Friday, July 23, 2010

Can't believe it's almost over.

Watching the Tour throughout most of the month of July leaves little time for such unimportant things as sleeping, working, and eating, but they must be done. I am already dreading Monday morning, when I will inevitably turn on the TV and find that the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen no longer fill my living room as I shuffle over to the kitchen for my first cup of coffee shortly before sunrise. I suppose I should prepare myself now.

This Tour has been full of bad luck for some - Cadel Evans' broken elbow, Tyler Farrar's broken wrist, Frank Shleck's broken collarbone, to name a few. Some have abandoned, some have soldiered on. Chapeau to Cadel for hanging in there, and to the sprinters for making it over the Alps and the Pyrenees. Tough lads, they are.

Some surprises - Lance losing time on the cobbles, Contador not winning a stage, Levi falling back in GC, and Chris Horner currently sitting at #10. I'm so happy for Chris, he is one tough guy, and I've enjoyed his daily blog posts in the Oregonian.

It's been filled with some drama too - from Renshaw's expulsion from the Tour after Stage 11, to Contador's attack when Andy Schleck had a mechanical on Stage 15. But what kind of a Tour would it be if there were no questionable tactics, no death-defying descents, no nasty weather, no situations where you can easily argue for one rider or another "well, that's bike racing". Reminds me of short track and Apolo Ohno always insisting at the Olympics that he can be the most fit, the most prepared mentally and physically, but once on the ice, anything can happen. "That's short track", he said in 2002 after crawling across the finish line following a dramatic pile-up when last-place Aussie Steven Bradbury glided across the line to capture the gold.

So, this bike racing, it is endlessly fascinating to me - every year I learn more about it and it becomes even more so. Why is that? After having seen the film "Chasing Legends" lastnight, could it be because I'm forming a list of the "Hottest guys in the Tour" calendar? No, that's not it - the Tour for me is not just about shaved muscular legs and fit bodies in spandex. It's about so much more than that. The passion for achievement, the willingness to "turn themselves inside out" as Paul Sherwen says, the sacrifices the domestiques make for the team, the strategy of one rider against another, team against team, rider against doubt, weather, injury, illness, fatigue. The beauty of France unfolding under each pedalstroke of the peloton, the crowds who come out in their crazy costumes, their skimpy clothing in the heat, waving their flags, shaking their fists at the riders, running alongside them, screaming "ALLEZ!!! ALLEZ!!!!" Willing them up the mountains, propelling them upward with the sheer passion of an entire country - the world, it seems, with all the flags representing so many nations waving in the wind. I even saw a University of Oregon flag on one stage flying next to an American flag! One day, I thought, I'd love to be there, but I don't think I'd scream and run alongside the riders. Just imagine camping there for days, waiting in anticipation, writing names in chalk on the road, meeting people from countries you've never been to, and then suddently, the motorcade arrives, the riders pounding out a rhythm with their bikes, their eyes looking ahead, unphased by the mayhem. How they manage to concentrate amidst all that chaos is beyond my comprehension! Some day, I shall ride up one of those climbs on my bike and await the peloton so I can experience it myself.

Until Monday, I will enjoy every minute. Can Andy Schleck gain time on Contador in tomorrow's time trial, an event Contador has been steadily improving in? Will Fabian Cancellara dominate as he did in the prologue? Will youngster Tony Martin outride Fabian like he did in the Tour de Suisse? Will Lance's farewell Tour end in a dramatic fashion? We shall see.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Best & worst

Commercials during the Tour are repeated ad nauseum throughout the coverage. I find that by mid-Tour, I have them all memorized, even though I record the live coverage on my DVR, but usually watch it at the same time, so I can't fast forward through all the ads. Even at night I'll watch the prime time coverage and forget that I have the day's stage recorded, but sometimes I'm too tired to pick up the remote, or I just get up & do something while the commercials are on.

I find myself missing the mojito commercials from last year in favor of the Michelob Ultra spots with Lance and featuring "Song Two" by Blur, a song I'm getting really tired of hearing. But it's better than the Cadillac commercials from last year featuring the whatshername redhead actress from Grey's Anatomy/Private Practice. I'd like to pretend I'd never seen the ridiculous ads for credit scores that are supposed to be what, dogs? Really? It's so stupid I hope that the agency that came up with this "creative" idea is never given another chance to come up with something even worse. My favorites, even though I've seen them probaby a hundred times by now, are the Radio Shack ads featuring Lance on his bike talking cell phone etiquette to his "assistant" Alphonse. They make me laugh every single time. My favorite one features Alphonse in full Radio Shack kit (with helmet) riding Lance's bike on the helmet. Camera pans past a note on the door "in France on business - Lance."

"They say the weight gain in training was a problem, but Lance said 'go ahead young man'. They're raising French babies and throwing soft cheeses, as is the custom here."
*cell phone attached to his waist rings, with an unrecognizable tune ringtone*
"Oh hey Lance, I was just faxing, I'm pretty busy."
"Get off my bike, Alphonse."
"Right, I'll get back to work". Hangs up the phone. A smile crosses his face.
"Oh yes, everyone is running after him, small children, saying 'he's the champion, ahhhh, woooooo!"

Me: Giggles.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Holding my breath

Wow, stage 9 today already? I am so far behind. I swear every day I spend maybe 6-8 hours sleeping and the rest either watching the Tour or reading about it online.

There have been some really brutal stages so far. With Frank Schleck and Christian Vandevelde out, there are still a lot of GC contenders left. But it became clear today that Contador and Andy Schleck are the best climbers in the business, as Bob Roll would say. Watching Lance and his series of bad luck issues, beginning with the spill in Stage 2 and then the flat on Stage 3 which lost him some time, and culminating in not one, not two, but three crashes on stage 8, it's clear that an 8th Tour win will not happen for him. It's really bizarre, like all the good karma he had in those 7 tours having great teams around him and surviving without any major mishaps has caught up with him. Who knows. In any case, it makes him appear more human and will be interesting to see him once again ride in support of another teammate, but this time I really do think he wants Levi to do well. Can't say this was the case last year, though Lance & Alberto were both on team Astana then. Today's stage & climb up the Madeleine was painful to watch - the images of a struggling Cadel Evans in the maillot jeune, the face of Jens Voigt contorted in pain, the cool, calm and collected face of Alberto Contador, and the slight grimace on the face of Andy Schleck are the ones I remember most. Yet I saw an interview with Chris Horner in which he just laughed at how brutal it was, talked about how much he suffered, and will be there tomorrow for more of the same. He gave a somewhat emotional interview on Sunday saying that he'd ride for Lance any time and that he's "a legend". That kind of loyalty is pure as this sport can be. You don't see that in the NFL or NBA, do you? I'm not so sure. But nothing can compare with the brutality of the Tour de France, the sheer and absolute lunacy of riding a bicycle around France.

While I'm ranting, can I say a few words about ugly kits? I can't even remember who I mentioned last year but come on AG2R, brown bibs? Really? And what is with the Footon- Sevetto team? Couldn't they at least come up with a better design or some better colors besides brown and brownish? If you want to send a guy in the break for some quality camera time, don't you think they'd consider having something a bit more pleasing on the eyes?

Speaking of pleasing, I sure loved seeing Fabian Cancellara in yellow. His dimpled smiles on the podium as he dons the yellow jersey brighten up even the gloomiest of days. And I have to admit that I yelled at my TV as if it would help Mark Renshaw and the rest of the Columbia HTC leadout train deliver Mark Cavendish to his 2 stage wins. I actually cried when I saw his emotions burst forth as he stood on top of the podium, not able to hold back the tears as he finally regained lost confidence, paid back his team for their hard work with a well-deserved win, and hopefully silenced his critics. He's been under a lot of pressure, and coming off such a phenomenal 2009 season he had a lot to prove.

There's still a lot of Tour left. I can't even make any predicions right now but I would absolutely LOVE to see Levi Leipheimer on the podium. Everyone is ruling out Cadel after his admission today that he's riding with a fractured elbow. I see no cracks in the armor of either Schleck or Contador, both of whom have strong teams around them. I'd rather see Andy Schleck win, which I can only justify by saying he seems more humble to me, and more appreciative of his team than Contador was of his Astana teammates last year. I also have more faith in Saxo Bank to deliver Andy to the Champs Elysses than I do of Astana to deliver Alberto. But, we shall see....

So when I'm not watching the Tour, or reading about the Tour, or thinking about the Tour, or talking about the Tour, I'm riding my bike. I put in 180 miles last week!

Oh. I just remembered, I have a full time job. Back to work.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A very crashy Tour

A 3-day weekend of riding and waking up early to watch the Tour de France reminds me that it's time for my annual Tour post. After all the hype & endless repeating of the Lance vs. Contador feud from the 2009 Tour, July 2010 is finally here. On Saturday the Prologue began in Rotterdam, proving to be no surprise that world champion time trialist (and hot Swiss guy) Fabian Cancellara needed no motor in his bike to crush everyone's time. Resplendent in yellow, and congratulated by Eddy Merckx, Fabian and the rest of the field rolled out today on Stage 2. But wait! I forgot all about Stage 1. What a mess. As all the teams fought to get their leadout men to bring their sprinters to the front, the twisty turns to the finish resulted in total chaos. First Adam Hansen and Mark Cavendish were caught up in a crash on a sweeping right turn, and then as everyone wound up within 1k of the finish, a massive pileup ensued. Caught up in the melee was well, pretty much the entire peloton. Poor Tyler Farrar had his rear derailleur torn off by locking up with the bike of an AG2R rider, who did not seem happy about that at all. A stage win by an American sprinter on the fourth of July would have been sweet. I'm sure Tyler could have achieved that goal had it not been for the craziness resulting in the massive crash. As it turns out, once again Alessandro Petacchi emerged from the chaos unscathed to storm across the line, much the same way he did in the Tour de Suisse when Cavendish and Haussler were caught up in a crash.

Anyway back to stage 2, Brussels to Spa. What seemed like a decent entry to the Ardennes ended up being absolute carnage. I've read the tweets, the blogs, and the articles, seen the videos, and watched the coverage on Versus. Apparently a moto crashed trying to avoid a fallen rider, and resulted in oil being spilled all over the road. This turned the descent of the Stockeu until "complete and utter chaos" with riders all over the road. Seeing the pictures of torn jerseys, bloodied faces, elbows and legs, just makes me ache. These guys, at least the ones who have not had positive x-rays for broken bones (Christian Vandevelde has 2 broken ribs and is out of the Tour) will be at the starting line tomorrow. Even Lance has road rash from a crash. Most of the GC guys hit the deck today at least once.

So I'm basically just rehashing everything that has already been broadcast and written. And there are some saying that this type of course should be reserved for the Spring classics and has no place in the Tour (Chris Horner, for one). I would have to agree. The Tour is difficult enough every year, why make it even more treacherous than it already is? These guys are away from their families, train for years to be there, spend every night in hotels, ride over 100 miles a day and burn thousands of calories. I for one don't want to see them bloodied and injured on the roads, that doesn't make it more exciting. What makes it more exciting is the suffering sure - but suffering like seeing a break that actually makes it to the finish, like Sylvain Chavanel's courageous ride today. That man deserves to be inyellow. Suffering like the contorted face of Jens Voight fighting to bring his teammates back to the main group after the crash. Suffering like the consecutive leadout men who pull off when their job is done and hope their sprinter is the first across the line.

I will get up at 5:30am to watch the Tour each day, then read about it on Twitter and all the internet articles, then watch it again in the evening. I'll talk about it with anyone who knows enough about cycling but I won't tolerate anyone who thinks that the Tour is easy. It's a pure sufferfest.

It sure makes it hard to predict any winners from the GC contenders with this type of start to the Tour. I do think that Lance will do well on the Pave' tomorrow, as will all the teams whose main guys ride the Spring classics. I wish Tom Boonen was there, as he'd really love it, even after his losses to Cancellara in both Flanders and Roubaix this year. He's Belgian, he lives for the cobbles. Contador may dance on his pedals and fly up the climbs but I don't see him doing well on the bone-jarring cobbles. I hope to hell it doesn't rain though, or it will be a total mess.