By Tyler Hamilton, CSC professional cycling team
My apologies for the lag in getting an update out. I’ve been a little tapped the last few nights. This feels like the fifth week of the Tour de France for me, not the third. Most GC riders spend the first week of the race laying low, conserving energy. But I feel like I’ve been on the rivet since the get-go. Adrenaline and disbelief probably got me through the first ten stages of the race. But all the effort to keep going has taken its toll. And as a result the Pyrénées have been a bigger challenge than I would have liked.
Today’s stage started out with a two-kilometer climb from the gun. There was one attack after another and the peloton was single file for the first 50 kilometers. It was not the ideal way for a long, hard day to get rolling. After suffering over the two previous days I tried to concentrate on riding as steady as I could. Without being able to respond to accelerations with 100 percent of myself, I’ve found that being as consistent as possible is the best strategy. Attacks can’t go forever, and the pace will eventually fall back a bit. I’ve just had to hope that when it did, I was still in striking distance. Today, my tactics played out pretty well and I was able to stay in contact with the first group.
Seeing Lance bounce back after taking a couple of hard knocks on the final climb today shows he still has the fight left in him. I think people were starting to count him out for this year’s Tour. Big mistake. His crash happened when his handlebar caught a hat or a bag being held by a spectator. While these kind of incidents are part of the sport, they shouldn’t decide the outcome of the race. I motioned to everyone in the group they should hold up and not attack while the yellow jersey was in the process of rejoining the group. It was only a couple of years ago that Lance made the same gesture toward Ullrich when he crashed on a decent during the Tour. Waiting was the right thing to do.
The Basque fans have been out in full force here in the Pyrénées. Today there was a sea of orange hats, shirts and flags on the climbs. I have to say the Basques are the most enthusiastic fans in cycling. They take the tailgating philosophy to a new level. And they’re true fans. They recognize riders and call after them by name – singing, cheering and chanting the whole time. I probably heard my name more today than any other day in the race so far. Even descending the Luz Ardiden after the race in a baseball cap they knew who I was. And they were just as fired up to see me out of competition as they were seeing me in it.
Yesterday was a brutal day for me. The climbs were punishing and it was the first real day I could feel the power that had been in my legs throughout the first two weeks was starting to fade. It was a humbling stage in the sweltering heat. And those are about the nicest things I have to say about it.
Saturday’s stage proved to be a big success for our team, but was tough for me personally. First, the day started out with my taking a hit from an elevator door on the way out of the team hotel. Apparently the sensors weren’t working, because I got clocked pretty good on my collar bone… not a good omen heading out to the race.
It was our first day in the Pyrénées, and it was over 100 degrees. The Col de Pailheres was the big challenge of the day. It’s was a massive category one climb stretching over eighteen kilometers. I knew when I previewed it in May that it was going to be a killer. And it didn’t disappoint. I felt like I was riding pretty well though under the circumstances. Although I, like almost everyone else, was feeling the effects of dehydrating so badly during the time trial the day before.
During the team meeting that morning, we discussed that Carlos Sastre and I were both still GC leaders since it seemed at that point that we both stood a shot at contending for the top 10. Half way up the Pailheres, Carlos was feeling pretty good and asked me if I minded if he attacked. There was no way I could ask him to give up an opportunity for himself after all he’s done for me so far this season. Things went well for him and he was able to rack up a second stage win for the CSC team. But things didn’t work out so well for me personally. After Carlos took off, I spent the next 25 kilometers calling on the radio and raising my arm for food and water. Due to congestion on the road and some communication problems Bjarne couldn’t move the team car up to where I was. So I was in a pretty dangerous situation.
Bjarne finally reached me just before the base of the last climb. But by then I was digging pretty deep. I downed a couple of gels out of necessity, but this isn’t the smartest idea at the base of a big climb. It can cause you to cramp, or get sick, especially when it’s as hot as it has been. When the attacks went I really started to suffer, and there hadn’t been enough time for the gels to take effect. I had to let them go, and just ride at my own pace. If I had tried to follow the surges, I would have exploded. And then who knows what would have happened.
In my desperation for water I tried at one point to grab a bottle from one of the Aquarel motorbikes parked on the side of the road. What I didn’t realize was how deep the bottles were situated in the carrier at the back of the bike. When I reached to grab one as I road past, it felt as though I had grabbed a lamp post. The bottle didn’t budge. And not only did I miss my opportunity to get a drink, I made the mistake of reaching out with my right arm which is the side with my collar bone fractures. Any healing that had been done in the days previous felt like it had been undone in that moment. I guess you could say I was having one of those days.
The CSC team has been ranked first in the team GC over the last couple of days which means I’ve been able to collect a few more lions for my dog Tugboat. After all the traveling he’s been doing to keep pace with the Tour since Stage 2, I think he’s earned them almost as much as we have.
On a final note, I want to send my condolences out to the AG2r team who lost a teammate yesterday. Laurie Aus was struck by a drunk driver during a training ride. I didn’t know him, but have heard he leaves behind a young family. News like this, always puts things like a bike race in perspective.
Thanks for reading.