Wednesday, July 21, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 16 Revisited: Where's Ulrich?

For your rest day reading pleasure, a look back on yesterday's Stage 16 by Karen Ulrich, author of Imbibe New York and, like me, a "retired" regional bike racer.

It’s been a few years since I’ve followed the Tour with fervor—the same number of years since I sold my Zipps to study wine. For four to five seasons I raced, following the wheels of a one-year romance with my first road bike. Racing became everything, and then, worn from training and competition, I picked up the bottle to study and started to run.

“Andy Shleck is out for blood,” the announcers state and set the tone. Eight seconds behind Contador, who took the yellow on Andy’s mechanical, Schleck begins the race with a protest, situating himself in the back of the pack.

I’m glad to see that Andy’s got game.

Though so out of the loop, my Comedy Central team bike still hangs from the rack. Cannondale System Six. I open a bottle of Chateau Jolys Jurançon Sec "Terrae Escencia" 2007, as the lead group of ten shatters the peloton and begins to climb. Up Col de Tourmalet—2,115 meters of grind. Armstrong, Vinokourov, Sastre—the old names are still players, but I miss Jan. Yearning for Ullrich—and not for name’s sake—I think back a few years and swirl the straw yellow contents of my glass.

Jurançon—nearly 2000 acres of vineyards dot the foothills of the Pyrénées near today’s finish line at Pau. Undetectable from the motorcade, vines on steep inclines produce Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, and Courbu. The thirty-fifth time I hear Armstorng’s name mentioned, I lift my glass. Floral lemon with a whiff of chalk and a touch of licorice—the acidity sears as they begin their descent around technical bends—fearless at 62 mph.

Jurançon Sec is typically made from Gros Manseng, while Petit Manseng is reserved for the production of sweet. Climbing the Col d’Aubisque, Armstrong and Barredo go off the front. Fedrigo follows. Damn that’s got to hurt. Another acceleration by Armstrong on a 7-8% grade…where’s Ullrich? Lungs afire, legs screaming, deplete. The Chateau Jolys finishes with an ocean mist that coats my tongue with salinity. Watching, I break a sweat. Armstrong dons a poker face. I always found it difficult to think in this state, which made it hard to react. Chess played at high speed, my teammate Sarah used to say. And so I favored time-trialing, the individual’s race against time.

Slapped in the face by flags flown in the crowds, the riders peak Aubisque and begin their descent. Barredo rips down the mountainside and now they are five. Watching, I recall a few memorable descents—at Bear Mountain, Fitchburg’s Wachusett Mountain Road Race, and Housatonic Hills. It’s no small feat to fold oneself inside the pack at 50 mph, while maintaining position for the next ascent.

En route to Pau, I watch the terrain for vineyards without a glimpse. Rocky mountains and verdant grass. Somewhere off in the distance vines grow, but for now I return to my glass. Peloton +9:07, with Contador and Schleck tucked safely inside the pack. At 44 km to go, Barredo attacks—time-trialing his way home—5-4-3-2-1 km to go, Barredo gets caught. I feel for the guy, but that’s the nature of the sport. Sometimes you flat or crash, only to watch your goal race for the year slip through the cracks…a year’s worth of training for that A race and now you’re done.

Rooting for Schleck, I hope he takes his 8+ seconds back. As Contador steps to the stage to accept his yellow, boos from the crowd emulate and indicate that I am not alone.

Colette, a writer who knew her men, fancied Jurançon—its steely sec known to encourage thirst, leaving one’s appetite whet and forever wanting more….

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