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The crowds were massive, the gradients obscene. From a distance this mountain might have been mistaken for one of the Pyrenees in July. To tighten one's focus was to know better. Spectators ate boiled peanuts. The noisemaker of choice was not a cowbell but a set of green plastic hand clappers more deeply annoying, if possible, than ThunderStix. An hour before the riders arrived, a silver-caped Elvis impersonator with a pompadour on EPO popped wheelies on a cyclocross bike and flirted with women wearing buttons that said show us your bobkes. (Don't ask.) In addition to the more universal exhortations chalked on the road--DANCE, LANCE, DANCE and VENGA, VENGA, VENGA--someone had written, ALLEZ, Y'ALL.
This was Brasstown Bald Mountain, also known in cycling circles as Brasstown Bald Breaker. At 4,784 feet it is the highest point in Georgia. Late last Saturday afternoon, with some 40,000 people lining its slopes, it became the high point of the Tour de Georgia, a six-day event that in just three years has established itself as the best road race on this side of the Atlantic. Of the 16 eight-man teams invited, six were from the International Cycling Union's elite ProTour, road biking's major leagues. In a measure of how far cycling has come in the U.S. in a relatively short time (a period coinciding with Lance Armstrong's six-year reign as Tour de France champion), four of those teams were led by Americans.
Three of those Yanks were among the first four riders to sample the near-vertical pitches of Brasstown Bald. They were Floyd Landis of the Phonak team, Levi Leipheimer of Gerolsteiner and Armstrong, who was clad in the teal and white of his team's new sponsor, Discovery Communications. (The Texan won all those Tours de France as a member of U.S. Postal's Blue Train; seeing him in his new kit is a bit like seeing Johnny Unitas in a Chargers jersey.) The fourth rider was Discovery's new member, Tom Danielson, a talented climber who was still having trouble grasping how his afternoon was unfolding. On the penultimate ascent, a peloton-shattering pull called Hogpen Gap, the boss had instructed Danielson to get on his wheel. Armstrong then pulled him to the front.
Having labored through a surprisingly mediocre time trial in Rome, Ga., two days earlier, Armstrong was out of podium contention, nearly two minutes off the lead. It was logical for him to work for Danielson, who sat just a minute behind race leader Landis. While the role reversal made sense, Danielson, a former mountain biker who came to road racing late in life, was slightly incredulous. Sounding like a golfer for whom Tiger Woods has decided to caddie, the 27-year-old would explain later that Armstrong had long been his idol. Now, on Hogpen Gap, the master was shielding his servant from the wind, setting the pace for him, putting him in position for the biggest stage win of his career. Thanks to Armstrong, Danielson husbanded some strength for the final climb up Brasstown and outdueled Leipheimer for the victory, in the process snatching the lead from Landis.
Danielson's success doubled as a succession. Armstrong, 33, was racing for the final time on American soil, and the team has clearly anointed Danielson as his heir. Spoke-thin though his lead was--four seconds--the team protected it throughout Sunday's 125.2-mile stage from Blairsville, in the northeast Georgia mountains, down to Alpharetta, on the outskirts of Atlanta. Thus, while Armstrong finished 22nd in the stage and fifth overall, Danielson and Discovery won the race that is rapidly earning the respect of riders on both sides of the Atlantic.
Like Peter Wrolich, an Austrian for Gerolsteiner who outsprinted Armstrong to win the second stage, many riders from the Continent arrived on these shores fatigued from racing in a series of European classics. "I came to Georgia thinking, I'll have a nice holiday on the bike," said Wrolich. "When I started the first stage, I said, 'S---, it's not a holiday, it's a real bike race.'"
The crowds also surprised the Euros. "I didn't know that cycling is so popular in the U.S.A.," said Andy Schleck, a Luxembourger who rides for CSC. He was also taken aback "by how many McDonald's you have here. And Krispy Kremes. I think maybe the food in Europe is better for a bike rider."
These are men who have spent their careers spinning through fields of sunflowers and past ch�teaux. If they found the fast-food joints and strip malls of NASCAR country displeasing to the eye, they were far too polite to say so. "I did not expect such beautiful country," proclaimed Andrea Tafi, the veteran Italian rider for Saunier Duval-Prodir. "This is a very good race."
Indeed, so many things went right during the T de G that it seems unfair, almost, to focus on the slick-ramp incident. Before beginning stage 3, the 18.6-mile time trial, cyclists pushed their bikes up a modest wooden ramp. A light rain began falling, and rider after cleat-shod rider pulled a Gerald Ford. They windmilled their arms, dropped to their knees, did inadvertent splits. No one got hurt; the slapstick was actually amusing. It was also the kind of thing you don't see at older, more grown-up races across the ocean.
That Armstrong made it up the ramp without pratfalling was the best that could be said of him that day. He got around the course in 41:44--a minute and 46 seconds slower than Landis, the former U.S. Postal Service domestique who left the team after last season for a larger salary with Phonak. Armstrong admitted that he was "probably behind on fitness." He was also suffering from a stomach ailment. Nor had his form been helped, he speculated, by the emotional gamut he'd run in the days leading up to The Announcement.