Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Parisien Poster Boy for 'Pieds'

My feet are wondering what's up...i went from walking a minor amount each day over the past month, to putting in close to 40 miles in 3 days 'strolling' around Paris.

From La Marais to St.Germain de Pres...from Le Tour Eiffel to Place des Vosges...we came, we saw, we conquered...

I should have put my handprint at the base of the Arc de Triomphe, i felt so akin to Napoleon's Army- both in the 'marching' category and the 'thrill of victory' aspect.

And last night, what a way to culminate our visit...drinks on a house boat with a family friend as we stared at one of the world's most recognizable symbols, and then dinner with the same massive metal structure framed by a quiet French side street. It's hard to imagine the immensity of the Eiffel Tower could be made more beautiful, but this true slice of French life, off to the side of the tourist craziness a few blocks away, put the grandeur of Gustave Eiffel's creation in a cool context.

Alas, all good things must come to an end (at least that's what i'm told!), so back to America today, but my bet is Paris will be here next year...hopefully i will too.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 21

On a day when 'procession' outweighed 'aggression'- at least for 2/3 of the stage- the spectacle that is the final day of the Tour was still a pleasure to behold. As a bike fan, having our studio on the '50 yard line' in Paris was almost surreal. The sounds of the peloton resounded through the trees, and the smell of victory permeated the air.

Mark Cavendish really is "Superman". The kid out-kicked everyone by such a large margin on the famed Champs Elysee, that they had to go to the 'wide-angle lense' to even have another pursuer in the shot. He lit up the "City of Light" like few have over the decades, and in the process, set a standard for future generations.

Sport is inherently based on competition, and for over 100 years, the Tour de France has showcased rivalries and created icons. To excel at the Tour, you have to not only be able to overcome OUTER adversaries, but INTERNAL demons as well.

2009 marked the return of a legend, but one man in particular was more interested in building a legend of his own. The Tour is three weeks unlike any other, and it's that passion, and these moments, that sustain us.

And you can bet 2010 will provide many more twists and turns!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 20

If you missed a moment of today's stage, you missed a classic battle for the podium of the Tour de France. The 'Giant of Provence' became a giant canvas for the world's best to showcase their skills.

Andy Schleck played Picasso up the slopes. He declared stroke after stroke in an attempt to create a come-from-behind masterpiece. He would be matched every step of the way by Astana's Artisans- Contador and Armstrong. The Texan's steely tenacity and the Spaniard's superior strength provided the framework for one of the greatest days of gamesmanship of this year's Tour.

The places in Paris have been decided- it will be a triumphant return for two men in particular- Alberto Contador, after winning in 2007, and then denied entry in 2008, picks up right where he left off two years ago, winning his 2nd 'Grand Boucle'.

But as big a story is the return of 'The Legend', Lance Armstrong. Out of professional cycling for over three years, he found the 'Fountain of Youth' to finish in on the podium, and claims his best is yet to come in 2010!

Tomorrow the celebration commences in Paris!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 19

It was supposed to be a day for the 'opportunists', but the sprinter's teams didn't feel like following the script. Rabobank's relentless pace reeled in the escapees, and once the massive group made it over the final climb of the day, only a counter attack from reigning World Champion Allesandro Ballan delayed the inevitable.

Columbia-HTC flew their colors at the front, and the requisite chaos for Cavendish's wheel ensued. Former World Champ Oscar Freire even went 'off piste' for a bit to try to gain an advantage, but by the finish, a Cavendish victory was almost a foregone conclusion. FIVE WINS, and he may not be done yet, but this win in Aubenas ranks him alone as the best British cyclist in Tour history.

Lance Armstrong's brain was working as well as his body today. In contact with the front group, he lost NO time, while his GC rivals were four seconds in arrears. For Lance, and the other overall contenders, it comes down to the penultimate stage of the Tour...Mont Ventoux. They'll have to push themselves through the pain one final time, in order to glimpse the glory in Paris.

Vielles Vignes- 'Ancient Vines'

It's almost unbelievable to think we are back in the south of France. It seems like an eternity since we were here, talking about the first few sprint stages, but if we needed any reminders, there are plenty. The churches, the castles, the heat, and of course, the VINES.

On our drive into the town of Aubenas today (which is known for its CHESTNUT industry), the early morning light danced off of the countless vineyards we crisscrossed on the back roads of the Rhone Valley. I've got my fingers crossed that we may get another 'bonus bike ride' in, because aside from stopping at each vintner, the best way to see this countryside is at a more moderate pace.

The 'vielle vignes' are is a term commonly used on wine labels to indicate that a wine is the product of grape vines that are notably old. The practice of displaying it stems from the general belief that older vines, when properly handled, will give a better wine. Grape vines can grow for over 120 years. After about 20 years, vines start to produce smallercrops, and average yields decrease, leading to more concentrated, intense wines. In a place where wine production is longstanding, it often means a wine whose vines are thirty to forty years old. Some wine makers insist the vines should be older than this.

What wine-lovers can count on is that the Rhone AOC produces some of the best wine in the world...i just wish on this trip i had the time to enjoy it!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 18

The 'Race of Truth' determined the destiny of one man, but left questions unanswered for others.

Alberto Contador tore a page out of Lance Armstrong's playbook, and sent a message to every rider who dare challenge his superiority. His time trial win was a showcase of strength and confidence. He's now won in the mountains AND against the clock, proving he's the most complete cyclist at this year's Tour.

For the other overall contenders, the time gaps in Annecy promise a veritable slugfest on Mont Ventoux in two days time.

Lance Armstrong finds himself in a position to finish on the podium, but you can bet he wants much more than that on the 'Giant of Provence'. And if Astana can circle the wagons, there's still an outside shot for a sweep of the spots in Paris.

It's two days to go until we officially crown a champion, but Alberto Contador isn't planning a procession just yet. He has one more mountain to climb before the coronation commences.

Adios Alps! Ah...Annecy!

After three days at altitude it’s nice to take up residence in one of the most picturesque spots in France. Known as the “Venice of the Alps”, I’m referring to Annecy.

I may move here. Seriously. I was here before when covering the Dauphine Liberé, a prep race for the Tour de France that is held in June every year, and covers most of the same climbs you see in the Tour.

The lake of the same name is the 2nd largest in France, and is known as the most PURE in Europe. It was formed 18,000 years ago from the melting of Alpine glaciers, and is now fed by 7 rivers, and an underground spring.

It's a mountainous version of a 'beach community', complete with a laid-back style, and sports-centric atmosphere that even the most jaded of tourists would have to appreciate. I'm coming back- you can bet on it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 17

The Queen's Stage was worth a king's ransom to the Saxo Bank squad today! Flying up five 'categorized' climbs in honor of their fallen comrade, the 'Saxo Siblings', Frank and Andy Schleck, used a combination of 'acceleration' and 'sizing up their competition' to shed all their challengers, save the Yellow Jersey of Alberto Contador. Oddly enough, it was the Spaniard's surge that would leave him with a 2 to 1 DISADVANTAGE as Andreas Kloden couldn't keep up on the Col de la Columbiere.

At the finish, Andy rewarded his brother with a strong lead-out to assure Frank would take the stage, after all his hard work on a day with over 12,000 feet of climbing.

Contador proved once again he can match anyone in the mountains, happy to concede the win today as an 'homage'- his ultimate goal made all the more easier by Saxo Bank's efforts.

The surprise story was Thor Hushovd, flying the Norwegian flag, and the Green Jersey through the first 3/4 of the race. He's supposed to be a sprinter, but today he climbed like a mountain madman. For his Herculean effort, he more than likely secured his 2nd Green Jersey.

One final note- Contador did not make any friends within his own team yet again. Kloden and Johan Bruyneel expressed displeasure with Alberto's uphill blast, and Lance refused to comment (once again) on the Spaniard's racing tactics. Alberto may very well end up winning (or losing) this Tour on his own- and friends may be a rare commodity for the Conquistador on the final climb up Ventoux.

A Five-Course Meal

Our 3-pronged Alpine Assault concludes today in Le Grand-Bornand. It 's an area Lance Armstrong knows all too well- in 2004 he won here in spectacular fashion just ahead of Andreas Kloden (now his teammate). It was part of his "No Gifts" campaign, and that year, Lance seemed exceptionally possessed to show everyone that he could do it all.

Fast forward five years, and he we are, on the verge of what many consider the "Queen's Stage"- the hardest of the Tour- the headline of this morning's paper says it all..."Armstrong will not Surrender".

Lance's acceleration yesterday came at a time when the peloton was beginning to believe he was all too human. In an instant, Armstrong renewed talk of his tenacity, and perhaps his invincibility, every July.

Five Categorized climbs (4 of which are Category 1) would be hard enough, but when you mix in the weather conditions, it could be a war of attrition on numerous fronts.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 16

Two massive mountains and an infinite amount of monumental accelerations highlighted today's stage. One move in particular reminded us all of how good Lance Armstrong can be at his best. Left behind on the Petit-Saint-Bernard, Armstrong eventually exploded up the climb to bridge the gap to his teammates, Alberto Contador and Andreas Kloden. In the process, protecting his tenuous hold on 2nd overall.

"Fate" was cruel to Team Saxo Bank today. Despite their best efforts to put Contador's Yellow Jersey in jeopardy, all they had to show for it in Bourg-Saint-Maurice was the loss of Jens Voigt to a horrific crash. That will be a MAJOR blow to their hopes in the final five days of the race.

Congratulations to Mikel Astarloza- he wins the first road race of his career- and what a time to shine- with the world watching his every move, and more specifically, his final brilliant blast at 2K to go, leaving his breakaway 'mates' in the lurch.

A great ride as well by the Garmin-Slipstream squad. Bradley Wiggins rode impeccably, and David Zabriskie drove the chase in the closing kilometers as few can.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pack Your Passports

Stage 16 weaves through three countries- Switzerland, Italy, and France. Amidst the cultural landscape, the common language of the peloton today will be PAIN. Straight out of the gate, the climbing begins up the Grand Saint-Bernard.

This region of Switzerland is famous for the DOG of the same name. The first mention of the breed was exactly 300 years ago. The original purpose was as a guard dog, but as most of you know, they became famous MOUNTAIN RESCUE DOGS.

The dogs always work in groups of four- two to lie down on either side of the victim to keep them warm, another licks the victim to wake him and keep him awake, and the fourth looks for human assistance by barking or fetching someone.

Napoleon Bonaparte crossed over the Grand Saint-Bernard pass in 1800 on his way to fight against the Austrians and enter Italy via the pass. 60,000 troops, 35,000 horses, and 50 pieces of artillery did not slow him down, it was here that he delivered his famous quote upon being told the army may not make it through the pass, "The possible can be achieved by everyone, I want to attempt the impossible."

The famous writer, poet, and adventurer, Richard Halliburton crossed over the pass in 1935 as he attempted (and succeeded) to duplicate Hannibal's famous feat (in 218 BC) aboard the back of an elephant.

They traveled at an average speed of 3km/HR...i think our cyclists will be just a tad faster today!

2nd Rest Day Reflections-Mont Blanc and More

First and foremost, an epic ride this AM with Bob Roll. We descended from out hotel at 6000ft, down into the valley that houses Bourg-St.-Maurice, and then we turned right around and came back up the 22KM climb to Les Arcs 1950.

For an ocean rat like myself, the rarified air was noticeable, and it added an element of calculation as to how hard to ride.

As for the REAL RACE that's going on around us, well, part of me doesn't want to believe Lance has thrown in the towel, although every interview he's given since the finish of Stage 15 points to that fact. That said, i think 2 things: first, Lance has never given up on ANY GOAL until the proverbial 'finish line', and second, if he really has come to terms with his 'cycling mortality', then it came not in an epiphany, but in a slow simmer on the climb to Verbier. Lance is a master of control, not just of himself, but of his surroundings. An ancillary benefit to that is he is able to recognize what qualities made him the best- IN OTHERS. No one knows better what it takes to win the Tour than a certain someone from Austin, TX. If he's willing to concede that Alberto is the better man, well, than Lance is a 'better man' for it.

Andy Schleck is conceding nothing however. His comments leading up to tomorrow are exactly what you would expect from a 'fighter', and from someone who is confident in his ability. He's made it clear, this race is not over until Paris.

Bradley Wiggins continues to be the 'wild card' and the wildest revelation of this year's race. If he can climb as well, or better, in the coming days, he'll put himself in a great position for the Time Trial in Annecy.

Carlos Sastre is bemoaning his lack of respect, so look for him to channel his anger into a huge day either tomorrow or, better yet, on Wednesday.

And finally, Cadel Evans. The 'Land Down Under' so desperately wants him to rise to the occasion after his 2nd place finishes the past 2 years, but he admitted Stage 15 was his worst day on the bike EVER at the Tour. Let's face it, there is NO WAY he is going to win the Tour de France, and he has very little hope of even finishing on the podium, it smarter for him to try to seize time in the mountains (tomorrow's descent gives him some advantage) or rest up for the Time Trial on Thursday (where, at best, he'll gain 20-30 seconds on anyone)?

Ah, Le t'aime!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 15

As predicted, the peloton exploded on the slopes of Verbier today, and the pain was evident on the faces of every rider. Alberto Contador's acceleration on the final climb left the world's best in his wake, and Astana's two-week gamesmanship finally gave way to survival of the fittest.

With 3 Aces up his sleeve, Johan Bruyneel finally set the Spaniard free, and what a flight it was.

In one fell swoop, Contador claimed the stage AND the jersey he's sought to defend for two years.

Lance's Armstrong's effort was more than admirable. He may not be the best on his team, but he is still one of the best in the world, finishing the stage in 9th, but more importantly, moving into 2nd overall for the Yellow Jersey.

Stage 15 will be remembered as 'The Shake Up in Switzerland', or perhaps a 'shakedown' by Astana. As we head into the 2nd rest day, they tactically take control with three men in the Top Four. They have been doing most of the work the past week, now they finally reap the rewards to show for it.

Verbiage prior to Verbier

To be or not to be in Yellow. Everyone's got an opinion on this one that's for sure. I, along with every American cycling fan, feel horrible for George. Fate has dealt him such brutal blows in the Classics, that i have always loved to see his demeanor during July. That's what made it so hard to take yesterday. For him to question the motives of his best friend, and former teammate, means his heart and even his will was broken. The 'Maillot Jaune' would have stood as a symbol of his lifetime of service and sacrifice, and to have it be stripped away by 5 seconds is almost too cruel.

That said, i'm going to reserve judgement as to how and why it happened, and who played the key role in it's collapse, before i choose a side. I want to lash out at someone, or something, but everyone involved may have a valid reason as to why they did what they did.

Bottom line, today's another day for LEGS, rather than LIPS, and the ascent up the final climb is harder than a few of the riders realize.

The town of Verbier is one of Europe's most famous resorts. It's considered a playground for the rich and famous- Richard Branson and Diana Ross are frequent visitors. The 'off piste' skiing is considered second to none, and for the past 15 years, the town has been known for it's classical musical festival.

It's the first time the Tour will visit, but it has been used multiple times by the Tour of Switzerland over the years.

Bonne Nuit

Well, it was with great regret that i rolled out of bed this AM. Only because i can honestly say that last night, i stayed in the best hotel EVER when we have covered the Tour de France. And i'll take it a step further...the rooms were 2nd only to a couple of hotels in Las Vegas i've been lucky enough to visit. Hotel Nevai. Look it up, book it, then travel here and prepare to be 'wow'd'!

Dueling decks (either side of the suite), hot tub, fireplace, plasma screens, walk in shower...the list goes on...going to be very hard to convince anyone this is a 'tough' job after this.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 14

On a day when everyone thought it would be the Columbia-HTC Express in action, it was their "Pappa Bear" who put on a performance, as Mark Cavendish's exploits took a backseat to George Hincapie's breakaway effort. As the 12 in front clicked off the kilometers, it looked like Hincapie had the Yellow Jersey in hand, but ultimately, the effort would come up a miniscule SIX SECONDS SHORT, and Rinaldo Nocentini stayed in yellow.

As George himself said afterwards, "It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and it didn't work out.", but you can bet somehow, someway, somewhere down the road, he'll use this as motivation for a pinnacle performance.

For Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, and the other 'overall' contenders, it's finally time to play their cards. Tomorrow we CLIMB, and anyone without wings will crash out of the contender's race.

Windy, Wet, and Cold- All Day?

As expected, the rain has returned. It should make for a less-than-ideal day in the saddle. But hopefully it motivates the men to get to Besancon as quickly as possible. We made it here last night in a reasonable amount of time, so a sit-down dinner was in order. 'Filet de boeuf avec pomme frites' was the call- hard to pass that up, wherever you are in the world.

Look for the fast men to finish in a flurry. Mark Cavendish should be smarting from Thor Hushovd's cagey move to steal back the Green Jersey, so expect him to marshall the troops to the front and ratchet up the pace as they crank out the final few kilometers.

So, Besancon...mentioned in the journals of Julius Caesar, it has been historically significant through the times of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, and both World Wars. It is perhaps best known, however, for it's famed 'Citadel'. Designed by French military engineer VAUBAN, the fort would fall to Spain after he drew up the original plans, so the Spanish saw no reason why they shouldn't follow his design. Once the fort returned to the French, it would take Vauban nearly 30 years to complete.

Known as the 'watch making capitol' of France, Besancon is also the birthplace of Victor Hugo. His best known works are 'Les Miserables' and 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', and some call him France's greatest poet and exponent of the Romantic Movement in France.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 13

On a day when the rain returned to the Tour, no one was able to rein in the power, and the passion, of Cervelo's Heinrich Haussler. While most were content to seek shelter in the peloton, Haussler ventured into the elements virtually alone. Breaking free of Sylvain Chavanel on the descent of the Category 1 Col du Platerwasel, the German used a combination of skill, speed, and fearlessness to assure the greatest win of his young career.

Rinaldo Nocentini did enough to keep the Yellow Jersey for another day, while Lance Armstrong and Astana regrouped, and refocused, after the devastating news of the loss of Levi Leipheimer this morning.

Lance knows all too well that the show must go on, and while he's lost a loyal sidekick for the remainder of the race, Lance often finds motivation when his back is against the wall. Oddly enough, Levi's departure could prove a powerful catalyst in the days to come.

The Vosges

As the riders run into Colmar today, they must pass through the mythical Vosges Mountains. We cut through the center of the valley last night, and it was interesting, that while the Vosges lack the steepness and immenseness of the Alps, they hold their own when it comes to an overpowering sense of trepidation. There are no easy avenues UP or DOWN.

The script wouldn't be complete without the weather playing a part. Rain is in the forecast, so look for the roads to become even trickier. Astana's luck certainly went south this morning- Stage "13" began with the news that Lance's trusted lieutenant, Levi Leipheimer, is OUT with a broken wrist. The storm is brewing not only in the skies, but in their team bus as well.

Interesting note, France's famous heroine, Joan of Arc, was from the Vosges area.

A couple more tidbits:

The peloton makes its way through the Alsace region today. Besides its WINE and CHEESE, one of the things Alsace is famous for is its STORKS. In the 1970's, the population had dwindled to only 9 mating pairs, but in 1984 the town of Munster (yes, that Munster, cheese fans!) took the lead in helping to protect the species. Their nests can weigh over 1,000 pounds, and the young storks fly after 60 days, reaching maturity between three and four years of age. From birth to the age of one year, they have black beaks, which is how the young and old can be told apart.

Finally, the town in which we finish today, Colmar, was the birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi. Ring a bell? He created a little something called the "Statue of Liberty" (among others).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 12

The sprinters loosened their stranglehold on the standings today, but the peloton seemed reluctant at the beginning to let anyone get away. It took close to 40 miles before the acceptable group of seven were allowed to distance themselves.

AG2R-La Mondial did most of the tempo work, keeping the gap around a manageable four minutes, but finally, two amazing accelerations from Saxo Bank's Nikki Sorensen left him alone at the front, and gave him ample time to celebrate his 1st ever stage win at the Tour. His elation will undoubtedly elevate the moral of the team, after losing workhorse, and road captain, Kurt Asle Arvesen to a broken collarbone two days ago.

Lance Armstrong's drama was limited to a flat tire with 30 miles to go, but his teammate Levi Leipheimer seemed to get caught up in a crash near the finish. Thankfully he would not lose any time since the fall occurred within the "3K'" safety net.

Once again, Astana kept their "A-Game" on ice- perhaps tomorrow is the day they will finally unleash.

Agua por Favor

Today's stage finishes in Vittel. Anyone who's ever stepped into a Whole Foods, or other 'high end' grocery store has seen France's most famous water sitting on the shelves. It's actually owned by Nestle, which interestingly enough, also owns Powerbar (for all you athletes out there).

The surrounding area was also made famous by Charles de Gaulle, president of the Republic from 1958-1969. The great military leader and French statesman resided at 'La Boisserie', and it is said he would stay in his old village before EVERY major trip, press conference, or difficult/dramatic moment.

The symbol of his movement was the "Lorraine Cross". Free France adopted it as its emblem in 1940 as a way to combat the 'Swastika'.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 11

Necessity is the mother of invention, and at this year's Tour de France, desperation is beginning to set in for all the other sprinter's teams. American Tyler Farrar came closer than anyone has so far- he was within a bike length at the line- but the victory salute was still delivered by Columbia's Mark Cavendish, his 4th win at this year's Tour. An added bonus- the Manx Missile is now the Man in Green.

Another quiet 200 kilometers for the yellow jersey of Rinaldo Nocentini, as well as the yellow and blue of Lance Armstrong's Astana crew. They check another one off the list...11 stages down, and one day closer to the deciding days of the Alps and Mont Ventoux.

Comedy or Tragedy?

Or should i say, "Dumb and Dumber"...Bastille Day is a day the French hold above all else. It's also a day where the country completely shuts down. So, imagine our surprise, with a double-dose of dismay, when we realized that we were going to run out of gas, well before our rendezvous point at the hotel. Hmmm...what to do.

A quick thinking colleague advised us to hover near a petrol pump in the hopes of 'paying off' one of the locals- giving them cash in return for using their credit card to access the pumps. Because guess why? The 24-hour pumps here only use the European style credit cards, which have a special chip in them, which leaves us out in the cold. Or in this case, out in the cold by the side of the road!

So, our Angel of the Evening finally showed up, and we thought, "BAM! We are on our way".

The Gods, as well as being 'Crazy', can also be fickle. Our enjoyment was short lived. Turns out my esteemed colleague, and car mate, unbeknownst to me, put the WRONG FUEL INTO THE TANK. So...5K down the road, our car was no longer capable of attacking the asphalt.

Well, the COMEDY of ERRORS was well underway by this point. We called more troops into the mix- thankfully a bevy of co-workers arrived to aid us- and after switching bags into a few other cars, we realized there was no place to put our bikes. No problem! (we thought)...we were 'only' 62 Kilometers from our hotel, we'd just ride in.

And so began the Quest for the Pillow (as in, i was already really tired). Did i mention, the sun set approximately 25 minutes after we started our ride?? And did i mention my riding partner thought it was OK to leave me behind as he motor-paced off of a car, but i did not get in the draft?

Well, this story could go on forever, so i'll end by saying, I got to see fireworks exploding off to my left as i hammered into town, I got to the hotel after being escorted by a car full of my TV teammates, and i got to appreciate that no journey ever goes the way you plan. So, you'd better enjoy the 'ride'.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 10

It's becoming an almost foregone conclusion, but it is still an incredible sight to behold. Columbia-HTC delivered Mark Cavendish to the final few hundred meters, and he delivered his team its 3rd win at this year's Tour. The Manx Missile is now only one win away from tying the British record in only his 2nd 'Grand Boucle'.

It was a pedestrian day for the peloton. The pace didn't quicken until the final 12 miles, so Lance Armstrong and Co. got a 'virtual' day off. This was always going to be a day that suited the sprinters, so Lance, Levi, and most of the others were literally along for the ride.

In fact, Lance called it one of the most relaxed days he's ever spent at the Tour. That will change soon enough.

Mecca for Fashionistas

During the Tour de France, you'll see and hear the initials "L.A." throughout TV, print, and radio reports. Of course, they are referring to Lance Armstrong.

This morning, on our drive into Issoudun, we went by a certain factory that anyone in the fashion world would recognize by the initials "L.V." That's right, the one and only Louis Vuitton- purveyor of handbags, luggage, and luxury items extraordinaire. Here's a little history:

In the mid 19th century, Louis Vuitton was a renowned trunks and luggage retailer. Entering into the 20th century, the company expanded in terms of locations and financial success. Beginning in the middle of the century, it entered the fashion world, integrating its signature Monogram Canvas into purses and bags. Since the 19th century, manufacture of Louis Vuitton goods have not changed: Luggage is still made by hand. "the craftsmen line up the leather and canvas, tapping in the tiny nails one by one and securing the five-letter solid pick-proof brass locks with an individual handmade key, designed to allow the traveler to have only one key for all of his or her luggage. The woven frames of each trunk are made of 30-year-old poplar that has been allowed to dry for at least four years. Each trunk has a serial number and can take up to 60 hours to make, and a suitcase as many as 15 hours."

The brand is highly counterfeited, and just over 1% of the items bearing the trademark monogram are authentic.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Last Minute Preparations-Rest Day Thoughts

3 hours on the bike this AM, on tomorrow's course, was a rejuvenating, and eye-opening experience.

Cows, horses,, feed troughs, hay bails...weed-whacking, painting, all went by in a blur as i tried to emulate (ha!) the men i describe on a daily basis.

One of the reasons the Tour de France is so special is it involves so much of the country. And i don't mean the landscape. The PEOPLE of France want the world to see the shining colors of each town, just as much as the suffering of the riders on the bike. They take PRIDE in the race route, and the brief moment of notoriety the passing peloton brings.

Each town spends countless hours, and countless dollars, putting their 'best face forward'. Those of us who follow the Tour, whether it be here AT the race, or at home on television, could learn a thing or two from their commitment.

While we are all individuals, sometimes it's OK to support the 'collective'- if the larger goal benefits the largest amount of people. The Tour gets it, and so does every municipality along the way. I want to be here because i love what the Tour stands for, from a sporting standpoint, but also for what it represents to it's country. Pride, tempered with appreciation, abounds on these roads. You can't help but feel it's presence.

Everywhere i rode today, people shouted "Allez" ('go'), made fun of the fact that the race was actually TOMORROW (so why was i riding TODAY?), and found my little part in the proceedings entertaining. I even had a tractor operator race me up a hill- he waved, gave me the thumbs-up, and laughed hysterically as he drove past me on an incline.

You can say a lot about the French, but one thing they can never be accused of is taking this race for granted. It's perhaps the grandest global stage they now have. And every citizen i've seen, gives it the respect it deserves.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 9

The Tourmalet plays no favorites, and holds no grudges. Each year she is a blank canvas on which someone can create a masterpiece. Today, destiny teased two men, and it was Pierrick Fedrigo who fought off his rival, and one of nature's greatest mountains, to add his name to the history books.

The French riders, long dormant in their 'summers' of discontent, have awakened with a new-found 'joie de vivre'. With 3 stage wins, and a 'home team' with the Yellow Jersey, the Tour is already a success beyond their wildest imagination.

Rinaldo Nocentini held on to the Maillot Jaune for another day, and, conceivably, for another week. AG2R-La Mondial defended the honor, and took the responsibility, on the day, relieving Astana of any 'play making' duties.

For their part, Bruyneel and his Kazak-backed brigade did what they had to do- at one point, it was Lance himself who worked on the front to close the break- maintaining an 'order' amongst the rank and file, and continuing to look forward to the Alps.

A rest day tomorrow, but it far from puts to REST any of the questions that remain in this July's developing drama on wheels.

Which way to the Future?

Not sure which group is headed in the 'right' direction.

Yesterday after the stage in Saint-Girons, it was debatable as to who made more 'progress'.

The independent spirit is alive and well in the south of France that is for sure. This man looked at me like i WAS THE CRAZY ONE when i asked if i could take his picture. I found the contrast telling.

Bikes, Bottles and Lance

What a scene at the hotel last night- Astana was there, and so were the cast of characters who we've been talking about all week. I spoke with Lance briefly, and aside from some playful banter, his most notable remark was "Strange race, huh?"

What was interesting, and probably refreshingly to see from Lance's point of view, was someone else was garnering MOST of the attention in the dining room. That distinction went to Edouard Mouiex, the director of sales of one of the most famous Bordeaux labels in the land- Petrus.

I was lucky enough to try a bit of the bottle you can see here back at Christmas last year, and i can honestly say, it was the most sublime wine i have ever experienced.

It would have gone marvelously well with our menu last night, but Bob Roll chose a more modestly priced prize. A 2001 White Bordeaux that he considered an undiscovered gem on the menu. The sommelier even gave him an acknowledging nod upon seeing his selection- a true sign that Bob Roll was on his A-Game!

One of the perks of traveling with the man many consider to be the FACE of American cycling, he's got a brain to back up all that craziness!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 8

On the day that the Tour returned to the roads of France, it would be three OTHER "E.U." countries that would celebrate.

It was a brilliant combination of gamesmanship and gusto by Spaniard Luis-Leon Sanchez. Like a professional poker player, he held his cards close to his chest, and waited for the 'river' to reveal the Ace.

Italian Rinaldo Nocentini benefited from great teamwork and great tenacity to hold onto yellow, while Norwegian Thor Hushovd studied the race book to perfection. The God of Thunder placed himself amongst the breakaway early on- no easy feat considering the day started with a Category 1 climb- to take full advantage of the sprint bonus points.

His calculated move moved him into the Green Jersey, an honor he hopes to build on as we wind towards Paris, but a war he will have to wage with Mark Cavendish every step of the way.

Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and the Astana juggernaut did just enough out on the road to keep their vice grip on the standings. While there is no debating their strength on the bike, MOST are debating the strength of the BOND that tenuously holds the team together.

Stage 8- Saint Girons

Not a fun drive last night, it's always AGONIZING getting off of a mountain top, and Arcalis was our first reminder this year, that no matter how much 'modernization' takes place- faster cars, better paved roads, GPS systems...all that is useless when you're sitting in bumper-to-bumper, stand-still traffic.

The good news is that today brought sun, mild temps, and a revitalized vibe to the TV compound due to TWO things. First, and foremost, the Lance-Alberto soap opera is too good, and too fun, to ignore. Second, Astana is actually staying in our hotel tonight, so we'll get to see firsthand, how the two, and the team, interact.

At the finish line, we've already anticipated a 'breakaway' to go from the start, but the difficulty of the 1st climb has made it hard to prognosticate who could, or will, stay away until the line here in Saint Girons.

It's peaceful here at the moment, that will NOT be the case in a few hours.

The Shot Heard Round the World

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!!

Alberto Contador is the BOSS! It seems the whole cycling universe wants to know WHY Contador accelerated in the final few kilometers. Let's call Oliver Stone. Conspiracists are already having a field day with how Stage 7 played out. Without directly accusing him of anything, Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer both hinted that the TEAM PLAN was a bit different than how we saw it unfold.

Suffice to say, the Astana dinner table was probably a bit quite last night, at the least, a tad subdued! The exact opposite can be said for dining tables around the world- we've got plenty to CHEW ON these next few days...let the conversations commence and the determined debate rage on!

The Last Word- Stage 6 (one more from the TARDY FILE)

On a day when storm clouds loomed on the horizon, and torrential rain pounded the peloton, it seems only fitting that when the riders crested the final climb, it would be the God of Thunder, Thor Hushovd, throwing down the hammer. The Norwegian strongman danced his way through the final kilometers like it was a BOLERO, picking the perfect time to power across the line.

Lance Armstrong and Astana practiced proper positioning again. Always near the front, they realize tomorrow is their chance to fly high, and put more time into their rivals.

Speaking of flying…it may have been a ‘yellow’ swan song for Fabian Cancellara in Barcelona. His scrappy riding kept him in the overall lead, but with a host of hounds nipping at his heels as we head into the hills, it seems he may be forced to relinquish his grip on the leader’s jersey in less than 24 hours.

The Last Word- Stage 5 (yep, you guessed it-late)

Every athlete born with the desire for greatness must first DREAM of what is POSSIBLE. Since 2004, the world has known Thomas Voeckler has the heart of a champion. Today, the Frenchman was rewarded with his first career stage win at the Tour. He seized his moment, and now has memories that will last a lifetime.

For Lance Armstrong and his Astana squad, it was a day of calculation and coordination. They rode smartly, and at times strongly, to stay out of trouble, AND, out of the wind. It was a tactical show of force.

Fabian Cancellara, the Swiss Sparticus, kept his wits about him as well. He rolls into Spain tomorrow with the Maillot Jaune on his shoulders, an honor only a select few ever earn.

The Last Word- Stage 4 TTT (late as well)

Today, a duel between titanic teams went down to the hundreths of a second. Fabian Cancellara and his Saxo Bank squad would unsheath their swords first, leaving the start house before Lance Armstrong’s crew. Astana though would set the standard at every time check, eventually taking the stage win.

But it would be the drive and determination, and perhaps the extra energy of the Yellow jersey, that would keep Cancellara in Maillot Jaune for at least another day.

Lance is so close, however, one would think it won’t be long before he finds his way to the top spot.

The Last Word- Stage 3 (a bit late)

The heat may have lulled most of the peloton to sleep, but an assertive Columbia crew meant only an attentive few survived the surge. The biggest beneficiaries of Columbia’s show of force were two men destined for the history books.

Mark Cavendish delivered the goods again. The Manx Missile exploded for another stage win, going back to back.

Lance Armstrong’s always been one of the smartest riders on the road. Today, he used his brain as much as his brawn- staying with the leaders, and in the process, leaping up the overall standings from 10th to 3rd and passing his teammate Alberto Contador.

Fabian Cancellara showed his strength today as well. Single-handedly representing Saxo Bank in the front pack…his reward? The Yellow Jersey for another day. It was an epic day out on the road, but it may just have been an hors d’heurve for the feast of fighting to come.

The Last Word- Stage 2 (a bit late)

A hot, humid and windy day on the bike produced for the peloton an almost foregone conclusion. If you’re trying to beat Mark Cavendish, there’s one thing you don’t want to do- that’s let him have his nose in the wind with 200 meters to go.

Cavendish exploded the final hundred meters and convincingly took his first stage win of this year’s Tour.

Fabian Cancellara’s Saxo Bank squad rode tempo most of the day and protected his overall lead. He’ll don yellow for the 11th time tomorrow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Last Word- Stage 7

In his first year as a pro, and in his first Grand Tour, Frenchman Brice Feillu rode beyond his years, and his pay grade, shocking the field, and cementing his name in cycling history.

The battle behind centered on who would wear the 'Maillot Jaune' at the top of Arcalis. After two wheel changes, and two massive efforts to get back to the group, Fabian Cancellara ran out of gas on the final climb, ending his run in yellow. He hands the most coveted jersey in cycling to Italian Rinaldo Nocentini, who was positioned in the break for most of the day.

Team Astana did the lion's share of the work at the front of the peloton again in Stage 7. In the closing kilometers, Alberto Contador seemed to be shot out of a cannon, accelerating away from his teammates, including Lance Armstrong, as well as a host of overall contenders.

There's plenty more to come in this year's war of words and actions, but Alberto Contador has unequivocally fired the first salvo.

The Last Word

FYI- look for "The Last Word" starting later today- it's my recap of the day's action out on the road, and if you watch the PRIMETIME telecasts, you'll see the similarities. It's a printed version of each day's 'rollout' that i write, and a way to get the top two, or three, stories of each stage. Thanks for tuning in!

On Top of the World

We've made it the 'high point' of the 2009 Tour de France- Arcalis- at 2240 meters, this rarified air will take hold of our lungs, and our brains, like nowhere else during this year's racing.

No matter how often i travel to the precarious peaks of the Pyrenees, i'm always left in awe as the spectacular splendor unfolds around me. Sun, snow, flowers, field grass, and the odd frenetic fan dot the side of the road, and our oasis for the day, the TV compound, cuts through the blindingly blue sky as an odd 'homage' to technology amongst a sea of nature, painted over the course of millennia.

We are just visitors for a day- another good lesson to learn, whether traveling the Tour, or sitting at home.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gatos and Perros

Our day in Spain has not started out without the normal myriad of minor issues, but the WRENCH in the MACHINE is the RAIN at the finish line.

As the title of this blog states, here it rains like "gatos and perros", over the border in France it's "chats et chiens", and back home it is, of course, CATS AND DOGS!

No matter how you SAY it, the riders are going to FEEL IT if this weather does not blow through before they try to blow by the line. We are hearing that after a third of the stage, the roads north of Barcelona are dry, i can't imagine that will last.

The dampness in the air has not dampened my excitement for the scenery around our compound today...more on that later...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hugh Hefner I'm Not

Woke up early, and busted out the BATHROBE in Barcelona...BAM!

Gotta love when you can roll like the rich and famous! OK, maybe i shouldn't put so much stock in a swathe of terry cloth, but there is just something about treating yourself to the TIME to lounge around in one, even if only for a fleeting few moments.

That's really all it was this morning, the SYMBOLISM that i have some time to myself, because the truth of the matter is, I don't, and won't, for a few weeks. That's what makes this frenetic trek through France (and today Spain) so life, i rarely know where the day's journey is going to take me, or more specifically, the bends in the road along the way.

Carpe Diem!

Moon over Barcelona

Ah, Espana!

After a long drive, a petrol pitstop, and some erratic city driving, we arrived in the city that hosted the 1992 Olympic Games. I spent 2 months in Valencia 2 years ago when i covered the America's Cup- at that time, the only side-venture i could make was to tomorrow's 'start' town- Girona- and much like most of the American Pro peloton, i fell in love with that city immediately.

As a first-time Barcelona visitor, i won't be able to take in the sights, like Gaudi's famous Sagrada Familia, but i do admit, it is surprisingly easy to adapt to the laid-back attitude here in Spain. I can see why so many cyclists gravitate to the 'tranquilo' side of the border.

BTW- how about Thomas Voeckler today. I think the pack did a collective double-take when they realized they would not reel him in...OOPS! Well, i for one think the other teams need to step up a bit more. Cavendish has shown he's the best, but only Tyler Farrar and the Garmin-Slipstream crew seem to be willing to charge him head on, and give it a go. A shame.

It seems the one constant for most of the Tour is "tomorrow is another day', which means the sprinter teams may have another chance to right the ship, or at least fire a salvo or two over the bow of the S.S. Columbia.

Buenas Noches.

Shake that thing!

Here in Perpignan this morning, we were greeted to a sight as "Americanized' as McDonald's, apple pie, and Chevrolet...CHEERLEADERS.

YES, two groups of yellow-clad, pom-pom waving, appropriately augmented gals were shaking their stuff for the many spectators who camped out early to get the best spots along the finishing line.

The French have a proud tradition of declaring their independence when it comes to their culture, and to see this latest 'homage' to progress, well, it makes me smile. (No pun intended).

Here's hoping they've moved off the side of the road by the time the racers come into town- there might be some 'swiveling heads' from the sprinters as they dash down the straightaway!

Or better yet, let's all CHEER the new addition.

Bob Roll and I talk Lance with Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller joined us on the set of Stage 4 to talk about his good friend, Lance Armstrong, and to explain how his Trek bike stays looking so, um, new.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Swiss Timing

If you are not watching the Tour de France every day, you will be shortly. Because guess what? Lance Armstrong's amazing comeback story is unfolding in typical "Hollywood" fashion. He missed the Yellow Jersey today by 22-hundreths of a second! The Bern Bear, Fabian Cancellara, singlehandedly kept the jersey on HIS shoulders for another day due to his Herculean strength and his 'pull' at the end of the race- dragging his remaining teammates across the line. Saxo Bank would eventually get 3rd on the stage, but due to Cancellara's effort, he was in a virtual TIE with Lance when Astana crossed the line.

And so, we head south, towards Spain and the Pyrenees. What a week this is shaping up to be. Thanks for tuning in, i'm just getting used to the website, so bear with me...and if you are on Twitter, you can follow me at 'h2o007'.


Tour de France Stage 4 today

It's heating up all right. Join Bob Roll and me 8pm tonight on Versus to recap Stage 4 of the Tour de France. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Let the race begin. The Tour de France 2009 starts July 4th

Welcome to my blog. Right now, I'm headed to Monaco where the Tour de France begins on Versus, Saturday, July 4th. Should be a very exciting three weeks.