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“How’s Lance doing y’all?”

After finishing their punishing climb to the Plateau de Beille summit Friday evening, most of the 166 survivors in the Tour de France had to turn around and ride back down to their team buses, awaiting them in the valley. The only two who took alternative transport were the two most popular media interviewees Laurent Jalabert (who hitched a ride on a police motorcycle) and Lance Armstrong (who was seen heading for a helicopter). As for the press, we were still filing stories at 10 p.m., and crawled down the 16 kilometers of steep switchbacks in a slow-moving line of traffic. It’s now almost

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By John Wilcockson

After finishing their punishing climb to the Plateau de Beille summit Friday evening, most of the 166 survivors in the Tour de France had to turn around and ride back down to their team buses, awaiting them in the valley. The only two who took alternative transport were the two most popular media interviewees Laurent Jalabert (who hitched a ride on a police motorcycle) and Lance Armstrong (who was seen heading for a helicopter).

As for the press, we were still filing stories at 10 p.m., and crawled down the 16 kilometers of steep switchbacks in a slow-moving line of traffic. It’s now almost 11 p.m., and we’ve just made it down to the valley. The signs say “Toulouse 105km,” where our hotel is tonight. This remote part of the Pyrénées has few hotels, and most of those are filled with people on vacation — so we have perhaps another hour and a half of driving tonight, and hope that we’ll be able to find a restaurant open at 12:30 a.m.

Luckily, it’s a fairly short stage on Saturday, with a start time just after 1 p.m. Although there are three climbs in the opening 50km, they will just be springboards for potential breakaways rather than major obstacles. The stage soon emerges onto flatter roads, and the two intermediates sprints plus the finish should provide another exciting episode in the green jersey battle between defending champion Erik Zabel of Telekom and Robbie McEwen of Lotto-Adecco. Only one point separates them after 12 stages of racing.

This last paragraph has been written sitting on the ground in the parking lot of a shopping center at Pamiers. A half-hour ago, our rear left tire blew out on the highway. Maybe that horse on the Aubisque Thursday got its teeth into the tire!

We limped along to the first exit and found this floodlit oasis, which even has a Macdonald’s. It’s now 11:45 p.m. and there’s still 70km to drive to Toulouse. The other guys are changing the tire — which has proved a frustrating experience (well they’re all laughing right now, so it can’t be that bad). Deciphering the French car manual and deciding which of the six tools to use caused some early bewilderment.

Rupe’s not helping, because his cell phone rang, and he’s answering questions about the Tour on a live radio show in Australia. Work never ends, it seems.

The tire and wheel are now back on, so all that’s left to do is snap everything back into place, work out how the blow-out tire and wheel bolt back onto the underside of the vehicle — and then repack all our suitcases and bags into the trunk. Midnight is almost upon us, and the guys are still trying to figure out how to fit the tool box back into the wheel before it can be bolted back on — the French have a complicated way of doing everything it seems.

At least, the night is warm. A local nightclub called the Crescendo is banging out some disco sounds — although we could have done without “Y-M-C-A.” And it’s not raining. It’s just another day on the Tour. The bags are going back in. It’s 12:10 a.m. I have to go.

Another cell phone has just jingled out its tune. This time, a call for Andy from Texas Cable News — “How’s Lance doing y’all?”

DETAILS OF STAGE 13: Lavelanet to Béziers, 171km.INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS: Limoux (67.5km) and Pouzols-Minervois (134.5km).CLIMBS: Cat. 3 climbs at Montségur (8.5km) and St. Benoît (48.5km). Cat. 4 climb at Col de Badourade (31km).
WEATHER FORECAST: Hot sunny day with temperatures in the 80s F Light winds from the southeast.