Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Great Tour at a Great Time

There is no doubt the sport of professional cycling has taken a PR beating over the last 13 years. Once the Festina affair of '98 blew the lid off of the seedy underbelly of doping in the sport, there has been a cloud hanging over it's biggest event, the Tour de France. Just when it seems that things are getting better, Operation Puerto happens, or race leaders/winners like Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador test positive. While cycling is undergoing a cleansing, the Tour got just what it needed this year: a spectacular race with a worthy champion and no doping controversies.

At age 34, Cadel Evans became the third oldest man to ever win the Tour, and the first Aussie (somewhere Phil Anderson is smiling). He's been trying for years, twice finishing second. I used to not be much of an Evans fan, but ever since he won the World Championship with that brilliant attack in Mendrisio, I've come around on him. He'll now go down in the record books as one of the sport's greatest, an all-around champion who can win the biggest one-day events, as well as the hardest stage races. You wouldn't guess it by looking at his slight build and hearing his contralto voice, but Evans proved to be one of the toughest men on earth over the past three weeks.

Evans won this race as the greats of the past have, with consistency and panache. He won stage four by out-sprinting Contador on a steep, uphill finish. He was always near the front on the big climbs, often having to work alone without the benefit of teammate...or a brother (I loved that the Schlecks were always trying to give Evans the old one-two, yet Evans still prevailed) in the high mountains. His rivals refused to help him chase, so Evans just got on with the task at hand and did it all himself. He kept himself close enough to the lead throughout the three weeks, and then finished everyone off with one of the most dominant time trial rides in recent Tour history.

To win the Tour, you must be a complete rider. You must be able to ride with the best uphill, downhill, and in the time trials. Evans can do all three. Andy Schleck can only do one of those. Granted, he does that one thing (climb) better than anyone, but it wasn't enough. Andy lost the Tour on the descents and in the time trials. Andy didn't ride a poor final time trial when he surrendered yellow to Evans, it just wasn't the kind of TT a Tour champion has to ride. The pure climbers who have won the Tour in the last 30 years (Delgado, Pantani, Sastre) have all been able to go downhill fast, as well as ride a competent enough time trial to hold on to the race lead.

Andy Schleck: The New Poulidor?

It should be noted that Andy Schleck is getting better at riding against the clock. His ride in this year's final TT was not as poor as everyone is making out to be: he finished 17th, 2:38 back. Compare that to his final TT last year, when he finished 44th and 6:12 back. Yet everyone says he rode a great TT last year and a poor one this year. In reality, it's just the opposite. What confuses everyone is that Contador rode a very poor TT last year, making Andy's ride look good. But Contador was terrible that day, as was Schleck. This year, Schleck was OK, Evans was phenomenal. OK usually doesn't win the Tour. Phenomenal does.

Will Andy Schleck ever win the Tour? He's finished second three times now. He's 26, so he's got many good years remaining. He's got to get over his shakes going down hill fast, and he's got become a better time trialist. He's clearly got a massive engine, so he should be able to ride faster against the clock. But I can't see him ever being a truly complete rider. Plus, he'll have to face Contador in his prime for a few more years. Andy might get a Tour win at some point, but he's had two golden chances the last two years, and he couldn't do it. How many more golden chances will he get?

Raymond Poulidor earned the nickname "The Eternal Second" because he was always close to winning the Tour, but never did. My guess is that Andy Schleck's career will look more like Joop Zoetemelk's or Jan Ullrich's: a lot of second place finishes, but one Tour win sandwiched somewhere in the middle.

Best Tour in Years

Credit to Tour Director Christian Prudhomme for laying out a great course. The team time trial is always fun. The first week wasn't just a bunch of boring, flat sprint finales--there were plenty of tricky and tough uphill finishes to make it interesting. The second week in the Pyrenees was great, unfortunately the riders rode the stages very conservatively which made for some dull mountain racing. But they more than made up for it in week three. There were more fireworks in the Alps than we've had in some time. The early stages in week three were made interesting by the tricky descents that ended stages and created time gaps. The two big stages ending on the Galibier and l'Alpe d'Huez were brutal tests, and Schleck and Contador attacking so far from the finish on those days were the stuff of legend.

Speaking of Contador, he was never really himself in this Tour. Why? He probably never thought he would get to race the Tour (his doping hearing was supposed to take place in June), so he raced all-out at the Tour of Italy in May, which he won in dominant fashion. He may not have left much in the tank for July. Or, perhaps he lost too much time because of crashes in the first week. Or, maybe this is the real, non doped-up Contador, who, when clean, is one of the best in the world, but not always the best. Whatever the reason, a below-his-best Contador was still a big part of the race. He helped make it an epic Tour.

French interest in the race was sky-high. Thomas Voeckler's long stint in the yellow jersey was tremendous to watch--he fought as hard as anyone in recent memory to stay in the lead, and kept the jersey much longer than anyone (including himself) thought was possible. It's amazing to consider that in his career, Voeckler has now worn the maillot jaune for 20 days, more than Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Alberto Contador, or Jan Ullrich. Thomas Voeckler! Teammate Pierre Rolland was a revelation, winning the white jersey for best young rider, as well as the stage to l'Alpe d'Huez. Two other French riders finished in the top 15. For a country that hasn't had a Tour winner since Hinault in '85, the future is finally looking bright.

There were so many other great animators in this race. Mark Cavendish won five stages (20 now in just four years!). The world champ Thor Hushovd won two stages and did the rainbow jersey proud. Fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen won two stages as well, and looks like a future superstar. Philippe Gilbert was always mixing it up. Even American Tyler Farrar got his first-ever Tour stage win, while his American team Garmin-Cervelo won the best team competition.

Vive Le Tour

I was reminded of why this is the greatest sporting event in the world. Three weeks of incredible suffering, incredible sports drama, and incredible performances. Three weeks of getting to listen to Phil Liggett. Three weeks of all kinds of weather. Three weeks of crashes and sprints. And, three weeks of HD television pictures of the most beautiful stadium ever created: the French countryside (sorry Jerry, it's even more amazing than your Deathstar--as if he's reading this blog).

Perhaps most importantly, this appeared to be a clean Tour. It looked like the old days of cycling--riders looking exhausted at the end of a tough stage, star riders getting dropped on the climbs, and riders attacking from way out in an attempt to make up lost time. In many ways it was a throw-back Tour. We saw the kind of racing we haven't seen since the 80's--since before EPO. Maybe the great lengths the sport has gone to in order to clean up the peloton are finally working. Maybe.

If a Cadel Evans positive drug test is revealed in the next few days, forget I wrote any of this.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Experiment is Over

Last year at this time, the men's World Cup had just finished. I wasn't impressed. The soccer was generally boring to me. Perhaps it was the constant sound of the vuvuzelas coming from the South African crowds, perhaps it was the great lack of scoring opportunities during each game, or perhaps it was that I knew almost none of the players. Whatever the reason(s), I mentioned on the show how the World Cup generally put me to sleep, and that opinion was met with great anger from the soccer community. So, I decided to give the world's number one sport one more chance.

Most of the emails I received from soccer fans actually agreed with me. They said that the World Cup was not the best soccer to watch--that most of the teams played very defensively and they weren't as familiar with their WC teammates as they were with their normal professional club teammates. Many suggested that I watch European pro soccer--the English Premier League, La Liga (Spain), or Serie A (Italy). I decided that the best the league to follow would be the EPL, since everything would be in my language--the broadcasts, the articles, etc. I also decided to pick one team and follow them for the entire season, that way I would get very familiar with the players while seeing every other team in the EPL as they popped up on the schedule.

But which team? At The Ticket, Bob Sturm adopted Liverpool, so I couldn't pick them. Man U are the Yankees of the EPL, so I couldn't pick them. Chelsea is a close second to Man U, so I didn't want to pick them, either. I didn't want to go too far down the EPL table, because I needed a team that would be popular enough to have all or most of their games televised. Arsenal stood out. They are very good, but not the best. They have a colorful history. They have a cool name. And, everyone told me that they played a very wide-open, Euro-style of football that would be exciting to watch. So, a year ago today, I officially adopted the Gunners. The announcement was carried around the world. My one year experiment was underway.

I pledged that I would watch all of the Arsenal games that I could, read as much about them and the sport as I could, and, at the end of the year, I would decide whether the sport was worth my time or not. How did I do? Of the 38 regular season games, I saw 32 of them. I missed a couple due to vacation, and I missed the last three at the end of the season when I lost interest and while the NBA playoffs were heating up. I checked my various soccer websites almost daily. Bob loaned me his copy of Fever Pitch, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I bought an issue of Four-Four-Two magazine and digested it. I gave the experiment all that I had. I left everything out there. It was a remarkable effort.

My conclusion? I really enjoyed the journey, and I now really enjoy the sport. I had a blast. Arsenal was, at times, very frustrating, but they were always interesting and entertaining. Some of my favorite things from my year with the EPL:

The Four Competitions: It's a long season, and with the schedule constantly broken up by the four different trophies that clubs chase, I thought it would be too much. It actually turned out to be one of the most interesting things about the season. The EPL title, the Champions League title, the FA Cup and the Carling Cup all being contested during the same season keeps things lively. Arsenal had a shot to win all four (they didn't win any). Just as you might start getting bored with the EPL regular season, here comes a Champions League game against Barcelona, or the Carling Cup Final, or a game against Man U in the FA Cup. Can't imagine that kind of a season working for an American pro sports league. Maybe that's why I liked it so much-it was different.

The Color and Pageantry: I can't wait to go to an Arsenal game in person. I will do it this season. It's a spectacle on television, so it must be 10 times better in person. I love Euro sports anyway--the signage, the announcers, the uniforms. Again, it's different to what I'm used to watching in this country, so it's stimulating. The fans, the chants, the stadiums--it all captured me.

The Game: I now understand why they call it 'the beautiful game.' It's not always beautiful when watching the World Cup or the MLS, but when you see the best players in the world playing in the best leagues in the world, it's beautiful. The EPL teams, for the most part, play to win. Arsenal's style is great--their passing is precise, they like to get up and down the pitch, and they get a lot of scoring opportunities (although they tend to want to walk the ball into the net sometime, which made me sorry I missed the halcyon days of Thierry Henry). Bottom line: I don't need a lot of goals to make me happy, but I do need a lot of scoring chances, and I got a lot in the average EPL match. I also like the fact that it's a tidy presentation: two, 45 minute, running clock halves. Two hours for a match--never more, never less. The only time you see a commercial during a game is pregame, halftime, or postgame.

The EPL Table: 20 teams. You play each team twice--once at home, once on the road. That's perfect. No divisions. No playoff. Simple. Top team wins the title (the best always wins--no chance of some Wild Card team getting hot and stealing a championship), top four teams qualify for the Champions League (the best of Europe), and the bottom three teams each season--get this--are demoted! The crappy teams get sent down to the minor leagues and the three best from the minors get called up to the show--great concept!

I learned that there is a lot to like about soccer, and I'm just scratching the surface. One problem: I've already become a soccer snob. Just like an NFL fan trying to watch the CFL or the XFL, I can't just sit down and watch any college, low pro-level or women's soccer match. But at least my one year experiment has given me a base of knowledge to work with when discussing the sport.

Soccer didn't become my favorite sport (I would still rather watch a bike race, any NBA game, any NFL game, or any college football game over soccer), but it's now on par with baseball and golf for me, and ahead of hockey and tennis and anything else. It's something that I'll always watch and follow. I'll always be an Arsenal fan.

I also discovered that you are never too old to start following a new sport. It can be invigorating. There is so much great action and drama out there, it's a pity that some people get football or baseball tunnel vision. In fact, I'm thinking about adopting a new sport to watch this fall--maybe curling? Or badminton? Or camel racing?

I was wrong last year when I said that soccer sucks. I should have said cricket sucks.