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.

1 Comments:

At 9:34 PM, Blogger KOB said...

Really nice resource. Like your blog. We need more bike lanes in this city.

 

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