By Rupert Guinness, Of The Australian
Editor’s Note: Aside from having a name that conjures up visionsof a nice refreshing pint, Rupert Guinness is a sports writer for the dailynewspaper The Australian. A former European correspondent for Winningand VeloNews, Guinness will be sending in a daily column from theTour.
So you reckon cycling’s recent doping problems have soured public interest in the sport? Think again.
Judging by the crowds for today’s second stage from Luxembourg to Saarbrücken in Germany, the sport’s popularity is as high as ever.
Especially in Germany despite former Tour champion Jan Ullrich’s own doping muddle which today saw him fly the coop with his girlfriend Gabby (reportedly to Florida) on vacation to avoid the media; and talk that his German Telekom sponsor may pull out of the sport.
Okay … Germany’s favorite son and fellow Telekom-er Erik Zabel failed (again) to win the stage to celebrate his 32nd birthday, a day late.
Okay … his third place behind Oscar Freire and Robbie McEwen spoiled the party attended by one million-plus crowd, the same party a local promotional pamphlet advertised as one `’with no end.”
It was German hope that the six times green jersey winner would pull it off that certainly fuelled every happy cheer, ear-piercing blast of trumpet and desperate drunken swill of beer and wine along the route.
As soon as today’s 181km stage crossed the Moselle River and into Germany after 53km, the Tour was suddenly transformed into a cacophony of celebration that made driving through a unique experience.
It mattered not that the three of us in the Velo News car have covered a total of 55 Tours – that’s four and half year’s of life – and should have been accustomed to the maddened crowd that the Tour draws.
It’s incredible that no matter how many times you return to the Tour, witnessing the intensity of a Tour crowd like today’s still leaves an ever lasting impression.
For me, it also made easier the task of forgetting the two long black hairs I found in my salad at lunchtime – where we ate at the Gasthaus Laux in the town of Weiler after 75km.
Then again, come to think of it…
As soon as we dropped forks, ran to the car and sped down the Viezstrasse with breakaways Sylvain Chavanel, Stephane Berges and Thor Hushvod closing in our tail, I soon stopped picking my teeth.
Enough of a distraction was found by looking to my right and left at the road lined with pink Telekom insignia and hundreds of placards (many in English) saying “Happy Birthday” for Zabel and one championing the big German “For President.”
As the kilometers sped under our wheel while leading trio let themselves hang out to dry, it seemed impossible that around the corner the crowds would get bigger – as they did with 40km to go at St Wendell, the self-acclaimed “City of sport.”
The town may not have been listed on the official Tour de France `bible. But that didn’t stop crowds of up to 10 deep gathering from its rural outskirts at either end from making their way.
St Wendell. It is a town not unknown to cycling fans. It has been host of World Cup mountain bike rounds from 1996 to 2000 and will be for the 2005 world cyclo-cross world titles.
And if St Wendell locals have their way, it will also be an official Tour host in 2004. Well, that is if race director Jean Marie Leblanc was persuaded (as we were) by a giant yellow jersey draped across a wheat field exiting the town with the question put.
Tomorrow, the Tour will finally be raced in France. But as the road to Paris counts itself down, German cycling fans can rest assured that in one day they reminded everyone else of what is good about this sport.