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I recently posed the question: Is Lance Armstrong's run over? The winner of the last five Tours de France had been underwhelming in his final tune-up for this year's la grande boucle, or "big loop" around the country.
I admit it, I lacked faith. I attached too much importance to the Dauphiné Libéré, a race Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates apparently didn't care much about. Last Saturday, on the first day of the Tour, Big Tex stormed out of his corner and landed a series of hooks and uppercuts to the psyches of his top rivals. In the 6.1-kilometer Prologue in Liège, Armstrong took second, less than two ticks behind the dashing Fabian Cancellara, a short-course specialist who will disappear on the first tough climb. More significant, Armstrong crossed the line 15 and 16 seconds ahead of Jan Ullrich of T-Mobile and Tyler Hamilton of Phonak, respectively. That's a fair chunk of time over three miles and change. "El Jefe is back," opined the dailypeloton.com writer who goes by the nom de spoke "Locutus" in his inimitable Jambon Report, and "he looks to be pissed off with a point to make."
For the first week of racing, Armstrong was simply looking, first and foremost, to keep his wheels on the road. That was too tall an order for a lot of guys in a peloton whose theme song, for the first four stages, seemed to be the Dave Matthews Band's Crash Into Me. There were numerous wipeouts in the first full stage; still more in Stage 2. Thor Hushovd of Credit Agricole was involved in one such accident, and had to switch his damaged bike for a new one from the team car 20 kilometers from the finish. Still, Hushovd finished second in the stage -- enough to put him in the yellow jersey, making him the first Norwegian ever to do so. Not everyone shared in his joy. After the Prologue, Fassa Bortolo team director Giancarlo Ferretti asked, "Thor Hushovd, who's he? So he's the best in Norway ... to me, it's like saying he's best in the Congo." When they care to, these Euros can talk smack with the best of them.
Thor wasn't in yellow for long. As the peloton jostled for position while he approached the first of the cobblestone sections (not seen in the Tour for two decades), a slew of riders went down. Just before the crash, Armstrong had sent his most trusted consiglieres to the front. There, George Hincapie and Viatceslav Ekimov dropped the hammer on all stragglers. Veterans of the one-day classics that feature pave, as the cobblestone sections are known, Eki and the Big Hink (coinage: DailyPeloton.com) set a merciless pace, opening a gap that Mayo and his teammates couldn't bridge. Mayo's loss of four minutes in the overall standings essentially knocked him out of contention for victory this year.
I watched the next stage on OLN, delighting in the elegant commentary of Brits Phil Liggett ("This is the R.A.G.T. team coming in, and they are a bedraggled bunch") and Paul Sherwen ("These riders are enveloped in a world of pain"), and cringing at the commercials for something OLN has dubbed the Cyclysm, which would seem to be a contraction of the phrase "cycling orgasm." The commercials feature a shrill, gesticulating young man in need of hygiene and sedatives who shouts Armstrong's intention of "beating the crepes out of every pedal-pusher on the planet. Behold, the Cyclysm!"
Behold, the mute button.
The Team Time Trial, contested in a deluge, was another crash-fest. The only team, it seemed, to get through the day without pileups, punctures or mechanical problems was U.S. Postal, or, as they prefer to be known, U.S. Postal Service, presented by Berry Floor. (Hats off to Locutus for his ingenious nickname for the Posties: the Blueberries). The Blueberries beat the next fastest team over the 65-kilometer course by more than a minute. Hamilton was no less impressive, pulling his depleted team -- Phonak was down to five riders at the end -- to that second-place finish. Afterward, a clearly jacked up Armstrong told OLN, "I personally felt unbelievable. This was the best Team Time Trial I've ever had."
My faith is restored. Only 17 more stages. Will my marriage survive? ...
In this space two weeks ago, I predicted Virginia Tech would upend USC on Aug. 28. If no one minds, I'll make like the New York Post ("Dems pick Gephardt as VP Candidate") and back away from that statement. First, I found out that the game isn't in Blacksburg, it's in Maryland. Second, Hokies quarterback Marcus Vick was suspended indefinitely after being charged last Saturday morning with reckless driving and possession of marijuana.
I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this. Perhaps Vick's lawyer will employ the defense I heard used on an old Cheech and Chong album: "Your honor, my client had merely found these drugs, and was taking them to the police at the time of his arrest."
Austin Murphy covers college football and adventure for Sports Illustrated.