Story and photos by Kelly Fowler
If life is like a box of chocolates, then life at a cycling race might be
like a box of Cracker Jacks. You spend your time munching through the sweet
stuff, finally to arrive at the prize hidden inside. All that caramel popcorn
keeps your attention for a while, but the anticipation of what awaits inside
that little, white envelope keeps you searching to the bottom of the box. What
prize would I find today? Where should I start?
We arrived today just as the team buses were pulling into the start area.
After wandering for a minute to get the feel of things, I greeted my old friends
in the traditional Spanish way - dos besos - the "kiss, kiss" that Europeans are
known for. Such a warm way to welcome the morning! The community of people who
follow these races quickly begins to feel like family and I'm immediately filled
in on what's been going on. It appears that there's a guest in town.
The time trial yesterday brought back together Lance, Jan and Iban. No one
really expected a battle though - it's more of peacock moment for two-thirds of
the trio and something to suffer through for the other. I swear, if I had to
take that kind of scrutiny day in and day out - the comparisons with the
michelin man - the donuts left anonymosly on the steps - that heartless s.o.b.
that had the nerve to slap that "wide load" sticker on his shorts - Well, I'm
with ya, Jan. Do these people not realize it's MARCH! And besides, I spoke with
Iban today - yeah, we're on a first name basis now - and he says, without a
doubt, you waited! No really, he said you slowed up and you waited. So there you
go. If that's not farfegnugen I don't know what is.
Jan Ullrich. Click for larger image.
Now lest you think I've developed an unjournalist bias towards any particular
rider I must inform you that this simply isn't the case. I love anyone with
heart and class who goes hard. So is it just me or has anyone else noticed that
the ice is thawing a bit on Señor Armstrong lately. Yeah, he still zips in and
out of that team bus like a hormone driven teenager sneaking in after midnight,
but at least he's smiling now.
And what about that letter to Dick Pound? Looks
like somebody's getting ready to open up a can of good ole Texas whoopass. It's
about time, I'd say. He's even been thrilling the locals - and a few of us press
types - by signing autographs, very peculiar - here's to hoping the spring thaw
continues. We like the unedited version best.
Lance Armstrong signing an autograph. Click for larger image.
You know, it's not all fun and games here. I got my little mini tape recorder
out today and went in search of answers to those burning questions posed on the
Daily Peloton message board. And this time, I remembered to put a tape in.
Bonus! Not surprisingly, there has been tremendous interest lately in Alejandro
Valverde, but enough about Crazy Jane - the young gun from Kelme is making his
mark as an all around rider and I was more than happy to spend a little time
speaking with him this afternoon.
Alejandro Valverde. Click for larger image.
I think the Kelme boys were trying to pull off an imitation of the Posties by
setting this big, mean-lookin' guy outside the bus door to ward off would-be
stalkers. I was not to be deterred, however, and within about 5 minutes the two
of us realized we lived in the same town and knew some of the same people. How
often does that happen? The fact that I live in the town where Kelme shoes is
headquartered might have had a little to do with it. Either way - Gracias
Enrique, Eres el hombre! - You are the man!
So, I'm in the bus with all the guys. Whoa! Is it warm in here or is it just
me? My friend Isaac is with me to make sure I don't make a complete fool out of
myself, after all the boys from Murcia speak Spanish kinda like the people in
New Orleans speak English - it's great to listen to, but tough to understand.
Alex is gracious as usual and takes his time answering. He tells us that his
favorite races are the one-day races with mountains. That being said, the Tour
is a definite goal for him and he can see himself being a serious contender
within 3 or 4 years. Long term, he wants to stay injury free and continue to be
a factor the other racers have to think about. When I asked who he thinks about,
he paused like he hadn't really given it much thought and then he said, "Well,
Mayo of course, and Zubeldia". What was more telling was who he didn't mention.
It has occurred to me that I'm somewhat of an oddity here. At first I thought
it was because I'm a girl, or maybe it's that I'm American, after all don't we
yankees always think we're all that? Actually, I just love to talk to people and
that makes all the difference. Today, I spent several minutes talking with
Miguel Indurain. Sweet! I hesitated to approach him, after all, he's not known
for being very talkative and I didn't know what to say. I'd met the 5 time Tour
winner once before in France during the Tour, and although that day is etched
forever in MY mind it couldn't have been very memorable for him. As quickly as
he'd appeared he was wisked away by some guy who'd obviously graduated at the
top of his class from the Brunyeel School of Cycling Management.
This time there were no handlers and nobody mobbing him. So we just talked. I
asked him what he thought of the possibility of Lance breaking the 5x barrier.
He said he had no problem at all with it. "If he's on form, he deserves it." He
said he'd had his day and other than a little cycling here and there, it's not
what his life was about anymore. He told me that life is good and he had no
complaints. How refreshing. You'd think the man had graduated from a 12 step
program or something. I can think of a few riders who should get to know Miguel
a little better. I left our little conversation feeling - sublime.
Miguel Indurain. Click for larger image.
About that time the racers were all called to the start line and the race was
underway. We decided to drive the course in reverse to wait at the meta volante
at the Alto Peña Zafra de Arriba for some great photo ops and we weren't
disappointed. The guys off the front, driven hard by Danilo Di Luca (Saeco) and
Anthony Chartreau (Brioche) were flying up the mountain, which is no small feat
considering how steep some of those pitches were. It may have only been given a
3rd category rating, but that doesn't do justice to the nasty nature of that
climb. I said a small prayer that no one would end up over the barries on those
hellacious, curving downhills as well.
Just a bit back from the front group I saw Max Van Heeswijk coming on and
gave him a big shout to help get him up that hill. Contrary to popular opinion
though, he didn't look to me to be struggling at all with the mountain. What a
great surprise it was to hear that he'd won again! He had said that his favorite
finishes were slight uphill sprints so this one was tailor-made for him, and
what a great job the team did getting him in position. The boys are back in
We packed up our lunch - Jamon Serrano (cured ham) on baguettes with locally
grown and pressed olive oil - and headed back to Yecla in the wake of the last
group of riders, feeling like VIPs all the way. No 2 kilometer long lines for
us, thank you very much! Now if only those stickers on my car worked as well in
the real world!
The peloton in the Spanish countryside. Click for larger image.
The front escape group at the meta volante. Click for larger
The second group. Click for larger image.
The tail end of the split. Click for larger image.
Click for larger image.
Catlike. Click for larger image.
Iban Mayo. Click for larger image.
Riding through old Spain. Click for larger image.
Click for larger image.
Ever watchfull bull. Click for larger image.
Armstrong's bike. Click for larger image.