Marty Jemison’s 1997 Tour de France Diary

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[Editor's Note: Diary entries made during the Tour de France, especially in the days when Internet service and access to email were spotty, can sometimes be rather thin; but can still give an insight into what life is like during the biggest race of the year.]

July 7, 1997

Today we finished the longest stage in the 1997 TDF. The day went well for us (US Postal), and I think for the peloton. I mean after yesterday, a day without such pile-ups, is construed as a good day by all.

Marty Jemison relaxing before a stage. Photo courtesy Marty Jemison.
Marty Jemison relaxing before a stage. Photo courtesy Marty Jemison.

Yesterday, from US Postal, only Darius went down, he was not hurt. I had the wheels locked up on three separate occasions, with numerous other hard breaking situations. The peloton was so nervous. Nobody was content with where they were, there was no fluid movement, which we are all used to.

It was a very nervous stage to say the least. I did get caught behind the historical pile-up 12 K from the finish. Of note, Riis was also there and put in a hard effort to reclose the gap. The problem as other riders pointed out was that he pulled toooo hard, thus discouraging others from helping. Hey, I saw Tyler put in some hard pulls, so I too made it to the front and donated an interval.

Today again I had the guns at the end. MG was organized from 2-1 K to go. At this point I took A. Baffi, our sprinter, all the way to the front. MG was in a single file line, I took Baffi up to the first guy and I held for 100 meters or so then jumped on the train. With 400 to go I wanted to give him a lead out but I was pinched on the left and he was going past me on the right. He took 6th, he thanked me afterwards.

I had done my job. It did also feel good to add to what was played out in the sprint rather than just sitting on the wheels. I guess my efforts were seen on TV. Wow, I must be famous in over 90 countries (the Tour is being broadcast in 90 countries) . Just kidding with the famous comment, these are usually thankless efforts which go unnoticed. Today I was thanked soo . . .

Just got back from dinner. Topic for thoughts: Do we see two clans in the Telekom team? Yesterday Riis gets caught in the crash. He has two teammates, they did not put in toooo much of an effort. Today Zabel flats when we are going easy and all but Riis and Ullrich stop!!! It's just a feeling or something which we are seeing. Only the Tour will tell.

Tomorrow we expect some bing bang boom. The finish is 2 K uphill 6 percent. The hills are short and steep all day long. Today we had some such hills but just the nature of such a long day discourages the bing bang boom. Riders are alert to all attacks, everyone puts in hard efforts to keep going smoothly. Well so far anyway.

I feel good, better than expected. Today at times we would be riding in single file. It is probably 1 K long with the 198 starters, anyway going, going all out at 50+ kph. I remember when I first turned pro. 50 kph was the speed of a sprint lead out from maybe 3 K-1 K to go. Then it would go up to 60 kph. Now we ride along for several K at 50 kph. Times have changed. In the sprint finishes, some sprinters are using 54×11. Chipo (Cippolini) said on TV today that finishes are from 65-70 kph. That in one sprint in Paris-Nice it was down hill and he used a 55×11. Food for thought.

July 8

To all: Today was not as friendly as yesterday. During the stage the fuses were a bit shorter. This continued even afterwards. The screws were tightened a bit today. The peloton was not quite in the comfort zone.

Yesterday was fast with friendly conversation. Today was a bit of a war.

A lesson I have learned all to well this year concerning the Italians: When they yell at you, it is usually for something very minor. But they treat it as though you ran them off the road.

Well to earn respect, or to just shut them up, you need to yell back equally forceful. This will usually end things and a few Ks down the road you may even make some kind of “kind” gesture. Let him in and out of the wind etc. It is all body positioning, everyone needs to work together, often its better to “work together.”

Yesterday I was passive when an Italian had some “words.” Today another Italian with a short fuse. Equally forceful response. End of story.

With the former, I am sure we will have another conflict. He now sees me in a weak position. He will probably want some wheel that I am on. In his mind it will be his wheel somehow. I backed down on him once. But I'll be ready to give him a good response.

You must know that to give up a wheel, obviously when we're in need, i.e.. we're on the edge. Well, to give up a wheel, others will see this as a weakness and you will be back 10 riders wondering just what happened.

With the contrary action, you will have the wheel and you'll save energy the next time. Next time he won't even bother.

When the pace drops, we can all be chummy, laugh and joke. Yea, yea.

From 20-120 K the pace was sooooo fast, seven riders were away, we had George Hincapie. The road was up and down all day, approx 1 K up/down etc. At the top of each climb, I was just hitting the danger zone, still strong enough to manage this OK, but, well I just hope it takes its toll on others more than myself.

After the feedzone George came back but four of the seven counter attacked, staying away most of the day, . I believe these guys will be a bit tired tomorrow. They were flying, yes several in the peloton made comments. We were going always above 50 kph. The four held a 3 1/2 min. gap most of the day. Saeco was at the front during all this, from the feed zone on, others closer to the end. Roslotto and ??? Sometimes it is hard to know what is going on. To get from the back to the front at these speeds can take awhile, unless you push some serious wind. Not so smart in a three-week race.

The crash. Again, with about 7 K to go. I climbed over a mess, I saw blood but concentrated on where to step. Jumped on the Zulle/Pantani train. They were caught as well. In the end I had the guns to retrieve Pantani who jumped on the hill finish and led my teammate Peter Meinart-Neilson to the line.

Just what I need, no phone jack in the room. I just might cut the wires. Maybe.

July 9

Five hundred meters before the feed zone I saw Zabel shake the hand of Vandenbrouck, a nice gesture that is not all too uncommon. Professionals can be professional, some of course are not so.

Today a cold feeling went through me and through the entire peloton. I had to ride around the body of a spectator lying motionless, face down on the pavement. There was blood coming from her head. Less worse were two riders who eventually abandoned, one with a broken collar bone. The woman had stepped into the path of the peloton, or seemingly so. The news around here is that the woman has no family that could be found, no friends were with her. She came out of a coma at 5:30.

After this incident the peloton had a natural way of mourning, the wind went from the sails. The pace fell. Few words were exchanged, but mostly there was silence. Phillippe Gammont broke away solo, I believe unknowingly of the accident. He amassed 11 minutes before the peloton reacted, racing resumed. Again I was caught behind another crash, losing 29 seconds. Once again Zulle was the motor in our chase. That's three for three.

So you know, it was Telekom who organized in the final 15 K-ish, approximately 1-2 K rollers 6 percent-ish and it was single file. Difference today was that some riders were popping. I, of course, like to see this. Do not be fooled though. These are the same riders that could go off on a flyer tomorrow.

July 10

Next Day I'm starting while ABC is filming me. They want to know what we do in our free time after dinner. I tried to send my e-mail yesterday but I couldn't get a good connection. Even tried a different phone number. No luck and tonight the line goes straight into the wall. If you all get this it will be because of a Swiss Army knife.

A bit of bluffing going on in today's stage or power struggles. Something anyway. Things started off very fast. From the first K, seven riders finally broke free (seven ??? I think) that was brought back soon. Then I made it into a group of about 18 , this one looked very good. Most of the riders were pulling through well. About 10 K later it was Batik and GB at the front. I think they put in a hard effort there. Things cooled for awhile.

Vasseur attacked and amassed 25 min. or thereabouts. The front of the peloton was strange, no organization. Saeco seemed to have the day off. It was two Cofidis who attacked together that heated things up. Some riders got away, going hard. Moncassin was there. Telekom showed some real power and brought it back quickly. Quickly, for we in the peloton were groveling for a good wheel, or trying to move up. You do not want it to split now.

So this ends, and things cool slightly. Who is going to bring back Vasseur? I think both Saeco and Telekom held with poker faces. Vasseur was going. Then amongst the confusion, a Casino rider attacked, Gan covered, Peter M. followed and a few others. They got a gap and Telekom and Saeco were looking around, I even saw some heads shaking as if to say no “we are not going to chase.” So nobody did, we really never chased all out. That's it.

July 11

Today I grovelled and it was an easy day so to speak, the peloton was nearly one hour late. Maybe it is because we did not go fast enough that I could think about my predicament. Mentally and physically I was just flat. Maybe if it was a mountain stage I would have had problems. But it was nearly flat to rollers so I knew I would just have to ride through it and rest up for tomorrow. It's an easy 194 K, only 5 hrs, and we stay in a Holiday Inn. That will be good for moral. Its Campanile tonight (stands for close to camping, I think).

Two high-speed crashes today. This is a full-contact sport!!

The first , both wheels locked up, I had a bit of delay in hitting the brakes, flat like I said. But this may have worked to my advantage. I clipped one foot out and was in a full slide. I rode over two bike wheels, one was Chippos. He was going off in Italian. I imagined that he was saying “Oh my hair . . . my hair . . . MY HAIR!!” A sprint later and I was back on a wheel making it back to the front.

The second happened 25 K-ish to the finish, a BIG pileup, FULL SKID. Both wheels locked up. I bumped guys on both sided. Rode through several bodies, some 3-deep, and made it through. Sprint. This time WE RODE, EVERYONE AT THE FRONT . . . riders cracked . . . but several made it back. Guess Zabel was DQed, something at 350 K to go.

Feeling better already.

July 13

Hello everyone, I am in Pau right now. We have finished 8 stages of the TDF, all relatively flat, but never really flat. The climbs thus far have been rated Cat. 4, usually 2 K averaging 5-6 percent. It's enough to make you suffer a bit but everyone has passed. Tomorrow starts a new race as we move into the mountains, but first I'll tell you a bit about today.

In many of our minds, this was going to be a shorter stage 161 K and a time to ride smart and recover a bit. Wrong. MG had the plan to attack at the start. In the first hour the average was 50 kph!!! This continued, and by the finish of the day, the average was nearly 48 kph!!!!!! Our arrival was before any estimated times. There was not much to do but to hold on to the wheels all day. This is the last revenge the flatlanders have, tomorrow all the mountain goats will change the race drastically.

I think I am getting a bit tired because my motivation to write is slowly fading, maybe when there are more horror stories I'll tell you about them. I can say that things have been going well, about what I expected. In the mountains, I will do my best, where I feel I will not go too deep. My objective is still to finish the TDF.

PS: Tom (Bonacci), you are right about the Italians (passionate). I think I am making friends with many of them. I'll tell you more later.

July 17

Yesterday, the stage from Andorra-Perpignan was not all down hill!! The stage was 196 K. Of that there was maybe 50 K of descending but that still leaves a lot of difficult riding, and there was. I saw a report that said that the day was uneventful. Well the journalists must have been tired and recovering from the mountain stages. Personally I saw and felt some dearly critical situations.

For one: Before the feed zone there were crosswinds, at one point the bunch was in 3-4 groups. Riders were tired, the speeds very high. In the end there was a group that never made it back, finishing 17 minutes down.

Intermittently the peloton had broke into pieces and then came back again. Twice in the day it was single file and the rider in front of me was cracking. I gave these two different riders a push to stay on the wheel. I would not have had the legs to go around, not at 60-70 kph.

I went to the front to bring JC Robin, our team leader, some water and food. Then after a roundabout and in the gutter, the peloton split again. TVM was at the front. We were in the last 50 K. They were protecting their sprinter, setting him up.

Anyway: First I looked back and saw Eric Zabel and JC Robin on his wheel, 200 meters off the back of this front group, and close to 1 minute ahead of the next.

What I did next is my job. I dropped back, Eric now on my wheel and I kill myself. Eric takes a small pull, I recover a bit and again, drive. Remember the TVM team is organized at the front.

It takes maybe 1-2 K to close the gap. JC made the last surge to the back of the group. Now, breathe, give JC his water and food. I see Festina going to the front now. Virenque is ordering his team, Riis is not in the bunch. He was caught behind, with many other favorites.

After 10 K or so it comes back. At the time the front group of 50 or so felt like it was critical. It was a drag race. But those in the rear have too much to lose. It kinda outweighs what can be gained. Human will is funny this way. With balanced powers in men, I would gamble on the chasers. They will dig deeper into their reserves.

And that they did. Only when someone really feels a personal victory will you see more strength in a rider.

My adrenalin was flowing. I kept JC at the front, my job (we have and know our team roles, even though they continually change from day to day). How do I keep JC in the front? I continually ride in the wind and up the sides. Right up next to the tail to the TVM leadout. I sit there in a partial draft and hold for several K. Riders will fill in and around, with JC on

my wheel we fight back out into the wind and back to the front. I keep him protected, burning my matches so he can save his. In the professional peloton this is well respected and other riders will not hassle him as much. Letting us do our job. In the end I stay on the wheels of the sprinters. I take 18th actually but in the results they get me mixed up with Eki (Ekimov). My numbers had fallen off, one was squashed. How they made this mistake I do not understand. If you have the sprint on tape, I am on the left side of the screen with a helmet on, Baffi in the center ahead, Eki back a bit on the right. He is wearing a soft shell helmet. But in the books the results will stand where I get 22nd. I really want a top 10 finish.

Tomorrow is the TT. Six of us will ride with no pressure as to save energy for the Alps. Tactically some will fall prematurely into the groupetto. Also while in the Alps, loosing time on purpose. Tactically this will put someone in a position that is not dangerous (for GC riders). Breaks in the final days are sure to occur and it is there where you will have chances at great stage placings. But if you have the possibility to move up in the classification too much the riders are sure not to let you escape. Riders will go, it just depends of the right group. Study the tactics and try to follow what the teams and riders are up to. THIS IS THE MOST COMPLICATED CHESS GAME EVER, with team objectives, personal objectives, sponsors, TV, etc. Bluffing, attacking, controlling, cracking, crashes.

Today on rest day we rode 2++ hours easy, although Eki, JC and Peter Meinert went to ride the course, 50 K away.

Marty Jemison during one of the time trials. Photo courtesy Marty Jemison

July 18

I'm still alive and well. Have I mentioned the time trial? Well this is how it works.

JC Robin, Eki and Peter all went to see the course on the rest day. They have the pressure to perform there in the TT. For the rest of us we rode the course blindly. In this case it was quite detrimental. It was soooo difficult. We really had no Idea. But for the six of us, we rode as we pleased. Just ride to stay within the time limit. So the results show the net result. Tyler (Hamilton) said he felt really good, thus went for it.

July 19

THE STAGE TO ALPE d'HUEZ

This is the cream for all professional cyclists, even amateurs. It was estimated that some 10,000 riders rode up the climb before us. On the radio it was stated that there were 65-mile road blocks to get to the base of the climb. And estimates of 200-300,000 people on the 13 K ascent!!! Absolutely incredible!!!

I felt great all day. In the last 15 K before the climb I kept taking JC to the front. It was like a 15 K sprint leadout at the time. Still feeling good I hit the base in the top 20 riders and started up.

After 300 meters I heard a tire explode. I looked and met eyes with teammate Peter. SHIT. I was obliged to give up my wheel. To wait for another rider lower in GC could waste valuable time. Off he went with a push from me. After my wheel change from the team car, I was solo way off the back. Still with good legs, I rode through 75 riders that were in pieces all over the climb. I reached a group with Eki and George and sat comfortably on the group.

In retrospect and even at the time, it was a good thing for moral. For now when I heard cheers for Postal or USA. I looked at the spectator on several occasions. I was able to take it all in and fully enjoy it. And to be cheered on by 200-300,000 people is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. The climb is so spectacular, really special, like nothing I could explain. Tom could probably give the statistics: altitude gain, etc.

July 20

Today we raced to the sister city of Park City, Corcheval, one of the most feared stages in the tour by most of the riders in the peloton. Why, you ask? Because it is short.

Starts with a Cat 1 climb, ascend up an out of category climb, down and up another Cat.1 climb!!!

After 12 K the attacks started and the peloton was in pieces. Living in the red zone!!! By the Madeline, several groups had come back together. Rather the last 80 or so riders. (My race) up the road, well I'm watching it on TV as I write this. So we rode just under my red zone for 13 miles. After the 80 man group rode even easier on the last climb to Corcheval. But even at this speed I have never seen so many riders truly suffering. One of the hardest days in the Tour!!! Carnage. Carnage. Carnage!!

Of note: Tyler was just ahead, since the Madeline, without support. Bonked heavily. Just now feeling human again. Hopes to be back together by tomorrow. He wonders why no team car was around to hand him food or water. Not too happy.

Tomorrow is another very difficult stage in the Alps. I will survive and I will attack in the last week when I am confident I can make it to Paris.

So many good riders cracked today….

Ride within your limits and outside your limits at select times.

July 23

Just when you think the Alps are over, and that there may be a break (recovery time), someone attacks, like this morning. And we're on the rivit. Nearly everyone around you is “in a bad way.” The peloton is single file.

The road is going up a canyon and the chain is being ever stretched again. The chain breaks. Good riders will let the rider behind know when this is going to happen. That may be enough warning for the chain to re-connect. An arm sling will keep the rider out of the dog house.

Today's stage to Colmar was relentless for 2+ hours, until a break that all teams were happy with had escaped. Up till then it was fireworks. Going into the Pyrenees I had no fear of the mountains. Now after the Alps and after losing, what 55+ riders, I am fearful of Cat. 3 and 4 climbs. (I've done well and am still fearful). Never before have I had a fear of hills. I hope to feel better tomorrow, to search and find some power somewhere. Tomorrow is the last of the mountains. Cat 2 climbs are “mountains!”

I should tell you about an instance yesterday. This is how it is. It started out much like today racing up a canyon, a big-ring, open canyon. The attacks started and it was all I could do to keep from exploding. I concentrated and moved up the chain every opportunity I had. Everyone is doing the same. So it is a real battle. Because if you explode, a few extra meters may keep you in the race. Riders are dropping like flies it seems.

Anyway, I work my way up, much to my surprise considering my predicament ( how I really feel).

OK now the group splits, 25 or so riders in the front, going out of sight. Not that we have even eased up. I'm still buried in the red. So JC Robin is next to me! He immediately tells me that we need to ride. Now this is the amazing part. Maybe you need to be there. I'll try to explain.

I take charge. I see Eki “Eki. We need to ride, NOW.” So it's Eki and I at the front and GOING GOING!!!!! It's like now I Have Sooooo much power!!! Going up this canyon in the biggest gears, like it is a sprint lead out.

After a couple of pulls each I look back. I see a Postal rider (JC???) and only eight riders. We had broke free, we made the bridge. But it was Peter and not JC. SHIT!!! How did this happen? Peter assures me that it is OK. Riis is in the back. Here in the front group it is like GOING!!! Fireworks.

Eki tells me to cover the breaks. Do not let anything go. Sure. I feel great, lots of power (up the canyon at 50+ kph) I'm in a few moves that come back. Soon the peloton regroups. We are leading up to the day's first climb, a Cat. 3. I'm

well positioned at the front. I have the power. Right. NO. IT IS GONE. I drift back on the climb and am the last rider groveling over the top. The red Fiat with the race director just breathing down my neck.

(Did you know tt last year in Poland the race director ran my hand over after hitting me? I had got dropped in the climb, coming back in a relief spot. I was in the process of passing the car and was a meter off of the last rider. Well he hit me. I fell and my hand went under the rear wheel. Still have scars. He apologized after the race. Directors do not stop!!)

So back to today. Yea, I made it over the climb, last. Except a few riders who were dropped into the caravan. I had burnt my matches earlier. That was it.

For the next Cat. 1, I quickly found the groupetto. But you must know that in the TDF the groupetto climbs faster than most other races. On the flats it rolls at 50+ kph. 40 guys pulling through. IT IS STILL GO TIME.

Yesterday we made it back to the next group of 40-ish. A Roslotto rider flatted from our group. He never made it back. Nobody could make it back alone. Race over, go home. This is the Tour.

So these are some of my stories.

Today on the second Cat 3 I saw Riis being pushed by 2-riders, Skibby (he was fined) and another rider. “HEY I NEED SOME HELP HERE, NOT RIIS.” But he is in a bad way!!! “The man is human and was having a bad day today.”

We arrived in the feed zone 5 minutes faster that on the fastest schedule, and they estimate these from all the tours. Can you say fast? By the finish something like 25 min. early!!!

The people go nuts. Something else I realized today. I ride on the hoods comfortably at 50 kph (on the flats). I'm like recovering. How do you explain that?

They say the Tour will change you forever!!! It looks like I will make it to Paris!!!, barring four climbs tomorrow (July 24) I should pass those.

So if I am the only source that tells of the suffering and speeds. Know that it is the chuckle in the peloton, we say funny ha ha afterwards. Of course, we are still in the race and have survived this silly Tour.

At dinner tonight we were talking about how most of the peloton is empty/dead. And how can we still go? “HABITUDE.” It is habit, even though the body is dying. It is all that it knows.

I better send this . . .

[Editor's Note: Marty Jemison did go on to finish the 1997 Tour de France in 96th place, 3 hours and 25 minutes behind Jan Ullrich.]

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