Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Greatest Sporting Event Of All Time

This past Saturday, July 4th, marked not only the birth of America, but also the 96th commencement of The Greatest Sporting Event Of All Time: Le Tour de France. Lest you think I only love cycling, I should point out that I also enjoy watching water polo games and alpine ski races, and that my favorite competitions when I was a competitive athlete were in crew, followed by cyclocross and then road cycling. That said, I LOVE the Tour. And while I read year round, and my ears begin to prick in early May for rumbles of the Giro as well in August for the Vuelta, all commitments, events, and even relationships come after Tour viewing in July.
When pressed by my peers as to why the Tour means so much to me, I can only quote the British mountaineer George Mallory: "Because it's there". Because it's all there--the highest highs and the lowest lows, the physical agony and the emotional elation, the camaraderie of nine teammates and the visual beauty of the 170+ strong peloton as it races through the French countryside. The Tour is like the Iliad or Beowulf; it is an epic in which digressions involving sprinters winning stages, climbers garnering King of the Mountain points, domestiques sacrificing themselves, and general contenders maintaining stoic poker faces despite seconds or even minutes lost are commonplace and often occur daily.
Furthermore, while the "epic" nature of the Tour is underscored by its three week long duration, the cumulative effect of all the Tours only heightens its sense of ongoing epic history. Aside from the early Tour history, when the event stopped during both world wars and was then raced again by former national enemies, and when great names like Eddy Mercx and Greg LeMond ruled the peloton, who in the last several years of watching can forget the incredible dogfight in the Alps between Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer, and Michael "The Chicken" Rasmussen two years ago, when thirty minutes cracked open the Tour like an avalanche off of a mountainside, and ended with Rasmussen fired from Rabobank and two Discovery riders on the podium at Paris? Or the exhilarating sprint win of Robbie Hunter in Montpellier that same year; a man who was not only the first South African to win a Tour stage, but also a man who rode for Team Barloworld, the last minute wild card team that also produced Mauricio Soler, a first-time Tour rider from Colombia and that year's King of the Mountains? Or the fourteen Tours of George "Big George" Hincapie, a kid from Flushing who served as a loyal lieutenant for U.S. Postal, Discovery, and Columbia/High Road and is now one of the great statesmen of the peloton (and who even saucily married a podium girl)? Or the almost penitent-like sun allergy developed by former doper David Millar, who mummified himself in white bandages as he raced in the name of clean cycling and comebacks? Or the amazing fourteen days that Thomas Voeckler wore the maillot jeune in 2004, or the stoic consistency of Cadel Evans, who keeps pedaling his best despite abysmal support from his team, or the exquisite fluidity of U.S. Postal, le train bleu, as it raced against the clock in a team time trial?

Of course, the Tour is also more than a sum of its cycling parts, as anyone who has followed the event through the medium of media can attest. There are the newspapers, such as France's L'Equippe, that battle out the intricacies of racing and the allegations of doping and cheating, and the TV stations like OLN and VS that are the sole points of access for American viewers. There are the incomparable commentators, in particular former pro and 7-11 rider Bob Roll--whose book Bobke II might be the greatest cycling book of all time--with his insights and occasional good humored trash talk, and Paul Sherwen, a former pro British cyclist who is the perfect partner to Phil Liggett, who wins my vote for the greatest sports commentator of all time. Then there are the monikers of the riders themselves, which rank with anything that Homer could have created: the Belgian sprinter Tom "Tornado Tom" Boonen, the Swiss time trialist Fabian "the Bear from Bern" Cancellara, the aforementioned Danish climber Michael "the Chicken" Rasmussen, the Norwegian sprinter Thor "God of Thunder" Hushovd, the British sprinter Mark "the Manx Missile" Cavendish, the great Italian rider Marco "Il Pirata" Pantani, the German Jan "Der Kaiser" Ullrich, and many, many more.

As a result, for the next two weeks I will be glued to my television, watching the Luxemborgian wonders that are the Schleck brothers drive Team Saxo-Bank, wondering if there will be another alpine crash and subsequent emotional breakdown like that of Team Columbia's Michael Rogers two years ago, and anticipating the inevitable Champs d'Elysees laps in Paris, where, as is often the case, the winner of a three week race is determined by a matter of seconds. Here's to another year of great bike racing--Vive, le Tour!


  1. When will we all sit down and watch it together?! Pick a day -- your post gets me excited!!

  2. The 22nd--crazy alpine stage! And the 25th, which finishes on the top of Ventoux.