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90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003

2003 Tour de France rider journals

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Photo: © Monique du Bois

Bradley McGee

Nationality: Australian
Team: FDJeux.com

Bradley McGee can ride a four kilometre individual pursuit faster than some elite squads can ride as a quartet, averaging close to 60 clicks an hour for four minutes, all on his own. Scary, isn't it? No surprise then the good-looking New South Welshman has now matured to become a feared prologue and TT specialist, winning the eighth stage of the Tour de Suisse this year, ahead of Jan Ullrich. However, Brad doesn't just want to be master of the chrono; he wants that and more.

Tour de France entries

Stages 17 & 18 - Final fireworks

Looking on the profile book, these flat, end of Tour stages appear to be lacking in excitement, even boring. Same direction all day, totally flat, one would consider these days to be a time to kick back, relax and reflect, for the peloton.

Try reflecting anything but lactic acid as the first hour flies by at an average of 54km/h! Even at these speeds, and happy I am to tell you that I was somewhat involved, the break did not go until kilometer 60, after the first bonus sprint... oh, and I missed it.

It seems everybody wants one final chance of Tour glory. Nobody wants to miss the break and gain a special chance of a stage victory. We managed to get our gallant stallion, Carlos Da Cruz in the 16-man break. He finished second having been rolled meters from the line after an emotional all-out effort for victory. All I could do was give him a hug after the finish. Disappointment ran over his normally smiling face - what could one say - there is nothing to say. As pro bike riders in the biggest event on earth you have to accept the highs with the blows. The sting will always remain though.

I must mention, as we had joked about the scenario, that both Armstrong and Ulrich contested the first bonus sprint - with Jan second (four seconds bonus) and the big fella in third (two seconds) proving the tension mounting for tomorrow's TT. Who will win this 2003 Tour? I say... Armstrong. I think they are both great champions and Ullrich will win the battle tomorrow but the US flag will be flying high come Sunday, claiming Armstrong's fifth.

Cookie missed vital points today in the fight for green with Robbie taking the first bonus sprint. With the yellow jersey fight, plus the fight to make the break away, it seems the sprint zone was choked leaving Baden caught in a hole where Robbie had manage to slick through. This brought the two even on points and then after another erratic final bunch kick Robbie put two points into Baden and claimed the green jersey (Baden had worn the jersey for 11 days). As was the case last year in the battle for the sprint jersey - the Champs will decide. Awesome. No need for fireworks, Jean-Marie because the sprinters (and their lead out men) will provide.

Stage 16 - Don't believe the spectators

Brad's stunt double gets interviewed
Photo: © Chris Henry
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The mountains are finished and its now our turn to play again. Very happy about that.

Today's stage was every bit as exciting as promised with an amazing start, at incredible speeds, before hitting the first col after 45km or so. I was dropped straight away in yet another episode of Mr Yo-Yo. I eventually caught my boys, who had formed a protective group around Baden, half way up to receive many pushes from big Carlos and even Baden! All of a sudden my strength came back and I was able to finish off the day well. Got to get this curse sorted out. It's becoming ridiculous.

Plenty of fog up high in the mountains today, perfect for when you do not really want to see how much more climbing there is to go. However, the ever-present and ever-motivated fans will attempt to provide roadside guidance about the remaining kilometers. I am sure there is a mathematical formula that could be used to change a spectator's length of exaggeration into fact.

"Cinq cent metres les gars, seulment cinq cent metres et c'est fini!" ["Five hundred metres to the top; only five hundred metres and it's over"] And they can be so believable. Belief shrinks into spiteful nastiness when you turn a corner to get the Tour's official sign saying "1km GPM". But, come the descent, I love the spectators again - and all their blatant bullshitting.

Up front Tyler rode like the little legend he is and held off all contenders for a very tidy victory. How hard is Tyler, suffering through the tour with a cracked collarbone - high on GC - and then goes on the attack in the final mountain day? Respect.

Stages 13-15 - A world of trouble

I must apologize to the readers of this diary for my non-existence these past days. I've been in a world of trouble. But I'm still here and looking forward to this last week and finalizing the fight for the green jersey with my mate, the Benalla Bullet.

So we must recapture the missing days. Where are we... Monday, and the last entry would have been... Friday?

Stage 15 - Survival

Three of the best
Photo: © Olympia
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Three monster cols today but not before a start so quick I was looking for a 10 cog. Unbelievable the vitesse during the first hour and finally a few guys made a break.

Today will go down as one of the best and most exciting stages the Tour has ever seen. And for once I was able to see it live. No, I was not on a big day tussling with the leaders over the Tourmalet, but instead I managed to stick my head through the window of a trailing team car (I had stoppedfor a toilet break half way up the final climb and was making my way back into the groupetto) and witness the final kilometres on the team car's TV. Here we had a sorry-looking bunch of 50 riders lumbering their way up the 13km climb, and half way, with Armstrong already giving race interviews. We finished a half hour down. For us, the racing begins again Thursday and these days are merely for survival. Survival hurts.

Stage 14 - The big one

Four cat. 1 climbs with two cat. 2 climbs thrown in for good measure. There was a sense of fear through the bunch today and after a very quick start things settled down to find Postal bluffing that they were prepared to see the break go all the way, and have Rubiera take the prize. Reaction: Bianchi rode.

I'll speak very briefly of my experiences today. Not good. I broke my rear wheel at a bad time and did a lot of chasing. Finished in the groupetto in a fatigued state. Simple.

Normally I am at least happy to have survived but was at the point today that maybe it would be better to not have made it. Reflecting on this state I realise I was in a bad way. One thing is proven though, no matter how bad you are - can't breathe, legs not feeling anything but pain, hunger flat, saddle cuts, out the arse a long way - you just keep going. Even if the time delay is looking impossible - you just keep going.

Simoni won. Vino is a legend, attacking like that.

Stage 13 - You know you're in the Pyrenees when...

Sitting in my Campanile right now (Monday evening), after having a beer at dinner, I am not remembering all facets of this day clearly. Sastre won... there were two climbs late in the race with a summit finish... struggled on the first but came good on the second climb... Yes it's coming back to me now. We had heaps of delay time to play with so Baden and I really cruised up the final ascent. Well cruise is probably not the best way to put it but you know what I mean.

We are in the Pyrenees now. How does one tell? The hordes of orange t-shirt-wearing, sangria-drinking, 'natural' cigarette-smoking, boisterous crowds are a dead set give away. You can pick the difference between a Spanish fan and a French fan by several things. A Spanish fan's eyes are full of passionate pain, besieging the riders to fly up the mountain; a French fan will clap and yell 'bon courage'. A Spaniard will always have a supply of cool Cokes or other sugary drinks to pass to riders, a Frenchman will clap and yell 'plus vite!' A Spaniard has little idea between one rider and the next so everybody gets the full focus of their encouragement; a Frenchman will clap and specifically cheer 'allez Sandy' or 'allez Carlos'. Frenchmen have fan clubs, Spaniards are fans.

If this is not enough then there is one last tell-tale sign. A Spanish cycling fan sees it his duty to drag his hot girlfriend or wife to the road-side and cheer. The French rarely do.

Did I mention the countryside in the Pyrenees is so much more striking than the Alps?

Stage 12 - I'm no Mr Eighty percent

Ullrich's back
Photo: © Sirotti

Eighty percent? I don't know how to ride a TT at 80%. But these were the instructions from team boss Marc Madiot so I attempted to deliver. I think I rode along full gas for a kilometre - rather than half-hearted for a bit - before another press on the throttle - followed by a rough calculation in the head to see if the past efforts totalled 80% - before finally my legs, head and hope all faded like the wind at 20kms to go.

For all my effort, or lack of, I would have been best to ride as per normal, ie, flat stick, and put up with the sore legs. That is all I wish to speak of my day and get straight on to the real story of the day: ULLRICH. The mighty German is back.

This 100th year edition of the TDF is really turning into something special. A very demanding course, dead roads, uphill drags and a stiff headwind and still a 48km/h average. He put two guys 'hors delay' which is basically unheard of.

Armstrong still looked in control as he was probably not on a great day, compared to Ullrich's best day ever, and managed to survive the jersey. There's some action ahead in the Pyrenees.

Stage 11 - Matty drops out

Matt Wilson in the prologue
Photo: © Jeff Tse
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A rest day. A real rest day. And I spent every minute offered in 'repo' mode. Did not even look at my bike, had a massage and ate twice otherwise I was in my room with the mobile phone off and the legs up. Waking up this morning I actually felt a bit stiff from lying on my back to much! I am sure this will do me well as the tour swings home for Paris.

With incredible freshness today I also felt a little wierd and needed to do a few jumps up the road and little sprints in the bunch just to get the right sensations going again in the legs. As a bike rider in the TdF you kinda get used to the pain and when it gets taken away you kinda miss it. Sometimes I wonder why we just don't just chew nails for five hours and then have a 'scissors paper rock' contest to decide the day's winner.

My mate and team mate Matty Wilson found the going - stop - start again too much of a shock to the system today and coupled with an asthma attack after 60km he was out the arse and 'hors delay' on ariving in Toulouse. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach upon hearing of his troubles and both Baden and I waited impaitently at the team camping car for his arrival. Caked in sweat with mess coming out his nose and eyes you could see the day had been crucifying for him and to be out on time limit transfered all his physical pain into psychological torture. How cruel this sport can be. Daily we would talk of dreams and adventures to be had in and after this Tour and now, all of a sudden, Matty is out. I know he will bounce back - he is too strong not to - but it will take time. One revved up Matty Wilson is what we'll see in the near future.

'Bonne Retour mon amie'

Cheers,
Brad

Stage 10 - Taking it easy for the Cookie Monster

Monstrous
Photo: © Chris Henry/CN
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The race program reads 219km for today's stage but I can tell you we at Fdjeux.com, only raced for about 20km. Reason? Our man in green, the Benalla Bullet, Mr Baden Cooke the Cookie Monster.

With a sprint bonification after 10km the start was always going to be 'chaude' ['hot' - multilingual Ed]. The sprint was given to Robbie but we are waiting to see video replays as Cookie is sure he had it. Not by much and proving the tight battle that's building between the two Aussies for the Green prize. Unlike anything you will ever see in General Classification riders, the Green Jersey involves sprinters and sprinters are special types. Full of go and ego and character and pride. It's awesome stuff and I love being in the thick of it as Baden's lead-out man.

With a break of riders up the road and fighting out the stage, in real TdF fashion, the Posties were left to keep the time gap respectable but never challenged as the break involved no one high on GC.

Most the day was into a head wind so the likes of us could sit back and pedal the day out in relative comfort. The guys up front taking the day's battle to all lengths will be welcoming tomorrow's rest day more than most. A break like that is owned by riders labeled as 'opportunists' and Jacob Piil is one of the best. He had looked like he was in a lot of trouble these past days but pulls of a nice win anyway. Nice one.

As the bunch homed in on Marseille we had many hands on deck for the bunch gallop as the green jersey fight demands all days to be finished with a final rush for points. This time, after a very fast final 2km, Cookie left no doubt and took the maximum points on offer over Robbie. Still in Green, rest day tomorrow to recharge the batteries - looking good.

Cheers,
Brad

Stage 9 - Postal takes it up a cog

Jimmy Caspar
Photo: © Jon Devich/CN
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Rolled out of town to see a 'GPM 34km' sign. I quickly threw a bidon.

All seemed gentlemanly for a time before yes, you guessed it, the attacks began. Now, the US Postal boys have proven their strength before but today they took this image one cog higher. Half way up the cat 1 Col du Lautaret we were doing 60km/h through a tunnel. Granted the climb is not steep, definitely long, and has many false flats but 60km/hr was enough to split the bunch into three groups.

I managed to stretch the climbing legs a little over the top and moved into the break that finally got away. One problem, though, was the inclusion of Jorg Jaksche of ONCE. He is high on GC so the break was doomed from the beginning. The pace was hot at the foot of Col d'Izoard, too hot for this columnist and, judging the break to be going nowhere too far in front of an obviously very motivated US Postal tempo, I sat back into a smooth tempo up and over the Col waiting for the bunch.

It's not very often you can label a col as 'enjoyable' but having four minutes to slide on, that is how it was. Alone but comfortably in front of the bunch I could take in the beauty of the mountain and the passion of the spectators. Brilliant.

This comfort was soon to be replaced with standard TdF puffing, sweating and painful pedal strokes as the Posties launched into action between the feed zone and the foot of the Cat 2 climb at 30km to go. Even into a menacing headwind we were single file and stretched. Still motivated for a good stage I was destroyed half way up the tight pinch and pushed my gears 'all left' and bid the bunch good day, finishing in a good size group many minutes down after rolling home the final 20km, brewing thoughts of another day.

Vini gets the day's prize - he is all class. I heard a report that Beloki crashed and is out. Shows the harsh reality of our sport - I hope he is not too badly hurt.

I had great concern for my teammates today, as the stage proved a lot more difficult than anticipated. Jimmy finally lost his battle and pulled out. I really feel I have to do something more on this tour as it was jimmy, already suffering himself, who waited and helped me a few days ago, and now he is on his way home. Thanks, Jimmy; I hope to repay your unselfishness with another stage win - or help Cookie monster take the green. This Tour is not over.

Cheers,
Brad

Stages 7 & 8 - Mountain days

Stage 8 - Starting to miss the action

After a very quick start, and climbing over the first cat 3 climb in no less than 53 * 15 at 40+ km/h the day settled into its planned rhythm after the first bonus sprint at 52km. Baden and I worked hard for this sprint but only managed third with one guy up the road and big Thor Hushovd jumping us at 400 meters to go. We obviously combine well for the sprint finishes but bonus sprints are a different game - some homework to do tonight.

With the big Italian quitting yesterday we find our Benalla Bullet in green and more motivated than ever. He - we are confident we can take this all the way to Paris.

Mayo proved his class today for a beautiful victory up the famous Alpe. I could not believe the amount of people today. Third tour and a Giro in the legs and never before have I seen this amount of spectators - and very energetic spectators at that - capable of incredible noise and encouragement. Even for us in the groupetto there was ample cheering and support.

It seems our fighting man Jimmy Casper was more than cheered for as he rounded out the day with a 55th best time up the final climb. Incredible physical feat after riding most of the day on his Pat Malone ['alone' - Rhyming Slang Ed]. It seems the compassionate crowd were eager to congratulate his courage with many a pat on the back (or backside) that domino'd into a sling shot effect up the hill. Okay I will come out and just say it - he was pushed - many times.

There is really not a lot a rider can do to stop fans from pushing. Of course, if the guy pushing is still there after a kilometer then the rider is in the wrong and should gratefully say 'no thank you' and offer the eager fan a drink, and maybe a ports gel if the kilometer was at 10 percent or more. I myself hate being pushed because it only breaks your tempo and the pain soon returns to the thighs anyway, at what seems double the magnitude.

Armstrong in yellow. The campaign trail is over and time to hit the booths. Can he do it? Yes. But the Pyrenees will test him and the Postal boys more then previous years.

On paper tomorrow is a good day for me. If this 'hunger-flat' nonsense leaves me some peace than I do hope to be back in the action. I'm starting to miss the action.

Stage 7 - Not great

A 230km stage. I was so far behind and had been pedaling for so long that on the Col de Ramaz, with my little mate Jimmy Casper, the police motor bike clearing the way in front ran out of petrol. Seemed the order of the day as I, many kilometers earlier, had also ran out of petrol and with Jimmy, who had waited to help me, we finished the final 120km alone. With no leading motor bike clearing a path through the thousands of spectators we were left to muster our breath and whistle to warn the fans to get the hell out of our way - we got a time cut to worry about. Not a great day. I have been having some problems with the feared 'hunger flat' or 'bonk' and like a land mine it can go off at any time and in any situation. We are working hard to find the cause and solution but in the meantime I load up the pockets, eat and pray that I get through the day with out going crossed eyed, dribbling from the mouth and stealing soda drinks from passing kiddies!

So Virenque was the hero of the day. Good on him. For the top French rider he is it must be difficult to pull off a big win like that, given the constant demand from the French cycling community for a French star. I am sure the champagne tasted good for him and the team at Quick.Step.

Stage 6 - It's mate versus mate

I knew this day would come. With seven Aussies in this year's Tour, in four different teams, there was always going to a scenario of Aussie versus Aussie and mate versus mate.

With Stuey on the early attack and Cookie in awesome sprinting form we saw FDjeux.com, including three Aussies, driving the peloton along with three other teams to catch our heroic escapee. Adding to our desire for a bunch gallop was the placement of a fourth cat climb at 25kms to go that could have seen the leading sprint man, Petachi, lagged off the back.

I was to be mistaken twice in the final five kilometres.

1. I thought Petachi WAS dropped because I could not see him or his normal crowd of henchman anywhere near the front of the pack.

2. I thought Stuey and his breakaway partner had survived the day and we were spinting for third place.

Wrong. Rounding the final bend into the long finish straight it was clear they would be caught and then, at 300 metres to go, Petacchi launched past us like we were standing still. Credit to Baden he held the speed of Petacchi somewhat over the final 100 metres but the initial jump was incredible and took the decisive metres to give the Italian his fourth stage for the Tour.

Again a long hot and fast day. Tomorrow we hit the mountains - and the real fun begins.

Stage 5 - Cookie's 'off day'

I looked down at my new speedo after about 15km and cursed my mechanics. Obviously they had not set the computer correctly because there is no way we have been sitting on 60km/h for the past 10 minutes.

How wrong was I!

Flashing past the '50km' banner I was to verify with my trip distance - 50km. We are moving.

The pace never dropped off and with a big bunch sprint on the agenda, after our heroic five-rider long break away was reeled in during the closing stages of the stage, it was flat stick all the way to the line.

For the first time all members of fdjeux.com combined well to lead Cookie into the final throw for the tape. Cookie monster, or the 'Benalla Bullet' as some are now labeling him, was a bit off today and even instructed our boys to stop riding after the feed zone, as he was just not feeling up to it. So we stopped riding for about 40km then regrouped, didn't ask if he was feeling any better, and ramped it up for the final. We took total control of the lead at the five kay banner with the big fellas of the team in Carlos and Matty setting the pace. Feeling good I was able to take the difficult left hand corner, at 600m to go, on the front with the bullet safely tucked on the wheel, and still no one had asked if he was feeling any better. At 200m to go he unleashed but a fast finishing pair of Petacchi and Kirsipuu forced our man into third.

Although we did not get the stage win we proved that with good teamwork Cookie can still manage a podium stage gallop on his off days - but no one is really asking anyway.

The feeling, in our camp, is that given a few days in the mountains we will no longer need worry about the pair who clipped Cookie today. Motivating stuff.

Big day tomorrow and the Alps approach. Bed time!

Cheers,
Brad

Stage 4 - Finding a rhythm

FdJ: all for one...
Photo: © Sirotti
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As expected we found ourselves down the order today. We never held unrealistic goals for the TTT and with Jimmy Casper, one of our stronger TTT riders, still suffering from his crash in stage 1, we simply found a strong rhythm and held that to the line. There was a fair bit of time lost during the opening 20km with Carlos Du Cruz in trouble that probably lost an extra four or five places for the stage but I feel there is always a chance that one guy out of nine will have an 'off' day. The decision to wait for Carlos was clear with our plan for the day. I imagine that the big hitting teams chasing every second would decide otherwise faced with the same circumstances.

So already we find the Postal Boys in yellow but I have been most impressed with Ullrich's Bianchi team holding their own. ONCE was no surprise in second.

The feeling now is that this Tour is really beginning to take shape and thoughts have already started to gather for the approaching Alps. Of course it's possible that tomorrow will be a bunch sprint and then the stage into Lyon could be another great chance for Cookie.

Till then,
Brad

Stage 3 - Losing yellow but not disappointed

Last day in yellow
Photo: © Jon Devich
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Well, today I lost the yellow jersey after wearing it for three stages. I did expect this to happen though, and to even wear it today was a bonus. With so many sprinters and bonus sprints in the race, I only kept it yesterday because of Baden winning the stage. I consider myself lucky to have had it an extra day.

Today, our plan was similar to the one we followed yesterday, but Baden got his sprint ruined when Robbie McEwen was forced into his handlebars by another rider. Baden had to unclip a foot and there his sprint went.

Now we can only look forward to the rest of the Tour, and the start has already been exceptional.

I have really enjoyed riding in the yellow jersey, and it has definitely been the biggest moment of my cycling career up until now. I have a lot more respect for all the big riders now, because they have to live with all this stress and attention all the time, especially during the really hard stages. Right now I'm looking forward to the extra hour of rest I will get, with all the focus not being on me anymore. It also means I can put more energy into doing my Tour diary for Cyclingnews!

Up until this point in the race, I have been reflecting on how the race seems to be a lot calmer than my previous two Tours. The stages are normally really nervous and crazy, but this year we've only really had the big crash on the first stage. I was expecting more nervous riders, and more movement. It might be because there are so many sprinters on this race. Today was very fast, but that's the Tour de France as we know it. Everyone pretty much knows that the first stages will come down to bunch sprints, and therefore, in a way, they accept it. There are maybe eight or so guys in the bunch who are really good sprinters, and each one brings with him two or three riders to the finish, so that leaves at least twenty-five riders up at the front, controlling things. The last ten k's today were very fast and a bit crazy, but again, that's the Tour.

Talk to you soon,
Brad

Prologue - Premier Maillot Jaune

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Photo: © Jeff Tse

As I enter my first diary entry I am sitting here wearing the coveted Yellow Jersey of the centenary Tour de France. Winning stage 7 last year was incredible, winning the prologue of this very special race is almost too hard to describe. My mind has been racing all day. I have had a difficult year, due mainly to injuries and recovering from them. At times I wondered if I was going to be in any form at all to ride the Tour.

Maybe it was the 18 continuous days of racing leading into the Tour including the Tour de Suisse, particularly the individual time trial that finally swung things around. Or maybe it was the extra incentive of having my brother Rod here, helping out with the final days of training. I don't know.

My Director Sportif Marc Madiot did not lose faith however and all year has been telling me "you can do it Brad". Not once did his view waver. Marc held onto the belief that I had the ability to win the opening prologue. It was up to me!

My mind was racing all day into the lead up. I was nervous all day. Then my brother Rod spoke to me and things started to gel. We spoke about one particular race we both did as juveniles and that this was just another race. We broke down the day and put it in order and from there it all seemed to happen (not even a puncture in the final 400m could upset the rhythm this time).

I even had a chance to welcome my beautiful wife Sharni and Baby T (daughter Tahlia). We had about 5 minutes together which was wonderful. I've said so often before how important family is and I am always so happy they can join with me.

So I end the day as winner of the prologue. A dream come true. One I can share with my family, friends and supporters.

I really don't think it has sunk in yet (winning the prologue and taking the first yellow jersey) but I know it will tomorrow when I line up for the next stage and am wearing it in the peloton. Then it will strike home.

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