Speed and insanity at the Tour de France
Special to The Aspen Times
Monday’s stage was one of the most exciting sporting experiences I have ever witnessed. It was right up there with the Avalanche’s game-seven victory in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Our group rode up the final climb of the day on the Tour route to the ski village of Luz-Ardiden. It was a huge, natural amphitheater with good steeps. I would love to come back and snowboard it.
There were people hiking up the road on the final climb and riding every sort of bike you could imagine, from hunks of junk to $5,000 bikes from companies you have never heard of.
There were campers, cars and tents lining every inch of both sides of the road. Most spectators had slept there the night before.
We rode back down to our camp along the road, which was six kilometers from the top. The top was a complete zoo and there was speculation that Lance Armstrong would be attacking just below this point.
We settled in to watch the parade of people go by. There were people from everywhere and many Americans. Everyone was friendly, and many of the French loved Lance and want him to win.
It turned out that Jan Ullrich attacked Armstrong first, on a spot lower than expected. Armstrong slowly reeled him back in.
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Our training camp director, Noel, told me that Lance came back slowly because he wanted to test Ullrich’s legs.
When Armstrong took his now-famous spill in the stage, after his handlebar rubbed the bag of a spectator alongside the road, we were watching the action on our satellite television and started screaming. People from up and down the road came running over asking us what was happening in multiple languages.
Armstrong, of course, got up and started riding back to Ullrich, who waited for him. When Armstrong came out of a pedal in midstroke we screamed again. By this time we had more than 100 people of all nationalities crowding around our tent.
After recovering from his mishaps, then fending off other cyclists’ attacks, Armstrong finally took the lead. After about one minute in front, we could see him coming alone around the corner near where we were located. He was surrounded by motorcycles. His cadence was shockingly high, and he was flying.
When he got close we could see the anger in his face. Later that night, Carmichael told us that because Armstrong is so emotional, his troubles in the stage were really a good thing for him to key on.
Forty-five seconds after Armstrong flew by he was followed by Ullrich. A few people yelled encouragement but we drowned them out by yelling for American racer Tyler Hamilton. We kept flipping our heads back and forth from the television to the steady stream of racers coming by on the road.
When we saw on television how much time Armstrong gained on Ullrich by winning the vital stage, our training director ran onto the road alongside George Hincapie of the U.S. Postal Team. Hincapie wanted to know if Lance won and by how much.
We cheered for each U.S. Postal rider as they went by, and most of them acknowledged Noel.
When the race was over, we changed back into our riding clothes and started riding down the course. It was insane. Everyone was coming down the same two-lane road – on foot, bike or car.
Some cyclists were going 40 mph, weaving in and out of traffic and pedestrians. Cars were changing lanes at will. People were stepping out from everywhere. It’s hard to believe someone wasn’t killed.
After 15 minutes we got to our first meeting spot, past the end of the race course, and watched the dangerous horde of thousands go by. Noel stood on the side of the road as we waited and started yelling to riders as they went by. I couldn’t believe it, but some of them were riders in the Tour. They were riding down through the mob to the next town rather than waiting for hours in the traffic jam.
Many of the riders yelled back to Noel, but many tried to stay incognito so they wouldn’t get mobbed by fans.
When we got back to the hotel, Carmichael told us that Armstrong was feeling OK. He was stiff but not hurt. We had started our ride at 7:30 a.m. It was now 8:30 p.m.
Although Tuesday was a day of rest for the riders in the Tour, it was a tough one for us in the Carmichael riding camp. We climbed three peaks and 10,000 feet.
However, our thoughts are on Saturday’s individual time trial, which will likely determine if Armstrong grabs a fifth title.
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