Tour notes: Little rest, racing about countryside

In a large basketball gym flanked by two pools and tennis courts, journalists work on their Alp d'Huez stories.

By 11 p.m. only a dozen remain. And Guy (pronounced Gee), the gentle bear of a Frenchman who runs the transmission rooms, looks down at me.

"Sooner please, Thom. This way we are not in bed until 12 and then up at four " He paused. "Maybe it is the same for you."

Trying to put the ocean in a Styrofoam cup isn't easy.

Tell me what to leave out.

Bernard Hinault, five-time Tour de France winner, telling me he has 160 cows?

And how often do you get out on the bike now, Bernard?

He holds his fingers up in a zero and smiles.

I finish my story, but Guy and his crew already have pulled up the connector boards for the next stage.

Alp d'Huez is a sprawling ski resort between Bourg d'Oisians (town of the birds) below and 10,000-foot mountains above.

The desk clerk at the best hotel refuses to send the story. I strike out 10 more times until I find a bar with a coin-operated computer, six bucks for 30 minutes. It doesn't take floppies, so I have to retype my story on a French keyboard in a hail of drunks, jukebox and videos.

At about 2 a.m., I crawl into the sack at our tent, situated on a private lawn between a condo and a ski lift. It is the best hotel yet.

Four hours later, outside the big hotel, Frankie Andreu of Outdoor Life Network is putting a hard plastic suitcase into a car. Andreu got to talk to Tour leader Lance Armstrong yesterday.

"Lance said it wasn't his best day. They knew he'd be attacked," said Andreu, former U.S. Postal Service Team member and a nine-time Tour participant. "Unless Mayo goes wild in the Pyrenees, he's not a threat. He can't time trial."

After racing 219 kilometers, the riders are handed Coca-Cola. A sponsor.

Another 100 things happen before Trout (my Tour companion) and I are driving down the mountain. Erik Zabel, sprint champion, passes us. So do another 30 competitors late for the start.

Eventually we bail out of the car and grab our bikes. In town we pass through a gauntlet of mobs and cops. We make our way to a park, where the Tour's departure operation is in full gear. Inside the gates are free food, drink, newspapers and chairs. Outside, riders are being introduced while David Mangeas, the announcer, blasts out their biography in French.

Another 50 things happen, but eventually I'm following Armstrong, who's bobbing through a mob as he heads back to the team bus, then pops into the back door. Safe!

Outside, team manager Johan Bruyneel is speaking Flemish to journalists. Finally he stops.

"Johann, were you surprised that Lance didn't dominate yesterday?"

He looks straight at me. "Yes."

Bruyneel is as honest as a cancer patient.

I look around, there's Yogi Mueller, a Swiss man in charge of Lance access. He comes up to me and says, "Couldn't reach you on the cell -- left a message at that Switzerland number."

I don't know what he's talking about, but nod.

Yogi says he can't let me in the team car, but maybe he can get me a word with Armstrong. "You rode down!" he says, amazed. "You camped out! Great, great."

He tells me John Wilcockson, one of the sport's best reporters, is hanging around with the guy from London who's always trying to find dirt on Lance. I tell him in my interview with Wilcockson, he defended Lance point by point.

Stand here, he says, putting me 4 feet in front of the bus.

Roberto Heras comes by. Floyd Landis. Viatcheslav Eckimov. Each in the blue of U.S. Postal, wheeling their bikes off to work.

And then, Lance in yellow. Instinctively, I flinch back. Don't bug the sufferers.

But Yogi gives Lance a signal and Armstrong turns toward me and smiles. A flash bulb. The world stops.

I'm in shock, stuttering out, "Will you win with your head or your muscles?"

Armstrong swings backward, gives a half laugh, "Hopefully both."

I watch the last hour of the race at the bike shop in town, which sold 2,000 team jerseys to Americans who want to be a cycling superstar. Ditto Belgians, Dutch, Brits, Germans.

In the back of the store, where the salty owner Dee Dee works, a tiny TV on the work bench is being watched by 30 guys.

People who come in with bike problems are pointed toward the tools.

A "WHOOOOAAAAA!!!" goes up when Beloki crashes on screen, and Armstrong cuts through a field to avoid him. No wonder he rarely crashes.

We try to sleep at 11 after a big meal of spaghetti for 7 bucks. But the loudest concert I've ever heard is just outside our window at the Deux Alps Hotel.

At 2 a.m. the manager apologizes. "It's our national day -- Bastille Day."

The last inmates go home at 3. At 6, the first garbage trucks arrive.

For the third consecutive year, Whidbey Island's Thom Gunn provides his unique perspective in covering the Tour de France. You can reach Gunn by e-mail at

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