Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Tour de France
LANCE. We got into it initially because of Lance Armstrong, but now we're hooked, even though Americans aren't a factor. But why? There are so many strikes against it. A single sporting event that takes three weeks to complete is even worse than the most boring of all British sports, cricket. Worse even than that, you can think of it as soccer on wheels, incredibly long stretches of incredibly boring absolutely nothing happening involving guys with unpronounceable names in short pants. All of whom are being continuously investigated for use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The so-called sportscasters (employed by Versus, uh, VS) are even worse, mostly Brit-Aussie-New Zealanders who -- like all Commonwealth sports announcers -- would rather die than explain anything they think you should have known before displaying the brazen temerity to up and watch. So all their commentary starts somewhere in the middle of something or other (VS couldn't be bothered to show the beginning of the race this year) and degenerates from there into personal reminiscences, naked rooting for Brit-accented or rent-boy fantasy favorites, and a striking lack of interest in such matters as who's ahead in the, you know, whole fucking race.
A race which covers more than 2000 miles in 21 (or so) stages. In most stages, the overwhelming majority of the 200 riders get exactly the same time (elapsed time being the measure of victory) because they travel together like a school of fish in a mass called the Peloton. Every day, a few cyclists try to escape from the Peloton and make a dash for victory. But every day, the Peloton hunts them down like a posse so they can all finish together, like always. Is this a sporting event? Really?
Well, yes, actually. It is. It took us years to figure out and we know there's no chance of convincing you to watch, but that's why I'm finally willing to write this post. I don't care anymore. The Tour de France is a lovely thing and I don't mind if you've already clicked to the results of a better sporting event like, say, the Homerun Derby (yawn).
First and foremost, it takes place in France and since the only way to cover a competition that averages between 100 and 150 miles a day is with helicopters, you get to see a LOT of France. Which is every bit as beautiful as it's reputed to be. This week, for example, I got to see a chateau I hadn't seen in person for 48 years.
But it's the same every day. A lovely travelogue with a bike race attached. The grand finale is in Paris, of course, on the most beautiful street in the world, the Champs Elysee.
And then there's the bike race itself. Which is absolutely astounding. Forget the rotten announcers. Forget the fact that all the competitors look exactly alike. What they do is just breathtaking. They're organized into teams of nine or so riders, who are all committed to promoting the achievements of just one or two riders intending to win the overall race or outpoint the opposition in sprints or mountain climbing. You see, they may all look alike -- 6 feet tall, 160 pounds, bodies with zero fat, faces like skulls -- but they're not the same, except that most of them are champions -- Olympic, national, various other tours, etc -- and some of them are fast, able to accelerate stupendously after 100 miles of slogging, some of them are superhuman strong, able to run away from the Peloton in mountain stages that break your will just watching them pedal, and some of them are just plain indestructible, with a reserve of energy that's somehow still there after 2000 miles of fatigue. When the whole race is on the line, these are the ones who leap from the Peloton like tigers and bury everyone. That's who Lance Armstrong was.
I admit I was scornful at first. Europeans being weird, as usual. Who cares? I have always loved Grand Prix racing, and how could this possibly measure up? It does. What I hate to admit is that it's like -- God, I hate to admit this -- like, gasp, baseball. The longer you watch, the more subtleties you see. There is layer upon layer of complication in what the teams are doing. Specialists abound. There are domestiques whose job it is to stuff water bottles and food packets into their jerseys and deliver them to team members en route. Because (Have I pointed out?) they never stop for meals or water breaks or simple rest during any stage. They go. There are lead-out riders whose job it is to set up the conditions for a sprinter to win a stage. There are, well, drones, whose job it is to protect the team's overall contender from the mishaps of the road. And there are team skills as well, formations of riders who lead the Peloton or don't, taking turns at the lead and rearranging themselves like fighter planes or, say, the Blue Angels.
Over the top with the Blue Angels reference? No. The Peloton is like the world's biggest mobile formation. They are packed so closely together that any one rider can bring down dozens around him. And it happens all the time, not because they don't how to ride but because they're riding for days, day after day, through wet and dry and woods and blind corners, and at any moment they can get killed by falling off a mountain or seriously injured by careening into woods. Here are some of the mishaps this year:
The race isn't even half over yet. It takes more than talent to win. It takes luck. Not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Last year's winner and this year's favorite is already in trouble because of delays caused by wrecks.
And did I tell you about the last American whose luck ran out in a wreck? He's 39. He got knocked cold in the big crash shown above. His team managers woke him up, put him back on the bike, and somehow got him to finish another 50 or so kilometers to the end of the stage. By then, he didn't even know he was in the Tour de France. But that's not why he "retired" the next day. He had a hematoma on his leg that made it impossible for him to walk. That's how tough these guys are.
And why I'm telling you about the Tour de France. It's not a bunch of Euro-sissies pedaling their way through tourist destinations. It's a bunch of men who are stronger, more durable, and more committed than most of what you can find in the NFL. It's mesmerizing. If you can meet the challenge of figuring out what's going in spite of the rip-roaringly awful announcers.