Sunday, July 10, 2011

Notes on le Tour: Part Un

This July marks the first since 2006 that I’ve devoted so little time to watching the Tour de France. During that particular summer I lived in a tiny New Hampshire town without a television—the perfect environment in which to study for my graduate school exams, but not conducive to following the world's greatest bike race. Thus I missed witnessing both Floyd Landis’s improbable Stage 17 breakaway and the media’s feeding frenzy over his equally improbable “testosterone defense” (although I did end up reading Positively False several months later).

My lackluster viewing habits now, however, are more difficult to explain. Blame it on any one of the following factors: a new job and commute; the chance to watch—in person and on TV—Giants’ games now that I’m back on the West Coast; the change-up in the VS. broadcasting team. Still, my love for the Tour endures, and it inevitably grows as the stages pass. Which is why, in order to feed my Tour fire, I know that I can refute every one of these factors: I can handle three weeks of sleep deprivation! The baseball season is six months long! Phil, Paul, and Bob still sit behind the VS. anchors’ desk!
In other words, bring on the 240 minute stage recordings, those golden Phil Liggettisms, and that money shot of the peloton snaking through the puy of the Massif Central. I’m here with my 32” television and my laptop, and I’m ready for some bike racing!

Still, since I know that I won’t have time to compose much commentary, I’ve decided to write my observations as broad notes. Hence, “Notes on le Tour”. On that note, what follows are my thoughts on the first nine stages of the 2011 Tour de France:
What he wears when he's not in yellow or rainbow stripes.
The Hammer of the North stays in yellow, defying both common cycling wisdom and his fast twitch muscles. I was stunned—STUNNED—to see Thor Hushovd crossing the line with the leaders on Stage 8. My money’s always on him and the other sprinters rolling off the back of the pack as soon as the peloton hits the first baby hill. At least Stage 9 brought a glimpse of Mark Cavendish barely clinging to the main pack as it flew over a series of rollers—thus proving that my understanding of pro racing isn’t totally shot.

Always the bridesmaid. Always. Cadel Evans has remained one of my favorite pro cyclists for years. I love to watch him race, and I nearly cried as well when he won the 2009 World Championship. And yet, for all of his talent, he never quite catches a break in the Tour. This year I had my hopes, and as he crouched one second behind Hushovd for the last few stages, I thought for sure he’d be in yellow by the Pyrenees, and perhaps (dare I hope?) into Paris. Then that blowsy bride Thomas Voeckler rocketed off on one of his signature breakaways and sure enough, Cadel now sits a few minutes back. But hear me loud and clear, Cadel: I’m still rooting for you. Let those BMC boys speed you through the Alps and on to victory!

Favorite Phil Liggettism so far. Thomas Voeckler is not only the source of my current Cadel woes, but also that of my favorite Liggettism. On Voeckler’s shrewd/lucky breakaway into the maillot jeune, Ligget proclaimed, “the likable little Frenchman has played the ace again!” He then referenced one of my beloved Tour memories, the “cheeky breakaway” that Voeckler rode into yellow in 2004, thus depriving Armstrong of the jersey until nearly halfway through the race. The man’s a poet.
He's the man.
Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, Christian Vandevelde—whither the commentary? Chalk this up, perhaps, to my abbreviated stage viewings, but I’ve been surprised by the muted commentary on a variety of big name riders. I didn’t even realize that Basso was in the race until Stage 7, when I saw his name in the top twenty, nor did I know that Vino was back in Astana colours until a few days ago (granted, I didn’t watch the TTT stage in its entirety). And Vandevelde seemed to be persona non grata until Horner crashed out and the commentators appeared to go looking for another potential American GC contender.

These riders and a few other big ones used to be the focus of much remarking, and Basso in particular has been riding well, so I’m curious as to why they are no longer (true, Vino did receive more attention during his Stage 8 breakaway and ill-fated Stage 9 ride). In the case of the Italian and the Kazakh, could it be—dare I say it—the stain of le doping?

Why does the Leopard-Trek team appear to be wearing Bianchi green? Maybe it’s the camera/my TV, but when the Schleck brothers and that Bear from Bern Cancellera pedal by with a flash of hairless leg, their kit appears to be accented with Bianchi’s signature celeste green. I realize that this is impossible—after all, they ride Treks. And yet, the stripes on Andy Schleck’s helmet match my bike’s bar tape. Go figure.
Crashing, crashing, and even more crashing. This year’s opening stages have been marred by some spectacular crashes. So have the opening stages of every other Tour I’ve ever watched. That might be a slight exaggeration, but in my Tour viewing dotage I seem to recall that every July everyone says “we’ve never seen so many crashes in the first week of the Tour”, or something to that effect.

True, this year’s been a doozy—a whole slew of GC contenders have been knocked out, including that brave Brit Bradley Wiggins, whose teeth-gritting performance on Ventoux in 2009 stands out in my mind. But spectacular crashes in the Tour’s first week are like drunk Santas in December—ubiquitous, gratuitous, and ripe for contentious discussion among friends and family.

France: L’original. Last week, I read a Wall Street Journal article that discussed all the crazy things that happen every day in Wal-Marts nationwide—their sheer number and size apparently mean that if on any given day an American is going to do something crazy, odds are that it will be in a Wal-Mart—and thus the very busy lives that Wal-Mart’s PR team leads. Some of these things include spreading superglue on store toilet seats, jumping up and down on the hood of suspected shoplifters’ cars in a store parking lot because the jumper is “sick of the lawlessness”, adopting a feral nutria as a store mascot, and recording an illicit rap video in store aisles.

I cite this article because part of me likes the idea that there’s a place where the collective crazy is reliably on display. And, one might argue, le Tour serves this purpose for the great nation of France. This is a race in which the cyclists are regularly preceded across the finish line by gigantic gummy candy mascots; a race in which spectators—frequently bare-chested, frequently trashed—run
in the road alongside the competitors; a race in which, on any given day, one might see a medieval chateau, a fixie-shaped crop-circle, or a podium girl dressed like Minnie Mouse. And did I mention that the winners of each stage get a giant stuffed animal? I thought so.

Ah, France, you hold a special place within my heart! Now on to Stage 10,
ma chérie
The real stage winner.

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