Riders recoup, recall stories on Tour off-day

Updated: July 13, 2004, 1:51 AM ET
Associated Press

LIMOGES, France -- A final leg rubdown with stinging sports cream. A few scribbles into autograph books of adoring fans. Pockets stuffed with energy bars or fruit.

And away the Tour de France riders go.

Seen from the back of a motorcycle, the multicolored mass of riders resembles a swarm of bees. But inside, there's more bickering, humor and mind games than first meets the eye.

The 101-year-old Tour, which had the day off Monday before Tuesday's ninth stage, is more than just cutthroat competition between scores of jostling, nervous riders: it's a makeshift family caravan on spoked wheels.

The days start early. After breakfast -- often a light fare of coffee and bread or pasta -- the racers roll up in team buses to the traveling Tour "village" that welcomes them at every stage.

Conversations in the pack -- known as the peloton -- can revolve around the race, a wretched dinner or women, including some among the millions of roadside fans who often show their support in amusing ways.

"Some girls gave us a little bit of flashing," said Michael Rogers, an Australian on Quick Step-Davitamon, recalling the first stage in Belgium on July 4.

"There were three of them. For everybody in the peloton, there was this big roar."

Most times, riders are treated to posters painted with words of encouragement, fans draped in national flags, even haystack sculptures in the form of bikes.

The pack, which averages over 25 mph in a long day of riding, can form a ferocious stampede, along with its entourage of organizers, team officials, journalists and sponsors.

A 7-year-old boy, Melvin Pompele, was killed by a sponsor's car in the Tour convoy in 2002. The car, belonging to candy manufacturer Haribo, struck the boy as he crossed the road as the Tour moved through southwest France.

The order of the day for riders Monday was rest, a few hours of cycling to keep their legs from stiffening up, massages, meals and patching up wounds.

In the race, riding for more than 1,800 miles over three weeks can mean bouts of boredom -- especially in the flat wheat fields of northern France.

Lance Armstrong, the 32-year-old Texan hoping to win a record sixth crown, says he overcomes ennui by counting down remaining distances.

Frenchman Christophe Moreau, the leader of Credit Agricole, says he uses a two-way radio to check up on teammates, using nicknames like "Ma Poulette" (my little chick).

Food also breaks up the monotony. At midrace feed points, riders speed by team assistants to grab long, strapped bags with sandwiches, energy bars, fruit cakes, water or soft drinks. They lunch on the go.

Almost like angry brothers, some riders bear grudges. Filippo Simeoni, an Italian with Domina Vacanze, said he has gotten the cold shoulder from Armstrong: Simeoni was a witness in a trial of Michele Ferrari, a former sports doctor facing allegations of providing performance enhancers to riders. Armstrong, who insists he is drug-free, has long defended his ties to the Italian doctor.

"In the morning I look for him, I ride up to him, but he is cold, detached. He acts as if I don't exist," Simeoni told the French sports daily L'Equipe.

Bathroom stops are also needed. In Sunday's sixth stage on the rain-doused roads of Brittany, dozens of riders -- almost in unison -- peeled off the pack to relieve themselves, then catch up.

The peloton was more relaxed in the early 1990s, when Spaniard Miguel Indurain dominated the Tour, said Viacheslav Ekimov, a 38-year-old Russian on Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team.

"People would stop at pay phones to call their parents in the middle of the race," said Ekimov, who is riding in his 14th Tour. Some would switch bikes or playfully tug at the helmets of motorcyclists zooming by in the Tour's multi-vehicle escort troop.

Clowning around was more common even further back, recalled Jacques Augendre, a former French journalist known by some as "the memory of the Tour."

Swiss-born French man Pierre Brambilla, a rider in the 1940s and early 50s, once left the pack and paid an innkeeper to fill his water bottle with sugar-sweetened red wine, Augendre said. In one Tour stage in the 1970s, Dutch man Gerben Karsten jumped off his bike and onto the shoulders of another rider.

"He got fined for it," Augendre said, attending his 53rd Tour.

This year, there's been little time or inclination for such antics. Facing sheets of rain, slippery streets, zones of cobblestone treachery and breakneck sprints, riders have stayed serious.

More than half of the 188 riders who started the Tour a week ago Saturday have been involved in crashes -- the latest in the 104-mile stage Sunday from Lamballe to Quimper in Brittany.

The race resumes with the ninth stage on Tuesday, a 99.5-mile romp into the Massif Central plateau, offering the first big taste of climbs which get much tougher in the Pyrenees and Alps.

Many welcomed Monday's breather and were ready to return to the ride -- hoping the mountains will thin out the nervy pack.

"It's been a crazy first week," Armstrong said Sunday, referring to the week of tumbles and tensions. "I don't ever remember doing one like that."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press