Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Operatic Quality of the Tour de France

One could debate the most challenging athletic competition in the world. Some would argue that the Ironman Triathlon is the greatest test of our capacity to experience and overcome pain, combining bicycling 112 miles with running a marathon (26.2 miles) and swimming 2.4 miles. Others might mention the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon through the brutal heat of the Death Valley desert, traversing three mountains along the way (you receive a belt buckle for finishing in less than 48 hours), but others claim the Marathon des Sables across the Moroccan desert with your supplies on your back is actually tougher. The Race Across American, where bikers have 12 days to bike across the entire continent (meaning sleeping as little as 90-minutes a night), is certainly worthy of contemplation, as is the Iditarod Trail Invitations where you bike, run, sled or ski across 1,000 miles of Alaskan snow (and where temperatures can hit 50F below zero). Then again, the competitors in Atlantic Rowing Race might laugh off any of those races, given that they row 2,879 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in single, pair and four-person rowing teams, in a journey that takes around 120 days.
Many place the Tour de France above even those vaunting tests, claiming it as the greatest athletic challenge in the world. This year, over 21 segments in 23 days, the riders cover 3,500km (2,200 miles), through wind, rain and even snow, over cobbles, hills and towering mountains (as high as 7.382 feet this year), flying down hills at speeds as fast as 60 miles per hour and around the other 190+ riders in the peloton and through accidents and that appear to happen on an almost daily basis. To win the race, one needs to be able to perform well in time trials, to climb mountains with real acumen, to transcend them with acuity, to build a quality team and to avoid a host of pitfalls including crosswinds, accidents, saddle sores, sickness, injury and simple fatigue. Riders are asked to push themselves to the limits of their bodies throughout the race, while ensuring that they make the right strategic choices, keep close contact with rivals and take advantage of opportunities that emerge.
I have been a fan of Tour de France since I was a young boy, watching the weekend highlights of the three-week event from the time when Greg LeMond and the wily badger Bernard Hinault were matching wits, Hinault taking round one before LeMond finally beat his mentor and rival in 1986 to win his first Tour and the first by an American in the, at the time, 83-year history of the event (there was a four-year break during WWI and seven covering WWII and its aftereffects). I started riding around my neighborhood and through the mountains of Vermont in the summers before I got my drivers license and lost interest, but I did continue to follow the event from a distance, turned off for a time by the allegations of cheating, before the compelling narrative of Lance Armstrong brought me back to the competition (ironically, only to be disappointed yet again). In recent years, the coverage has become comprehensive, covering almost every second of the event (they occasionally start long racing days an hour or so in) and I now tape and cruise through the hours the riders spend on the road each summer for three weeks.

Over the years, I have become more expert in the minutia that makes the event so great, but at its core it is an athletic and mental test that only a few riders among the almost 200 involved have a chance to win. This year that list includes three former winners, in Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali, an American (Tejay van Garderen) and a South American (Nairo Quintana). Contador has won the race three times, in 2007, 2009 and 2010, though the 2010 win was later vacated due to a failed doping test, giving it to Andy Schleck, who would never “win” the event outright and who has since disappeared from the top echelon of the sport after much early promise. Contador has had something of a renaissance over the past two seasons winning the Vuelta de Espana last year and the Giro d’Italia this season, meaning he could hold all three of the Grand Tours of road cycling at the same time for the first time since Bernard Hinault did it in 1982-83 (the only other bicyclist ever to accomplish the feat is the great Eddy Merckx, generally considered the greatest road racer of all times, who won four in a row between 1972 and 73). Contador is already among only 8 riders to ever win two Grand Tours in the same year (in 2008), among six to win all three over the course of a career and has a chance to become only the third to hold all three at the same time (the unofficial Triple Crown of Cycling). He was among the favorites last year, before crashing out in the 10th stage, though he was more than two minutes behind the eventual winner, Nibali, who essentially won the race on a much-criticized early cobble stage. Chris Froome also crashed out last year after winning in dominating fashion back in 2013, a year after he helped his countryman Bradley Wiggins become the first Englishman to ever win the Tour. Tejay van Garderen is an up and coming 26-year-old American rider who has finished fifth in the Tour de France twice (in 2014 and 2012) and came in 2nd in the coveted Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this season. Finally, Nairo Quintana is a Columbian cyclist who is among the strongest climbers in the world and who won the Giro and came in second in the Tour de France last year.

Beyond the general classification winner, there are a host of other awards on offer – the yellow jerseys available at the end of each stage (for the overall leader at that point in the race), the white jersey (for best young rider), the green jersey (a points competition that pits sprinters against each other), the polka dot jersey (for the best climber) the winner of each of the stages (as well as the “most aggressive rider” of that stage) and monetary awards for being the first across a variety of intermediate thresholds within a stage. Most racers have not chance at the winning the overall title or any of the major other jerseys available and instead seek to win a stage, to be part of a breakaway that is sure to be caught out, to be the temporary leader of one of the other competitions or to simply finish the race. They are among the corps of domestiques, whose role is to support the team leader(s). While it might sound like a thankless job, driving yourself so hard that you often run out of steam before the end of a stage, or have to hold back instead of taking a stage win (as Chris Froome famously did in 2012 to help his teammate Wiggins win, even as many thought he was the stronger rider).

In just the first eight stages of this year’s event, a number of narratives have emerged. The controversial sprinter Mark Cavendish, who had already won 25 overall stages in the event, had crashed out last year in the first stage and was looking to reclaim glory here to go with 12 wins in other events coming into the Tour. But he was beaten to the line in his first two attempts, making the mistake of going too early in his sprint and being overcome by the German “gorilla” Andre Griebel both times. Yesterday, as many questioned whether he was past his prime for not the first time, he seemed to be in the worst position of the three sprints, but pushed ahead of Griebel and won his 26th stage victory, leaving him only two behind the great five-time winner Hinault and another six behind the Belgian Merckx. His teammate, the three-time world champion Tony Martin, missed out on his first yellow jersey on the opening day time trial (his specialty) by less than five seconds. On day two, he looked sure to take the overall lead, only for Cavendish to pull up right before the finish and allow the Swiss-star Fabian Cancellara to sneak ahead of him by the rubber of his tire and gain the time bonus to traverse Martin by one second. Stage three was a mountain top finish, but if Martin stayed close enough to the front, he seemed likely to finally get the first coveted yellow jersey of his career. Instead Chris Froome, by virtue of gaining the time bonus himself, was ahead of Martin by less than 6/10ths of a second. Day four the German finally got ahold of his first yellow, by making a bold move a few kilometers out of the finish and holding on for the win, only to crash near the finish line the very next day and be forced to quit the race. A day later an African rider, the first black African to ever race in the Tour de France, won the Polka Dot jersey in dramatic fashion as the result of a long breakaway with two other riders during Stage 6, having to beat them three times to the hill top line. The next day controversy hit the tour yet again for doping, though oddly in this case for the use of cocaine, which seems a rather poor choice for the hours the riders spend on the bike, leading to the Italian Luca Paolini getting kicked out. In Stage 8, the winner of last year’s tour, Nibali, fell off the back of the leader’s group on a relative short climb, leaving many to doubt whether he can sustain a repeat challenge as Froome and van Garderen continued to impress, on a day the French finally won their first stage of the race – with former dirt bike racer Alexis Vuillermoz holding off a late charge from Dan Martin. This is another annual narrative throughout the race, with the French, who dominated the event throughout the early years still waiting for their first overall winner since Hinault 30 years ago in 1985. Heading into the Stage 9 team time trial, the American van Garderen has a great opportunity to take the overall lead from Froome, with his arguably superior BMC team, and start to salve the gaping wound Lance Armstrong left on American cycling when he finally admitted his years of doping.

And so like most years, there are the main story lines of trying to win stages, jerseys and the overall crown together with the smaller arias of a day of glory, an unlikely finish, reigning in the breakaway group that almost invariably jumps ahead of the field each day, setting up the sprint finishes, deciding when to attack, when to sit back and the human stories of success and failure that make all sport so compelling. With its operatic qualities, the Tour de France continues to spark the interest of fans across the globe and will for as long as the event exists.

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