A part of any team's Tour de France tradition is the after-Tour party, and when you've won the race seven times consecutively, you have to go large... but unlike last year's historic event, a sit down dinner ala Haute Cuisine, at least eight standing ovations, and a hall literally fit for a king, this year's post-Tour party, was, well, one helluva party! Before the official festivities Lance held a private dinner thankyou just for the riders, Johan and Dirk - a perfect way to hang out, laugh, and relive the previous three weeks in privacy. OK, maybe tip back a beer or two...
But while the boys had some quiet time over 600 guests were arriving at the Paris Ritz amid some very tight security indeed. Call it one last curtain call for Serge, Erwin, Thierry and Pierre, plus add several dozen uniformed and large plain clothes types for good measure. Definitely an "A list" party, with the heads and representatives of all the major sponsors in attendance; Lance's Foundation's Board, and even a celebrity or two with the likes of US Senator John Kerry and pop star Lindsay Lohan working the crowd.
One of the things I thought was actually quite humorous was that it was clear who were staff/riders versus guests, since only the guests had the opportunity to bring nice clothes, the staff/riders coming off just over three weeks on the road and living out of suitcases. But everyone officially with the team had on their "best" jeans and 10//2 Nike t-shirts, and no one seemed to mind. Another example that shows just how anonymous the support riders can be when not in their team kits: all the guys (sans Lance and George) accidentally walked into the rear of the hall amid 50+ guests and laughed and joked and enjoyed some champagne, but only a few of the invitees came up and said congratulations simply because they didn't know who they were - but that would soon change.
Dan Osipow herded the large crowd from main reception area down into a very large disco/gathering room and the champagne continued to flow. Following a very cool retro video of all seven Tour wins set to U2's "Where the streets have no name," Dan then went on to introduce key sponsor and managerial folks who gave words of congratulations to Lance and the guys. Then it was time for Johan and the boys to be introduced one-by-one. Johan went first and was really quite moving, noting the historical significance of the past seven years, but then also how he - who many, myself included, view him as the best director in the sport bar none - met Lance through basically a chance meeting. He then sincerely thanked Lance for literally changing his life as the crowd cheered enthusiastically.
Dan then introduced each of the riders with some very special guests in Manuel "Triki" Beltran (who crashed out of the Tour during Stage 12) and Viatchslev "Eki" Ekimov. "It wouldn't be July in Paris without Eki," Dan said as he brought the 14-time Tour veteran down the stairs. When asked how he was recovering following his quite serious back injury before the Tour, Eki said he was good, noting that a few weeks ago he would not have been able to have walked down the stairs nor be on the trainer getting in some bike time. I spoke with Eki later on and he said it's his every intention to race a few more times this year, but purely to build back his confidence as he looks to the 2006 season full gas.
Following all the guys it was time for The Guy, and as usual Lance was very humble and thanked the sponsors for all their support, thanked the team for all the work they did, and then finished up by asking everyone in the audience to continue to support the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team - as well as the sport of cycling in general - as strongly after he retires as they do right now. Bravo...
And then: the moment. During his speech Lance had saluted his long-time rival Jan Ullrich, commenting on the many battles they had over the years and what a sportsman and a gentleman he was. He said that Mark Higgins had just told him Jan might stop by later on - and two seconds later Jan strolls down the stairs to stand by Lance on the stage, and the crowd just goes insane! The two great riders then saluted each other, said some very nice things in retrospect with Jan acknowledging one simple fact over the previous seven years: Lance was just too strong to beat. Dan noted in his column: "...someone in the audience then shouted 'We love you Jan!' causing Lance to say "See, they like you better than they like me!"
For me this was a moment similar to last year's party, when Lance was saying his final words of the evening, and reflecting on the historic sixth Tour victory he made sure the crowd knew who the real cycling star of the evening was and brought the legendary Eddy Merckx to stand by his side.
After that it was simply a huge party, as the guys jumped right in the middle of the crowd - led by Yaroslav 'Popo/I have the white jersey' Popovych who was really ready to dance - while Lance accepted congratulations from the many folks still there well after 1am. Word was that the party went on until after 3:30, but like many of the staff I had an early train to catch and was literally running on fumes, so we headed out into the night and to the team hotel. Damned if Jan and his girlfriend didn't jump on the same elevator as us, and we got the chance to personally congratulate him on his Tour and thank him for the all the memories he's provided - with total class - over the years.
And that's really all for now - thanks for checking in.