By Rupert Guinness
This is the story about a fella nicknamed “Tracker John.” It’s also a about luck and how the two went hand-in-hand today before the 10th stage of the centennial Tour de France.
Tracker John may be getting on, but with 35 Tours under his belt he is as wily as the most cunning of foxes. When he gets one sniff of a scent, he’ll follow the trail to its end.
He did this morning, after we stopped on the way to the stage start at the point of yesterday’s stage 9 descent where Joseba Beloki crashed out of the Tour and Armstrong ran off course.
Beloki, who sustained a fractured right femur, elbow and wrist, was yesterday transferred to his home Vitoria in the Basque Country for operation on his hip.
However, this morning everyone was still talking of Armstrong’s sheer luck that he didn’t meet the same fate. The permutations for disaster were numerous in the incident.
Tracker John wanted to find out just how lucky Lance really was. The scent was burning his nostrils as we approached that now infamous right-hand curve with 4km to go in the stage 9 route.
“Stop … stop,” yelled Tracker John, jumping in his seat wildly, as we passed the exact mark that was ironically the very last corner of the very last descent in the Alps.
We stopped, got out of the car and walked up the grassy bank where Armstrong rode down and to the point where Beloki’s Tour came to its sorry end. Tracker John led the way.
It was eerie to be standing at the place where in the back of our minds we knew that the outcome for Armstrong could have been so horribly worse. Cycling, sadly, can be a deadly sport.
Our pause of reflection was soon interrupted by Tracker John’s quick senses. With head peering down in curiosity and his finger pointing rigid, he yelled: “Look!”
We looked, saw nothing. And looked again. Same result. Same response from Tracker John who, as he always does, insisted over and over: “Look …look … look.”
Then, as if to make sure we saw, Tracker John knelt down, placed his right hand on the ground, pointed his left finger at the spot again before yelling: “Look …..”
Yes sirree ….Tracker John was spot on (as if we doubted it). Flush under his finger was the mark of Armstrong’s Hutchinson tubular tire just where bitumen turned to dust, hay and grass.
Tracker John quickly picked up the thin trail with the dogged pursuit of a hound chasing convicts. He always does. Comes from living in the mountains at Boulder, they say.
This time, he was off running, finger pointed down, as we were caught on the hop and left to chase madly in awkward stumbles while yelling to him, “Wait … wait.”
Tracker John slowed to show the exact trajectory Armstrong took in the 15-percent sloping field in what was one of the Tour’s truly great escapes. Lance was lucky in more ways than one.
Armstrong was clearly lucky not to crash into Beloki. He was lucky not to have crashed into a gendarme standing at the point of his exit from the course. Armstrong was especially lucky for not plummeting head and wheel first into a concrete culvert about 2 feet deep and just on the right side of the gendarme he sped passed.
His luck didn’t run dry there either. Armstrong was just as lucky that he didn’t crash or puncture as he sped down the 200-foot stretch of field toward the road below. And even then, after negotiating the off-road stretch and reaching the roadside, he was lucky not to have crashed into a 4-foot-deep ditch that lay between him and the racecourse.
Finally, Lance was lucky not to have injured himself while jumping the ditch and/or running on his cleats to remount his bike — and in time to remount just as the group came past.
We were lucky too … having Tracker John with us. Had we not seen where one of the Tour’s most dramatic moments occurred close up, we wouldn’t have realized just how lucky Armstrong was. It had to be seen to be believed, as everything on the Tour must.