“Everyone knows which comes first when it’s a question of cricket or sex — all discerning people recognise that. Anyway, don’t forget one doesn’t have to do two things at the same time. You can either have sex before cricket or after cricket — the fundamental fact is that cricket must be there at the center of things.”
Little of import happened in Stage 19 unless you’re a big fan of Giuseppe Guerini, the stage winner, or Oscar Pereiro, who moved into the Top 10 as a result of his time gain. At this point watching the Tour has become kind of like watching cricket — or rather what I’ve always imagined watching cricket would be like, since I’ve never actually seen a cricket match.
You find yourself a comfortable seat next to a tall, attractive adult beverage. You have your snacks and if possible your pets close at hand. You drink a toast to Montgomery Scott and after a while you begin to enter a pleasant sort of fugue state. The competition recedes into the background and your mind wanders to other places, other times. You think of friends not present, a favorite child, romances that may or may not have actually happened. You contemplate what could have been or better yet, what might still be.
You may even drift off into a light slumber from time to time. Then the race approaches the finish line, there’s a perceptible but not jarring uptick in the excitement level, and you bring yourself to a state of alertness for as long as it takes the day’s proceedings to come to a conclusion. As the competitors fight it out for the victory your heart rate quickens slightly but only slightly; you know that the stakes are not too high, that there will be more to see tomorrow and the day after.
Tomorrow will be Stage 20, the last time trial and the last “real” stage. The day after is the ceremonial ride into Paris, where it is considered bad form to make a spectacle of yourself by trying too hard. So everyone’s final standing will depend on how they perform in the penultimate stage, a 55.5-kilometer (34.5-mile) loop from Saint-Etienne, across some medium-sized climbs and descents, and back to Saint-Etienne.
Most people think that Lance Armstrong, who’s still looking for his first stage win this year, will take Stage 20. Armstrong himself has been coy, saying that he thinks Jan Ullrich is the man to beat. And Ullrich will certainly be pushing himself to max and making lots of ugly faces, because he has to make up two minutes and twelve seconds on Mickael Rasmussen to move into third place and onto the podium. Levi Leipheimer, meanwhile, has to beat Francisco Mancebo by a minute and five seconds to achieve his stated goal of moving into fifth place, thus vindicating my prediction that he would do so.
The forgotten man in second place is Ivan Basso, who would have to beat Armstrong by 2’47” to shock the world and take the yellow jersey. This is virtually impossible, but let’s imagine for a moment what would happen if it weren’t. Certainly Armstrong wouldn’t concede; he and Basso would have to fight it out in the final stage, etiquette or no etiquette. Now that would be a race worth staying awake for.