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By Patrick O’Grady
“I just want to make it to Paris. Everyone is talking about winning stagesor how they’re going to finish on the podium. I just want to finish.”
—Jonathan Vaughters in The Denver Post
With Lance Armstrong expected to win his fourth consecutive Tour deFrance as easily as Tiger Woods would win the Masters against Ray Charles,will the next three weeks in July be a pointless exercise in gratificationdelayed, a 23-day yawner of a wait for another yellow jersey that he couldhave had shipped to Texas in two business days (USPS Global Express Guaranteed)with a phone call? “Hey, Jean-Marie, I need a new shirt for the Lettermanshow. You know the size. Vite, vite, Hoss.”
Well, as the saying goes, that’s why they hold the race — to see whowins.
Nobody phones the Tour in — not Eddy Merckx, not Miguel Indurain, andnot Lance, even with Jan Ullrich on the skids with a bum knee and a headfull of cheap speed, watching the race on Eurosport in some Berlin ginmill with Gilberto Simoni, horning fat rails of Peruvian flake off thebar and hitting on the waitresses. Even Chris Carmichael professes to benibbling his nails a bit as his boy gears up to surpass Greg LeMond asthe Tour-winningest American ever.
“People think it’s going to be a cakewalk year for Lance,” the coachrecently told his hometown newspaper, the Colorado Springs Gazette.“That makes me much more nervous than before.”
Nervous? I’d be shaking like an old dog passing peach pits in a snowbank.Without a designated challenger like Ullrich, who seemed doomed to be Germany’sanswer to Raymond “Eternal Second” Poulidor until he started getting allwined up, backing his Porsche into things and making the Dope-O-Meter howllike a Durango firehouse siren, the Tour seems more or less wide an openinvitation to anyone with the huevos to lace up the gloves and climbinto the ring with the champ.
I’d like nothing better than to see the challenge come from one or moreof Armstrong’s countrymen, because I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, red-white-and-blueYank who loves to see the feckless Frogs get stomped in their own pond.
Every year Jean-Marie Leblanc pays homage to Gallic chauvinism by hand-pickingsome third-rate French pack filler for his national tour, as if Le GrandeBoucle were a training race around the Marseille docks, and every yearthese overmatched escargot get less attention than Hitler gave theMaginot Line. Frankly, I’m always surprised that the entire country doesn’tsurrender when Deutsche Telekom crosses the border.
Scumbags like Richard Virenque will be oozing out of the start housein Luxembourg on Sunday, but showmen like Mario Cipollini get the snottymaitre d’ treatment from Le Tour: “Monsieur … Cipollini, was it?I don’t seem to see your name on our list. Perhaps monsieur wouldbe more … comfortable … at the quaint little Italian race across the Continent.I believe it is held in May. Au revoir.”
So it does my heart good to watch the French roll impotently aroundtheir country for three weeks, cast as spear carriers in their own play,while one of the much-despised Américains steals the starringrole. But will more than one of us be in the spotlight, ready to step ontothe podium with arms uplifted?
The smart money says no. Colorado’s Bobby Julich was there, back in1998, but hasn’t been a serious contender since, though he had an interestingnon-title bout on the Champs Élysées with Jeroen Blijlevensin 2000. I suspect that a Bobby-Lance matchup would be like watching abichon frisé try to steal meat from a wild dingo, and nodoubt that’s why Telekom’s Tour team is built around Erik Zabel’s green-jerseyfetish.
Then there’s Jonathan Vaughters, another Rocky Mountain homeboy who— given his history of evil fortune at the Tour — has probably consideredchanging his name to Joe Btfsplk, after the benighted “Li’l Abner” characterwith the perpetual cloud over his head, deemed “the world’s worst jinx.”After a series of freakish encounters with barbed wire, broken bones andbees over the years, victory for Jonathan will mean riding his bike alongthe Champs-Élysées on July 28 without looking like he’s beenshot out of a cannon.
The two Yanks with the best chances have to be Tyler Hamilton and LeviLeipheimer. Tyler’s a class act, and it would be great to see him makethe podium, but he’s still a bit dinged up from the Giro, where he felldown more often than Ted Kennedy on St. Patrick’s Day and still managedto finish second. And Levi, embodying Rabobank’s GC hopes in his very firstTour, must feel a lot like an Air Cav platoon leader choppering into theIa Drang Valley in 1965.
So while it’s tempting on this Fourth of July weekend to dream of anall-American podium, it seems likely that the main threats to Lance’s four-peatwill not be homegrown. There’s Joseba Beloki and Oscar Sevilla to consider,and if Tex gives him a half-hour head start like he did last year, AndreiKivilev might be looking good.
Hell, with that kind of a jump, even a Frenchman might have a shot atwinning the Tour for the first time since 1985. You think? Naw.