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03/07/00 Paris-Nice Memories

The first big race on the UCI calendar is now under our noses. It's known as "the race to the sun," but as many riders know it's not nearly as pleasant as it sounds. Paris-Nice is a hard race from the courses to the aggressive attacking to the crazy field sprints and especially because of the weather. Paris-Nice has been dominated, many times, by sometimes a single rider for many years. I started racing Paris-Nice when Sean Kelly was on a streak of winning it seven years in a row. The buildup and pressure became so much that he decided to skip the race one-year. He announced, after seeing the papers talking about "Can Kelly make it Eight?" that he would just skip the race. When he returned the following year, he crashed in the feed zone breaking his collarbone. That year was his last Paris-Nice.

After Kelly the next rider to become "big man on campus" in the race to the sun was Laurant Jalabert. Jalabert put together a string of five wins and in 1996 had one of his toughest battles. In 1996 Jalabert came up against a new improved and very motivated Lance Armstrong. Lance was riding great and Paris-Nice was his number one priority that spring. The team worked their tail off for Lance by keeping him in good position and always in contention for the lead. Laurant had the jersey but Lance was in second place with one arm through the jersey sleeve. I remember one of the critical mountain days when Jim Ochowicz, our director at that time, decided to take the bull by the horns and swing as hard as the team could. Forty kilometers before the finish and fifteen kilometers before the second to last climb, the team went to the front of the group and started an all out chase. We caught the peloton by surprise and before we knew it we had two hundred riders all lined up single file hanging on for dear life. Right before the second to last climb there was a twisty descent that split the group up even more. This was while we never touched the breaks flying down the hill following Yates' wheel around the corners. At the bottom of the descent the climb started right away and Lance took off like the finish was two hundred meters away. There was a complete explosion of the group with riders finishing everywhere. Jalabert ended up catching Lance and eventually won the stage while Lance finished second. Lance's aggressiveness and style of "coming at you from all corners" may have cost him the stage that day but we wouldn't have wanted it any other way. That's part of what's fun about racing with Lance.

On the other hand, a couple days later on the second to last day (the last day was a time trial), Lance attacked Jalabert after the last climb of the race (meaning that he was attacking Jalabert on the downhill.) Lance at about fifty km/hr overshot a hairpin curve and crashed into the guardrail. He didn't get up and that was the end to grabbing the jersey off Jalabert's back

The weather has always been a factor in Paris-Nice. It's not so much a factor in who wins or loses but who survives and who doesn't. The coldest I've ever been on a bike have all been during Paris-Nice stages. One year the riders protested at the top of a mountain pass because of the amount of snow that was falling. We sat around for a half-hour, threw some snowballs and then the organizers made us keep going. It was not one of the smartest moves we did. I remember Marc Madiot, who worked for the race at the time yelling at the riders to keep going and that we were all a bunch of pansies. I also remember a few years earlier that Marc Madiot would be the first one off his bike the moment it got cold yelling, "Annulee, Anulee." How quick your disposition changes from behind the heater of a car. Another instance: I think last year, it was freezing cold and raining so the peloton decided, after riding for an hour, to stop under an overpass and protest. Again we stood around for fifteen minutes, got even colder, and then the organizers made us continue. No, we don't learn from our mistakes. There were many times on downhills where I couldn't control my bike because I was shaking so hard. It felt like my top tube was spaghetti and my whole bike was falling apart. It would shake side to side so badly that I could barely steer or see where I was going. When I shake that much I can't see, my eyes get so rattled in my head everything becomes fuzzy. I realize what is happening but I can't get my eyes to stay still. It really isn't any fun at this point. This is when I say to myself, "They're not paying me enough for this."

Eventually the race to the sun does make it to sunny Nice. This is only after a few long car transfers; the bulk of the race is held in the cold north. Returning with a new organizer of the race, Laurant Fignon, is the famous Col de Eze mountain time trial. Normally a staple to the Paris-Nice race it has been missing the last few years.

MY DREAM

First off I want to talk about what excited me the most about going to Mallorca. It's been a dream of mine since I started racing. I've always seen them on other teams and I've always been extremely jealous. I know I only have a few more years racing in Europe so I knew my time was running out. On Motorola we would bug our boss, Jim Ochowicz, about buying one. Well, finally the United States Postal Service gave me what I though I would never be able to expeirence, a beautiful team bus.

I'm not talking about a small European camper like we used in the past years. Don't get me wrong I'm not spoiled or complaining because even back in the Motorola days we had a small camper. I'll take that any day over trying to change with nine guys in a car. The thing is that while changing in that camper I would look out the window and see the huge ONCE bus or TVM bus. I had only seen the buses from the outside but the idea of all that space and comfort made it so appealing. I can remember sitting with my helmet, jacket and gloves on in the car, with the heat on high, trying to stay warm before a cold rainy start. I would sometimes wipe the condensation off the windows to look outside only to see the big busses staring right at my face. As I would look up to the windows of the bus I would see the coffee cups tipping up to the lips of the riders sitting there with their feet up in just their jerseys. I would hear stories about how they could shower after the finishes before they reached their hotel. They had fresh drinks in the refrigrator and/or hot tea at an instant with the micorvave. I would hear how the five hour transfer from one race to another wasn't that bad because they were able to put their feet up and relax while watching a movie on the television. All I ever heard about was what I was missing. Well now the team and I are not missing out anymore. It may have taken me eleven years as a professional but the first day I walk onto our bus one of my dreams will have come true.

Here is a riddle: what ate eleven boxes of cereal, ten packs of cookies, drank 32 liters of water, went through a liter of olive oil at dinner, and consumed eight kilos of fruit a day? It was the sixteen U.S. Postal Service riders that were in Mallorca. The cookies were a little excessive but that was only because the food was so bad. Everyone would stop eating when they were still hungry and then we would fill up on cookies right afterward. The souigneer found out there was a big difference between taking care of a normal squad of six guys compared to sixteen.

BARTOLI'S REWARD

It doesn't matter if he wins or not but Bartoli has his dream ride coming up or should I say dream drive. After Milan San Remo Bartoli will get the chance to take his Ferrari (yeah his own) to the private test track of Ferrari. After he races his own car around for awhile he will get to upgrade to a Formula 1 car for a few laps on the test track. I wonder what kind of insurance he has.

Next week I'll report on one week's worth of racing from Paris-Nice and The Wife's Word.


03/14/00

My travel to Paris-Nice is always pretty simple. I get a direct flight to Paris, usually business class because it's a one-way ticket, and then the race finishes practically at my front door. It can't get any better.

But Cédric Vasseur, who was coming only from Lille, usually a 2.5-hour drive, had a tougher time getting to Paris. The team bus that was coming from Belgium stopped off in Lille to pick up Cédric. He also thought that it couldn't get any better. What he didn't count on was that the bus would run out of gas in the middle of the transfer. He had to wait while Stephen, who is our bus driver, flagged down a German truck and then sucked some gas from a hose into the bus to get them to the next stop. Cédric's supposedly great travel turned into five, long hours.

The first day of the prologue went off without a hitch but Laurent Fignon, the organizer, was not at all happy about it. The morning of the race he was informed that Frank Vandenbroucke (Cofidis) had fallen in his house and supposedly fractured his wrist. Fractured wrist or not, the point is that another star name won't be riding the race. Missing from the race this year is last year's winner Boogerd (Rabobank), the previous year's winner Vandenbroucke, Jalabert (ONCE/Deutsche Bank), and Armstrong. Fignon's all-star cast for Paris-Nice turned out to be much less than what was expected.

The prologue was a very fast seven-kilometer course that contained a small hill on the backside. The Union Cycliste Internationale commissaries were out in full force with their tape measures again. This year the guy doing it was a dork, he was just measuring things randomly. The rule states that the bars cannot extend any longer than 75 centimeters from the bottom bracket. The commissar at the start podium was just measuring the length of the aero-bars. Then he would hem and haw like there was a problem until we told him to measure from the bottom bracket like he was supposed to. Of course the bikes were fine.

Laurent Brochard (Jean Delatour) won the race. George (Hincapie) did a great ride finishing fourth and I surprised a few people with my ninth-place finish. Of everyone out there it was a unanimous decision that Virenque had the worst time-trial position. I know I'm always bashing Virenque but I promise you it wasn't just me making this observation.

The first day of Paris-Nice was beautiful, despite the cold. There were a few attacks early on, but Jean Delatour decided that they wanted to try and keep the jersey as long as they could. They rode tempo, mostly Bruno Thibout, the whole race except for the last 50 kilometers.

Because it was a long slow day the finish was crazy. When the race goes easy all day everyone thinks they have a chance to win, therefore everyone tries to stay up front for the sprint. Inevitably this means nasty crashes. Just under the one-kilometer banner the peloton seemed to disintegrate with 10 or 15 guys going down. On a good note Cédric won the mountain jersey by winning the lone mountain prime of the stage. When he walked in the bus we were all teasing him about being a climber because in Valencia he was suffering. He said, "Hey, now we're in France."

There were lots of attacks at the start, mostly from Big Mat/Auber 93. As usual the profile card for the day seemed to be dreamed up by someone who had dyslexia. The course was supposed to be dead flat for the first 100 k's and then hilly after that. Instead the first 100 k's were up and down and, of course, the finish was hilly also. There were two second-category climbs to go over but the hills didn't break up the group--the last downhill did.

Francois Simon (Bonjour) went to the front and I don't think touched his breaks 'til the bottom. It was crazy fast and scary flying around the blind corners. I think he must have known the descent because he, and all of us trying to keep with him, were taking huge risks with the speed we were going. It was a group of 20 that got away on the downhill and Baldato (Fassa Bortolo) won the sprint just ahead of Figueras (Mapei/Quick Step). It wasn't an eventful day but Bobby Julich (Credit Agricole) looked very comfortable on the climbs, as did Casagrande (Vini Caldirola). Actually, Casagrande looked like he was training instead of racing.

The stage Bo Hamburger (MemoryCard/Jack & Jones) won was the most exciting race, and hardest, I've done all year. What made the race exciting was Jean Delatour's weakness in being able to control the race. After each big climb Brochard, the leader, would usually be left alone so everyone would attack the heck out of him. Near the end of the race there were three groups all chasing each other within 30 seconds. The riders kept attacking each other either trying to bridge to the next group or to try and get off the front of the race.

The Lotto/Adecco team used a Belgian trick to break up one of the chase groups. There was a hard crosswind and they had the whole team on the front chasing the group in front of them. All of a sudden their team car pulled up along side of them to talk with them.

Instead of talking they put the hammer down while motorpacing from their car and completely split the group. Everyone was yelling at the team car; we were furious. At the end, 15 kilometers from the finish, the group finally came together except for Bo Hamburger who managed to stay away and win the hardest stage of Paris-Nice. After the race we had a 3.5-hour drive to our hotel; we arrived at nine at night.

After seven days of Paris-Nice the whole race came down to the Col d'Eze time trial. The first 30 riders were all within a minute of each other which meant you could either gain a lot or lose a lot in the 10-kilometer time trial. I was sitting in fourth, and I was nervous about this TT. This was my first mountain time trial that I raced. Normally a mountain TT just means a rest day for me. I rode a 44x21 up the climb; Casagrande rode a 49 for a small ring.

Like I said, this time trial saw some guys make monumental gains and some guys take monumental losses. Brochard lost the leader's jersey by seven seconds to Kloden (Telekom). Jonathon Vaughters (Credit Agricole) jumped from something like 30th to fifth overall. I fell from fourth to eighth, which considering everything was pretty good for me.

The race was now over except for the last day, which is traditionally a field sprint. Tom Steels (Mapei/Quick Step) won the sprint just in front of Damien Nazon (Bonjour) and George Hincapie. George is riding great right now and will be a major factor in the next races.

Need another tray…?

On the second-to-last day Kelme/Costa Blanca had seven bikes stolen out of their truck. I was wondering why the thieves only took seven when they could have had 30. We joked because that was probably all the room the thieves had on their bike rack.

Super Tuesday

Is it ironic that Super Tuesday was also the same day that Redlands started? Our boys flew back to America the day before the race started to try for a fifth USPS win in a row. They will have their work cut out for them, as they do every year. Benoit Joachim, who rode the race last year, decided not to return this year. He said there were just too many different things to adjust to.

One story from Benoit was his difficulty in finding the team hotel after one of the races. After riding around for awhile he asked directions from a local to the hotel. The local told him, "Just go past the famous pancake house and then take a right." Benoit turned around rode down the street and found himself lost again. The next person he asked directed him also towards the "famous pancake house". Finally, he figured out that the "famous pancake house" was the International House of Pancakes, or IHOP. Since Benoit is from Luxembourg there was no way he could have known what the locals were talking about.

The "Boy's Race"

Tony Doyle, our nike rep in Europe, rode home with us in the bus after the race. The stories he had from 15 years of six-day racing were incredible. It was a learning experience the whole way. We also figured out that Tony, Johan, Mark Gorski, Ekimov, and I had all competed on the track at the 1986 World Championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Tony and Ekimov were both world champions that year but as Tony puts it, Eki won the boy's event. At that time the pro pursuit and amateur pursuit were separate but more importantly was that the pro race was five kilometers long instead of the amateurs four.


03/21/00

The biggest one-day race in Italy always falls on a Saturday. Every household in Europe knows the Saturday of Milan-San Remo. The first World Cup race, almost 300-kilometers long, runs along roads that only in Italy can make 300km's pass in seven hours. The speed of the race is its highlight. The speed along the flats and especially the quickness that the leaders go over the famous climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio is indescribable. For tourists these climbs are small ring climbs on their average two-hour ride. In Milan-San Remo, after 270km's, the leaders will go over the climbs in their big rings.

The critical part of this race starts with the fight for position with about 100 kilometers to go. At the 60-kilometer mark if you are not already in the front, you will probably never see the front. Each team is usually starting its leadout train around this time. They will sacrifice each and every member in order to get their leader among the top-10 guys at the bottom of the Cipressa.

The sprint to the bottom of the Cipressa is like the sprint at the finish. There are certain riders whose main job is to do the leadout to the bottom of the Cipressa. Last year I saw Giovanni Lombardi, Zabel's usual leadout man, doing the final sprint to the bottom of the Cipressa for Zabel. Zabel can take care of himself in the final sprint, it was more important to make sure to get him to the bottom of the Cipressa at the front. It's the same with any team that has ambitions of having a winner at the finish.

The last time a break succeeded in Milan-San Remo was when Chiappucci won. I don't remember the year (1991--Ed.), but I do remember it was one of my first Milan-San Remos and I was part of the chase that tried to reel in the front group. I also remember it was raining, one of the only times that I've ever done it in the rain. I also crashed in the rain. Since it's been such a long time ago that a break succeeded, the odds keep increasing that it will happen again. This means that in every team meeting directors will be telling one of their riders to keep an eye out for the early break because this might be the year that it will succeed. But I'm not sure it will ever happen, this race is just way too fast.

Last year I rode from Nice to San Remo to see the Cipressa and Poggio. On Motorola, many years, we would drive to the course and ride the last 50 kilometers of the course. Some years we would drive the last part of Milan-San Remo to remember the ascents but more importantly the descents.

I think nothing can top Oscar Freire's reconnaissance mission of Milan-San Remo this year. Mapei, who has never won Milan-San Remo or Liege-Bastogne-Liege, hired a helicopter to show Oscar the final climbs of the race. They figured driving in all the Italian traffic would make him too tired. Nothing like adding a little more pressure!

THE RACE

The wake-up call arrived at 6:00 a.m., the normal three hours before the race start. This year the difference was that I woke up in a Novotel hotel instead of, for the past 10 years, the '70s Leonardo de Vinci hotel. It was nice to make the change. The team hired a taxi to show us the way to the start--driving in Milan it's very easy to get lost. I've experienced that before and the last thing you need is to be all stressed-out about missing the start of Milan-San Remo.

What an event Milan-San Remo is to the Italians. It's the granddaddy of any sporting event in Italy. I saw Bugno, Saronni, Moser, and many others all socializing in the start area in their expensive suits. Of course, as every year, I saw Fred Mengoni. It wouldn't feel like Milan-San Remo unless I saw Mr. Mengoni there. He comes over every year to give George a pep talk; it always seems to work.

The start was cold, very cold. Everyone had on long-fingered gloves, leg warmers, and thermal vests to try and keep warm on the chilly Milan morning. In the haste of pulling out all his team clothes to try and keep warm Ekimov forgot to put on his race numbers. After five kilometers in the neutral zone he had to call back to Johan to tell the soigneurs, who were leaving for the feed zone, to dig in his bag and pull out his race numbers. Juan, the mechanic, from the car had to pin the numbers on Eki's jersey as we started the race.

The race started a little differently than other years, we went slowly at the start. I don't think the first attack went until well past an hour of leisurely riding. In other years the smaller Italian teams are always attacking to try and get some important television time. Once the attacks started it didn't take long 'til one rider managed to escape, or the group decided to let him go. The escapee was a neo-pro, Michele Gobbi, who was the under-23 European Champion from the NorthwaveMobilvetta team. He built up a lead of over 30 minutes at one time; not once did anyone think he would make it.

The first race sign you come upon is a sign signaling 275 kilometers to the finish. The sight of this surely dampens anyone's willingness to attack. The problem is that the more leisurely everyone goes at the start, the more fiercely they attack along the coast.

After the Turchino climb, Mapei's Andrea Tafi attacked on the descent. This set up Mapei's battle plan; they attacked heavily the last 100 kilometers of the race. I believe instead of pulling on the front and towing everyone around they decided to keep the race rolling by trying to make it hard. The harder the race was the better it was for their main man Freire.

Just before the second feed zone there was a crash, the only one I heard all day and I was in it. I went down with about 10 guys. I was okay, but my shifter for the front derailleur was messed up. When I shifted from the small ring to the big ring the lever wouldn't stop at 45 degrees, it would go to 90 degrees. When this happened it would pull the cables to the front brake tight; I almost ended up on my head the first time I shifted. I just loosened up the front brake and was careful not to extend the lever too far when I went into the big ring.

As we approached the Cipressa things were crazy as usual. It was complete chaos with Lotto on the front protecting Andrei Tchmil, Mapei on the side protecting all their guys, Cipo trying to sneak in any hole he could find, and George, Eki and I all fending for ourselves trying to stay in the front.

The three of us were supposed to try and make it over the Cipressa and help George before the Poggio and ideally make it over the Poggio also. At the entrance to the Cipressa, I was on the far right and now I know, there was a huge hole. I nailed it! I totally bent my wheel but there was no way to stop because I would have never made it back on. I loosened my front brake some more. The brakes were as wide as I could get them and luckily the wheel didn't hit the pads. The problem was I couldn't brake. When I hit the brake, the pads would catch on the bent rim and practically stop the wheel. Again, I almost did a face plant.

I made it over the Cipressa with the first group but I couldn't go down the descent with the first group since I only had one brake. I lost contact at the bottom. As I rode in the second group towards the Poggio I saw George standing at the bottom of the last climb. At the entrance to the Poggio climb, with all the fighting for position, Francesco Casagrande quacked George and removed a few spokes from his wheel. In the blink of an eye George's race was over only five kilometers from the finish of Milan-San Remo. The team ended up with nothing, no results or points. It was a disappointing start to the World Cup since we all had good form.

WORLD CUP PREVIEW

The beginning of the season starts in the south of Europe and as the races gradually move north towards Belgium it becomes evident what is around the corner…the classics. These races are thrown at us as soon as the schedulers can fit them in the racing calendar. Sure, the UCI takes the bad weather into consideration, but they also understand that this is why the fans love the sport so much in the north of Europe. They love to see Mother Nature compete against the cyclists. So instead of taking their time moving into the lowland countries with the races, the UCI catapults us north as soon as it stays above freezing, and they roll the dice against severe weather for three weeks. Entering Belgium at the start of March is a gamble--so each classics rider knows to pack every warm piece of clothing they own. You just never know about the weather--that's what the fans love about early-season racing in Belgium.

The classics season starts off at the end of March with a preview of what to expect for the next two weeks. This first race, Three Days de Panne, is the introduction to riding the cobbles again. Or in some riders' cases, it's the, "Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into" week. This is the first race where the big names that have been taking it easy in February and March now will start to show some muscle. I'm sure Mapei's Johan Museeuw, who is motivated to ride for himself, will show that he is already in top form and set for the World Cup races that follow.

It's also the race where teams practice fighting for position and protecting their leaders. There, Telekom's Zabel will have his troops rallying around him and keeping him out of trouble. Lotto's Tchmil will be following the moves--only to spy on who is going strong and whom he'll be able to take out during Flanders.

Flanders is the second World Cup of the year and the first in Belgium. A rider who has a chance of doing well either at Flanders or Roubaix will have tried hard to pick up some points at Milan-San Remo. It doesn't matter if it was only two or three points, because after Flanders and Roubaix the difference between wearing the World Cup leader's jersey and second place is often those same few points.

The same riders usually score World Cup points in both the cobbled classics. So the key to holding the leader's jersey after Roubaix could have been something as small as sprinting for 25th place or sitting up three weeks earlier in Italy.

Paris-Roubaix, probably the most famous World Cup race, has a love-to-hate appeal to it. Certain riders dedicate their whole year to this one race that is like no other on the UCI calendar. Mapei, one of the most powerful teams in the sport, specialize in this race. While some teams dread doing Paris-Roubaix and the cobbles, Mapei trains for it. With the tag team of Steels, Peters, Museeuw, Zanini, and Tafi, it's no wonder it has won it the last few years.

This year the Postal Service will be putting their efforts behind George Hincapie to try and improve on his fourth place from last year. Another key hitter for USPS in the cobbled classics will be Ekimov. In these races always look for a great battle between Rabobank, Farm Frites, and Lotto. They all hate to see each other win and many times it plays against them. After the first three World Cups, look for Museeuw, Bartoli, Hincapie, Van Petegem, Baldato, and Zabel to be in contention for the jersey.

Very rarely will the classics riders from the cobbles attempt to do the last two World Cups. The last two World Cup races are part of a group of three races known as the Ardennes. They are Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold. Flèche Wallonne is part of this trio, although it is not a World Cup race. These races require a 39x23 for the dozens of hills in each race and are for the climbing specialists. It's a whole different ballgame compared to the cobbled classics. The Ardennes riders are very skinny and light; you put these riders on the cobbles and they get bounced around like ping-pong balls. The only reason a rider from the early races might decide to attempt the Ardennes races is if he has a chance to keep the Word Cup jersey or a real chance in stealing it away.

The last of the spring classics is the Amstel Gold race in Holland. This race has many short and very steep hills and since it's the last of the classics it drains the riders' legs of energy very quickly. It's the race where after doing the first of 20 climbs you think to yourself, "Oh man, this is going to be a very long day."

Amstel is where Lance showed his winning colors again for the first time in 1999. He may not have won the race but he made a declaration that his second place was worth far more than being on the top of the podium. There are two Dutch teams, Farm Frites and Rabobank; one does not go without the other at this race. Maarten Den Bakker and Michael Boogerd will be in top form here along with Vinokourov, Vandenbroucke, maybe Ullrich, David Etxebarria, Paolo Bettini, Freire and Alex Zulle.

The remainder of the World Cup races are at the end of the year. They are all normal road races, nothing extreme, but always difficult. Many times riders who were good in the spring are bad in the fall and sometimes the opposite is true. The last races are mixed and matched and cater to all types of riders. They are San Sebastian, Zurich, Paris-Tours, and Lombardia.

The most difficult of these is the last race of the year near the end of October, Lombardia. This race is held late in the fall, with leaves falling off the trees, and the start of winter settling in. From the first races of the season to the very last races of the season the pressure to do well is always there. After 10 months of hard racing there really is only one race left, the race to get home.


03/28/00

Rest Week

If this was a rest week how come I felt worse than when I was racing? Maybe it was the release of stress and tension since Paris-Nice and Milan San Remo are finished. Maybe I'm just tired from racing but it took a few days to figure that out. I felt fine the first two days after Milan San Remo on my easy rides of a few hours. On the third day I had nothing in my legs and it's been like that all week. I'm not sure but this week has not been a very productive week. Maybe productive in getting needed rest, so I tell myself, but not in gaining condition for the upcoming classics in Belgium. But what can I do, I've been sleeping all day instead of riding all day. It didn't help that I got a quarter of that virus bug that is going around. I say a quarter because I only got stomach cramps and couldn't really eat for a couple days. I know that it's only a quarter because Kevin took all one hundred percent of the virus and he didn't get out of the bathroom for twenty-four hours. He had to miss the five-day race, Semana Catalana, that made his next race another ten days away, Pays-Basque. Pays-Basque is one of the most prestigious races in Spain behind the Vuelta. It's a very demanding five days and critical in gaining that last bit of conditioning before heading to Fleche and Leige. I can guarantee that whoever does well in Spain will do well in Belgium.

Next week starts off with 3Days de Panne. It's not the nicest or prettiest race around but it is pretty important. Maybe not in the results I get but in teaching me how to remember too hop curbs, jump over parallel rail tracks, fight like mad for position, suffer in the cross wind battles, and ride over the cobbles fast. As Rolf Sorenson put it, "Racing in Belgium sucks but it definitely makes you a better bike racer." Two weeks out of the whole year I have to ride cobbles and ironically two of my most important races of the year happen to be on those damn cobbles. For those two weeks I'll be staying at a hotel in Nazerath, Belgium. The last two years we've been based from this hotel for the classics. We've learned most of the training loops including the canals that occupy us on our rest days. We also learned that for such a nice hotel you can't get online unless you stand at the front desk and connect through their fax machine line. When will they learn?

One of the biggest stages of the Tour this year will be the mountain top finish of Mt. Ventoux. Many of us have gone over Mt. Ventoux before but there has never been a Tour finish at the top. The top of Ventoux is a National Park and to have a Tour finish you have to have tons of space for parking, buses, television trucks and crews, stage finish podiums, etc. For the 2000 Tour the French Government finally gave permission, after many tries, to excavate the top of Mt. Ventoux to make room for the space needed for a Tour finish. They are clearing out, and flattening huge amounts of land at the top to make room for everything that is needed when the Tour reaches the top. Normally the top of Mt. Ventoux looks like the moon, very barren and rocky. This year it will look like a small city was built on the top of the climb.

OUTSIDE RACING

Life continues off the bike here in Nice also. All the riders wives are in town at this time of year so they always have someone to hang out with and to talk with on the phone. This also gives us an opportunity to go out to dinner with each other for a normal night out. Right now Bobby, Kevin and I are all trying to look for new places to live. We all want to upgrade for different reasons; I need more space because of the baby. Finding a place is not an easy task in Nice, France. There are as many real estate places as there are bakery's here, one on every corner. The problem is that each agency has it's own listings and none of them share with each other. There isn't a book or computer where you can put in what you are looking for and it pulls up all the apartments that fit your criteria. So in order to find a place you have to walk the beat and talk with as many agents as possible and look at all sorts of places. It's not a very productive process. The hunt will continue when I return to Europe. Betsy, Li'l Frankie and I are getting ready to head up to Belgium and then back to the States. This means it's also time to return my rental car I had here for two months. (That's my next project, finding a rental car sponsor). All I can say is thank god it's a rental. We didn't hit anything but it looks like everyone took turns taking cracks at our car. The front fender is dented, the side door panel has a huge scratch down the side, the rear tail light is cracked, and the rear bumper has a dent that I could put a volleyball in. My credit card insurance had better come through or I'll own a scratched up Ford Mondeo. I always see people bumping into each other while parking but I guess it's not customary to leave a note if you do damage. I suppose that's why most of the cars in the downtown area are small and beat up. Last time I had a rental car nothing happened so I don't know what the problem was this time.

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