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July 4, 2003 - Pre-Prologue

It may be the fourth of July but there are no fireworks going off here in Paris. There is a hint of red, white, and blue but that would mainly be from the US Postal Service jerseys.

You would think that the day before the Tour would be a calm, easy one, but for some reason, this is never the case.

This morning, the guys went out and rode for a couple hours on the TT bikes. All of them have had their TT bikes for a couple months, but the amount of times that a rider gets to ride his may be only a handful.

Lance has a new TREK TT made from the lighter 110 carbon, the same carbon that is used on the 5900. The angles and dimensions of his bike are the same as last year's, except for the lighter-weight carbon used. The road bikes are all 5900s, and George even stopped me to tell me about it,

"Check this thing! It's crazy light -- especially with the 10 speed. It shifts like butter! It's awesome!" Obviously, George was pretty impressed with his new ride. The new team bikes' colors are gray fading into a bright blue while their TT bikes are a deep black.

Lance also has a new 2004 Trek road bike. It's a new mold from the old TREKs. The biggest difference is that the seat tube has a protrusion toward the rear wheel, making the tube more aero. The rear chain stays attached to the seat tube a little lower then before. It makes a very nice line to look at. The top tube and down tube connect at the head set in a much beefier fashion, making the entire frame more rigid. Overall the lines of the bike are much cleaner and it has more precise looking angles. It's very new and very cool!

Today was the team presentation, along with the mandatory rider meeting among all the riders and the Tour de France organization. The team presentation was held outside and it missed raining on the rides only by a hair. The Postal bus was swamped with fans when their turn came to do the presentation lap. The Tour had a huge stage and big screen in front of the Paris Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) to present the riders.

Giro has a new helmet replacing the Pneumo. The new helmet is lighter and Giro put more concentration on increasing the ventilation. There are only about 100 of the new helmets in circulation and the cost to Giro at this point is between $3,000-$4,000. The company has developed a new technology that enables them to blend carbon fiber into the helmet.

While I was at the Postal hotel, about four Shimano mechanics showed up to make some changes on the bikes. They Postal guys have been riding prototype bottom brackets and now that all the studying and testing has been done, team management wanted the postal guys on the standard model with all the improvements. The three mechanics changed all the bottom brackets for all nine guys in about half an hour.

I saw them working one minute, and the next time I looked, they were finished. Speaking of Shimano, there are only 200 10-speed kits and all of them are in Europe. The Postal team has 40 of them. The cost of each Shimano gruppo, with research, development and the rush to make them ready for the Tour, is about $50,000 each.

Polar heart rate monitors has a great idea. Now it's a matter of the Tour de France allowing it to work. Polar has arranged with certain riders to allow them to record and see their heart rates from each of the stages.

Polar has figured out how to transmit the heart rates live to Eurosport TV. The problem is that when French TV found out, they didn't like that they didn't have this access. Because French television and the Tour are so closely tied, the Tour told Polar sorry, no go. Polar is now trying to arrange something with French TV that will allow Polar to continue its live heart rate project.

If you are interested, you can find the heart rate downloads at www.europsort.com. Click on the Polar link or go to www.polar.fi (Yes, "fi." The company is from Finland).

IMAX is in the house here at the Tour de France. The larger-then-life filmmakers are doing a movie piece on the brain and it's activity during the Tour de France. They are concentrating on Tyler Hamilton and the CSC team. IMAX movie cameras are very, very big and bulky.

The IMAX people have figured out a way to place a camera on the back of a motorcycle and control the camera remotely from a helicopter. Thus, they can change the camera's focus, angle, zoom, etc. from the air. The focus of the movie is about brain patterns and activity, but none of the riders will have any attachments or sensors on them.

I guess they will see reactions in the peloton from the riders, and then explain why or how something is happening in their brain, from past research.

Recently retired French star Laurent Jalabert has taken a job with French television for the year. His main passion, though, is farming. Laurent owns a large ranch with about 100 cattle that he tends to everyday. Laurent comes from a farming background.

Tomorrow is the start of the Tour de France. The opening stage is the prologue and Lance has said that he will start in his U.S. Postal Jersey instead of the yellow jersey, as previous winners have done. He says the reason he's doing this is that he wants to have earned the yellow jersey when he puts it on his shoulders. The 6.5-km course starts at the base of the Eiffel Tower, crosses the river and winds its way around to finish behind the Eiffel Tower. The first rider goes off at 9:50 a.m. Eastern Time, and the last rider, Lance, at 1:07 p.m. Eastern Time.

The riders will probably take only seven to eight minutes to finish the course. My pick for the win is Bradley McGee (FDJ) or David Millar (Cofidis). Lance will be up there, but this is a specialist's course because of the short distance. If Lance does win, then this will be a huge blow to the morale of all his competitors.

July 5, 2003 - Prologue

Thousands of people surrounded the Eiffel Tower for the start of the 2003 Tour de France. Most were fans specifically here for the Tour, but many were just caught up in all the hoopla and stood around to see what was going on.

Paris has been an interesting start to the Tour so far. As Johan put it, "I have spent seven hours in the car today traveling back and forth the 30 kilometers from our hotel to the center of Paris."

To say gridlock would be an understatement. For the opening ceremonies of the Tour, with the team presentation, I had to travel from the Eiffel Tower to the Hotel de Ville. This was about five kilometers and it took 1.5 hours. To get to the team presentation, the team buses had to leave almost four hours before the start.

I believe thinking that the last day of the Tour, in Paris, is representative of Paris traffic spoiled us all. The fact is that at the end of the Tour, practically all of Paris is on vacation and the city is relatively empty compared to its normal capacity.

Nevertheless, the skies were perfect and the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower made an incredible start to the Tour de France. Herman Meir, the world famous downhill skier, was supposed to officially start the Tour but no one ever saw him. I don't know if he actually showed up or not.

The first rider off to actually start the Tour was Pierre Bourquenoud (Jean Delatour) and the last was Lance Armstrong in his custom-made Nike Postal yellow skinsuit.

Hincapie, who choose to go off early, did an incredible ride, holding the fastest time for almost an hour. "I felt great today. The course was really bumpy, so it was hard to get a good rhythm." This seemed to be a common problem for many of the riders because of the cobbles.

About two hours before Lance was to start, he hopped in the team car to follow Beltran. Lance had not ridden the course yet, so this was the easiest and fastest way to see the 6.5 km circuit. So far, everything was going along as a normal TT would, but little did I realize how exciting the finish would become.

When Ullrich went out of the start gate, the ohh's and ahhh's started. At the finish he was tied with the best time. Almost immediately after Jan posted the fastest time, Bradley McGee came in to knock Jan out.

Then David Millar, like lightning, came roaring toward the last corner, when all of a sudden he lost his chain. The cobbled bumpy road shook his chain right off the big ring. He had to reach down, try to grab the chain, fix it and then reaccelerate. His final sprint came up short and he lost by only eight/tenths of a second.

Then all eyes were on the Texan. As Chris Carmichael pointed out, "I thought he started a little slow, but he definitely picked it up at the end." Lance finished seventh, only 7.39 seconds out of the lead. What was impressive was the entire Postal team and their stack of results. Leading the way was Pean in 5th, Lance at 7th, Ekimov in 10, and George finished 13th. Because of their performance, they will each receive a Credit Lyonnais lion as leaders in the team classification.

David Millar may get an earful tonight. His chain came off the big ring and you might think that the mechanics would get the blame, but David made the decision.

Since last year, David and Alain Bondue, the Cofidis team manager, have argued about taking the front derailleur off his TT bike for aerodynamics and weight savings. As you probably can figure out, David was for having it off, and Bondue was for keeping it on. Maybe the manager does know best.

The winner, McGee also had his problems. In the last stretch he finished with a flat tire but I'm sure McGee is not having a sleepless night.

The team Coast debacle took a long time to settle out, but Jan Ullrich did make it to the Tour. When Bianchi took over the team, the riders faced a decision - either to race their bikes, or not race their bikes for a year.

The riders' contracts and salaries were not honored by Bianchi. New ones were made, but for much less. Because it was the month of June, many did not have a choice, so they took the lower contracts, sometimes for as much as 40-50 percent off their original value.

As Marcel Wust, the PR director for the old Coast team put it, "Hell, Coast could have run the team for what Bianchi is paying." Marcel turned down Bianchi's offer to continue with them.

Tomorrow is the 168-kilometer stage from Montgeron to Meaux. The stage contains a 20-kilometer neutral section as the riders try to get out of the confines of Paris. There are also three cat 4 mountains that will count toward winning the mountain jersey.

Tomorrow is the first day there will be three races happening at once. The first is the attempt to break away and go for the mountain jersey. It's much easier to win a sprint from five or six guys then 188 riders.

The second is the battle to win the stage. The sprinters will be on high alert as the attempt to secure their teams with wins early in the Tour.

The third is control of the Yellow Jersey. Francaise des Jeux is in a dream situation. They don't have to do work because the sprinters will control everything. They also -- no matter what -- do not want to lose it. If they can keep it until the TTT day, then they planned things out correctly.

The Postal boys will surround Lance at all times. The helicopter view will show Lance never riding alone. The team's responsibility will be to keep him near the front, out of the wind, and as rested as possible.

July 6, 2003 - Stage 1

Bradley McGee enjoyed his day in Yellow and it was a very close call whether he would keep it or not.

The race remained together until the first bonus sprint. This is where Bradley took matters into his own hands, placing second and gaining a valuable four seconds. This put Bradley far enough ahead on seconds that no sprinter could win the stage and take the jersey from him.

Soon enough, the sprinter teams took over during the final kilometers to set up their speed men. The final was crazy fast as it wound through the city of Meaux. Then all of a sudden, disaster struck when a Kelme rider pulled his foot out of his pedal. The result: a massive pileup only 500 meters from the line.

George Hincapie was right there. "We were sprinting to the finish and we came around the corner at 60km/hr into a wall."

The riders were four to five deep and only about 20 guys managed to escape the carnage. George crashed, but he says his knee is fine. Lance crashed and actually finished on Rubiera's bike. George told me Lance is ok, but hurt his back a little.

The scary part was that because the crash was so big, not everyone actually went down, but many got stuck behind the crash. The rule of the race is that anyone who crashes one kilometer or less from the finish, gets same time as the leaders.

The key part is "crash." Stopping usually does not count, so for a while many were not sure what the ruling would be. If they made a time gap, then McGee would have lost the jersey. He crashed, and every G.C. rider would have lost time also. As it was, they gave everyone same time.

The worse off in the crash was Jimmy Casper who was taken away in a stretcher to the hospital. Tyler Hamilton may have broken his collarbone. He was taken to the local hospital. Levi, who also crashed, had to go the hospital because of his hip and also will probably be out. Tomorrow, I think we will see many bandages on the riders.

Today, each of the Postal riders received his first Lion and medal as leader for the team classification. If things go well, they will probably be able to collect about 10 each. In 1999 when the team won a load of Lions, they put them all in the front of the bus on the dash. After a few days we had our own little zoo on display.

David Millar's mishap yesterday has caused some questions to arise. Mainly, who had the idea to take off the front derailleur. Millar blames Bondue and Bondue blames Millar. Cofidis had five of their nine guys lose their chain during the prologue. I would think that someone would have come back to the start line and warned David of what was happening. At the same time, the director was following in the team car for all the riders, so someone must have known what was going on.

There are only three stages where the riders will be allowed to take off their helmets during the race. This will be on the stage to Alpe d'Huez, the stage to Ax- 3 Domaines, and Luz Ardidene.

The rule is that you can only remove your helmet on a mountain top finish longer than seven kilometers. The ruling for the Tour is that riders may remove their helmet at the bottom of these big climbs. I'm sure teams will have people collecting the helmets once the riders throw them off. If not, some fans will get great trophies from the Tour de France.

The Tour de France has a young rider award that goes to the best young rider in the overall classification under the age of 25. The winner so far is the youngest rider in the entire race, Vladimir

The Francaise des Jeux camper is split into two halves. The front half is for the French guys on the team and the back half is for the Australians on the team. They have it decorated with flags, books, and anything else that is Aussie. The joke is that you are not allowed back there unless you have an Aussie passport.

The Tour de France already knows the route for the 2004 Tour. They already have the course mapped out. It will start in Belgium next year. They do not disclose the course until October and it is kept a very big secret.

Tomorrow's stage from La Ferte Sous to Sedan, a distance of 204 kilometers, will be the first endurance test of the riders' legs. The battle for the mountain jersey will continue as there are two mountain sprints and the usual three bonus sprints for time.

The sprinters again will be forcing their way up front and now that a crash has already happened there will be even more pressure to stay in the top 20 riders. Look for Fassa Bortolo to continue its work in the race and at the end in its effort to help Pettachi. Robbie Mcewen's Lotto Domo team will also be out for revenge after losing today.

 

July 7, 2003 - Stage 2

Today may have been the fist time I've seen the media in a frenzy over someone other than Lance. Today it was Tyler Hamilton's turn.

Last night CSC announced that Tyler had broken his collarbone, and the weird part was that they kept saying, "We will see how the night goes and then we will decide."

Hey, I can tell you that when you break your collarbone it hurts, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw Tyler on his bike at the start. Actually, if you look at the guys who crashed, only Levi and his teammate were unable to return to the race.

Jimmy Casper, who was carted off on a back stretcher, is racing with a neck brace and Fabio Baldato who tore ligaments in his finger, also returned. He crashed again today.

As for Tyler, he will have to be very careful. If he crashes again, there is the risk of him actually breaking his collarbone. Right now, it is a fracture. But there also is a risk of him causing a crash, taking other riders down if he can't react quickly to a situation. As Johan told me, "I don't know how he is riding. It's dangerous not only to himself but to the other riders. I told my guys to try and stay away from him today."

Johan also commented, "Lance is fine. He hit his back a little but it's no problem." George also went down in the crash on stage one and when I spoke with him, he told me, "My knee is fine, I mainly just hit the muscle, but I don't feel it today. Lance is ok also, but he actually has a tire mark along the bottom of his back." They were joking that it could be a Hutchinson tire tattoo.

The race today was typical for a flat stage. The first attack went away in less than 20 kilometers. It contained two French riders, one from Jean Delatour, and one from Credit Agricole. It was a good thing that Jean Delatour had a rider in the break because the team has the daunting task of owning up to their Tour de France wildcard selection.

Today's stage was the third longest of the Tour and it was only a matter of time before the front riders fatigued. The peloton was happy to let them go and the leaders actually built up a lead that equaled more then 10 minutes. The resulting chase almost never ensued, as the peloton showed no interest.

But in the Tour there are never any gifts and a stage win most certainly would not be given away for free. The front riders attacked each other and that left Frederic Finot (Jean Delatour) to go it alone. With as little as 10 kilometers to the finish, Finot still had maintained a two-minute lead. The journalists were going crazy as they speculated on whether Finot would hold off the peloton for the win. With only three kilometers to go, the peloton finally swallowed up Finot as the sprinters prepared to battle for the win.

At the end, the Yellow Jersey, McGee, did an incredible leadout for his teammate and winner, Baden Cook. The Postal guys stuck to their game plan of staying near the front and staying out of trouble. At the finish, Lance was surrounded by his teammates, with most of them finishing within only 20 spaces of him.

Wondering how Lance's new 2004 TREK came out after the stage one crash? Well, it came out unharmed.

For these first flat stage, the two Postal directors, Johan and Dirk, are both riding in the first team car. This is a departure from previous years when Johan drove the first car and Dirk the second car. This year Lorenzo, the third team director, is driving the second team car.

Part of the contract with the Tour de France and OLN is that a network station also has to cover the race. The Tour show must be broadcast to a national audience and not just to a cable network.

The deal OLN has is with CBS. Every Sunday, CBS broadcasts the Tour on their national channel. OLN has a crew of 50 people producing, working, and making the Tour coverage. The OLN crew cuts, edits, and tapes each of the shows on the sets at each stage.

CBS does things a little differently. They have a central editing point, let's say in Southern France, and then they have shuttle drivers that drive the tapes back and forth from point A to point B. Sometimes the transfer distances are up to a 10-hour drive.

Tomorrow will again see a battle of the sprinters as they try to take the Yellow Jersey from McGee. The main ones to look out for are Baden Cook, the winner today, and Robbie McEwen. Both of these riders can take the Yellow Jersey by winning tomorrow's stage.

The 167-km road stage will be relatively short and very, very fast. The danger is that the following day is the team time trial and thus a break may have a chance of staying away. Teams don't want to chase, because that will cause them to fatigue for tomorrow's TTT.

The U.S. Postal team so far has not had to do any work and that will stay the same tomorrow. BUT, things could change as early as the TTT and the Postal boys are the favorites to win Wednesday.

 

July 8, 2003 - Stage 3

It may only be the third stage, but many riders are already starting to look tired. Lance, at the finish, looked relatively fresh and I'm sure this is because of the help he is getting during the race.

The riders who have spent time chasing on the front, supporting their sprinters, are starting to lag. They are teams such as Lotto Domo, Fassa Bartolo, Francaise des Jeux.

They have everything to gain in these early stages and not a whole lot to lose after tomorrow's team time trial. On the other hand, the U.S. Postal Service has plenty to gain tomorrow. This is why conserving energy is a must at this point in the game.

Imagine racing along 60-70km/hr right from the start of a race. No warm-up, no stretching of the legs, and no loosening up. Straight from zero to flat out -- that was how today's stage started.

The riders covered 80 kilometers in 1.5 hours and actually arrived at the finish ahead of the Tour's schedule. The Tour has three tentative schedules for each day. That helps television coverage and helps organizers determine what time each stage will finish.

There is a fast schedule of over 45 km/hr, a medium pace of 43 km/hr and what they call a slow pace of 41 km/hr. Last time I checked, riding at 41 km/hr is still a pretty good clip. The reason the pace was so high was because of the valuable time bonus sprints that enable teams to try and take the Yellow Jersey.

There were about five sprinters all within striking distance of Bradley McGee's Yellow Jersey and they all wanted it. At kilometer 74, the second time bonus sprint, the jersey changed hands on the road.

The changing of the jersey at this point was only on paper and it went to the Frenchman Nazon (Jean Delatour). The final sprint could still have changed the holder of the jersey. McEwen and Baden Cook still had a chance, but only if they won the race.

Closing in on the final kilometers, it became evident that there was a lot at stake. The pushing and shoving started behind Pettachi's wheel as the sprinters all lined up across the road. At one point Cooke came flying in along the inside of the barriers -- where I thought would have been no man's land. The space looked no bigger then his handlebars.

Then according to Robbie McEwen, "Haselbacher started slamming into Zabel not once but two or three times. I got sandwiched and had to just fight to keep my balance." Haselbacher got the worst of the sprinter sandwich. crashing right on the barriers.

Amazingly, because it was on the far-left side of the road, no one else went down. Whatever mess was happening behind it certainly did not bother Pettachi. Now the fast Italian has two stage wins and it makes you wonder about what if Cippo had been here.

IMAX is still making their movie. The camera they use is huge and weighs about 90 pounds. Today in the middle of the city square, where all the team buses were parking, they had a huge movie crane. It's a big crane that can sweep all over the place very smoothly. It must have taken them all night to set their production up.

Tomorrow is the team time trial. It's beautiful to watch and one of the most exciting stages of the Tour. The time gained or lost on this stage can make a big difference in the final run toward Paris.

Teams to watch are Bianchi, ONCE and U.S. Postal Service. The Postal boys could make history by putting Pena into the Yellow Jersey with a win in this stage. Pena would be the first Colombian to ever wear the Yellow Jersey. If ONCE beats Postal by only three seconds, then Beloki will take the Yellow Jersey.

It can't get much closer than that. As for the current Yellow Jersey wearer, Nazon, he better sleep with that jersey on because it won't be on his shoulders tomorrow afternoon.

The Postal guys will have everything aerodynamic that you can imagine -- the bikes, shoe covers, helmets and the special new Nike skinsuits, Everything to make them go faster. The 70-km TTT will take the riders only a little over an hour to finish, but it will be one of the hardest hours they do during the entire Tour.

I talked with Fornacari (Saeco) today about the TTT. There is an incredible amount of pressure on the team of Saeco to not let their leader, Simoni, lose a load of time.

It's the same case with Bianchi and Jan Ullrich. Postal Service and ONCE know they have good TTT squads, so their results are a little more expected. In the case of Saeco, this TTT could make or break Simoni's chances. I would say Saeco is the weaker team of the three, but Fornacari does not agree. He believes that Saeco will place either first or second in tomorrow's TTT.

When I spoke with George Hincapie, he thinks Bianchi is the major threat to Postal Service. Either way, there will be some nervous riders until the finish of the race.

 

July 9, 2003 - Stage 4

Finally! It has taken a long time, but today the U.S. Postal Service has won the team time trial of the Tour de France. "It took four tries but this is the best," George told me after the finish.

I must admit I was jealous. I had tried many times but only managed to finish second in the TTT on two different occasions. Today the boys did everything right and they were rewarded with an enormous podium appearance.

On top of everything, the team also has another reason to celebrate. It's almost more important than the first one and that is Victor Hugo Pena's winning the Yellow Jersey.

Victor is the first U.S. Postal rider other than Lance to wear the Yellow Jersey. He also is the first Colombian in the History of the Tour to put on the Yellow Jersey.

"My town at home is going crazy. My father told me the city and papers are jumping everywhere over this. It's my dream come true," Victor said after the finish. Yesterday, Victor realized the possibility of the Yellow Jersey and he said, "I talked with Lance and Johan and they both said go for it."

This morning, the team went for a 1.5-hour warm-up ride to open up the legs. They were on their TT bikes and rode in formation. The order of the team for the race was Eki, Lance, George, Pavel, Beltran, Pena, Rubiera, Floyd, and Heras. The team started the race off slow to get in the groove.

George said, "I didn't even really push myself until after the first checkpoint. I was just riding until then." Obviously, the team had some tactics to start slow and pick it up later.

At the second checkpoint, they were down seven seconds on ONCE and that was when Johan and Dirk gave the order to step on the gas.

From the second checkpoint to the third checkpoint the Postal Service took 12 seconds out of ONCE. At the finish they took another 15 seconds. As Dirk told me, "The guys were incredible today. Lance, Eki, and George were like trains. Sometimes they pulled for 500-600 meters."

Dirk also said, " Floyd and Victor were also very, very good today. The entire team was feeling strong and that's obvious by the result." After the finish I talked with Victor and he told me, "Lance kept yelling at me to keep it up and go harder. He would ask me what jersey I wanted to wear at the finish and that really got me going."

At the finish it was obvious the team was extremely happy and that they rode flat out. Looking at Lance I could tell he had given a maximum effort. They were all exhausted, but also ecstatic. After the finish, Victor said, "I can see why Lance likes yellow. This really feels good!"

Tyler did finish the TTT. I even saw him standing out of the saddle a few times. He remains in the race and tonight, he was supposed to go to the hospital to get a new x-ray but that has been put on hold until tomorrow morning. Tyler rode a special wheel from ZIP. Gold coated with some magnesium in the hub. I'm going to look into it tomorrow so I'll be able to find out some more information.

The big surprise of the day was Banesto. No one had picked them to finish in fourth place. This was an exceptional ride by the Spanish team. Johan told me that rider Vladimir Karpets, the one who had the young rider jersey after the prologue, is an incredible rider with tons of horsepower. He probably pulled the team around by himself.

The other team that rode very well and will remain at the top of Lance's danger list is Bianchi, with Jan Ullrich. Jan only lost 43 seconds today and I'm sure no one from the Postal camp has written him off.

Tomorrow is the 196-km stage from Troyes to Nevers. This is a relatively flat stage with a few bumps, but generally it will be a stage for the sprinters. Gradually, the time gaps are opening, but they are still not enough where the peloton will just let a group go away to the finish.

The two cat. 4 climbs will pose no problem to the peloton. In addition, the bonus sprints will now just be a battle for points, then for seconds. All the sprinters are too far behind to benefit from going for the intermediate sprints.

Johan has said that the team will try to keep the jersey but not at all costs. Looking back, Johan has let a break go up the road that contained 35 riders and the team did not chase.

If the circumstances are right, Johan will let the jersey go, but make no mistake. He will not let the overall race disappear. The start today will have some guys cringing in pain as they try to find their legs after yesterday's hard effort. They also will have on their minds what arrives in two days: the mountains.

To Victor and the entire Postal Service team - congratulations.

 

July 10, 2003 - Stage 5

The heat wave is on here at the Tour de France. Temperatures were in the 90's as the riders covered the 196-km race toward Nevers.

The excitement around the Postal bus was crazy today. Everyone wanted to talk with Victor, Lance, and anyone else on the team. The crowd must have been five to six deep. I talked with Floyd and he was pretty excited, "Yesterday was fantastic. We got to have some champagne last night and I'm a little tired today." I'm sure he felt better once he got his legs moving in the race.

Immediately today, a 14-man break formed. It was deja-vu from the other year when the team let 35 riders go up the road. I wrote about that yesterday. Today 14 guys, and one dangerous rider, Vinokourov, went away from the gun.

Vinikourov is dangerous because he just won the Tour of Switzerland and also won Paris-Nice this year. He is a very good climber and also a good time trialist.

Now, if we start to think from the other side, meaning a way to beat Postal, you have to wonder what some teams are thinking. Cofidis missed the break so they ended up chasing.

But because of the danger to Lance and Victor, Cofidis should have done nothing until it forced the Postal boys to the front to not let Vinikourov gain any time. As it was, Cofidis chased and the 14-man break shrunk to a much more manageable five riders.

This break contained Jens Voigt (Credit Agricole), Nicholas Jalabert (CSC), Bodrogi (Quickstep), Finot (Jean Delatour), Turpin (AG2R). They worked well today but when the sprinters hit the front, there wasn't much they could do. As soon as the break was caught, Finot launched a counterattack.

This caused a reaction and Bettini and Vinikourov bridged up quickly. The three worked together for a little while, but never gained much time. Nevertheless, Finot, who was in the very long break two days ago, attacked from the break for a last ditch effort.

It was an effort he knew would not succeed, but he attacked for different reasons. One is to get points towards the most aggressive rider of the Tour de France competition and second because of the Jean Delatour situation (read more below). At the finish, the sprinters were all in the front and I could tell they were coming in very, very fast.

Out of the last 90-degree right-hand corner, two Francaise des Jeux riders had a gap. The problem was that it was still a long way to the finish and Petacchi timed it perfectly, taking his third stage win.

It almost seems like Petacchi is the new Eric Zabel. Where once Zabel could win at his desire, now he has trouble posting in the top five. Today Eric was fourth and a big part of his struggle could be the fact that he has no help in the sprints, except for maybe Aldag.

DiLuca is still suffering from a urinary tract infection. He has had fever and has not been feeling well since about stage two. He was struggling in the TTT yesterday and team Saeco lost about three minutes. Simoni is devastated at this loss. He really believed his team would do well in the TTT.

I believe that Simoni will now have to be aggressive in the mountains if he wants any chance for something on G.C., or even a stage win. It should make exciting racing, but Simoni can't afford to be conservative in the mountains.

I'm writing this from an old farmhouse. There is no TV, no phone, and the bathroom is in the hall. This is my least favorite place so far (I'm being polite). For dinner we had to drive six kilometers into town.

I was speaking with one of the Aussies today, Nick Gates. He was livid! Mad as heck because one of the mechanics on his team decided that Nick's saddle position was too low so the mechanic took the liberty of raising it. It was up about five millimeters -- pretty evident. I was shocked. There is no way a mechanic should ever, ever touch a rider's seat position without them telling or asking him to. I left before the fireworks went off.

Jean Delatour got in to this year's Tour de France in a wildcard spot. Early on, there was an indication that Jean Delatour might not get invited and that was when Jean Delatour started spewing about stopping sponsorship. They said they couldn't continue sponsorship if they don't get into the Tour de France.

Well, Jean-Marie Leblanc eventually caved in and let Jean Delatour in the Tour, thinking he was doing something good for French cycling. Now it turns out that even though they got into the Tour, Jean Delatour is still stopping its sponsorship at the end of the year. This means that there will be some French riders like Finot, looking for jobs next year.

David Millar has been complaining about his team all year. Not always good things are being said. Yesterday he was disappointed at how weak his team was. He also said that for the first time he is actually looking forward to the mountain days (He'll learn). This morning I saw him talking to the Quickstep boss Patrick Lefevre and I'm sure it was not about croissants.

The talk around town here is that Tyler will probably stop tomorrow. I'm only guessing but I have heard it from more than one source. Tonight after the race Tyler went to the hospital to get another checkup and X-ray to see how the bone is doing. After that they are supposed to make a decision.

Levi, is doing better at home in Girona after his crash. He has to take 10 days off and is still using crutches. He has shifted his objectives to the Vuelta and World's. He said he watched the TTT yesterday and was surprised how strong the Postal Service rode. He couldn't believe how much time they took back at the end of the race.

As for Rabobank, they had to ride the ride a few men short. Levi and Marc Lotz have been out of the race since stage one because of a crash. And on race day, Bram DeGroot, a Rabobank rider, only took two pulls and then sat on all day. This mean Rabobank had to ride the entire 79 kms with only six guys, ouch!

Tomorrow is a very long stage, 230 kms. The race from Nevers to Lyon is the longest day of the Tour. If it is hot like today, there will be some hurting riders.

The major obstacles of the day are a cat. 3 climb at 160 km into the race and a cat.4 climb at the 207-km mark. It will be interesting to see which sprinters can get over the cat. 3 climb. And I'm sure Bettini will attack on the cat 4 climb. He has attacked every time the road tilts upward near the finish.

This may be a day where the usual sprinter will not win. It's a stage for a surprise victory. The Postal guys are still in yellow but for sure will try not to do much work. On everyone's minds are the mountains. And the following day is Morzine.

The stage to Morzine is difficult and riders do not want to kill themselves on the way to Lyon. Tomorrow we also might see a change in the green jersey.

 

July 11, 2003 - Stage 6

I had a little misinformation yesterday. I talked with Dirk and he told me, "Yesterday was perfect for us. The first break had Roberto (Heras) so we didn't have to do anything. After that the sprinter teams worked." I had said that Postal was not in the break.

It only seems to get hotter and hotter in central France. The stage was 230 kilometers and as O'Grady (Credit Agricole) went for the first bonus sprint, he found himself out on the road with Anthony Geslin (Brioches Boulangere).

From the start U.S. Postal said they were not going to try to defend the jersey. It was up to the sprinter teams to make the race or lose one of their last chances for victory. As O'Grady and Geslin built up a lead of 10 minutes, they started to test the words of the U.S. Postal Service.

The break continued up to 14 minutes. At that point the sprinter teams realized that the Postal Service was accurate when it said earlier in the day that it would not chase. AG2R was the first to react, putting in a hard chase for about an hour.

Gradually, as the time to the break continued to fall, the other sprinter teams chimed in. Because Petacchi has won three stages, the other teams are more hesitant to chase. No one wants to put in a load of work all day long and then lose.

Because of this, the bulk of the work fell to Petacchi's team Fasa Bortolo. As the two breakaway partners continued to work together, the time was falling, but it was not falling quite fast enough. With 20 kilometers to go, the break still had five minutes and, out of principle, the other teams started to chase to face the challenge of catching the leaders.

Even with 10 kilometers left, the duo in the break had two minutes. Again the journalists started speculating on whether the duo would make it to the finish. Of course, the answer is NO. At times, the cameras showed the peloton traveling at 70 km/hr. At this speed, there is just no chance to stay in front.

Again, somehow, someway, the peloton timed the chase perfectly. They caught the break 400 meters from the finish. O'Grady and Geslin had just put in a 200-km break for nothing.

The finish saw Petacchi, again, come flying by everyone and win by over two bike lengths. He was much faster than everyone else. Petacchi has a nickname. I think it's a stupid one. He is called, "The Gentlemen Sprinter." Whatever!

About 10 kilometers from the finish, Eric Zabel and Robbie McEwen crashed. At this point on the course, the road narrowed down to only about one car width wide. This meant that 200 riders flying down the road had to funnel down to probably what felt like a crack. Zabel got up after the crash, but finished far behind and Robbie ended up losing the Green Jersey today. Eric has said that Petacchi is incredibly fast this year and that he, Eric, is not fast enough to beat him. Eric's hope will be Petacchi's failure in the mountains.

Stuart O'Grady and Thor Hushovd have been having an internal battle. The two are sprinters and Stuart has been ordered to help Thor in the sprints. Thor has made it know that he wants to try for the Green Jersey. I don't know if Thor will make it over the mountains. Anyway, this is Stuart's last year on contract with Credit Agricole and maybe the team is not sure what they want to do with him. For Stuart to go in a 200-km break is very unlike him, and to top it off, he almost pulled off the win.

You may have seen George with an Oakley sweatband around his arm. I asked him why he doesn't get a weird tan during the race. If he kept the sweatband on all the time he would have a white band around his arm. George told me that every 50 kilometers he moves it. He starts with it up high and he moves it down a little at a time. A man with a plan.

Tyler's x-rays came back with very good results and he will probably stay in the race. As the CSC public relations guy said, "I think Haven (Tyler's wife) has given up on stealing him away from us. His collarbone is doing well." Tyler is doing so well that Lance called to ask about his guru doctor, Ola. Lance can't believe that Tyler is doing as well as he is doing, and is impressed by Tyler's progress. Lance wanted to see if Ola could come by his hotel to take a look at him.

Bettini (Quickstep) has said that he plans to go for the Green Jersey. I don't know what he is thinking, because the last time I checked you had to be a sprinter to win. Bettini right now is barely in the standings. Maybe his plan is to gain points in the mountains but I believe there are a few better climbers out there than him …say Lance?

Today, because it was so hot, the U.S. Postal Service made about 200 water bottles for the race. They get the bottles from the Tour de France. It's mandatory that every team use the Tour's water bottles. They don't ever have to keep the bottles, so they are always tossed to the fans on the side of the road.

This year, for some reason, many of the finishes have been in lower-income areas of the finish cities. We have been finishing in some sketchy areas. My cameraman with OLN, he's French, has said that it is a political move. They want to give these areas an economic boost and give the kids something to appreciate.

Today was 230 kilometers, tomorrow is 230 kilometers and Sunday is 219 kilometers. Talk about a stack.

Tomorrow is the start of the mountains. It's a difficult stage from Lyon to Morzine and it will separate anyone not climbing well. But it will not separate the top climbers. The race starts with a cat.2 climb, followed by another cat 2 and a cat. 3.

Then the Col de la Ramaz will strike. This climb is about 13 kilometers long and is steep in parts. It climbs to 1,600 meters. It is a very hard climb and in the Dauphine only three riders came to the top together. After a tricky descent, there is another cat 3 climb only eight kilometers from the finish.

This gives no time at all for any rider who has been dropped to come back to the group. It will be a very important day both for the leaders and for the non-climbers as both try to gauge their position in the Tour pack.

 

July 12, 2003 - Stage 7

Today was the first mountain day and today brought the first surprise of the Tour. Richard Virenque, who has had a lousy year so far, managed to win the stage and take the Yellow Jersey.

Every year Virenque manages, no matter how bad he is riding, to pull of a stage win. To take the Yellow Jersey is big bonus for himself, the race, and France.

The day started with a four-man break. The riders were Aldag (Telekom), Bettini and Virenque (Quickstep), and Poilvet (Brioches Boulangerie). They built up a lead of nine minutes over the early climbs as U.S. Postal rode tempo behind.

The stage was very long and there was no real threat to Lance in the front group. The team figured they would just take it as easy as possible and wait for the break riders to tire on their own and return to the bunch.

As the Postal train headed toward the Cat 1 climb, Col de Ramaz, only a few riders pulled. Mainly, Pavel and Floyd were in charge of the flat sections. Once the Col de Ramaz started, then Victor, who wore the Yellow Jersey, started, followed by George and then Chechu, and Beltran. Roberto and Lance have so much support, they never had to do one once of work.

The teams' strength this year is not only in the workers. Lance's support in the mountains is greater than ever. When the peloton is diminished to only 20 riders, the Postal guys still have four riders left. This is a huge advantage to control things especially later in the race when we reach the Pyreenees.

To say that today the Postal team let Richard win would be correct. At the same time Richard knew what he was doing. The Postal team members are not going to kill themselves just to prevent Virenque from winning. The goal here is in Paris and right now the U.S. Postal Service just made friends with Quickstep. Somewhere along the way I'm sure we will see some return help.

During the race, something that I can't ever remember happening stopped the race. A train came through. Because the break had already passed by they got to keep going and take whatever time advantage the train offered. The peloton got stuck and they had to stop for about 30 seconds. If the break had have been stopped by the train, the officials would have stopped the peloton and let the break resume it's time gap before the race started again.

The finish of the race was a complete cluster. The road was very narrow and there were so many journalists and photographers that there was barely enough room for the official cars to pass.

Normally at a finish I can talk with a few of the guys. Today I only caught one, Hincapie. I wasn't even in the hunt for Lance but many times I am. An interesting thing is happening because Lance has been generous and stopped to talk to me twice at the finish. Now, I have about eight other journalists all following me around. Every time I move I have a little caravan with me. It's crazy. They think I can get him any time I want.

Petacchi took the Cippo route today. On the very first climb of the entire Tour he bailed. He didn't even try to suffer to make it over the first climb. It's almost as though he saw the sign for the first KOM and then pulled out.

If you look at it from a career point of view, he knows continuing doesn't really help him. He has won four stages and that increased his monetary value. Suffering through the mountains doesn't. Still, it is the Tour and, you know, I would say that he should finish.

Some of the other sprinters that have made the race so hard, during the first week, have also started to jump ship. Kirsipu (AG2R), and Pollack (Gerolsteiner) both dropped out very early on. Because Petacchi quit, Baden Cooke will start tomorrow in the green jersey.

Yesterday Robbie and Eric Zabel crashed coming into the final sprint. Robbie explained what had happened, "We were flying into the corner and Zabel just slid out. There was oil on the road. A vehicle in the publicity caravan had a problem and it leaked on the course. Once Zabel went down I had no chance to keep it up. It sucks because I lost the Green Jersey because of that crash."

Saeco came out with a surprise today, a brand new prototype Cannondale for Simoni. I went to look at it. Talk about prototype and talk about light! I couldn't believe how light it was. They can make the entire bike weight only 6.7kg.

Because of UCI regulations, Cannondale had to increase the weight of the bike. They did this by changing the saddle, seatpost, and water bottle cage. The frame was comprised of the Cadd 7-aluminum bike but all the tubes were carbon. It looked funky and it also looked like it would be flexible. We will see how it holds up for Simoni.

The first day of vacation for France starts today and the highways were packed. Many people headed south to the beaches and many others headed toward the mountains for the Tour. Even the little climbs on today's route were packed full. Loads and loads of people were lining the road waiting for the riders to race by. Tomorrow is Alp de Huez and I can only imagine the chaos on the road there.

The big Alpe d' Huez is tomorrow. It's the most prestigious climb in all the Tour de France. The 219-km stage passes two cat 2 mountain and 2 HC climbs, the Col de Galibier and Alpe d' Huez. The stage will be full of action. I was hoping for Simoni to be the animator, but because he lost so much time today, I'd be surprised if he even starts. He may start tomorrow because of the prestige of Huez but after that my guess is that he is done.

The Postal Service will get help from Quickstep to control the race. In reality the Postal Service has to control the race if things get out of hand because of Lance, but until things really get hairy, the team will sit back and watch Quickstep protect Virenque's Yellow Jersey.

 

July 13, 2003 - Stage 8

What a stage today was. The Yellow Jersey team of Quickstep did what they could today to control the race, but it fell short.

George told me, "Quickstep pulled all day at the start to chase the break. They rode the entire valley and then they were just going too slow on the Telegraph so we took over."

Little did they know that when George took over it would be adios for two thirds of the group. The entire day of racing was jam-packed pretty much into the final two climbs. The Postal Service completely controlled the Telegraph and Galibier with George. He one handedly pulled the entire Galibier except for about one-kilometer. As George put it, "I suffered a little on the Telegraph but for some reason I felt better on the Galibier. I came off the front with one kilometer to go and Virenque flicked by me sprinting for the KOM."

George also said he didn't have to panic, "Floyd and I had both done the climb at training camp so I knew the descent, I knew we would catch back up." As soon as Floyd and George caught the group, they went right back to work on the front. Somewhere leading toward Alp de Huez their train got messed up.

Lance went off into a ditch and Roberto overlapped his wheel and crashed. Roberto fell kind of hard and hurt his knee. It's a little swollen so I'm sure they will be icing it tonight. Regardless of how Roberto felt he didn't show any injury on Alp d'Huez. As soon as the blue Postal jerseys hit the bottom of the last climb they took off.

George and Floyd pulled off and Beltran shot out like a rocket. Immediately the climbing group split and for awhile there were three Postal guys lighting it up on the climb while the rest of the riders figured out what had happened. Mayo started the climb way in the back and you could see him sprinting past Virenque as Richard dropped anchor.

After Beltran was done shedding all but six rider's, Roberto took over and set tempo to eat up the kilometers towards the top. The first rider to attack was Beloki and this just set off the fireworks. One by one Vinikourov, Hamilton, Beloki, and Mayo took turns attacking Lance.

With about seven kilometers to the finish, Mayo launched an amazing attack. I almost thought he was in the big ring. At the finish they couldn't catch Mayo, who finished a couple of minutes up on Lance. Vinikourov also escaped near the end gaining some time on Lance.

The most remarkable ride, just because it amazes me, was Tyler attacking on Alp d' Huez with his broken collarbone. I just do not understand how he is doing this. He not only accelerated once but he probably tried to escape three to four times.

Lance knew he had the Yellow Jersey today at the finish. This was his priority. He also knows who his enemies are in this race. Mayo is not the best time trialist, so to limit him to only a couple of minutes, is not considered dangerous. At the same time, Vinikourov is a good time trialist so Lance did not let him freely go up the road.

During the race, the team not only thinks about what is happing on that one day of the race. They plan out what will happen down the road. It's a big game of chess and Lance knows how to checkmate in Paris.

It will be interesting to see what Mayo's time was from bottom to top of the last climb. Last year Lance broke the record by recording a time around 38 minutes. Mayo looked like he was going just as fast as Lance but his time will tell the truth.

Yesterday at the finish, during the race, a guy fell out of a balcony and hit the ground right next to the course. The first group had finished and everyone was waiting for the rest of the peloton to finish. They had to tear apart the barriers, keeping the spectators off the road, and get an ambulance in to rescue the guy.

When they busted open the barriers, it opened up the floodgates for all the spectators and they came rushing out onto the course just past the finish. There was even one guy who had his dog with him on the road.

Alpe d' Huez, the ski resort, only opens for the two days that the Tour de France arrives. Normally, during the summer, it is closed. They open up a few of the hotels, for all the teams and media, and provide very basic accommodations and very basic meals.

Yesterday, which was not even a mountain-top finish, it took me 2 hours to get off of a 10-km climb. It was gridlock because, after the race, everyone tries to leave at the same time. Luckily, tonight we sleep at the top of Alpe d' Huez and we won't have to worry about descending the mountain until tomorrow morning.

All of the teams stay at the top of Alp d' Huez tonight. This means sleeping at altitude, something many cyclists don't even realize or think about. The fact is that sleeping at altitude after an extreme effort makes it more difficult to recover. Your heart never rests, as it is already beating fast to help you recover, and now at altitude it is put under more stress because of the lack of oxygen. The top of the climb is just under 2,000 meters, which is about 6,000 feet.

Tomorrow's stage caps off the Alp's in the Tour de France. The 184-km stage from Bourg d'Oisans (bottom of Alp d' Huez) to Gap will not be an easy either. The riders start off on a leg breaker, especially after today's hard effort. Right out of the blocks, the riders have to climb the Col du Lautaret, on paper a 38-kilometer climb that never seems to end.

I'm sure the climbers will be ready to fire on that opener. After that another 1st cat climb and then a smaller cat 2 are followed by a cat 3. Because the first climb comes at the start of the stage, it is critical for any rider who wants to finish the Tour to make it over this climb with a group.

If the peloton goes easy then the rider's don't have to worry, but if there are attacks, then watch out. You will see riders miss the time cut tomorrow. The Postal Service will be defending the Yellow Jersey.

As Lance said, "It's nothing new to us riding on the front and defending the jersey." They do have a lot of practice under their belt. Even with that experience tomorrow will be a very hard test for the Postal guys.

 

July 14, 2003 - Stage 9

The race of the Tour happened today. Lots of excitement from the start to the finish.

The stage started off with a 38-kilometer gradual climb. From the start, riders attacked and from the start riders were dropped. Many of them just because of stale legs not getting warmed up and ready to race. After such a hard effort yesterday, it takes awhile to get the muscles firing again.

Floyd was one of those riders suffering at the start but he recovered and rode great on the Col Izoard. The danger at the start that caused Postal to ride all day, was a 10-man break that contained Jorg Jaksche (ONCE). Jorg at the start of the day was in tenth overall, only 3'10" behind Lance.

The team could not let Jorg take too much time away, especially with 10 riders. The Postal Service decided to ride steady and keep as many riders together as possible over the two big climbs. Johan has always said that it's better to take it easy and have the entire team to work later on.

Today was a perfect example of that. After the Col Izoard, the team worked hard to gradually bring the break back. The front 10 guys were attacking each other more than working together, so the time came back quickly.

The final two climbs, 30 kilometers from the end, had the riders again attacking Lance. On paper, the two climbs didn't look very hard, but actually they were like knockout punches for many of the riders. From the pack, David Millar was the first to attempt to bridge to the front break.

At this point there were only Jakshe, and Parra. Millar chased for 10 kilometers and came within thirty seconds, but when the climb started he blew. Then, on the climb, Vinikourov took off in pursuit. He was not only chasing the leaders, he also was in search of valuable seconds from Armstrong. Before the top of the final climb, Vini caught Jakshe, and Parra and didn't hesitate. He went right by.

At the top he had 20 seconds on Lance's group, which contained all the favorites. Then Beloki charged the descent. As Lance told me, "Beloki was very aggressive on the descent, he was bombing it." Coming into one of the final corners, Beloki locked up his rear wheel and hit the melting pavement.

He then rolled his tire and slapped the ground hard, landing on his hip. Lance, who was right on Beloki, had to react immediately and hit the brakes.

At high speeds when you hit the brakes, your bike straightens out and you can't corner. This is what Lance did and he drove off the road into a field. He then realized that the corner ahead was a hairpin and the road doubled back. He looked up and decided to cut across a field to where the road continued.

At that point, he told me, he saw the ditch and realized he had to stop, jump off his bike, and jump back on the road. All this happened very quickly and Lance jumped back on his bike right when the other riders were passing by. It was a perfect move.

Once Lance was back in the group, the other riders stopped riding. They were waiting to see if Beloki was all right. If the group were all together, they probably would have all stopped riding so hard to give Beloki a chance to return. The problem was that Vini was up the road and he was not slowing down for anyone.

Vini is one of the favorites for the Tour and letting him have free seconds would not be the smartest thing to do. The group soon realized this and started their pursuit again, but Vini won the stage easily.

The Postal Service guys had a long hard day on the front. All of them had a long chase after the 10-man break and again the temperatures were soaring. Every day in the Tour this year has been in very hot conditions. Lance looked a ton better today then he did yesterday. He almost looked fresh at the end today compared to yesterday, where he looked cooked.

Beloki's crash messed him up. He has a fractured top of the femur and his hip is very bad also. He is in the hospital getting looked at. The OLN television cameraman was there on the spot and said Beloki was in incredible pain and was crying for a while. He actually passed out for a bit. This is a huge blow to ONCE and to the Tour de France. Beloki had been very aggressive this year making the races quite exciting.

The stage finishes have been a real nightmare. I've told you this already, but come to find out the Tour de France has issued more press passes this year. Every year the Tour has said that they are cutting back on the press and media because it's too dangerous.

I guess their idea of cutting back is sending 1,000 more sets of credentials to the press. At the finish, for some reason, the cops have been very strict with the soigneurs and media. After the finish line they form a line down the middle of the road and hold hands at arm's length to not let anyone through.

One side of the road is for the riders and the other side of the road is for everyone else. The problem is that when the riders finish they look for their soigneurs, and cops are not letting them get to them. I mean, we are standing already 100 meters after the finish. It's not like we are in anyone's way. All the previous years there has never been a problem.

Today the cops lined up as usual. Serge, one of Lance's bodyguard's helpers, tried to get to Lance when he crossed the finish line. The cop grabbed him and then Serge struck back at the cop and then all bedlam broke loose. It was pretty ugly, but I guess it all turned out ok.

I mean, no one got thrown out of the Tour, compared to this morning when a journalist got his credentials torn off his neck. I have no idea what he did.

Yesterday, the police estimate that 750,000 spectators crammed the Alp d' Huez slope for the race. All were packed into a 15-kilometer stretch. It took people from three hours to all night to get off the climb. The best bet for sure is to just stay the night and worry about getting off the mountain in the morning.

Mayo, the winner yesterday, clocked 39' from bottom to top. The record is 37' set back when Pantani won the race.

Tomorrow, we head out of the Alps and toward the rest day. The problem is that we don't head out of the heat. The further south we go the hotter it becomes. I don't know what will happen when we reach the Peyreenes.

Tomorrow, the stage is from Gap to Marseille and will take the rider about six hours to cover the relatively flat 219-km stretch. The stage only contains two cat. 4 mountains, but more importantly is that now that the mountains have taken place, the time gaps between riders are huge.

This means this is the first stage for the stage hunters. It's a tricky plan. Many riders are tired, but many riders know that tomorrow a break can stay away to the finish to try for a win.

I don't see the sprinter teams involved in chasing at all. They are just trying to get to the rest day that follows. Any rider who escapes who is down more then 10 minutes is great for the U.S. Postal Service. Any rider who is closer then 10 minutes means it will be a long hard day of chasing again. This is why it's better to suffer early for a short time than later for a long time.

Meaning, make sure you chase down the dangerous guys right away and don't wait. The sooner the break forms the better, but on stages like these, it usually takes a couple hours for things to settle down.

July 15, 2003 - Stage 10

If you had to pick a day where tactically things went right for the Postal Service, then today would be the day.

The start was very fast and eventually a break escaped with nine riders. The best part was that the closest rider on G.C. was almost 45 minutes down. This meant the U.S. Postal Service could just cruise along and not worry at all about the break taking time away.

If it weren't for the roads today, the race would have been an easy one. I'm sure many riders were considering this a rest day on the bike after suffering in the mountains.

But the fact is that today's stage had very narrow roads that twisted and turned all day long. Add to that the heat, which just keep increasing, and you have a hard day on your hands without even knowing it. The roads were melting today and the French fire department was actually out hosing them down with water to cool them off and keep the tar from tearing up.

For the Postal Service, the twisty and winding roads are a huge advantage when you are riding on the front. Even riding at an easy effort on the front makes it very difficult for the other riders in the back of the peloton.

This is a good thing, considering that if you are working on the front you at least want some other riders to suffer along with you. As the break increased its gap to 25 minutes, the Spanish Euskatel took over the chase. Euskatel, after an incredible performance on Alp d' Huez, is leading the team classification.

Because there was a Kelme rider in the break, they didn't want to see their lead disappear. Euskatel took over the chase with about 45 kilometers to the finish, and I'm sure once the Postal guys saw one orange jersey come to the front, they all sat up.

In the front break, there were a couple of very good stage hunters, Phillipe Gaumont (Cofidis) and Jacob Piil, to name two. The final kilometers were on huge roads going through Marsaielle. They actually shut down parts of the express ring road around Marsaille for the race.

The final two kilometers were straight as far as the eye could see. At the end, Piil and Sacchi escaped from the break group and worked together flawlessly. They motored to a comfortable lead and then, with one kilometer to the finish, shook hands. Piil said it was a gesture that the best man wins.

Perhaps Sacchi thought he was the best when he put out his hand. At the finish it was Piil who won the sprint by a hair. On paper Sacchi is the fastest, but after 190 kilometers in a break, everything on paper might as well be thrown out. After the finish Piil was tackled by journalists from every angle. They made a massive rush to talk to him. Sacchi, on the other hand, rode by with his head down.

Pavel took a bad crash 10 kilometers from the finish. He said, "It was a stupid mistake, my own fault." He was all torn up from bottom to top. It's a good thing they have a rest day tomorrow.

George told me that yesterday was crazy hard at the start. He said guys were attacking like mad and it was very, very hard staying on the front to control things. He said it was one of those times that things were out of control, but somehow it all worked out.

It probably has to do with the Postal Service being the strongest team in the race. Strength always wins out.

The word is that Simoni will quit after today. He just has no interest in riding here at the Tour, especially when he is 55 minutes down. Garzelli also did not start today. He is suffering from a sore throat. Now come on, sore throat or broken collarbone. Which rider should quit?

On Alp d' Huez, the Quickstep team had two riders in the front group. They were Michael Rogers, winner of Route de Sud, Tour of Belgium and Tour of Germany, and Richard Virenque. Both were in the front group at the bottom of the climb, and Richard told Michael to take his helmet back to the car. Needless to say, Michael didn't catch back up to the leaders on the climb.

Fassa Bartolo is down to only three riders after the first week of the race. Most of them quit after Petacchi quit on the first mountain day. The sad part is that Basso, their teammate, is in the top 10 on G.C.

Axel Merckx has been suffering a bad knee, tendonitis. Two days ago, his knee got worse and he said he was actually sore in both knees. Yesterday, he told me he was doing much better and planned to continue. He almost quit the day of Alp d' Huez, but because he quit the Tour two years ago on the same stage, he refused to quit that day this year. A perfect example of why you have to take the Tour one day at a time. You never know when you will get better.

Tomorrow is a rest day and many of the riders are more than happy about that. The rest day is only half a rest day, because the riders still have to train. They can't actually take the day off because if they do, their bodies will shut down and they won't be able to perform at a high level the following day.

Usually, race days are about six hours. Tomorrow, the guys will ride for three to four hours and then eat lunch and take a nap.

Not a whole lot out of the ordinary.

 

July 17, 2003 - Stage 11

The Terminator showed up today.

No, not Aitor Gonzalez, who won the Vuelta last year. I'm talking about the real Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the start of the Tour de France. In the publicity caravan there are three vehicles advertising Arnold's new movie, T3.

Arnold Schwarzenegger & Lance - Tour de France - Stage 11For more hype and publicity Schwarzenegger himself was there and went on live French TV. The movie opens at the end of the month here in Europe. The media went crazy!

Many of us knew ahead of time that Arnold was going to make a visit to the Postal Service bus, so many cameras were at the bus waiting. But to watch the media scrum scurry down the road trying to get pictures was incredible. It was like a hurricane going through a trailer park, mass destruction.

Arnold had three or four bodyguards, and the Tour security huddled around him as he walked very slowly down the road. He almost walks like a robot, not very fluid at all but very, very calm. He went on the Postal bus and said "hi" to all the guys.

George told me that Arnold said he was a fan of the Tour and enjoyed watching it. Arnold and Lance have done events together in the past, so they know each other. At the finish, Arnold presented Lance with the Yellow Jersey. When he came off the podium, he walked right past me and everyone was telling me that I should interview him. However, there was no way to even get in front of the train of security guards. It would have been crazy.

On my way to the hotel in downtown Toulouse after the race, traffic came to a complete halt. We had no idea what was going on, but we were not moving. Up the road about 200 meters was Arnold's hotel and there were people everywhere in the road hanging out for a glimpse of him. They didn't care that cars were backed up for miles. They were not moving from the road. Finally, Arnold came out of the hotel and went somewhere and immediately the road cleared.

Enough of Schwarzenegger. Let's talk about the race. But I'll warn you, the Schwarzenegger stories are more exciting then the race was. The start was very, very fast with a lot of attacks. George said the wind made it very difficult at the start but after the half-way point, it died down.

Eventually, after about fifty or 60 kilometers, an eight-man break went away. The peloton held them at around four minutes for the longest time, so I thought the break would be caught when the sprinter teams came to the front. None of the teams honestly took an effort to bring it back.

The break stayed at two minutes with 10 kilometers to go to the finish and the front guys were attacking the heck out of each other. Eventually, Flecha (Banesto) got away by himself with under 10 kilometers to the line. I again thought that he would not make it, but that guy was moving and he soloed in for the win. In the back, the group finished together with no surprises.

Jens Voigt was horrible today. I've never seen anyone ride so slow in a race before. Jens told me he had stomach problems and today he paid the price. He was dropped on the one-and-only relatively easy climb and never saw the group again. In fact in about 10 kilometers, Jens' lost about 25 minutes and the time cut was 18 minutes. He was very disappointed to have to quit, but after watching him ride so slow for so long I could tell he wanted to stop.

Rick Verbrugge crashed today. He said he just got swept into the gutter because of the wind. He only got scraped up and feels fine.

I talked with Pavel and he said, "My cuts are hurting. They burn all the time. I didn't sleep very well last night and I'm glad I can go easy tomorrow." Of course he is talking about the time trial.

George told me that all of the team is taking it easy tomorrow to stay rested for the Pyrenees. Lance is the only one going for it on the stage. George said, "I tried convincing Johan to let Victor and Roberto to go for it also. I want some more of those lions from the team G.C." George is always willing to propose someone else's suffering.

The other day when Beloki crashed, there was a picture on the cover of L'Equipe and many other newspapers worldwide. It was of Beloki lying on the ground and Lance beside him slamming on the brakes. I wondered how in the world this picture got taken It was a combination of luck and luck.

The photographer had gone ahead of the group to get a picture of the peloton strung out around the twisty corners. He had his camera waiting and when Beloki appeared he started shooting — lo and behold — the best picture of the Tour. He also took the picture of Lance cutting across the wheat field.

For the first shot, they used photo shop to help edit the picture. They cropped it and zoomed in on it to make it look closer. The actual photographer was far away, because he was trying to get a picturesque picture, not an action one. Graham Watson was the first to say, "You make your own luck."

Tomorrow is the team trial. I wrote yesterday about the importance of this day, and that has not lost its meaning on anyone. Everyone knows tomorrow will decided a lot about what happens in the Tour de France. Of course, Lance will be the last rider off, and he will ride in the morning on the road for about 1.5 hr and then ride the Cycle-Ops turbo trainer to put the final preparations in place.

For the remainder of the team it is treated like a rest day.

 

July 18, 2003 - Stage 12 - TTT

Ullrich, Armstrong, Ullrich, Armstrong ... back and forth today's race went. The first checkpoint was dead on with Lance and Jan tied on time.

After that first checkpoint, Ullrich rode like a freight train with everything to gain as he returned to winning form at the Tour de France. Today's time trial was the hottest day we have seen since the Tour started. The temperature was 103 F. and even Lance said that the heat was a big factor in the race.

Jan's impressive performance pulled back almost all of the time he lost on the Alp d'Huez stage because of a stomach bug. Jan's performance today shows the difference between his firing on all cylinders and firing on only a few cylinders. At this level, if you are not 100 percent healthy, it makes a very big difference.

An even more noticeable example would be Tyler Hamilton, who each day is getting healthier and stronger. Another performance that went well was for Vinikourov. He only lost 26 seconds to Lance and all of that time came in the first 15 kilometers. After the first time checkpoint, the time gap between Lance and Vini stayed the same all the way to the finish.

Tyler said that today's course was a difficult one and if you buried yourself too early, it was very hard to recover. Perhaps Lance's early time gain on Vini hurt him later in the race.

Even though Jan Ullrich won today, Lance is still in yellow, and more importantly, has a much better team in the mountains. Lance, along with his U.S. Postal teammates, will be able to more easily dictate the tactics over the next four days in the mountains.

Because the time gaps are close, these next four days are going to be very exciting as the Tour de France plays itself out. For Lance to feel comfortable, after the last day in the mountains, he would need a two-minute gap on Ullrich. This Tour de France will be different for Lance because this time it is not a matter of defending the jersey with time to spare.

Lance will have to attack and try to get some time to cushion his lead. It will be very exciting to watch Lance attack, something we have not seen in any of the previous Tours except for the last five kilometers of mountain-top finishes.

Jan went so fast today that one rider, David Exteberria, will probably be eliminated because he was outside of the 25 percent time cut. To lose 25 percent from the winner’s time, you really have to not try in the TT. Perhaps David had other plans than what his team had for him in the next four days.

Simoni rode his pink TT bike from his Giro win. He also rode this bike for the TTT when he still had a chance to do something. I figured by now, when he is an hour down, they could change the paint job and have him on a normal colored bike like the rest of his team.

The talk around the village is that Ullrich will be much improved over what we have seen so far. They say that he was sick on the day before, and the day of, Alp d'Huez. He had a fever of 40 C (100 F.) and during the stage, going over the Galibier, he sent his teammate, Steinhauser, back to the car to get medicine for him.

The reason the teammate went back was that Jan did not want anyone to see him going to the medical car on what was a very critical stage in the Tour. We have seen how Jan performs in the TT, now it will be interesting to see if he can climb.

Yesterday finished in Toulouse and this is where Stuart O'Grady lives while in Europe. Toulouse is Stuey's stomping ground and he had an Aussie party last night at his place. Of course the Aussies were there -- along with Matt White and Matthew Wilson, who had just quit the Tour the same day -- for some food and drinks.

If you know anything about Australians, you know there were plenty of drinks. This is a little hush, hush, since the Tour officials don’t allow anyone to leave the Tour once it's started. The same standard of racing, and living for everyone is supposed to be maintained during the race. This is why everyone has to stay at the required hotels, take the same planes if there is an airline transfer, and commute with the bus when required.

There was a protest again today during the stage. This time it was at the start. Te protesters were not going to let the stage start on time. Jean Marie LeBlanc agreed to let a speaker present his case on the loudspeaker if they would allow the race to take place on time.

My understanding is the protest is about genetically modified food and the farmers. What exactly, I'm not sure. But this already is the fourth time that the Tour has been interrupted by protests.

There is only one female in the tribune where the live race feed is commented on. She is Christy Anderson, who works for Eurosport. She is the wife of Phil Anderson and every day she goes to the start to find some stories and then goes back to the finish, where she sits alongside Sean Kelly and David Duffield to comment on the stage for Eurosport.

Tomorrow's 197-km stage from Toulouse to Ax-3-Domaines will be the first stage in the Pyrenees. The stage is a medium stage with two cat. 1 climbs. The final climb is 10 kilometers and relatively steep.

If the stages in the Pyrenees continue to have heat like we did today, you will see riders melt and many of them will drop out, with only a week left in the Tour de France.

Mayo, who is 4'29" down, will have to start chipping away at his time loss tomorrow. He has only four days to get back even with Lance and he can't wait until the final day in the mountains.

At the same time, Lance, Jan, and Vini will try to sit tight tomorrow and save their energy for some of the harder days to come.

 

July 19, 2003 - Stage 13

The steep roads of the Pyrenees were evident today as the riders tried to tackle the mountains after a very hard time trial yesterday. Many riders complained of fatigue, but in the Tour, you can't let tired legs get in your way of defending or taking a Yellow Jersey.

This morning, Lance did an interview talking about how he had a problem yesterday and he thinks they figured out the problem and corrected it. The idiot asking the question never followed up to ask Lance what the problem was. He just left it alone.

Later in the day, I got to ask Lance, and he said it was from dehydration. He said he went from 72kg's to 66 kg's in one afternoon. That is a huge amount of weight loss and with that an even larger amount of decreased performance.

I don't know what brought this about. It's not exactly like we all of a sudden had a heat wave. This has been the hottest Tour, with no rain, or even clouds, in a long time. Today again it was in the nineties, and I'm sure it is very difficult to make up a hydration loss while racing in the mountains.

Today, Lance was not exceptional, but good. His team was exceptional and that made all the difference in the world. At the start, luckily, Saeco chose to ride before the first climb. I don't know why, because they have absolutely no one who can climb on their team right now.

Once the riders hit the first climb, it was all Postal Service. Beltran was incredible. He rode tempo for Lance almost the entire way. He was a one-man machine controlling the pace of all of Lance’s competitors.

Heras seemed to struggle on the first climb but he managed to stay in the first group and then found his legs to ride tempo the first part of the last climb. When Roberto pulled off it was evident that he had sacrificed himself 100 percent for Lance. This is the effort and commitment that the entire team has given since day one. That is what is required by everyone during the Tour de France.

On the final climb, the main group of contenders stayed together until three kilometers to the finish. Roberto and Beltran had managed to keep the pace high enough to discourage any attacks.

With three kilometers left, Ullrich let it fly and Lance managed to keep his tempo but he let Ullrich take a good gap. Gradually, Lance made back some of the initial gap and only finished seven seconds off Jan. Lance feels that he will only get better as the mountain days continue.

Near the top of the first large climb, the lead group with Lance was, gradually swallowing up seven riders. In this lead group was Lance, Ullrich, Hamilton, Mayo, and the studs of studs in the Tour de France. One of the riders getting caught was De La Cruz (Francaise des Jeux) who is not a climber at all. Right before he was caught by the lead group he motioned to a fan to take a picture. It was probably his only moment, maybe ever, to be in a picture with all the favorites of the Tour.

This morning I went to our car to find we had no stickers on it. These stickers are like gold. Without them, you can't get anywhere or do anything. However, OLN jumped on it and by the start I had new stickers. Now all I have to do is find some super glue to make sure they don't come off again.

Yesterday I did an interview with David Millar about warming up for a TT. David told me, "I don't really warm up. The TT is long so I just ride into it." Yesterday morning watching TV what do I see? David Millar was riding the turbo trainer before his time trial. Then he rides the time trial flat out and places around 10th. Today in the paper he talks about how he wasn't feeling good for the TT and was actually a little sick. David, stop your whining!

Jan Ullrich rode the TT of his life yesterday. Because it was 103 F., he warmed up inside an air-conditioned bike shop near the start of the race. Can you imagine having Jan Ullrich preparing for his Tour de Franc time trial in your store? That would be sweet.

Tomorrow's 191-km stage from Saint Girons to Le Louron will contain four cat. 1 climbs and two cat. 2 climbs. Today, the big rivals just tried to stay with each other, but tomorrow could be more interesting.

Jan needs to take some more time on Lance and Lance needs to take more time on Jan. Throw in the ever-aggressive Vinikourov and Zubeldia and you have a pretty good cocktail for action. This action won't take place until the last two climbs — the Col Portillon and the Col de Peyresourde.

Tomorrow also will see the race travel over the Col d Aspet, where Fabio Cassertelli died during the Tour de France, in 1995.

 

July 20, 2003 - Stage 14

The morning weather was only a tease for the riders. The cooler weather soon enough parted ways with the race and the sun came out again to cook the riders in the mountains.

The Postal Service's plan from the start was to put a man in the break, and they couldn't have gotten a better one to take the job than Manuel Beltran, who made the break with 16 other riders on the stage of the Tour that had the most climbs.

This meant the team had its second best climber, behind Lance, in the break and that meant no threat of trouble. As the break worked its way to 15 minutes, Beltran actually became the virtual leader on the road. This meant that if the group had stayed away, Beltran would have taken the Yellow Jersey.

This was a perfect scenario for the Postal service and it forced the other teams to take chase. Mainly, Bianchi and Euskatel started to ride because they didn't want to see Beltran move past their top riders.

As the teams continued to chase, the drama started to heat up. Attacking the break were three riders, Dufaux, Virenque, and Simoni. Simoni has had the worst of a bad Tour so far, so how he stayed with the group amazed me. The three lead riders were no threat, but the attacks from behind did start to become a threat.

Mayo and Vinikourov attacked Lance's group and went away by a minute. Lance bit the bullet, not worrying about Vinikourov, and forced Jan Ullrich to ride to protect his second place. Lance flat out said he is only worried about Jan, and no one else in the Tour.

The final part of the course had a downhill before the finish and on this downhill Lance took back about 30 seconds on Vini's group. Lance can go downhill like mad and it's always easier to fly downhill and take time out of your competitors then to take it out of them on the uphill.

At the finish, Simoni did an incredible sprint, beating Virenque and Dufaux. Then Vini's group came in 30 seconds in front of Lance's group, moving Vini up to only 18 seconds behind yellow and three seconds behind Jan.

There were a few tactics today that I didn't understand. First, I'm not sure why Bianchi and Euskatel started to ride. I'm sure that U.S. Postal would not let Beltran take the Yellow Jersey and win the Tour de France.

Everyone knows the Tour de France is for Lance Armstrong. Also, even if Beltran took the jersey, every one of the top guys, Ullrich, Lance, and Vini, could take it back in the time trial. Lance is feeling much better and I can see it in his face. Because of this I don't understand how Ullrich can think he can just ride Lance off his wheel. I mean you are not going to ride a four-time Tour de France rider off your wheel without attacking.

I'm not sure how Lance is feeling, but Lance is very sure how he is feeling. He is very sure that he can time trial faster than Jan. He has said on TV that he is fine with a 15-second lead and that his past performance from other years will predict this year's result.

I don't know about being so comfortable with a 15-second lead. There is so much that can go right or go wrong. As little as a flat tire can mess everything up.

The race was pretty fast, and at the end Channel 4 from England had mistimed their broadcast. At the end of the race they had to do standup in front of the camera and fill in 30 minutes of no racing action. That's a lot of nothing to talk about.

Yesterday was a mountain-top finish and it's always difficult to get back down with 750,000 spectators trying to get to the same place at the same time. A little known fact, which no one bothered to tell us, was that we could have parked at the bottom of the climb and taken a gondola to the top. We could have just floated right over the top of the crowd. Maybe next time.

In my eyes, tomorrow is a crucial day of the Tour de France — if riders don't want to have sweaty, nervous palms on the second to last day.

I just don't see how Lance or Jan can sit and not attack each other. You have to at least take a chance and try to take some more time. The 160-km stage from Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Luz Ardiden will cover the Col d'Aspin, the Tourmalet and the mountaintop finish of Luz Ardiden.

This final climb is actually very, very hard. The team will need to be at it's best tomorrow to give Lance as much help before the final climb as possible. Not only is the race for the Yellow Jersey on the line that day, so are the spots for the podium.

 

July 21, 2003 - Stage 15

I don't even know where to begin. Lance has talked very confidently all week, even though he has not shown signs of great form. After his dehydration problem, he gradually got better and better and today was the return of the Lance that we all know.

The showdown between Jan and Lance began early on the Col de Tourmalet. Jan was the first to try and test Lance's legs by attacking early on the first big climb. After a few kilometers, Lance fell back and the initial reaction was that he cracked.

I figure Lance sat up to stay within his limits and then set tempo to see how good and how far Jan could go. The way Jan was riding it seemed like he forgot there was one more climb to come. I don't know if he thought he could get rid of Lance and ride solo for 40 kilometers, but he sure did try.

At the top of the Tourmalet, the main group of guys were together except for Vinikourov. Vini had to bridge on the descent and at the bottom of Luz Ardiden there was a group of 20 riders still together.

Immediately, Euskatel put the hammer down with the intention of getting rid of as many riders as possible. Once the group had dwindled, Jan, Lance, Mayo and Zubeldia all rode tempo. At this time Lance attacked and was flying along the barriers when all of a sudden, what looked like a Credit Lyonnais hat hooked his handlebars and took him down.

I have never seen the Yellow Jersey taken down by a spectator before. Actually, I shouldn't say taken down. I believe it was a full-on freak accident. It looked like a child was holding a hat and Lance went close to the barriers and by a fluke it hooked his brake hood.

Immediately, Lance got up, threw his chain back on, and started to catch up. During his chase, he almost crashed again by pulling his foot out of his pedal. The new Shimano pedals require you to step in and push until you hear a click.

In Lance's haste, he stepped in and started going, but the full engagement of the cleat never took place. This was when Lance tested his top tube density. I figured from that Lance just got angry and usually when he gets mad he rides very well. Just after he caught the first group, he immediately went on the attack.

At first Jan tried to respond, but right away there were bike lengths between them. Once Lance sensed this, it was time to time trial to the top and not many people can go like Lance can. Jan tried to chase but at the end, Lance won the stage with 40 seconds on Jan. Lance is now 1'7" in front of second place. To change this, Jan would have to have as incredible a time trial as his first one.

When I talked with George Hincapie, he told me he could sense Lance was feeling better. George said the last couple of days Lance was quieter than usual, but last night and this morning he was up to his usual kidding self.

At the same, Floyd told me that this close time stuff is too nerve raking for him. He liked it better when Lance had 10 minutes to play with. I think we could all agree with that.

In 1987, the 7-11 team sent a team to the Tour de France to see what they could do. From that, Dag Otto Lauritzen won one of the hardest mountain stages of the Tour. It finished on Luz Ardiden. Even more incredible was that Dag only had 1'30" advantage at the bottom of the climb on one of the best climbers ever, Lucha Herrara.

Baden Cook has been sick the last few days. His main goal is keeping the green jersey but the other riders are not willing to give up the fight. They include Stuart O'Grady, who said that he can't win a bonus sprint to save his life. He keeps getting seconds and thirds.

The Postal team car has everything needed to keep track of what is happening in the race. A television in the front lets occupants watch the race, a race radio lets them listen to the officials, a rider radio lets them talk with the riders, a scanner lets them listen to other rider radios from other teams, and a mixer to switch channels so that other teams can’t listen to the Postal rider radio.

Enjoying all this technology yesterday was the president of Nike, who got to ride in Johan's car for the big mountain day. Today he got to ride in one of the official ASO red Tour cars.

CSC has said that they are going for the team classification. They have taken a liking to the Credit Lyonnaise lions.

Tomorrow is the rest day. You know the drill. The riders will try to keep to a normal schedule so they will have good legs the following day. Luckily, the time trial is not for a couple days. So that will give Lance time to get his racing legs back after the race day.

 

July 22, 2003 - Rest Day no. 2

A day of doing nothing. When you have been running around all week, doing nothing feels very, very good.

For the mechanics and soigneurs, just being able to not pack the truck, collect the suitcases and make a transfer is pleasure in itself. They still do a load of work because the rest day for the mechanics is usually a catch-up day. The tires need to be glued, wheels checked and any problems sorted out.

The soigneurs will try to get a head start on preparing the feed bags and water bottles and re-organize the kitchen to make the transition into the last week easier.

I believe Tyler is feeling better. Yesterday on television, I saw take two water bottle pushes from the team car at the top of the Tourmalet. This was with his right arm, which is the same side as his fractured collarbone. He is still riding very strong, sitting in 7th place and after all the injuries and pain he has gone through during the first two weeks, he must only wonder what could have been.

Yesterday also saw the IMAX movie guys out filming the finish of the stage, focusing on Tyler. Just after the finish, the IMAX and Tour people had part of the finish roped off to allow the camera to move around freely. They also set up a scene to film Haven, Tyler's wife, as she watched the race from a television set.

I was very surprised to find out that Freddy Rodriguez, one of the few Americans in the Tour, quit yesterday. Just the day before I had talked with him and he told me he was feeling really good and was looking forward to the stages after the mountains. I don't know what happened that day, but Freddy was not the only one to retire on that stage.

Axel Merckx, who has been struggling for two weeks with a sore knee, finally was eliminated. I think if it was up to Axel he would have kept racing but he didn't make the time cut at the finish of Luz Ardiden.

Last night, the descent off the mountain was not as bad as I had envisioned. This is mostly because the Tour thought ahead and fixed what could have been a real problem. There are two roads that lead to the top of Luz Ardiden. One is the road the racers rode up and the second is a back road that entered onto the course at four kilometers from the top of the mountain.

For the descent after the race, the Tour made the back road open only for Tour vehicles to use. What a difference this made. When we left the mountain, we traveled smoothly until we saw the cars totally blocked sitting in a traffic jam. This was exactly at the four-kilometer turn off mark for us, and once we turned off, it was smooth sailing to the bottom. There it was slow moving again until a self-formed caravan of Tour cars claimed the left lane and started passing everyone on the stretch of road out of town. We got home around midnight, partly because we got lost and couldn't find the hotel.

The Postal boys also arrived late at the hotel. They had to drive about 80 kilometers after the stage to Pau and because of traffic and the usual congestion they didn't get to sit down to dinner until around 9 p.m..

When you arrive at the Tour it's only a matter of time before you see past professional cyclists. In the commentary box alone there is Pedro Delgado, Sean Kelly, Jean Francoise Bernard, and of course the Brit's -- Paul and Phil.

Working for the ASO Tour society are even more ex's such as Bernard Hinault, Charlie Motet, Francoise Moreau, Laurant Desbiens, and every other past French pro. There are ex-riders everywhere, even on the slopes of the mountains.

I've seen Steve Bauer, Phil Anderson, Kevin Levingston, Alan Peiper, Neil Stephens and Steven Roche. They all work with Tour groups. Just standing in the Village Depart, at the start of a race, there are new faces that I recognize and have to place the name to the face.

Tomorrow the Tour returns to longer stages. The 196-km stage from Pau to Bayonne will be difficult for many riders because of the rest day. The race starts on a small cat 4 climb, but this will be a leg breaker, as the stage hunters will attack right from the start.

The small hill gives them a perfect opportunity to escape and the Postal Service will only have to worry about a handful of guys so they will barely have to chase at all tomorrow.

There are two cat. 1 climbs, which will test the riders' stamina. For the big guns, these climbs should pose no problem. I wouldn't be surprised if Vinikourov tries something here, because he is never one to just sit idle and be complacent with third place.

For the weaker riders, it's very, very important that they try to get over the first cat 1 climb with the main group. There 130 kilometers to the finish after the first big climb, so any small group or individual could find themselves missing the time cut only five days away from Paris.

 

July 23, 2003 - Stage 16

It was an incredible move, one that took guts. There was no way he should have made it but he did against what many had predicted. Tyler Hamilton rode the race of his life today, taking a gamble that many would not have dared touch.

Never before has a G.C rider taken such an approach on the final mountain stages and had it pay off. Tyler, at the start of the race, couldn't even think of attacking. The start was very fast and there were loads of attacks. All the attacks kept groups coming and going and at one point the field split.

Tyler found himself in the second group and the entire CSC team had to drop back and chase to get Tyler back with the first group. It was simply Tyler not being in position by staying near the front of the peloton.

But today had many hills. Many riders that were up the road would soon find themselves returning to the group. There was a break of 16 and when the peloton hit the first hill, the Postal Service set tempo on the climb to limit the time loss. Everything was in control for the Postal Service because there was no one dangerous up the road.

This was when Tyler and his teammate Nicki Sorenson attacked to make the bridge to the front group. The two are excellent climbers and they easily caught the first group, while Postal continued to set tempo from behind. Lance had nothing to worry about because the front group was only three minutes up the road and Tyler is almost eight minutes behind Lance.

After the descent of the first climb, the break started the second first category climb. This was the most difficult climb of the day. It averaged over 10 percent and lasted 10 kilometers.

Tyler took advantage of this difficulty to break away from the lead group. He managed to increase his time from four to five minutes on the chase group that contained Lance. The rest of the break that Tyler had left was getting swallowed up by the tempo the US Postal was setting on the climb. Actually, it was George who pulled up the entire climb, making the steep parts look easy.

Every time television showed the group, it was George setting tempo on the front of the climb. At the top, Tyler had five minutes and there was still 60 kilometers to go. I thought for sure he would be caught, but the peloton never got organized. The Postal Service had no problem with Tyler up front, but Fassa Bortolo and Euskatel sure did.

Tyler was inching ahead of their top riders on the classification and if they did nothing, Tyler would even move into third. The last 50 kilometers, Euskatel, Telecom and Fassa Bortolo worked together to bring back Tyler. The time never even changed, Tyler was able to keep a steady four minutes over the group despite six riders chasing him. When everyone thought Tyler might crack from the effort he just kept on going.

Tyler said, "The last 10 kilometers were very difficult." He knew at that moment that he could not crack if he wanted to make it to the finish. Tyler won the stage ahead of the peloton and accomplished two things. First, he won a Tour de France stage, every rider's dream. Second, he moved ahead of Ivan Basso, putting him closer to the riders in front of him for the last time trial.

At the finish, Haven, Tyler's wife, was the first to run over to him after the race. They hugged for awhile and you could see the tension on her face from not knowing what was going to happen.

Haven had ridden the stage in the Tour helicopter so she actually got a bird's eye view of all the action. After Lance had changed into dry clothes, he also came over and gave Tyler a big hug, offering congratulations. Lance knew that this was quite an effort.

Zabel won the bunch sprint today but it only does him half good. Because the stage was a medium mountain day, it only awards a part of the finish points toward the green jersey. A normal flat day will award 30 points but today Zabel's second place only gave him 17 points. At least it's 17 closer to Baden Cook, who is wearing the green jersey now.

There were two abandons today. One was the Australian, Nick Gates, who OLN has been following since his first day in this his first Tour. He's only a few days from the finish in Paris, but his lungs and fatigue wore him out. Nick was suffering with bronchitis for about a week and it just never got better while he was riding. He was taking the Tour one-day at a time, but today was his last day.

Roberto Heras has not been feeling well, but is still hanging in there. He has been suffering for a few days from bronchitis. He has been on antibiotics and this might explain why he has been in the second and third groups at the finish.

In the crash two days ago, Lance actually broke his bike. The chainstay had a pretty good crack in it, enough to actually move the frame. This is Lance's third bike in this Tour. The only injury to Lance is a bruised hip, but it isn't giving him any problems.

Yesterday Oakley presented to all the guys brand new Oakley GMT watches. Very big, heavy, chronographs that were engraved on the back with the rider's name and, "2003 Tour de France." Some of the other stage winners that are with Oakley also got the watches with their stage win engraved on the back.

Today we approached as close to Spain as you can get without entering the country. This part of Spain is known as the Basque region. Today, on the second climb, there was fighting out on the climb between the Basque and the police. The police were trying to clear the roads on the mountain to provide a safe passage for the riders and the Basque fans didn't want to move.

Every day Polar recruits a few riders to wear their heart rate monitor, which transmits their heart rate to television. They ran into problems yesterday when some of the equipment used was stolen out of the Paris office. Computers, transmitters, cell phones, and other items were stolen from the Eurosport studio.

Tomorrow is the 181-km stage from Dax to Bordeaux. The racers will fly into the wine country flat out, as there is not even one bump to slow them down. The stage will be a fight for the stage hunters and anyone trying to gain points for the green jersey.

Look for some of the sprinters to try and sneak into the breaks to have a chance for the early bonus sprints. For the Postal Service, it will be a day to let the breaks go and to just ride tempo behind. Ideally, a break goes with no CSC rider, because then they may ride to keep their advantage in the team classification.

Tomorrow and the day after are two of the last days that give a chance to the sprinter teams to do something. A rider like Zabel, O'Grady, or Bettini will not have many more chances.

 

July 24, 2003 - Stage 17

The last days of the Tour can be so boring. A break goes up the road and the pack just sits back and watches them take time. As the minutes count forward, the peloton just rides easily behind as they let the front group stay away.

It's a big contrast to the start of the Tour. In the first week, every break is chased down all day long. As much as today's race may have been boring to watch, it is not at all boring for the riders.

On these so called boring days, the pressure from the team to perform well is even greater than in the first week or in the mountains. In the mountains, you have the excuse of not being a climber. In the first week, you have the excuse of not being a sprinter or not being fast enough.

Now there is no excuse. Every director wants his riders in the break no matter what. If you miss the break, there is hell to pay that night and the following day. Many times, a team that misses a break will have to ride on the front mainly out of punishment for not participating in the race.

It's not because they actually think or even want to catch the first group. It's just out of principle. The other difficult part is that every rider knows the break is going to go at the start of the race and even at kilometer zero there is a big battle for position to be in the front line. This way you are not boxed in and have the ability to jump on the wheels.

Today, the break went at kilometer 1 and there was only one attack and 10 guys followed it. Pretty much game over, right from the start. Almost every team that had thoughts of winning a stage that day had someone represented. The teams that missed out ended up riding on the front so they didn't arrive at the finish too late.

One surprise in the break this morning was Peter Luttenburger from CSC. He was only 26 minutes down on G.C., so the pack could not let him just ride up the road. This was one reason Gerolsteiner and Credit Agricole were riding. The last thing a team wants to see happen is all their hard work for three weeks disappear in one day.

Luttenburger was gaining so much time that he was starting to move the G.C. and take over Credit Agricole's and Gerolsteiner's best rider. They didn't want to see that happen so they had to set the tempo, and not the Postal Service. The threat to U.S. Postal was non-existent today. As George said after the race, "Today was a good day. We didn't have to do any work and we just sat on and cruised." Those were happy words coming from a tired rider.

The break contained 10 riders and they worked together pretty well. The first 20 kilometers, or until the break reaches two minutes, is always the hardest. After that the break riders can relax and judge their efforts by how hard the pack is chasing from behind.

The peloton stayed together up until 15 kilometers, when Servais Knaven made a bold move and attacked. This is a pretty long way out with eight guys all thinking the same thing that he was -- to win the stage. Knaven managed to keep a 10-second gap for about 10 kilometers until finally the chase group started to get totally disorganized.

The worst thing for a chase group, and the best for a solo rider, is to have the chase group attack each other. This is exactly what happened. Knaven won, giving Quickstep their second stage win.

I saw Pavel today and it's amazing how fast he is healing from his crash. All of the wounds on his legs have totally healed and he says he is feeling good. In fact, the soigneur started joking that Pavel will be joining the team in Spain, meaning the Vuelta. Pavel told the soigneur, no way. At this point in the Tour, it's very hard to even think about another race.

The Postal team has two security people to help Lance get back and forth and to take care of him at the starts and finishes. The Tour also has it's own security force that patrols all around the start and finish areas. Sometimes they also give the team a police caravan to help them depart the very crowded areas.

Some riders will do anything to wear Oakleys. Saeco has an eyewear sponsor other than Oakley for their team. There is a rider on the team who went out at the start of the year and bought Oakley products out of his own pocket so that he could wear them.

The team wouldn't let him because he didn't have a contract with Oakley. So the rider asked Oakley for a piece of paper saying that he had a contract. Even with a contract, the rider pays a fine for every race that he wears the Oakleys.

There is still some infighting on Credit Agricole between Stuart O'Grady and Thor Hushvod. The two will probably not be on the same team next year. Cofidis has also started to hire some help for their team, which has been totally dismal this year.

Tomorrow is flat as a pancake. The teams will be forcing their riders to make the breaks during the 203-km stage from Bordeaux to Saint-Maixent-l'Ecole. The Postal Service's only worry will be to keep Lance as fresh as possible for the time trial and to not let any rider less than 30 minutes get up the road. If they are able to accomplish these two objectives, they will have a great day. Many people over here still think that Ullrich can take one minute from Lance. The journalists and gossip around the village is very split on who will win the Tour.

I believe that if Lance is riding the way he was at Luz-Ardiden or even at the Dauphine, there is no way Jan can take one minute. Either way, after the time trial, I'm sure one rider will sleep very well and the other not so well.

 

July 25, 2003 - Stage 18

A Tour stage — no matter how mundane — can always bring a surprise or two. Today, the race was active but the surprise was the first bonus sprint. What normally is a sprinter's challenge for green jersey points saw the top two riders on G.C. take some seconds.

Robbie McEwen attacked early, about 500 meters from the sprint, and once he had a gap, he sat up. What he didn't notice was that when he attacked, Jan and Lance followed him. As they all coasted in front of the group, Robbie all of a sudden saw Ullrich jump for the sprint.

Robbie said he kind of expected it, so he accelerated easily, but Lance was caught off guard. Robbie picked up the points he wanted and Jan picked up two valuable seconds on Lance. In the end, you never know what will happen, so Jan figured take everything he can get while he can. Just after the sprint, the counterattacks started and this was when the break formed.

A large group with about 14 riders went up the road. One from each team was represented, even a Fassa Bartolo rider. Fassa has only three riders in the race, so obviously this rider decided to do something for himself today.

Another team that made the break was CSC and it's a good thing they did. If CSC, the leader on the team classification, had missed the break, it's guaranteed they would have chased. By having a rider in the break they were able to keep their lead. Tomorrow, CSC also will have three riders going hard in the time trial to keep their lead from being taken.

The Postal Service, on the other hand, will only have one and a half riders go hard. Lance will go all out and one other Postal rider will go flat out for half the race to give Lance some checkpoints. The last time trial it was Victor Hugo Pena who had the honor of being the guinea pig. Lance also will have the advantage of knowing Jan's time splits because Jan starts in front of Lance.

For two days the focus has been on the time trial, and because of this, the races have been getting overlooked. Today, the break I mentioned earlier took 22 minutes from the peloton and Massimo Lelli jumped up to around 15th place on G.C.

Again, it was a big G.C. move, in just one day. Because of the huge time gap, the race never got exciting until 15 kilometers from the finish when the first attack came from the break. A Brioche Boulangerie rider started the fireworks and after that it never slowed down. With five kilometers to the finish, the break split up and it looked like Canada (Quickstep) was going to win the race.

This would have been back-to-back stages for Quickstep but with 400v meters to the line, Canada was caught. At one point I thought Nardello was going to win the sprint but at the last minute Lastras (Banesto) came flying by very strong. This gave Banesto their second win of the Tour de France.

For the U.S. Postal Service, this was an easy day of rolling the legs toward the finish. They had nothing to worry about from the break, so it was just a matter of making it to the finish in one piece. Overall it was a good day for Lance and Jan to have a rest day before the time trial.

Many are predicting rain tomorrow and besides trying to predict if Jan will take a minute out of Lance there is all the speculation that Jan can't ride in the rain. The weather could be a factor but I'm not sure in whose favor.

Actor Robin Williams finally made his appearance today. He has been busy filming a movie in California and was able to finish it just in time to come over for the final days. He flew straight from the set to Paris to see the Tour. In past years, Robin would always arrive during the mountain days. Today he went in Johan's car during the race. And even better, he will be in Johan's car tomorrow during Lance's TT.

For the final day in Paris there will be 3,200 police around the course. This is more police than they had for the prologue because of the number of foreigners who show up for the final day.

I spoke with a few photographers here to get an idea about how much film they use during a Tour. Almost all of them have gone digital, so speaking about rolls of film is almost non-existent now. A few said 30-35 rolls of film for a Tour and the ones with digital couldn't even guess because they just take a ton of photographs and go through them later, keeping the good and throwing out the bad.

The RCN Colombia broadcaster guys sit by the finish and yell in a cell phone for hours commentating on the race. I found out that they broadcast everyday to a live radio audience that airs in Colombia between 8-10 a.m. The estimated number of people listening is 7-10 million!

Tomorrow is the T.T., the day many have been waiting for. Yesterday after the race Lance did no interviews. Today, after the race he did only two interviews, compared to his normal 20. Obviously he has the time trial on his mind and is getting ready for it. The departure for the time trial is in reverse order. This means Lance will be the last one off in his yellow jersey. He will start at 4:02 p.m.

GLL (Good Luck, Lance!).

 

July 26, 2003 - Stage 19

I suppose the Tour was saving it to give it to us in one fell swoop. The rain came down in buckets today. All Tour we have not seen one drop of rain, and in fact saw the hottest Tour ever.

Each day on the bike, the riders baked, but today they drowned. The rain fell hard and non-stop all morning. For many riders, this meant just showing up on the start line and riding the time trial. For the serious ones going for it, like Lance, this meant riding the course in the morning. Lance came out at about 10:30 and with a police escort rode the course back to Nantes. Yes, it was raining but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

Lance then ate lunch and drove back to the start of the time trail two hours before his start time. He then of course warmed up on the turbo trainer and took off two minutes behind Jan Ullrich.

The Postal Service sent out two or three people to different places on the course to get time checks for Lance. All of these Postal checkpoints were before the first official Tour checkpoint, at kilometer 15. Johan wanted to know very early on in the race where Lance's time was compared to how fast Jan was going.

The team had at least two checkpoints before the 15-kilometer mark and one was as early as kilometer seven or eight. The time trial course had a few dangerous corners, and this was the reason Lance and Johan did the course this morning, to refresh their memory. Lance had said that he has ridden the course before back in April so this morning was a refresher. I'm sure back in April that Lance never imagined that this last time trial would be so important.

The rain today totally changed the way the final time trial was ridden. Caution took over from flat out. Even with caution playing a huge part, David Millar won the time trial with second fastest time in Tour history. He also crashed one time. Uwe Peschel, who had the fastest time for a while, crashed two times and broke a rib.

Finally, the man we were all watching, Jan Ullrich, also crashed and put an end to his bid to beat Lance. Lance said he knew the time checks to Jan the entire way. When he heard that Jan crashed, Lance said that he totally sat up and just took it easy. Even by almost putting on the brakes in the final kilometers, he still took third place. What was important today was not the individual placing, but the end result.

Lance has won his fifth Tour de France, putting him in a very, very elite group.

After the race, Lance held a press conference to talk with everyone. It's impossible for him to go around and talk with each individual reporter, so the press conference accomplishes this with one meeting. The conference ran over an hour and there were questions ranging from how he felt, his low and high points in the Tour, and what he thought of his competitors.

There were a lot of dumb questions and there were a few good ones. What takes so long is Lance's propensity to keep talking. Lance's answers go on forever and after each answer Johan has to translate. It's a very long process

Lance's wife, Kristin, was here today. She showed up with some friends to cheer Lance on. She left the kids in Paris for the afternoon and it was a good thing she did. The rain today was absolutely awful and after four hours of soaking everyone, it became cold. Kristin also came to the Tour on the rest day and she will return to Spain after the race ends tomorrow.

Lorenzo, the third director for the Postal Service, has a very busy schedule ahead. Lorenzo has been working at the Tour alongside Dirk and Johan for three weeks. Tonight, he has to drive home to Belgium to participate in a meeting for a race that the non-Tour riders are going to start on Monday.

After the meeting — at noon — Lorenzo will drive back to Paris quickly and watch the end of the race and then go to the Postal party that night. That same night Lorenzo has to drive back to Belgium to get ready for the start of Monday's Belgian race.

Tomorrow is the last day and for everyone it will be a welcome sight. The last day the riders take a TGV train in the morning to Ville d'Avray. The start city is only about 20 kilometers outside of Paris. The riders wind around Paris for 60 kilometers until they hit the final circuits for the remaining 80 kilometers.

The very first bonus sprint will be the first time across the finish line, and then there is another the third time across the line. These sprints will play an important part to determine the winner of the green jersey. More importantly will be the winner of the race, because that is where you pick up the biggest award of points. If Robbie McEwen, Baden Cook, or even Zabel win the race, they will take the jersey.

 

July 27, 2003 - Stage 20

History was made today. Lance won his fifth consecutive Tour de France, matching only a few others before him.

An interesting question yesterday at his news conference was, "What will it feel like to be the first Tour rider to actually retire at the end of racing." Lance has done well, and it's because of his success on the bike.

He has brought the sport to another level in Europe and at home. People are now aware of cycling and aware of what the Tour de France is. Hopefully, they will now embrace the sport the way we all have.

Today's stage was a match-up for the green jersey. The yellow jersey was secure and the Postal team sipped champagne during the race to enjoy their victory. The Postal car was loaded with glasses and champagne for all the team directors and the riders.

To those who wanted to sip success, it was offered. Lance, of course, toasted to the cameras and to Jean Marie Leblanc. The Postal Service riders showed up in some brand new duds at the start. The jerseys were made by Nike and were gray and blue.

The stamp on the front was from the seventies and there were nine yellow starts surrounding the stamp. The nine starts just happened to work with the nine riders concept. The shorts said, "US Mail." I thought it looked great and the team was happy to take the fine for the attention. Actually, Nike will pay the fine, but in the end it's the exposure that counts.

The race had a very exciting finish. Normally, tradition has it the leader's team leads into the Champs on the front. But this year, because of the bonus sprint the first time across the line, there was a flat out lead-out by Lotto-Domo and Francaise des Jeux.

Baden Cook won the sprint, taking another two points to get closer to the green jersey. After the sprint, the Postal Service got organized and rode in formation with their colors flying. It looked awesome as they towed Lance around for a few laps. Then the second sprint brought out the lead-out train again. This time it was Robbie who won easily in front of Baden.

Now everything came down to the final sprint and it was between Robbie and Baden, the winner take all. The sprint saw riders going everywhere and at the line Baden and Robbie bumped into each other. This caused both to have a slight hesitation to keep their balance.

The hesitation allowed Nazon to slip pass and take the stage win. As for the winner of the green jersey, no one knew. It was a photo finish to see who would have it. Baden started over to the victory podium pretty quickly. He might have known.

A little while later Robbie started to head over to the podium. Neither knew and when Robbie found out he lost he was not very happy. Robbie refused to talk with anyone and rode off in a huff.

Lance, on other hand, knew he had won and was enjoying it. He finished in the back of the peloton, to stay out of trouble, and comfortably rode to the staging area. Then he came out met his wife and kids, and for a long time played with Luke in front of the podium area.

In the interview afterward Lance said this was a very difficult Tour and he is now looking for a break in the action.

This year after the race the riders did their victory celebration lap, but very quickly. They will now have a big celebration party at the Intercontinental. This is a change from the Museum D'Orsay in previous years. After that there is always the party after the party. I never knew how, after racing flat out for three weeks, they could have an after-party party.

I would like to thank everyone on the team for taking the time to talk with me every day. I especially owe George Hincapie a few beers for taking my phone calls. The team tomorrow continues with its European schedule in Belgium, and next week George and some of the other riders will tackle the first fall World Cup in Hamburg.

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