The Tour de France vs Everything Else

The Tour is in its 99th year.  The summer race around France, with pastoral country side and towering mountains, through pouring rain and tire melting heat, draws 15 million viewers every July.  It spawns the sales of thousands of road bikes to people who would otherwise never even consider a bicycle at all.  It makes lycra ok.  Well.  Sort of.

Cipollini takes it to the limit, one more time.

Since the first edition of the Tour, raced on steel fixed gear bikes from sun up until long past dusk, riders have racked up mileage in excess of 220,000 miles, greater than the distance from the earth to the moon.  The tour has changed shape over the years, from the early days of zero support, where riders rode exclusively for themselves with no outside help allowed, to today’s team cars, radios, and group tactics.  The daily speeds have gone up while the distances have gone down.  Road surfaces have drastically improved, from goat tracks and cobbles to smooth, fresh tarmac.  The 1970’s saw a decreasing popularity in the tour amongst the municipalities the Tour went though.  Towns, embarrassed at the rustic state of their roads, saw fit to pave the country byways before the tour came through, gutting budgets and causing resentment.  It was not until recent times that Tour organizers were able to convince towns that the rustic roads were the raison d’etre, and that fans loved to see the riders suffering on historic roads.

Eddy Merckx and a founding member of The Specials wonder what’s around the bend.

Technology and science have changed the face of the tour.  Mandatory helmets, the move away from traditional clothing and frame materials, the increased, overbearing presence of science and power monitoring have all taken some of the guts from the sport and replaced it with logic, forgone conclusions, and a seeming inability to just ‘go for it’.  But there is still romance, pain, suffering, and victory against overwhelming odds in the Tour.  There are still surprises, breakaways that actually work, huge solo efforts against mountains that harken to the days before we knew what a Lactic Threshold was.  There are still bad guys and good guys, scandals and stories of redemption, winners and the ones you wish would win…

I don’t follow sports.  I fail to see the appeal of soccer, or football, or baseball, or car racing.  I don’t understand how poker is sport, or pool.  I love swimming, but only in a lake, with the possibility of ice cream afterward.  I don’t understand huge paychecks for tossing a ball around, or wacking one with a stick.  When I was a kid playing soccer, I never could remember which goal was ours, because I was so bored that I was constantly day dreaming.  My main concern was sliding through the grass and missing the ball, mainly so I could collect impressive grass stains and or scabs.  Our team always got some sort of pitiful trophy that looked like it had been microwaved, the fake gold soccer player sagging and possibly crying atop his faux marble stand.  It seemed to me like these were activities you partook in when there was literally nothing else better you could be doing.  Poking a mud puddle with a stick for instance, or filling model airplanes with firecrackers and tossing them out the bedroom window.  Important things, things with meaning.

“We’ll put the firecracker right here…”

My first real bike was a beautiful grey mountain bike with matching grey tires.  It was steel, and rode like a dream.  Every summer I spent hours climbing the mountain at the end of my street, a long, grueling dirt climb that ended in beautiful meadows, followed by a harrowing descent down the otherside, and a slow cruise back home next to a glacial lake.  This suffering was fun!  It had meaning! Views! Adventure!  Possible ice cream endings!  I was hooked, for life.  But I didn’t know about bike racing.  I wasn’t ready for the soap opera drama of it, the weird euro names, the impossible to memorize team monikers, the tactics, the length and depth.  I collected baseball cards for the stale gum, not the players, whom I knew nothing about.  Stats were something akin to IRS tax code, irrelevant, confusing, and pointless. Then I went to college.  Had free cable TV.  My future wife and I fell into the Tour De France because of the Controversial Texan.  He was a symbol, a story, a reason to watch.

Lance shows his math skills

Everyone has their own reasons to watch the tour, or not.  It takes time, lots of it.  The tour lasts for hours everyday.  If you were to actually watch the whole thing, you would have no life.  If you just watch the highlights, you might as well not watch.  It is within the daily struggle that the story unravels like a spider spinning a long lycra thread.  The commentary on the background of each rider, the suffering on the faces of the breakaway group and their inevitable demise, the riders who die small deaths off the back of the peloton, the disorientation of those who crash, the anger of those who suffer mechanicals, the passion of the sprint and the heroism of the climbers.  The nuance of the sport is lost in the highlight reel.  There is no history in the reel, no peeks into psychology, no lessons on the country side, stories about this Chateau or the upcoming climb.  There is just racing, at its most distilled.  Sometimes, as with good bourbon, you have to add a bit of water, so it can breathe.

Subscribe to the tour online at NBC.  It’s 30 bucks for a month of racing, and there is excellent, highly biased commentary that is occasionally really funny.  It’s like a book on tape.  Think of it as summer reading for cyclists.  Think of me as Oprah, and this is my book club assignment to you.  I don’t make any money off it, unless you come in and buy a road bike from me!

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Shop Rides:

Tuesday and Wednesday’s rides are cancelled. Look for them next week though!

Sunday evenings:  If it isn’t raining horribly, meet at the shop at 5pm.  We’ll hit the road around 5.30 for a 30-45 mile road ride at a decidedly casual pace.  We occasionally hit dirt roads, but it’s a road ride so you can bring a road bike, we promise.  The terrain will be hilly to downright mountainous, but done at a pace that won’t leave you gasping for air.  We even take breaks.  Bring these things with you:  Bright Lights (front and rear), spare tube (at least one), pump/co2, some food, some money for soda or whatever along the way.

Thursdays:  Mountain ride with Brian and Team Flying Dog.  Meet at 5.30 at the foot of the dirt section of Mountaindale Road, by that big maintenance shed.  Hilly, technical watershed mountain biking, but a relaxed pace. Back before dark.

Sunday Mornings:   Women’s beginner road rides from the Starbucks in the Westview Shopping center.  8AM 12-18 miles on low traffic roads.  Rides will be led by Tracy, who works here, and know the roads well, and all that good stuff.

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