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On the Road ... Tour de France

Sunday, July 23, 2006

PARIS — With all the talk of drugs and various accusations that seemingly always dominate the Tour de France, I'd rather see the race in a different light. I don't think I'm naive. Cycling has drug problems. And there are always riders accusing other riders of bad tactics and riders who accuse rival teams of inappropriate racing. But with Floyd Landis' win Sunday, a few things I like about sport, and which were particularly apparent in this year's Tour, come to mind. The riders, fatigued and battered for three weeks, did often forget sportsmanship and the appreciation of their fellow competitors. Spanish rider Oscar Pereiro held a 30-second lead he knew he'd likely lose to Landis in the 19th stage individual time trial. And lose it he did. But instead of finding an excuse or looking for someone to blame, Pereiro displayed supreme sportsmanship. Within minutes after his final ride-of-the-day time was posted and the Landis' win was apparent, Pereiro found the American and offered an embrace. It was a brief, genuine moment between two great riders near the end of three weeks of difficult bicycle racing. Equally sportsmanlike, when the peloton entered Paris on Sunday for the first of eight laps on the Champs Elysees, Russian Viatcheslav Ekimov went to the front with the group's approval. Ekimov, 40, eventually finished his 15th Tour Sunday — one shy of the record. With his team director announcing it would the rider's last year at the Tour, what better way to acknowledge the former world titlist, Tour stage winner and the rider who helped Lance Armstrong to several of this Tour titles? Cycling does things like that well. And then there was Landis. Everyone knows that the top-five finishers from the 2005 race didn't compete. And Landis was professional, but brief when he addressed the topic. The media entourage has been accustomed to Lance Armstrong's glib nature. And Landis isn't anywhere as outspoken or controversial as the retired seven-time race winner. But it seems to me it's increasingly rare in sports for athletes to grasp perspective. But Landis did. When he was asked about his devastating ride in stage 16 and if there was one thing he thought about, Landis said: "My parents taught me that hard work and patience are some of the most important things in getting what you want. It took me a long time in my life to learn patience (smiles). But that and persistence is the lesson I learned in this race." Landis may never return to the Tour de France, with his pending hip replacement surgery. But there's an expression that comes to mind that fits Landis. One friend often says of athletes he doesn't respect, "They win a lot of races, but they're never champions." Landis showed he's a champion and he provided a lot of what makes the Tour enjoyable for me. — James raia

posted by dave kellogg at 4:23 PM

Friday, July 21, 2006

What is it with American cyclers? 

MACON, France — So it now looks like Floyd Landis will win the Tour de France on Sunday. He trails by only 30 seconds and he's the prohibitive favorite Saturday in the race's final key individual time trial stage. If Landis does win, it will be the 11th Tour title in the last 21 years by American cyclists, including seven victories by Lance Armstrong and three by Greg LeMond. But what is it with American riders who win the Tour? Landis, who won last February's Tour of California, faces potential career-threatening hip replacement surgery sometime later this year. LeMond won his last two Tours after a two-year recovery from a near-fatal accidental gunshot wound. Armstrong won all his Tour titles after recovering for two years from his well-documented ordeal with cancer. But the weird ways of American cyclists doesn't stop with the trio of American winners of the sport's biggest event. Tyler Hamilton, now near the end of a two-year drug suspension, finished fourth in the Tour after winning a stage with a broken clavicle. Davis Phinney, the first American to win a Tour stage (1987), has Parkinson's Disease. Perhaps there's no connections to varied dilemmas among great American cyclists. But it is something ponder. - James raia

posted by dave kellogg at 9:03 PM

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Driving the Tour de france 

LA TOUSSUIRE, France — Driving the Tour de France course as a member of the media provides a moveable movie — shot from behind the windshield. The "film" is an ideal documentary of what the Tour is really all about. The last two days, my colleague and friend Bruce Aldrich and I have driven the entire direct mountain course routes. It was four hours to L'Alpe d'Huez on Tuesday and then another three hours Wednesday to the stage finish at the small, unheralded ski resort. Tour organizers provide three types of driving stickers, green, blue and orange. The green sticker allows media representatives the most access, the blue the next-best access and the orange sticker the poorest access. We have a blue sticker, which allows us to drive on the course. But we're not allowed to pass the caravan publicity. It's the long parade of sponsor vehicles that distributes trinkets to spectators, and it negotiates each day's route 90 minutes before the riders. Instead, on both of the last two days, we've avoided the course start and started our drive to the finish ahead the publicity caravan. It never falls to amaze me the patience of the French fans. While driving through dozens of small villages, there they are: families with picnic baskets and umbrellas and recreational riders who've ridden for hours to find a perch along the route. In many instances, the riders won't arrive for hours. But the fans are willing to wait. They paint the roads with the names of their favorites and they buy Tour merchandise and food from street merchants. They even cheer the press corps. On the mountains, it's the same, but intense. Trailers are squeezed into precarious positions on hillsides and rowdy fans stand around, sometimes oblivious to approving vehicles. As the highest climbs approach, cyclists who've already climbed the mountain can speed downhill and within inches fans and race vehicles. The riders have to ride the course, of course. But it's not easy driving the route, either, particularly on steep ascents and with sheer dropoffs, sometimes on both sides of the road. My colleague, who's a first-time Tour visitor, compares Tour de France fans to Grateful Dead fans who used to spend days following the band city to city. And it's a good comparison. Some Grateful Dead fans know every note of every song; others are just happy to be at the show. It's the same with Tour de France fans. Some are passionate. They know every rider, every team and all the records. But it's apparent many Tour spectators are also just happy to be at the show, whether it's under a tree in the countryside or screaming and waving a country flag on a steep ascent in the Alps. It's the Tour de France and they're in the movie.

posted by dave kellogg at 2:20 PM

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Tour adventure 

GAP, France — Just as riders face unexpected obstacles, I've always faced at least one potential catastrophic occasion during each of the 10 years I've attended the Tour de France. And yet every time some wacky problem has struck — nearly running out of gas to getting sick to not being able to find a hotel as midnight approaches — it's always worked out. For the record, I'm not the only person at the Tour de France who faces looming trouble just around the bend. It's the nature of the three weeks of daily travel. It's crowded highways, misplaced directional signs and general fatigue that gets even the best veteran Tour de France followers. Even the French get lost, get in accidents, get sick, have equipment stolen and have bad experiences with the police. The latest chapter in my ongoing series of Tour dilemmas occurred Sunday. My traveling friend and I were set to share a three-apartment flat at L'Alpe d'Huez. We had an expected two-hour drive to the mountain, but we didn't leave the press room until 8:30 p.m. We had about one-third of a tank of gas, credit cards, ATM cards, but no Euros. The bank system had been down throughout various parts France on Sunday, but we decided to drive toward L'Alpe d'Huez anyway, in the direction of Briancon. It rained hard and we soon enough realized we likely wouldn't make it. We decided to check hotels in small villages. Every place was full. We drove back into Gap and looked for gas stations, none of which would accept our credit card. At the fourth gas station we tried, I asked a driver of an ambulance at the adjacent pump if she could assist. She tried our various cards, also to no avail. She offered to escort us to a bank with an ATM to try again. It worked. She escorted us back the gas station. We gave her 50 Euros and she bought us gas with her credit card. Still without a room, I decided to drive in the reserve direction of the race, to Sisteron. We asked for rooms in three places along the way, also without success. At nearly 12:30 a.m., I found one room at an Etap, the lower-lever modular hotel. My colleague and I shared the room, which included odd but efficient bunk beds and a self-contained plastic shower. We had cereal, crackers and a beer for dinner. Another potential disaster at the Tour had been avoided, thanks to the generosity of a French person willing to help. They're always willing to help. — James raia

posted by dave kellogg at 8:11 PM

Friday, July 14, 2006

Saluting a Tour de France veteran 

CARCASSONE, France — It seems odd when a reporter writes about another reporter because neither should be the story. But Sam Abt is an exeption because he deserves a salute from anyone who has interest in cycling or journalism. There are print, television and radio reporters from few dozen countries — Japan to New Zealand, Belgium to the United States — who cover the Tour de France. And it's a sure bet most of them know or know of Abt. As a just-retired editor for the International Herald Tribune, the most well-known English newspaper in Europe, Abt is an American who for many years has lived just outside of Paris. He began covering cycling by accident and yesterday he received the supreme non-cycling award given by the Tour de France organization. Reporters reaching their 30th year at the event are introduced by the race director in the starting village of a designated stage and given an award. Abt, whose newspaper is owned by the New York Times, showed his gift — an engraved silver plate — to a few friends and acquaintances in the press room. Abt began covering the Tour de France when reporters traveled city to city, country to country by hitchhiking. The race wasn't very well-known in the United States in the mid-1970s when Abt's first cycling byline appeared in the Times. (Jonathan Boyer of Carmel was the first American entrant in 1981.) Abt's appreciation of the sport steadily advanced. He's written 10 cycling books and has forgotten more about cycling than I will ever know. Abt's byline appears in newspapers worldwide, most notably in U.S. newspapers that receive the New York Times News Service. But beyond his writing talents, Abt is well-known for two other reasons, one sensitive. Abt is unique looking. He's short, wears large round glasses and has bad teeth. He's chain smokes, he's nearly bald and he has a huge lump on the back of his head. He doesn't reveal his age. Significantly more importantly, Abt is generous. When a reporter enters the world of cycling, they often gravitate toward Abt for advice. He's been asked the same questions for years, but I've never seen him not take the time to respond. I've known Abt for 20 years, I still ask him questions, and I still hold in high honor an occasion one day several years ago in Paris. It was early on the final day of the Tour and the press room was located in an upscale hotel that has a few elegant little cafes. Abt invited me to have coffee with him. Abt was presented his Tour de France award prior to the 11th stage by Jean-Marie Leblanc, the long-time and now outgoing Tour de France race director. Just after Leblanc presented Abt with his silver plate, he asked the reporter if he'd like to have some good wine. Abt is not opposed to drinking wine. But it was still mid-morning and he graciously declined. He told Leblanc he had work to do. — James Raia

posted by dave kellogg at 3:44 PM

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Like Atlantic City, without the gambling 

Each year during the Tour de France, I can't wait to get to Lourdes. A lot folks who go to the Tour despise the small city in the country's southwest corner, and there are plenty of reasons to hate it. It's a place where visitors worldwide flock in an endless convoy of tourist buses. They hope for divine intervention. It's where the vision of Bernadette is located and it's where retail shops sell cheap trinkets depicting holy symbols. It's a place of desperation. Lourdes is a little like Atlantic City without gambling. Most years, though, Lourdes is a convenient city between at least two race stages in the Pyrenees. And it's where for six or seven years I've stayed at Hotel Cazaux. The owner, Marie Bernadette Cazaux, was born in the hotel. Her friend, Elena, a retired teacher, works there part-time. I consider them friends and during my Tour de France tenure, I've received Christmas cards from the two women. It's a simple little hotel on the corner of a quiet street. The rooms are spotless and inexpensive. Parking is available for free in front of the hotel. There's a laundry three doors away and an open-air market across the street. I've walked to the same Chinese restaurant, owned by a Vietnamese family, a half-dozen times. I stayed at Hotel Cazaux last night and when I arrived, Marie Bernadette Cazaux was waiting for me in front of the hotel at 11:05 p.m. I had Chinese food at the same restaurant last night at midnight. Marie Bernadette Cazaux always says she speaks English poorly, but she speaks better English than I do French and we communicate just fine. I'm staying at Hotel Cazaux again tonight. It's 45 minutes from Pau, the finish of the 10th stage Wednesday. I'll say goodbye to Marie Bernadette Cazaux and Elena tomorrow morning. And I can only hope to visit them again. — James Raia

posted by dave kellogg at 6:15 PM

Monday, July 10, 2006

The agony of defeat 

Over the course of the past month, I have become a fan -- not just of the World Cup as an event, not just of a specific country and not just of a specific team.

All those things happened, but what I really discovered was a wonderful player -- Zinedine Zidane.

As you no doubt know, his soccer career ended horribly -- with a red card after head-butting an Italian opponnent.

Overall, this World Cup provided me with a seeming never-ending list of memories that I will cherish for a lifetime, but the one on-field event that will remain is that head butt.

In some ways, I don't feel like I have any room to be disappointed and certainly not disgusted with Zidane. I only discovered him during this tournament and therefore won't pretend to feel emotions reserved for those that went through far more highs and lows with the man they call Zizou.

Still, France's loss and they way it happened stung far more than I could have ever imagined.

I had grown to really appreciate that team and was rooting for them just as passionately as I have ever rooted for a team. The biggest reason I was rooting for them, though, was my newfound respect for Zizou.

He was by far the best player I have ever watched. His mastery with the ball was unlike anything I had ever seen on the pitch. And the more I learned about him, the more intriguing he became.

Of course, it was the same stuff that brought intrigue to his character that ultimately led to his unraveling, which is why I can't muster up much anger toward him.

Rather, I'm left with a sense of loss. He was far too good a player, with much too interesting of a story, to go out that way -- with his head cast downward as he walked past the World Cup trophy and into the lockerroom.

What makes it worse is that we may never know what happened to make Zizou crack. Did he just lose his mind after playing in pain and exhaustion? Somehow I doubt that. Was it something the Italian player said? Probably, but that hardly explains it. I sincerely hope that he will speak on the subject. But if I've learned anything in the past month, it's that we'll be the ones left making excuses and assigning blame, not the man himself.

posted by FreeSanJose at 9:43 AM

Hospitable hosts 

RODOUER, France -- Two years ago, Fabrice Rouille and Angelina Nardin pedaled their tandem in Liege, Belgium, for a weekend. They were hosted by a couple who responded to a message the traveling cyclists posted on the internet seeking accommodations.

Fast-forward to this year's Tour de France. Rouille, 30, and Nardin, 27, now the parents of a 2 1/2-month old son, decided to return the gesture.

They posted on an offer to host as many as four people from the Tour entourage for a night or two during stages 7 and 8. I was the first person who responded and I arrived at their home at about 10:30 p.m. last night, and in plenty of time for a home-cooked meal -- grilled pork, sausages and green peppers, boiled potatoes, a green salad, wine, juice and bottled water. And for dessert? Nardin made crepes at the dinner table and there was plenty of jam, sugr, honey and Nutella to use as filling. Rouille and Nardin had three other guests, and the six of us ate dinner drank wine and talked about the Tour de France and the wondrous ways of travel.

I slept on a narrow air mattress fitted with a topsheet and a blanket on the floor of a first floor office next to the bathroom.

Saturday morning, Rouille provided an escort through winding, country roads to the highway where the road split toward the direction of the start and stage finish. Rouille and his other guests were going to the start. I was going to the finish. I honked and waved goodbye to my host and just-met friends, whose company I enjoyed and who I will likely never see again.

--By James Raia

posted by FreeSanJose at 9:39 AM

James Raia

Get right up close to the peloton, as Herald correspondent James Raia follows the Tour de France. James can be reached at

Jeremiah Oshan

Follow Herald sports copy editor Jeremiah Oshan to Germany as he cheers on the U.S. soccer team at the World Cup. Jeremiah can be reached at

 Latest posts
   •  PARIS — With all the talk of drugs and various acc...
   •  What is it with American cyclers?
   •  Driving the Tour de france
   •  A Tour adventure
   •  Saluting a Tour de France veteran
   •  Like Atlantic City, without the gambling
   •  The agony of defeat
   •  Hospitable hosts
   •  Missing out
   •  The biking capital

   •  June 2006
   •  July 2006

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