"To say that the race is a metaphor for life is to miss the point. The race is everything. It obliterates whatever isn't racing. Life is the metaphor for the race."
The sport of bicycle racing has been my passion since I was 12. I would pedal up to the bike shop and read the European racing magazines. The pictures blew me away--pictures of men who looked like they were suffering in the worst way, riding shoulder to shoulder with the snow-capped Alps as the backdrop. It was a world that few in this country (and nobody at school) knew about, yet in the photos the crowds along the roadside were huge.
The Tour de France, I would learn, was (and is) the world’s largest annual sporting event, with over 20 million spectating in person each year and another one billion watching on television around the globe. It’s a magical, three-week odyssey, circling France--clockwise one year, counterclockwise the next--with a history chock full of incredible stories. Since the mid 90’s, however, we’ve come to learn that many of the riders who authored those incredible stories have had some serious pharmaceutical help.
Pro cycling is, without question, the hardest sport in the world. The Tour is the hardest single event in the world. Many events can rival a single Tour stage in difficulty, but no event demands that you compete at such a high level for three weeks straight. The five-time French Tour champion Jaques Anquetil once said “how can you expect to win the Tour on bread and water alone?” In his day (the 50’s and 60's) amphetamines or liquor helped the riders get over the Pyrenees. Today, it’s EPO or testosterone. Cycling’s governing body has done a better job than any other sport in the world of trying to police the cheats--first-time offenders are banned for two years--but the demands (and rewards) of the sport have the cheats always trying to come up with the next great drug or next great masking agent.
As one of the biggest bicycle racing fans alive, even I have a tough time getting past the sport's dirty recent history. How many Tours since 1991 have been won by clean riders? I’m afraid the answer may be less than five, and possibly less than one. I hate that drug use has sullied such a beautiful sport. But, like a lot of sports fans, I’m able to compartmentalize--like the baseball fan who cheers a bulked-up slugger or the football fan who roots for an impossibly big and fast linebacker, I’m able to watch a bike racer fly up a mountain and still get a thrill from it.
It will be hard to watch Alberto Contador in this year’s Tour, but I’ll still watch. The sport is still a spectacle. The HD helicopter shots of the French countryside are still breathtaking. The bikes are still cool. The voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are still quite comforting. And, the drama of a battle up l’Alpe d’Huez or a close time trial is hard to beat. Yes, the sport has it’s problems, but which sport doesn’t? And, I’m not alone in feeling this way--20 million will again line the roadside in France, and one billion will again watch around the world.
The Tour is Christmas in July for me. Each day’s stage is a present waiting to be unwrapped. It’s also a trip down memory lane--each summer as I watch the race, my mind's 'refresh' button gets clicked. All of the great moments from Tours past which motivated me through countless miles of my own training and racing are recalled. Merckx or Hinault destroying the field. LeMond vs Fignon. Roche getting oxygen at the top of La Plagne after saving his yellow jersey. Bridesmaid Zoetemelk winning, at last.
I appreciate the fact that I now get to watch televised coverage of the Tour live, every day. When I was first discovering the sport in the late 70’s, I had to wait three months to find out who had won the race--the results were never printed in the sports page and there was no Internet, so I had to wait for the October issue of “Bicycling” magazine to learn who had come out on top. In 1981, NBC did a few minutes on the Tour when Jock Boyer became the first American to ride it (that was also the first time I had ever seen moving pictures of the race), and CBS did weekend coverage of the event in the mid 80’s when LeMond burst onto the scene. Today, we are spoiled.
So what kind of race do we get this summer? Who will win it? How many will test positive? My picks:
1. Alberto Contador. Yes, it's hard to believe the tainted meat story. But it's also hard to deny that Contador is the best bike racer in the world. If everyone is doping, Contador wins. If everyone is clean, Contador wins. He’s one of the best ever. He’s won the Tour, Giro and Vuelta--only Merckx, Gimondi, Hinault and Anquetil have done the career sweep of the three big races. He can’t be dropped on the climbs, and he will time trial better than he did last year (he recently finished 3rd in the Spanish TT Championship). He may be a little tired from winning the Giro in May, and victory in the Tour will not be as easy as it was in Italy, but he’s still the favorite. We’ll have to wait for his August hearing to find out if all these wins count.
2. Andy Schleck. If he doesn’t drop his chain on Stage 15 last year, he probably wins the race. At 26, he’s in his prime--the problem is that Contador is 28 and in his prime, too. Schelck has not been impressive this season, getting dropped on the climbs in California and Switzerland. But we said the same thing before last year’s Tour. He has a way of peaking for this race. He’ll benefit from the team time trial, but most likely lose time to Contador in the individual time trials--and since there is more time to be won and lost in the individual TT’s than in the team TT, the advantage swings to Contador. (By the way, are we all sure the Schleck brothers are clean? If Contador is doping, then how can Andy and Frank match him pedal stroke for pedal stroke? This is the sad thing: nobody in the sport seems beyond suspicion.)
3. Ivan Basso. His entire season has been focused on one last good shot at the Tour. At age 33, he probably won’t be able to climb with Contador and Schelck, but a podium spot is not out of reach.
4. Sammy Sanchez. Underrated rider. Can climb and time trial. Will be a factor.
5. Robert Gesink. 6th last year. Great climber, not much in the time trials. Will win a mountain stage.
I have a feeling that this Tour might be too much for elder statesmen like Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, the evil Alexander Vinokourov, and the high-talking Cadel Evans. Oh, and Mark Cavendish will win most of the sprints--he’s got 15 career Tour stage wins, and getting to Merckx’s record of 34 is not out of the question considering Cav is just 26 years old.
I'm glad the team time trial is back--it's poetry in motion. I'm looking forward to the Stage 8 finish at Super Besse. Stage 12 over the Tourmalet and then up to Luz Ardiden is a classic Tour route. And Stage 18, finishing on the mighty Galibier, could be epic.
There you have it. Hope you enjoy the 98th edition of “La Grande Boucle.” I know I will. So will the 12 year old inside me--and he won’t have to wait three months to find out who wins.