Sylvain Chavanel and Chris Horner

Sylvain Chavanel and Chris Horner are pursued by the forces of conformity.

For the most of the 160-some guys remaining of the 189 who started the Tour, this was as close to a day off as you can get while riding 108 miles. Stage 13 was almost completely flat, so none of Lance Armstrong’s rivals had a chance to try any funny business. Armstrong rode along looking almost happy, which is unusual for a man whose face is usually mask of concentration.

Meanwhile, five noncontenders broke away from the pack early and built up a lead that reached almost nine minutes at one point. I usually find myself rooting for a breakaway to succeed; it’s symbolic of individuality, nonconformity, something like that. In this scheme the peloton represents society, and every time you try to get ahead, it exerts a gravitational force designed to to suck you back in.

So I was pulling for the five escapees as their lead dwindled to 7’35”, then 6’40”, then 5’40”, then 4’35”, and so on, until it got all the way down to 15 seconds. Just when it looked like they were certain to be caught, Sylvain Chavanel — perhaps thinking it was still Bastille Day — peeled out from the peloton, caught the breakaway, stayed with them for awhile, and then surged ahead on his own. Of the five riders in the break, only Chris Horner had the wherewithal to catch up with Chavanel. The other four were quickly absorbed by the peloton and as the last kilometer approached, Chavanel and Horner were pedaling furiously to maintain a lead of about ten seconds.

The twists and turns in the last section of the course created a number of really dramatic images. Horner and Chavanel would turn a corner and be alone in the shot for a few fleeting seconds; then the leading edge of the peloton would appear behind them like an ominous cloud. The theme from Jaws would have been appropriate.

Alas, Chavanel and Horner just didn’t have enough left in their legs to stay ahead to the end. Instead they were swamped by the peloton and became just faces in the crowd. The stage was won, again, by goddamn Robbie McEwen, who is becoming my least favorite guy in the Tour. This may well be irrational, but I just think there’s something cheap about the way he wins, by staying back in the group the whole way and then sprinting to the finish.

He’s not the only one who does it, of course — there’s a whole subculture of sprinters in the Tour — he’s just the best. But the race could use a villain, and after head-butting Stuart O’Grady in Stage 3, then preening like Terrell Owens when he won Stage 5, McEwen is a good candidate.

Speaking of T.O… well, no, let’s not go there, it’s not a happy subject. Let’s stay focused on the Tour. In Stage 14 the riders will reach the Pyrénées, where the climbs will be even steeper than the ones in the Alps. Lance will be looking for a chance to take Mickael Rasmussen down a notch, but Rasmussen has shown no signs of weakness so far. It ought to be thrilling; but first, I think, a nap.