Monday, July 25, 2005

Long Time Coming

I've been slacking off a little on the posting front. What can I say? What with the Tour de France and my own recurring bicycle problems (four flats in the same number of days, and now, to boot, a broken rear wheel), I've been kept busy.

I can't ignore the obvious news: Lance Armstrong won his seventh consecutive Tour de France, his last race as a professional cyclist. I managed to watch most of the Tour, which was filled with all the requisite drama, excitement, and heartbreak. Ivan Basso came in second, and Jan Ullrich, third. The man is a cycling tour de force, no doubt, but I'll leave the fawning to everyone else. Ullrich is still my man, after all, and even though he again played second fiddle to Armstrong, he fought the whole way. He is a world class cyclist, and I am excited to see how he performs next year.

And in closing, an interesting thought: Armstrong, the politician?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Tour de France, Rest Day

It's the second and last Rest Day for the cyclists of the Tour de France -- well, the 158 of them that are left after 15 grueling stages. As was expected, both the Alps and Pyrenees sorted out the contenders -- the strongest riders surged to the front of the standings after a first week of flat stages that favored the last-minutes sprints for the finish line, often the province of the very riders that falter in the mountains. And as everyone expected but I hoped against, Lance Armstrong sits atop the standings, over two minutes ahead of his closest rival, Ivan Basso, and seven stages short of his seventh consecutive Tour de France victory.

Jan Ullrich, T-Mobile's team leader, perpetual Tour contender, and my favorite stands in fourth place, almost six minutes behind Armstrong and three minutes behind Danish racer Mikael Rasmussen. While I am disappointed that Ullrich hasn't fared better, he can still make it to the podium come July 24th. There is one mountain stage left, and considering Ullrich's solid performance thus far, it's safe to guess he'll hold his position at the top of the standings through until the penultimate stage, a 55-kilometer individual time trial. This is where he can best challenge Rasmussen, an able climber whose lackluster time trialing left him in 174th place after Stage 1, a short individual time trial. Should Ullrich maintain his position and do well in the time trial, as many expect, I would dare to guess that he'll place third overall (which, all told, must be torture, given that he has won once, placed second five times, and fourth last year).

This leads into my thoughts of the day, today focused on Ullrich. The German is a proven cyclist who even when in bad shape tends to finish in the Top Ten of some of the circuit's toughest races. But he just can't seem to break into the top spot, no matter how hard he tries. I don't know if it's bad luck, poor form, or a lack of mental preparation -- he seems to be condemned to being second best.

Watching Stage 15 yesterday was instructive -- Ullrich hung at the front of the pack over the course of the entire stage, surging forward to challenge both Basso and Armstrong. The three raced up the steep climbs of the Pyrenees together, trading turns at the front and preparing for what could have been a spectacular finish. But then Basso attacked, Armstrong responded, and Ullrich stayed put, settling for a finish over a minute after the two top contenders. I can't say exactly what it was I was feeling as I saw the gap increase, but it was a mix of confusion and disappointment. Both Basso and Armstrong attacked gracefully, standing on their pedals and surging forward, digging as far as they could to push themselves faster and faster up the mountain. Ullrich, an impressively strong rider, didn't respond -- he simply maintained his cadence as he worked his way up. I don't know if Ullrich was already at his limit or if yesterday simply confirmed his cycling style -- steady and consistent. This isn't to say Ullrich is a bad cyclist -- after all, he finishes every mountain stage towards the front of the group -- but rather to highlight that he doesn't seem to possess the same ability to stand in the staddle and take off, much like Armstrong and Basso do. They are more artistic in their style, exhibiting a certain flare and dynamism that Ullrich lacks. The man is about as powerful as a truck, but doesn't seem to possess those higher gears needed to really attack on the mountains.

He's still a magnificent cyclist, and best yet, fully aware of his shortcomings and not willing to make excuses for himself. He's still my favorite, though I will remain disappointed that he will always be known as second best to Lance. Always.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Well, This Won't Be Fun At All!

It's not that its thunderstorming already -- it's that the weather folks have no other word other than "drenching" to describe it. And by the look of it, they're right. It's coming down by the bucket-fulls.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Stage 11, Completed


Stage 11 just wrapped up, and Alexandre Vinokourov of T-Mobile took first and Santiago Botero of Phonak took second, with the usual cast of characters coming in one minute later. The general standings haven't changed much since yesterday, though.


My gripe today comes, again, with Sheryl Crow. The picture at right was featured on Yahoo! Sports, and as with the Sheryl Cam that OLN resorted to during the individual time trial last week, annoyed the hell out of me. Why? Because she's not a cyclist. Because pictures of her gripping herself in suspense, smiling, or hugging Lance are uninteresting and unimportant to the progress or result of the race. Because short of her busting out a guitar and singing "Strong Enough" while hanging out of a team car, nothing she does during the Tour will be mildly interesting or newsworthy. Yes, she's a celebrity. And yes, she is dating Lance Armstrong. Do cycling fans need to know much more, let along express any sense that they care about her? No.

I'd much rather have pictures of cyclists barreling down hills and ungodly speeds, of faces contorted in pain, of real cycling fans that set up camp along steep mountain passes for days prior to a stage just to see their favorite riders and team pass by for mere seconds. Sheryl Crow just doesn't cut it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Stage 10, Completed

Wow.

The things a mountain or two can do to the Tour de France. Armstrong came in second, reclaiming the yellow jersey. Ivan Basso, Andres Kloden, Jan Ullrich, and Floyd Landis all finished anywhere from one to two minutes back, but within the Top 15. Alexandre Vinokourov finished 24th, but his 5 minute deficit dropped him out of the Top 10, where he had been since Stage 1. Iban Mayo, thought to be one of the sport's best climbers, finished nowhere near the front -- in fact, he finished somewhere near the back. The pack has really started to splinter, and it is apparent that the sprinters that ruled the roost during the first week are not similarly able to do so in the mountains.

This looks like a whole other race. The question remains: Can Armstrong keep up the frenetic pace, or will he be challenged by other strong climbers? There are 11 stages left to go, after all, and being two or ten minutes back doesn't yet mean much.

Stage 10, In Progress



This is why the Tour de France, once it hits the mountains, is so exciting. There are but a few miles left to go in the mountainous Stage 10, and the group at right is chasing after a sole-rider breakaway. Just look at the names -- Armstrong, Rasmussen, Basso, Ullrich, Vinokourov. These are some of professional cycling's best climbers, and they are sure to challenge each other even further as they close in on the summit finish. I cannot wait to see this on TV, instead of the gripping yet wholly uninspiring updates I am constantly reading.

A Flat, Part Deux

Damn it.

After struggling with two flats on my rear wheel yesterday, I finally thought I would have a painless commute to work today. Instead, I had no commute at all. My front wheel is flat.

Did I piss off the bicycling gods by noting yesterday that my front wheel has gone 2000 miles with no problems? Did they really have to strike down what seemed to be the indestructible inner tube to taunt me, to make a point as to who's really in charge? Well, they've won this round.

Bastards.

Monday, July 11, 2005

On Flats, Stationary Bikes, and the Big Ring


Random thoughts for the day...

Flats: I got a flat today. In fact, I got two flats, the second coming right after I replaced the first. Flats are the cycling equivalent of running out of beer in the middle of a party -- it just sucks. Unless you carry a spare tube and pump, which I don't, your ride is officially over, and if you don't tend to the flat right away or get a second flat in a row, your bike is put out of commission. So as soon as work lets out I am off to a local bike store for the second time today. Ughh. To be fair, my front tire has gone 2000 miles without needing much more than the usual pumping up every few days or so. That's pretty damn good.

Stationary Bikes: This weekend I had a chance, for the first time in years, to try a stationary bike. This bike had all the bells and whistles -- you could tailor your workout to burn fat or focus on your cardiovascular system, you could ride up hills or stick to the flatlands, you could even find out how many calories you were burning in the process. I was excited, until about three minutes in. I'd guess that roughly 80 percent of the joy of riding a bike is in the scenery, the very thing that a stationary bike denies you. Watching TV while you ride just isn't the same, and counting the calories you lose is frustrating and much slower than you'd hope. By the time I'd burned 100 calories I was ready to call it quits. I like the challenge of riding up hills, but it isn't nearly as satisfying or challenging when the resistance on the stationary bike increases to mimick a real hill. I lasted a little over 15 minutes, and gave up.

The Big Ring: Most road and mountain bikes feature 7 or 10 chainrings in the back and 2 or 3 in the front, allowing for anywhere from 18-30 gears and a variety of combinations for any type of terrain. Most riders, myself included, change gears exclusively in the back, leaving the front chainring in a default position (on a three-ring bike, probably the second ring; on a two-ring bike, probably the first). Just last week, though, I switched into my second, bigger ring in the front (my Bianchi Axis only has two rings in the front, though later models have three), and instantly noticed that I was riding faster and accelarating more quickly. It was a whole new side of my bike, and resulted in an extremely satisfying and an extremely fast ride home. My cadence was lower (I pedaled less over the same amount of time), but I felt like I got more out of legs and my bike. I'm surprised I never thought to do this before -- most competitive cyclists, Jan Ullrich especially, are known for jumping onto their biggest ring and powering away at a low cadence. Lance Armstrong, though, bucks the trend by staying on the smaller rings and pedaling faster than other cyclists (it seems to work best with his physique, or so I have read). Either way, I have found myself a new, more satisfying way to ride.

Stupid Factoid for the Day: Courtesy of OLN, I found out yesterday that until 1937, riders in the Tour were not allowed to use rear derailleurs. The rear derailleur is essentially the mechanism that runs the chain up and down the rear chainrings, allowing you to handle hills and flatlands easily. Until that year, riders would come to the foot of a hill, get off their bikes, manually change gears, and ride on. Wow.

Drama at the Tour


No updates to be had for today -- the riders at the Tour de France are enjoying the first of their two days of rest during the 21 stages of racing. And this day could come at no better time for most riders.

After keeping a blistering pace through the flatter early stages, most riders clearly showed signs of fatigue in both Stage 8 and Stage 9, both of which featured the first serious climbs of the Tour. During Stage 8 the previously unthinkable happened -- Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel Team, that which I have described as a "machine" in the early stages, fell apart. Armstrong was left to fend for himself at the head of the pack, chasing down riders from T-Mobile who clearly sought to profit from the situation. Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden, and Alexander Vinokourov -- T-Mobile's trifecta -- took turns challenging Armstrong, a sure sign of what's to come later in the Tour. When the contenders -- the Armstrongs, Ullrichs, and Bassos -- hit the serious climbs, they usually do so surrounded by their teams, which are used to shield the team leader from the wind, chase down the break aways, and create the sort of opportunities the leader looks for to mount his own attack. When Armstrong's team failed to keep pace, they left him to both defend his position and reel in those trying to attack it -- both of which could put a strain on the energy Armstrong has so faithfully been trying to reserve for the serious climbing stages.

During Stage 9 the usually organized and consistent peloton started to splinter, dividing into smaller groups while the strongest climbers set a furious pace at the front of the pack. Armstrong lost the yellow jersey to Jen Voight from Team CSC, yet the standings have remained roughly the same relative to his time -- Ivan Basso and Ullrich are just over a minute back, Floyd Landis is hot on their heels, and T-Mobile, CSC, and Discovery still populate the upper rankings of the race. It is also around this time that riders start dropping out of the race, be it for injury or just utter exhaustion. Team CSC's David Zabriskie, who took first in the individual time trial but crashed in spectacular fashion towards the end of the team time trial, abandoned yesterday, citing the injury as the cause. Hell, had I fallen that hard that fast, I would have dropped way sooner.

As for my favorite, Ullrich, I can only say this -- I am both happy with his performance so far and looking forward to what he has yet to offer. He's comfortably rotating in the Top 15, riding intelligently while saving much-needed energy for the mountains to come. The story on him has been the lack of a story -- he hasn't done anything all too spectacular, preferring to remain anonymous and yet positioning himself as a serious contender ready to face the terrain where he tends to ride best. His strength and determination were proven yesterday, when a crash was serious enough to warrant x-rays (his trainers feared broken ribs) yet he managed to finish 29th. Just looking at the picture above you can see how powerful a rider he really is (his legs are huge, and in car-speak, he has been compared to a powerful Audi A8), and surrounded by the team he has, I am the sparks will fly between him and Armstrong soon enough.

As for what to expect, tomorrow's stage in the Alps is looking to be one of the most exciting of the race so far, the one that may well determine how strong Armstrong and his team really are and who the real challengers will be. Interestingly enough, riders and trainers from almost every other team spare no effort to praise Armstrong, knowing full well that he excels when challenged or faced with opponents convinced that he is, finally, beatable. I think the state of his team will determine how well he'll end up doing. I'm still rooting for Ullrich, though.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

More on the Bikes of the Tour


Today's New York Times featured an interesting article on the growing prevalence of American-made bikes and their use in the Tour de France, territory that only years ago was dominated by European manufacturers. The article highlighted Cannondale, a Connecticut-based bicycle manufacturer who since 1995 has been producing bicycles for Tour de France teams, first Team Saeco, and now Team Lampre-Caffita.

Cannondale's Six13 has a carbon/aluminum frame, weighs a pinch more than 15 pounds, and retails for $8000. I've always been a fan of Cannondale bikes, though, as the price of this particular model might indicate, they're not often priced for people with my salary. This bike is especially interesting because -- heads up, dorky bike-related tech talk coming -- it blends both aluminum and carbon in the frame. This isn't anything new, really, but considering that most bicycles for competitive cycling are made completely of carbon, it is different. Carbon is well known for being the lightest material around, and dampens road vibrations better than aluminum, titanium, or steel. Of course, carbon is less stiff than the other materials, which means that it works less well in transfering a rider's power directly into the pedals and onto the road -- hence Cannondale's use of aluminum for the bike's down tube, seat stays, chain stays, bottom bracket, and headset (I would bother explaining what each of these parts are, but I'll just assume that most people either don't really care or already know).

These are the days I really wish I had actually studied engineering in college.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Summer's Thunderstorms


I've been lucky enough to have missed riding in the rain in recent months -- but my luck seems to have ended today, as the weather image at left indicates. Washington summers are well known for being hot and humid, and subject to short yet intense thunderstorms. On Tuesday I had the experience of seeing the skies open up in a deluge of water from the comfort of the inside of my car, pitying the cyclists who who were stuck in the monsoon outside. Today I may well be one of those cyclists.

I really don't enjoy riding in the rain. I can stand extreme heat or bitter cold, but water on the roadways is never a good thing. I've seen what happens to District drivers when it rains (they get worse, much, much worse), so not only will I have to worry about not having as much traction and control as I usually do, I will also have to keep my eyes open for frantic drivers just itching to test how little traction and control I really have.

Here's to praying for a dry ride home. If that prayer can't be answered, how about a safe ride home? If not that, I'm walking. Seeing what happened in London today, there's no way in hell I'm getting on the Metro.

News I Shouldn't Have Missed...


This is just too tasty not to receive mention. I mean, how often can I mix my left-leaning politics with bike-related news and commentary? Not often, but today seems have offered me this morsel work with.

The Associated Press is reporting that President George W. Bush took a little bit of a spill off his bike this Wednesday while riding in Scotland, where he is attending a G-8 Summit. Reports have it that Bush ran into a local police officer while on a ride, resulting in an injured ankle for the officer and some minor scrapes on Bush's hands and arms.

Realistically, this isn't that newsworthy. So he fell off his bike. Everyone does at some point. Hell, it was only last year that I ran into a bike cop. It happens to the best of us. From what I hear -- and I have a good source on this one -- Bush is actually a pretty solid mountain biker. He's the proud owner of the Trek Elite 9.8, a $3000 carbon-frame mountain bike pictured at left and used most often in competition. I actually respect the fact that the man, as disagreeable as his politics may be, is an avid cyclist. God knows there aren't enough of them out there, especially of such prominence.

Bush has racked up his fair share of crashes over the years, though. When he originally bought his mountain bike, he insisted on one that was sized too large for him, resulting in his first bite. Now this. Training wheels, perhaps? Kerry took his own spill during the campaign last year, and as I reported recently, so did Virginia Governor Mark Warner.

God forbid I ever become a well-known politician. I've taken enough spills in mt day to ensure that I have more coming, and if this is what passes as news these days, the heavens only know how many wire reports there may be on me ending up face first on the ground.

Tour, Stage 6


I, like most working people, cannot simply take off three weeks so as to stay at home and watch the Tour. Though I would enjoy the time off, even I have to admit that my vacation time is worth more than sitting around and watching OLN all the time. Instead, I rely on nifty 30-second updates of the progress of the stage in progress available through Yahoo! Sports.

Stages in the Tour tend to run anywhere from 3 hours to more than 5 hours, so do the math -- 30-second updates for anywhere from 3 to 5 hours is, well, a lot of updates. And cycling being what it is, the updates tend not to be too exciting. Here's a made-up, yet relatively accurate rundown of what the updates looked like during yesterday's Stage 5:

10:31: The four riders leading the breakaway have 1'35'' on the peloton.
10:32: It's drizzling.
10:33: It stopped drizzling.
10:34: The four riders leading the breakaway have 1'32'' on the peloton, and they seem to be wet.

The most exciting part of these flat stages happens in the last 100 meters or so, when the sprinters engage in a mad dash for the finish line and the glory of winning one stage in the Tour de France. Of course, this is when these 30-second updates are wholly useless, since the most exciting sprints tend to happen in that 30-second window when that poor sap manning the computers in France is madly trying to update readers like myself on the race's progress:

11:04: 100 m left to go to the line. The sprinters have moved their way up in the pack. McEwen and Boonen are jostling for position.
11:05: What an exciting sprint that was. McEwen wins!

It really just isn't the same to read the Tour in progress, especially since the most exciting parts of long stages happen in the closing seconds. I did, though, find this nifty graphic representation of the Tour updates, pictured above, though. It's not much more helpful or descriptive than reading a three-hour stage, play by play, but it's kinda cute -- the little riders actually pedal their little digital bikes, and as the real gap closes on the breakaway, the digital riders approach the leading pack. My my, how far technology has come. Come to think of it, this really reminds me of this one game I used to play in seventh grade to test my typin aptitude (you know, how many words you could type a minute). Sentences would appear on screen, and you would have to type them as quickly as possible and with as few mistakes as possible. Your typing abilities were represented by a little runner racing an obstacle course against the computer -- the more mistakes you made, the more your runner would fall flat on his face and fall behind the computer's runner. Ahhh, memories.

I did watch Stage 5 last night when I got home. I have to admit this much: As much as I love competitive cycling, watching it for three hours is boring. Most of the flat stages involve the best riders blending in anonymously with the peloton, in hopes of not using up too much energy or running the risk of crashing this early in the race. The most action happens with the last-minute sprints, which, all told, can be very exciting. I'm looking forward to the mountain stages, where the best riders really break out of the group and attack each other aggressively. This is where Ullrich, Armstrong, Landis, Basso, and others will really have a chance to shine, or, conversely, fail trying.

There was no Sheryl Cam in evidence yesterday, thankfully.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

On the Bikes of the Tour

The Tour de France isn't only about 189 cyclists riding 2,000+ miles over 23 days -- it's about them doing so atop some of the most expensive and technologically advanced bicycles ever made. This month's issue of Bicycling magazine features some of the bikes of the Tour, few of which I could ever hope to afford, every one which I am thirsting to ride.

There's T-Mobile's Giant TCR, weighing a shade over 15 pounds and costing a paltry $5,000. Or there's Team CSC's Cervelo R2.5 Bayonne, whose 13.3 pounds made it too light for competitive racing. Or for the more pricey among us, there is Quick Step's Time VXR, whose high-end carbon frame alone costs $3,895. There are even rumors that Phonak's BMC Tour bikes cost upwards of $25,000 a piece, not to mention the $250,000 investment Trek made last year for a time trial bike that Lance Armstrong never ended up riding competitively.

These bikes use material technology often reserved for aerospace engineers. While their engineers are talking about ways to improve lateral rigidity while allowing for vertical compliance, I'm still thinking, "Wow, that's a nifty paint job." If you ever get a chance to stop by a bike store that carries high-end bikes, pick one up and wonder to yourself how a bike could be made so damn light without compromising safety.

These are the bikes that we cycling aficionados look at and drool over, while everyone else ponders how in God's good name a bicycle could cost that much. These are the bikes that make my trusty Bianchi Axis, which I bought for $1,300, look like a fat, unattractive, and useless tricycle. Then again, these are also the bikes that no one short of a professional should ever ride Does anyone really need a high-end carbon bike with all the bells and whistles to commute to work, unless that commute involves racing against 189 riders over the course of 100 miles a day? Probably not.

For now, I am just content with staring.

Commuter Comeuppance

This story is a few days old, yet the moral of it should never fail to impress one thing upon drivers in Washington -- don't mess with cyclists.

The Washington Post reported on Saturday of a slight altercation between a motorist and a cyclist. It seems that the motorist blocked the path of a 23 year-old cyclist early on Friday morning, and when asked, the motorist refused to move. To add injury to insult, the motorist stepped out of his vehicle, approached the cyclist, and pushed them over. The motorist then drove off, leaving bystanders to take down his license plate number and attract the attention of a U.S. Capitol Police officer standing nearby. The offending motorist, who turned out to be a certain Ted E. Schelenski, Vice-President for Finance and Operations of the Heritage Foundation, was promptly arrested.

First off, I couldn't conceal my happiness in knowing not only that a motorist this aggressive was arrested, but that the motorist in question was also a senior-level staff member of what could very well be the bastion of policy evil in America, the Heritage Foundation. Could you ask for any more than that?

I have to say that if any driver approached me and pushed me over, I'd probably stand up and promptly kick the side of their car with the underside of my biking shoes. See, biking shoes are equipped with a nifty piece of metal on the underside of the sole, a cleat, which hooks into your pedals for added traction and power while pedaling. This cleat would leave a nasty little ding in the side of any car, provided you kick hard enough. For added effect, I would probably drag my foot alongside the car. Seems fair, right? You push me, I vandalize your car.

Props to the bystanders for alerting the police, and to the police for actually arresting Schelenski. He should be forced to ride to work for a month. That might make him a little more sympathetic to the plight of the average cyclist on D.C. city streets.

How would he feel if I stopped in front of him and then pushed him off of his bike?

The Tour in Four Stages

I've been slacking off on the posting recently, and this block is but a few weeks old. Chalk it up to the extended Fourth of July vacation I just took, blame it on the fact that I spent more time eating, drinking, and religiously watching the Tour in recent days than I did sitting in front of my computer. So here's to catching up:

Tour de France: The Tour kicked off on Saturday -- 23 straight days of cycling lay ahead of me. I woke early enough to catch the three hour pre-race show, and then sat through another three hours of Stage 1, an individual time trial. Then I went biking. Phew.

As for how the Tour is going, well, Lance Armstrong and his Discovery Channel team are a machine. A machine. Up through the start of Stage 5, seven of the team's nine riders were in the top 15, with the top two slots being occupied by Discovery's George Hincapie and Lance Armstrong. First off, Armstrong placed second in the individual time trial. He started last in the group of 189 riders, one minute after Jan Ullrich, my favorite for the Tour, took off. Not only did Armstrong ride at an impressive pace, he managed to pass Ullrich towards the end. In the world of cycling, picking up one minute on a challenger and then passing them is a big deal. The second and third stages, both relatively flat and geared more towards the end of the race sprint, were nothing if somewhat boring -- most teams protected their captains, and both Ullrich and Armstrong finished safely in the pack and lost no time to the leaders in the process. The team time trial, which took place yesterday, was a test of a full team's resolve, talent, and stamina. The course was over 40 miles long, and teams set out one at a time and rode 100 percent the whole way, dropping weaker riders along the way. T-Mobile did well, setting the day's best time, until Discovery came along and one-upped them by a full minute. Discovery rode perfectly -- they displayed perfect form, they took turns rotating in and out of the front of the line, and none of the riders was dropped. Christ, they even set a new Tour record by hitting 35.54 mph. T-Mobile could have had their best day of the Tour, yet Discovery just seems faster, more dedicated, and working better as a team. After today there still are 16 stages left to go, so anything can happen, but up until now it's pretty much a two-team race for the yellow jersey -- of the top 15, seven belong to Discovery, six to Team CSC, and the remaining two to T-Mobile. Last year Ullrich was more than nine minutes behind Armstrong at this point, so I still have faith that the German, who won the Tour in 1997 and placed second 5 times since, can still catch up.

My only gripe thus far has been OLN's coverage. OLN is the only channel that carries the Tour in the U.S., and, conveniently enough, is a sponsor of Armstrong's Team Discovery Channel. So, their coverage has been less of the Tour than it has been of Armstrong and his team. I understand that Lance is the Michael Jordan of competitive cycling, and is currently racing for an unprecedented seventh straight Tour victory. That being said, the amount of attention OLN has given to him and the team is bordering on the ridiculous. There are times that I feel that OLN's main cycling commentators are less commenting more than cheerleading for Discovery -- and in the process knocking any of the potential competitors, especially Ullrich. Things got especially bad yesterday when they introduced what I am calling the "Sheryl Cam." Yes, they actually had a camera trained on Sheryl Crow's face as Lance and the team finished the time trial. So the woman is famous. So she's dating Lance. So she's a cycling fan. Tradition dictates that women are not allowed near or with the riders during the course of the race, and parading Crow around is not only boring and uninformative, it's mildly insulting to every other rider that left family and friends behind for the duration of the Tour. I really don't care what Crow thinks about cycling, much less do I think of her as an informed and objective source of commentary and analysis. Please, for the sake of this cyclist, keep her face off of my screen.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Tour de France Is Here!

Oh.

My.

God.

Some people love the World Series, others March Madness. I love the Tour de France. The Tour is the pinnacle of competitive cycling, a veritable Super Bowl on two wheels -- only it last three full weeks. Yes, three weeks -- 21 stages over 23 days, non-stop coverage and analysis on the Outdoor Life Network (which, thankfully, I have this year), waking up early every day to catch the racers as they compete for what is, ultimately, cycling glory.

Spare this country's brief obsession with Lance Armstrong's Livestrong bracelets, competitive cycling has historically been the province of Europeans. They host the three most well known races -- the Tour, the Giro d'Italia, and the Vuelta a EspaƱa -- sponsor most of the teams, and pump out the majority of the riders. I suppose I can see why the sport hasn't caught on in the United States -- it lacks the immediate glory of football or basketball, isn't part of American history and tradition like baseball, and fails to inspire heated rivalries between cities and states. To be honest, I wasn't particularly impressed by professional cycling until recently, when I began to appreciate the sheer physical exertion it takes to complete one stage, let alone an entire Tour (over 2,000 miles), the teamwork and intra- and inter-team rivalries involved, and the strategy in knowing when to attack and when to ride anonymously within the group.

Professional cyclists push their bodies to their absolute limits -- the best comparison is asking a runner to run a full marathon a day for 21 days, with only two days in between to rest -- training on average 10 months a year, sparing themselves any non bike-related impact (including walking or un-necessary standing), carefully watching what the eat, and consuming on average 9,000 calories a day during a race. They employ the latest in cycling technology -- each team is sponsored by a different bike, component, and apparel manufacturer -- shaving mere ounces off the weight of their bikes in a desperate attempt to gain seconds over their competition. Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel team rides Trek carbon bikes, some of which are so light that they come in under the minimum weight requirements established by the International Cycling Union -- roughly 15 pounds.

Cycling is less a sport and more a science -- understanding how much power your body can put out and sustain over a given period of time, knowing how hard you can push yourself until you reach a point of quickly diminishing returns, planning when to launch an attack and when to remain within the safety of the larger group (which, on average, cuts down your individual wind resistance and spares much needed energy, up to 30 percent). But beyond that, cyclists, just as all professional athletes, take risks, some resulting in dramatic victories, others in crushing defeats. There are too many stories of particular cyclists breaking away at the wrong moment, going for the glory only to realize too late that they spent too much energy too early -- a grave miscalculation when you consider that a pack of cyclists gains ten seconds on an individual on a breakway over every half-a-mile or so.

This is what I am waiting for this year, this is what I am excited for. Attacks, chase-downs, time trials, team efforts, individual glory, and, of course, crashes at 30 mph. I'll be watching, every day, every stage. I'm sure by the time late July comes around my roomates will be sick of me, and sick of cycling.

And as any true cycling fan, I have a favorite. But unlike many Americans, it's not Lance Armstrong. He's an unbelievable cyclist -- one of history's best -- with a remarkable story of tests and triumphs. But he's just not my guy. It could be the cocky Texas swagger, it could be the way his cycling has become more scientific and less spontaneous (everything, from his helmet to his sunglasses to his jerseys, are designed by a crack team of engineers known as F-1, after the Formula One race car), it could be the European in me wanting the Old World to reclaim some fame and glory in Paris come the end of July. I like Jan Ullrich, a talented German riding for the T-Mobile team, and Iban Mayo, a Basque riding for an all Euskatel Euskadi, an all Basque and publicly-owned team.

This is the best part -- the contenders are never determined until 12 or 15 stages in. As they say, the first stages won't win you a race, but they could very well lose it for you.

This is going to be great.