclist in his youth. He had ridden the Tour twice and excelled at the race of truth. At sixty-one, the shrewd and gregarious director with the jaunty Franklin Delano Roosevelt chin and Roman nose was too old and heavy to dream of racing a bicycle. But he could be a competitive force in another way. The director used his power to ensure that the Tour's course would be a living adversary, not just the landscape but the order and layout of individual stages, right down to whether a finish was atop an Alpine crag or in the valley below. Throughout Armstrong's six-year run as champion, Leblanc had repeatedly been accused of jiggering the course to make it "Lance-proof." That is, he designed courses that played down Armstrong's strength and accentuated his minor weaknesses. The charges were not without merit.
Tour directors have long enjoyed a reputation for petty tyranny. Race founder Henri Desgrange so frequently enraged Henri Pelissier in the 1920s that the great rider often quit the Tour in disgust long before the finish. But Leblanc's thinly veiled disdain for Armstrong set a new benchmark. They had jousted in the press and in person. I stood a few feet away as Armstrong chewed out Leblanc after a mountain stage in 2004, stabbing his finger and speaking angrily. Leblanc had taken a swipe at Armstrong just days before the start of the 2005 Tour, questioning his morale and professionalism. At the same time, Leblanc let slip a fondness for "old-fashioned" riders - those who raced hard from March to October rather than focusing only on the Tour, as Armstrong did.
After he had spent seventeen years at the helm, 2005 would be the last Tour for Leblanc - and for Armstrong. It was the final chance to Lance-proof a course. A long opening time trial might have allowed Armstrong to bust the race wide open, providing he was fit enough to outrace his opponents. So Leblanc announced a time trial of absurd length to open their final Tour: too long to be a prologue but far too short for a respectable race of truth. The last time Leblanc had replaced the prologue with such a short time trial had been 2000. Armstrong was runner-up that day in Futuroscope, losing by just two seconds.
The route that would open the 2005 Tour was just under twelve miles long, from Fromentine to Noirmoutier-en-l'Île. The route would be entirely flat, with the exception of a tall, windblown causeway connecting the mainland and the island. That portion of the Atlantic coast was also an area of great history, dating back to Napoleon and the later civil wars of the French Revolution. The Nazi U-boat fleets had sheltered at nearby Lorient. The Vendée coast was the scene of intense fighting between German and Allied forces in August 1944. At low tide the hulls of sunken ships could still be seen.
Stage One was due to start at three-forty in the afternoon. Frenchman Ludovic Turpin would roll out of the starting house first. One hundred eighty-eight riders would follow in one-minute intervals (the number of riders varies by year, but in 2005 the Tour would be composed of twenty-one teams, each having nine riders). Defending champion Armstrong, the last racer onto the course, would roll out three hours and eight minutes after Turpin. By day's end, the top tier of competitors would be separated from the also-rans like wheat being separated from chaff. The stage would be set for those elites to battle it out all the way to Paris.
I was up at seven-thirty and stumbling out the front door of the hotel for a run five minutes later. My hamstrings were stiff from too many hours sitting on planes and in cars, and my first steps were a glorified hobble. Lavender was growing by the road. I plucked a sprig and crushed it between my thumb and forefinger, then lifted it to my nose and inhaled deeply. The aroma was shocking and sweet, as I'd hoped it would be.
I passed an old stone church with bright red wooden doors and aimed toward a meadow marking the border between town and country. The rising sun was pale, and the flat farmland smelled of dew-covered grass. I was reminded that the area was once so known for cereal crops that froment, French for wheat, is how Fromentine got its name. An old woman cried, "Bonjour!" as I trotted past her whitewashed cottage. I yelled the same in reply, desperately hoping to sound French but knowing by her surprised look that I did not.
But it was a start. I travel best when I give in to my surroundings, letting their sights and smells wash over me until I forget when I arrived and when I will fly home. I had no problem giving in to France.
Breakfast in the hotel's small mauve nook was croissants baked that morning and unrepentantly strong coffee. The room had six tables with frail wicker chairs but was empty. I read a two-day-old Wall Street Journal, focusing on an article stating that a bee had stung Lance Armstrong during a final pre-Tour training ride. Details were fuzzy, but it seemed the bee had flown up under his sunglasses. In the chaos that followed (visions of Oakleys being ripped from the cropped head, sputtered profanity, a surprised French bumblebee flying off to die, unaware that he had given his life for a six-time Tour champion), Armstrong crashed and got a black eye. Whether or not this would hurt his chances of winning a seventh consecutive Tour was anyone's guess.
Crash or no, his fitness was the matter of some debate. Armstrong's pre-Tour buildup had been anything but smooth. He had failed to finish the Paris-Nice stage race in March - and looked less than slender doing so. There had been a lackluster performance at the Tour de Georgia in April, his final race on American soil. Add in a jet-set lifestyle that saw his picture in People on a somewhat regular basis and it was difficult to be optimistic about Armstrong's possibilities.
The top threats were riders who had dogged his heels at the 2004 Tour: Italian Ivan Basso, who rode for Team CSC; Germany's Jan Ullrich, who rode for T-Mobile; and Alexandre Vinokourov- "Vino" - the national champion of Kazakhstan. Wily and unpredictable, Vino also rode for T-Mobile. There was no doubt that those three men were capable of humbling Armstrong. Some other threat would arise as the Tour unfolded. One always did.
That threat could be an American. Levi Leipheimer of Team Gerolsteiner and Floyd Landis of Team Phonak were said to be stronger. Leipheimer was a bold Montanan with an introvert's penchant for brooding. Landis, with his quick wit and air of defiance, had become a cyclist against his father's wishes. Both men had ridden on Armstrong's U.S. Postal Team in previous Tours (title sponsorship shifted to the Discovery Channel one day before the end of the 2004 Tour). When Landis and Leipheimer took their considerable talent to other squads for more money and the chance to be team leader, Armstrong considered it an act of disloyalty. There was no love lost between the three men.
The lead piece in the French papers was about Ullrich. I couldn't read the caption, but a full-color shot of a car's shattered rear window told the story: The German had also crashed. And, apparently, right through a panel of tempered glass on one of his team's assistance vehicles.
I downed the last of my coffee. It was time to watch the Tour de France in person.
The village square where I'd parked the Citroën reminded me of the opening scene from Disney's Beauty and the Beast. On the far side was the old stone church. The good people of Notre-Dame-de-Monts were using the structure as an elaborate bike rack, leaning their three-speeds against its weathered walls while they wandered through the Saturday market or across to the boulangerie for a fresh baguette.
My previous visits to the Tour had taken place during its second and third weeks. The air then sizzled with Tour fever - flags affixed to cars, homemade banners lining the roadway, amateur cyclists pedaling in the uniforms of their favorite teams. And, of course, the drunks. The Raider fans of Europe, the hooligans of cycling; Spanish, Dutch, German, and American, they lined the mountain stages as if it were their own personal party, taunting and spitting on riders they didn't like. Just as often they simply painted slogans on the road to get their point across.
I saw none of that in Notre-Dame-de-Monts. The bikes against the church were the only sign that the world's greatest cycling event was getting under way one town over. I had heard that there was a different vibe to the Tour's first week - more laid-back; more small-town French; less jingoistic. Perhaps, I thought, there would be just a handful of spectators on hand to witness the prologue.
I was wrong. There is a reason the Tour is the world's biggest sporting event. That reason, in a word, is fanaticism.
Easing the Citroën onto the course, I plunged into a gauntlet of spectators. Thousands upon thousands lined the road. Cyclists wearing the colors of their favorite teams clogged the blustery two-lane. The motor homes were there, too, parked off the course with such neat precision that it was as if the parkinglot fairy had striped the roadside in the middle of the night. Banners supporting a favorite rider hung from individual vehicles. Teenagers painted slogans and riders' names on the pavement in three-foot block letters. Nothing like in 2004, when Lance Armstrong was greeted by "I Fucked Sheryl" as he climbed L'Alpe d'Huez. German fans had used white paint and toilet brushes to create that insult to Lance and his girlfriend, singer Sheryl Crow. Undeniably crude but stunning in its audacity, it had set a new standard for drunken Tour behavior. The American comeback ("Rip Their Balls Off, Lance") was corporate and vaguely impotent by comparison.
Portable tables were arranged on the shoulder. Whole chickens, hard sausages, bowls of fruit, long baguettes the shape of a flattened cylinder, and bottles of wine and water were laid out next to paper plates and plastic glasses. In hard-vinyl lawn chairs set facing the road, spectators claimed their spot. It would be at least six hours before the first rider came through, but they showed no signs of impatience.
The crowd corridor was like that all the way to the finish line, ten miles away. Oyster farms and low salt marshes defined the topography. The air smelled like low tide. It was as if the Tour were being held in Cape Cod on Fourth of July weekend.
Excerpted from Chasing Lance by Martin Dugard Copyright ©2005 by Martin Dugard. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 14, 2005
Let me preface my review by saying after reading 'Lance Armstrong's War' it is hard to compare any book with Lance in the title. Chasing Lance is supposed to be a stage by stage recap of the 2005 Tour de France. However, this book is more about the author's trip through France 'chasing' the Tour. It gives a very interesting persepective of each route and town. Tid bits of information about the history of each town are enlightening but they become the focus. Comparing this book to the 2004 brilliance of Lance Armstrong's War is a mistake on my part. They are completely different books that take a very different path. I was disappointed in the fact that the focus was on the author not the cyclists or the race itself. I would recommend this book but I would not buy this book if you are looking for non stop cycling action, interviews and drama that comes with a dominating athlete like LANCE. LIVESTRONG
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