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This was why they had come, why they had camped out on the road to Pla-d'Adet. This was why they put up with the hordes of Germans who poured over the border in RVs cloaked in the pink banners of the T-Mobile racing team. This was why they endured the Americans, with their yellow bracelets and their confusing blend of friendliness and aggression, typified by the big blue banner that said, KICK ASS, LANCE. They were the Basques, and this was their land. They came from St.-Lary-Soulan, the village at the base of this menacing peak in the Pyrenees, and from surrounding towns here in the South of France and across the nearby Spanish frontier. For this, the 15th and most brutal stage of the Tour de France--the Pla-d'Adet was the sixth and final mountain the riders would climb this day--the Basques donned their orange shirts, fortified themselves with wine from goatskin bota bags and hoped fervently for good news. And here it was. Powering up the mountain at the head of the field was a pair of riders, a Spaniard named Oscar Pereiro and an American riding for Discovery Channel whose face, incredibly, betrayed no suffering. Yes, the American was very strong, everyone knew that, but Pereiro was a pure climber on his home turf. As the two cyclists neared the summit, the Basques crowded in, screaming for their boy. Epithets, and the odd beverage, were thrown in the direction of the Discovery rider. One fan got too close and was run over by the motorcycle trailing the riders. The American waited until he was safely inside the spectator barricades, in the final kilometer of the stage, before attacking.
Rising out of his saddle, he dropped Pereiro with ease. As he crossed the finish line, he covered his face in disbelief, then raised his hands to the sky. "I'm in shock," George Hincapie would say later. "I just won the biggest race of my life."
Sunday, July 17, was a very good day for Americans at the Tour de France. There was Hincapie, one of the nicest men in the peloton, followed on the podium by his friend Lance Armstrong, the overall leader, who had spent the afternoon wringing the last drops of hope from his chief rivals. With a single mountain stage remaining in this year's Tour--and in his career-- Armstrong held a lead of two minutes and 46 seconds over CSC's Ivan Basso, the brilliant young rider who spent the weekend launching furious, fruitless attacks against him. The Tour ends in Paris on July 24, the day after a time trial in which Basso is likely to lose still more time to Armstrong. The Texan needs only to stay upright, it seems, to lock up his seventh straight Tour victory.
The story of how Armstrong and his Discovery teammates all but nailed down number 7 is the story of how Hincapie rode away with the first Tour de France stage win in his 11-year career: Discovery showed a willingness to call audibles, to chuck the original plan if it wasn't working.
The Queens-born 6'3" Hincapie has made a career of hiding his lamp under a bushel. He has spent the last seven years sheltering Armstrong from headwinds and from crash-prone numskull sprinters. His win on Sunday resulted from an impulsive decision he made 15 miles into the stage. When a group of riders broke from the peloton, he jumped it. At that morning's strategy meeting, team director Johan Bruyneel had stressed the importance of having as many Discovery riders as possible with Armstrong at the bottom of the final climb. Surely the breakaway would be reeled in before it reached the Pla-d'Adet, Hincapie reasoned, and joining it would put him in a strong position to pace his captain up that mountain.
We know how that worked out. The break stayed clear of the peloton, freeing Hincapie to ride for himself. His victory, while surprising, was in character with Discovery's week in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Things didn't always go as planned, but they turned out well in the end.
This was not Armstrong's strongest team ever, but it may have been his most resilient. Certainly the team rallied gamely after its unscheduled snooze in the final kilometers of stage 8. The course that day took the riders across the Rhine from Germany back into France and up the first truly challenging climb of the 92nd Tour, the Col de la Schlucht. Armstrong and his mates had scouted most of the other stages but not this one. The stiff ascent "blindsided" them, Armstrong said. "We had no idea how hard that climb was. No clue."
As the peloton hit the steep grade at 25 mph, it fractured. Armstrong found himself in the lead group with all of his main rivals and no teammates. That's when the attacks began. T-Mobile's Alexander (Vino) Vinokourov attacked three times. Basso, Denis Menchov, Francisco Mancebo--everyone who was anyone in this race took a shot at the patron. Everyone, that is, but T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich, who lived up to his reputation for tactical ineptitude. Not only did Ullrich fail to attack Armstrong, but at one point he unwittingly paced his rival, allowing the Texan to draft behind him to return to the front. Though Armstrong chased down all but one of the attacks--he allowed T-Mobile's Andreas Kl�den to escape--he suffered deeply doing so.
Discovery had been embarrassed. CSC's Bobby Julich said Armstrong's team had "imploded." As Hincapie would later say, "Everyone started talking about how Lance didn't have a team. That pissed us off."
Bruyneel did not raise his voice at the next morning's meeting. He didn't need to. Looking around the table, he told each of the riders that what had happened the day before could never happen again.