Sunday, July 26, 2009

TDF 2009 Stage 21: A Paris, Les Champs!

Photos: Benepe and ASO
Pic: The podium 2009 TDF (Benepe (c))


Yesterday's manifestation in Paris was the ultimate in public-sport spectacle.

It was not really a race day, even though a race of sorts took place. Everyone who's watched the Tour before knows the last day is largely a symbolic prance through the streets for all of Paris and the world to see.

The race itself, from Montereau-Fault-Yonne is 164 km, 53 km of which are performed in a circuit up and down the Champs Elysees, with nine opportunities to see the riders go by, much of it on the old cobblestoned streets of Elysees.

The mood was captured perfectly by a 5-year-old girl who screamed "Allez-y le maillot Jaune," or "Go Yellow Jersey," every time the peleton passed.

Pic: "Allez y le maillot jaune," five-year-old Parisienne who was also taping the stage (Benepe (c))

The Parisians are a strange lot though. The little girl who has been to every single Tour since she was born because her parents work for Versus, the cable channel that is broadcasting the event in th U.S., was shouting the loudest.

Most Parisiens it seems are a little blase about the whole thing, and seemed to come out more for the event than because they cared about cycling.

Nevertheless the crowds were so dense, it was as if all of Paris had come to watch, it was almost impossible to pass in some areas, particularly near the top of the Champs, at the Place Charles de Gaulle. The heat was overwhelming, and people lined up for ice cream or sat on the ground to wait for the teams to come through.

Pic: Parisiens watching race one of several giant screens along route (Benepe (c))

Roadside stands served crepes and soft drinks, and people walked in and out of the shops on the Champs Elysees while they waited for the riders. Massive Zara, Addidas and other major brand name stores were open and doing a brisk business.

Pic: A turn in front of the Arc de Triomphe (ASO)

Cafes on the avenue were packed, dogs held on leashes quivered, and Parisiens stood in front of the several giant TV screens to watch the riders approaching Paris. Later they also watched as a breakaway and the peleton behind them snaked their way through the 6.5 km circuit.

As the cyclists entered the Champs Elysees the first time, the crowds cheered. In the VIP section someone had given about 700 fans white boater hats with black ribbons. Many of them stood to cheer the riders as they came in, a wave of white rising and falling as they stood and sat down.

At the start of the race, Alberto Contador went out in front of the peleton in a symbolic gesture of his leadership. After that the peloton rode steadily without any attacks until the 11th kilometer had been reached.

Pic: Exhausted fans waiting for the riders to arrive at the Champs Elysees (Benepe (c))

Once they hit the pavement in Paris, Calzati (AGR) attacked and was chased down, that followed quickly by Beppu (SKS) before the Champs Elysees, and he took six others with him, including Veikkanen (FDJ), Coyot (GCE), Dumoulin (COF), Pichot (BBO), Barredo (QST), Wegmann (MRM) and Beppu (SKS).

But everyone knew that Mark Cavendish had stated his intention to win the stage in Paris. Columbia HTC took control of the peloton and all nine riders from Cavendish’s team stayed on the front of the bunch from the moment it arrived on the Champs-Elysées, with a 3 km exception when Garmin Slipstream took went to the head of the peleton.

Five kilometers from the finish George Hincapie took the lead at the front and began the Columbia set up that we all know so well now. First Hincapie, then Mark Renshaw, the Cavendish, the Manx man, fastest man in the world powered through over the finish, his arms up in the air.

Pic: ASO

“I’ve always said that I wanted to win on the Champs-Elysées, " said Cavendish. "Every sprinter dreams of putting their hands up in the air as they cross that line, seeing the Arc de Triomphe in the foreground and it’s an amazing feeling to do so." He also praised Hincapie whom he said was incredibly fast in the lead out, and Renshaw who captured second in the state. Other teams never came to the front, he added, forcing Columbia to do almost all the work in this last stage.

Cavendish had made a promise to win Paris after Thor Hushovd made a formal complaint about his sprint, and won back the Green Jersey because 15 points were deducted from Cavendish's tally. It didn't matter that Hushovd took off on a solo break for the bulk of stage 17 (see The Stained Green Jersey) and won 15 points legitimately.

Pic: ASO
Hoshovd made light of their public gauntlet: “We talk a lot when we’re riding but we had a big battle during the Tour de France – especially after he was relegated, that was a hard time – but we’ve talked about it and have forgotten it. The last few days we had a good ride and good race for this important jersey," he said.

Seeing Cavendish pedal furiously up the Champs Elysees was one of the highlights of covering the tour. He looked like a massive galloping horse, like nothing could stop him.

In the end, the 15 points really cost Hushovd more than it gained him. It seemed like all of Paris turned its back on him. As he rode down the Champs after the race, the cheers were intermittent. He looked like a star whose audience had waned.

Pic: Columbia team in the front during last few laps (Benepe (c))

When Hushovd was being interviewed by reporters, he was not mobbed by other reporters, as these riders normally are. The reality is Cavendish may be the fastest in the sprint, but he can't do so in the mountainous stages, and Hushovd can.

“I think I won this jersey because I’m more experienced. I know how to win it," said Hushovd after the stage."Cavendish is the fastest sprinter but I’m the most consistent one… and that’s why I won this jersey," he added.

After the race, the Spectacle

On the final day of the Tour, all of the rich and famous--and important--come out to see the vedettes or star racers do their thing.

An elaborate awards ceremony that involves the Minister of Sports, Roselyne Bachelot, the same person who publicly criticized the Astana team in Colmar when they showed up one hour after being woken two hours before they were supposed to be tested. Other heads of departments were there in a special shaded box from the boiling sun that even at 7:30 pm was extraordinarily strong.
Pic: The Armstrong kids and mom wave to the crowds (Benepe (c))

But even though French office holders and pols, in particular Bachelot, and by inference in an interview, also France's President Nicolas Sarkozy have continued to make public statements that cast a shadow over the drug-free status of the Astana team and in particular, Lance Armstrong, today the spectacle, the crowd, the most recognition, went not to Yellow Jersey winner Alberto Contador, but to Armstrong.

After finishing the awards ceremony and stepping to the podium with Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck as the third place finisher, Armstrong was surrounded not only by his mother and first three children, but also by his girlfriend Anna Hansen who walked outside the barriers with their newborn Max Armstrong who was so small he looked like he was going to fall out of his carrier.
Pic: Anna Hansen, Armstrong's GF after putting Max in the air ala Michael Jackson (Benepe (c))

(Later after the ceremonies were over, Hansen took Max out of his carrier and held him up in front of the stands to someone in the crowd- and shades of Michael Jackson came to mind, you remember, the time he hung his baby from the window.)

This was spectacle at its finest.

As the French ministers and department chiefs paraded in and out of their exclusive box, the gendarmes pushed journalists and fans away. The pomp and circumstance quotient went sky high, as photographers pushed and shoved to take photos first of the ceremonies and then of the small event that took place inside the tent with the top three finishers. It was a chance for the biggest media outlets who paid the most for access to interview the winners.

Pic: Okay you know who this is by now (Benepe (c))

Not that Conti--or Contador--wasn't the star winner today. Oh sure, he was radiant as he rolled down the Champs in Yellow, his broad smile flashing, a red flag tied around his shoulders adding a touch of fiery red which blurred brilliantly with the yellow as he rode past the crowds. He was a like a gorgeous slim canary in a sea of Astana Jerseys.

But once again, gosh darnit, Armstrong stole the crowd. BBB knows he didn't mean to. In fact he purposefully pulled away from Contador so he wouldn't ruin his spotlight. But don't you know it, the crowd still cheered louder for Armstrong.

The exception was when Contador rode past the crowd from Spain who belted out his name in ringing cries, Contador! Contador! Contador!

But this isn't a popularity contest, it's sport, right?

Pic: Armstrong after podium and exclusive press conference, with his daughter looking back at him "Come on daddy, let's go." (Benepe (c))

Heck with the sport. This was street theater at its bes reminiscent of the outdoor summer opera in Verona, Italy, replete with horses and carriages rolling onto the stage. When the main actor came on stage everyone shouted, their voices echoing against the stadium walls.

So what's so great about Armstrong? Besides winning seven Tours, the guy has never been caught drugging.

You can talk all you want, but even before he was rich and could afford the expensive doctors you have all conjured in your minds as aiding and abetting a before-the-curve performance enhancement drug, he was winning then too. Armstrong wins like someone would win a chess game, not like someone who wins at hand wrestling.

Pic: Guard of exclusive press conference after podium. On the lamppost is posted a list of the riders who are being sent to anti-dopage (Benepe (c))

He's also great at self-promotion and using the tools available to further his cancer cause. Yet the aura and the fame does come from the man himself.

We're not going to debate the behind-the-scenes talk among journalists, including one from a large U.S. based sports media outlet who said that Contador is "all jacked up" with performance enhancers, as are "the top ten finishers in the Tour."

Pic: The Columbia Team in the slow after race parade up and down the Champs Elysees. They had one motorcycle lead, Astana had five (Benepe (c)).

This is fully unsubstantiated gossip, even captured by the normally conservative NY Times who reminded us that with Italian rider Danilo Di Luca, "positive tests could emerge long after the race was done." In early July, Di Luca, tested positive for taking the blood-booster CERA at the Giro d’Italia, tests that were taken in May when DiLuca was a runner up in that event.

Contador was also allegedly involved in a Spanish doping ring in 2007, but his involvement was never proven.

Pic: French sports minister (center) hobnobbing with other pols in the VIP tent that was heavily guarded by gendarmes (Benepe (c))

But in an interview with BBB he made it clear that his brush with death in May 2004, when he was found on the side of the mountain by teammate Santiago Fernandez Zubizarreta while competing for Liberty Seguros in the Tour of Asturias, made him determined to win and to win cleanly.

After being taken to the hospital that day, Contador learned that because of a congenital malformation of his veins, he had a cerebral lesion. It gave him and his family pause because his younger brother Raul suffers from cerebral paralysis. "It was a particularly difficult time for the whole family," said Contador's brother and manager, Francisco Javier talking to the press.

Contador underwent a three hour operation on his brain, with 70 stitches to cover the cut. He comes from a family of little means, and started cycling as a little boy, with an old steel Orbea, used shorts, and a shirt that doubled as a bike jersey, according to a report by L'Equipe.

Pic: Sign company Doublet guys watch parade twhile race is replayed above them (Benepe (c)).

"Questions are inevitable when you win a race like the Tour de France. As I have said before is that I have submitted to 65 days of anti-doping control of all kinds, and I am happy to be able to do it so that things are as clear as possible," he said on Saturday night after his win at Ventoux. "If anyone has doubts, they can address them with the UCI, the AMA, and the AFLD who can certify that I have nothing to hide."

Pic: Conti leaving the exclusive press conference on his bike (Benepe (c))

In all, Conti is the perfect example of the Tour de France racer, a scrapper who comes up from a humble position with little in his pocket and a lot to prove. Add to that a brush with death, and the hovering uncertainty that his congenital defects could resurface, and it's a similar story to the rise of Armstrong.

Brought up by a single mother, a father nowhere to be seen or heard from, and a massive brush with death from cancer. Those elements helped make Armstrong determined to win.

But still Contador showed in this Tour that he is still a little green.

Pic: ASO

His mistakes on the mountain taking off from his own teammate on the Col de Romme, and attacking Armstrong in Stage 7 on the route to Arcalis, as well as statements made to the press after winning the difficult stage to Le Grand Bornand when he announced, "I didn't need Armstrong," but was seen tucked in behind his predecessor during the flat stages to preserve energy, were perceived by the public and others on the Astana team, including his director sportif Johan Bruyneel as evidence of his immaturity.

To his credit, Contador believed from the beginning that the team leadership was designed to keep him as a helper to Armstrong, a role he did not plan on playing after he saw Armstrong struggling in the climb in the Andorras.

In an interview with the French press, Contador described what he felt was unbearable tension in the team after he took off in stage 7 to take Arcalis. "I quickly saw that he was there to win the Tour. But there wasn't room for two. I made my own race because I wanted to win, I knew it was up to me to make it happen. I don't have to give gifts to anyone. Now the race is over and at the end of the year, our paths will separate..." he said.

Pic: As a crowd watches the ceremony a video replay of Armstrong and his family plays behind them (Benepe (c))

In the end, Contador said he and Armstrong never meshed. " Out ambitions, our personalities, and our ways of doing things were not compatible. Next year, he will be on a different team from me, and it will come to the Tour to win, and no doubt for revenge."

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