Saturday, July 9, 2011

Do It 'til It Hurts (Pt. I): The Tour de France

July is the only month in the year when I wish I owned a television; it's the month of the Tour de France. The Tour this year is 21 stages of finesse and bedlam in pretty much equal parts, some of the bedlam occuring in yesterday's stage 7 when a cluster of riders bunched and crashed about 25 km before the stage finish. A couple of riders abandoned the race with broken clavicles and the usual minor injuries; the 40-year-old American Chris Horner rode across the finish line in a concussed daze, nose broken, having no idea how far he'd ridden nor for how long.

 Bradley Wiggins, stage 7 and out

Consecutive early stages of narrow, sinewy roads, high winds, the flattish terrain encouraging sprints - all have combined to unsettle the field and keep a scant four second margin between the top three riders. Still, mild stuff compared with last year's edition, which had long stretches of the infamous cobbled pavé that caused several serious crashes. The cobbles were wet from summer rains. This has been going on for over a century.

Lothar Friedrich out of the Tour, 1957

A hilly stage today begins the mountain stages and the standings should change over the next few days. The sprinters will fall back in the standings for a while and the climbers will ride for the polka dot jersey, the King of the Mountains points.

 Fausto Coppi leads over Puy de Dome, 1952

To appreciate the traditions of the Tour you have to accept certain intractible facts in this uneasy marriage of concentrated, strenuous sport conducted within a barely contained donnybrook. It is beyond mention that riders get hurt every year in crashes; there are occasional fatalities, most recently in the Giro d'Italia in May, when a young Belgian fell 65 feet over a bank while descending in the mountains. Collisions with spectators are infrequent but not rare occurences, and more than a few errant souls have been sent on their Eternal Way by team vehicles (see Tour update below). Even the motorcycles of the press corps have been known to sail over an embankment, carrying the motorcyclist and a journaliste du sport into the same Abyss. But in France, to be numbered among the faithful means to be a cycling fan anyway, so there is a certain canonical propriety in such a demise.

There's a 'Jesus' to root for in every Tour

It isn't "Sturgis on Bikes," but crowd etiquette is not always quaint - and there are crowds
everywhere. International travel being what it is, the difference now is between the occasional cooling douse from a well-meaning voisin wielding a bucket . . .

Louison Bobet gets a dousing, 1955

and countless economy-class tourists from Brisbane, Boston, Bozeman, Barcelona, Bogota, Bucharest, Buenos Aires and Bora Bora . . . 

Adding to the press of the crowds is the press of numerous team vehicles following the riders, dispensing food, water and instructions. In the rowdy 1990s, the team cars were often virtual arsenals of pharmaceutical aids. Nowadays, keeping your drugs in the team car is like hiding your money under the mattress. Tom Boonen is currently sitting out the Tour for a positive cocaine test earlier this spring. (I thought coke was legal in Belgium, but the Grand Tours are their own countries.)

Doping has been a Tour staple almost since the first Tour in 1903. It seems to be on the wane these days, particularly with some high-profile trials pending, though as I've remarked before there have always been drugs in the Grand Tours, from a little champagne in the water bottle to pure rocket fuel. It's one topic that doesn't merit any further moralizing - if it is a vice, it's only because of the money that the Grand Tours have attracted.

The water handoff in former days was a literal moment that also gave a temporary boost to the local economy. Toss the empty, holster the full one, keep pedalling . . .

All the riders wear helmets now, but the mandatory helmet rule was not enforced by the UCI (the governing body) until 2003, when a Kazakh rider, Andrei Kivilev, fell and died in the Paris-Nice that year. The last Tour fatality was also a head injury - Fabio Casartelli fell while descending the Col de Portet d'Aspet in the 1995 Tour. The requirement for helmets (to my mind, at least) also marked the death of Tour fashion.

Ferdi Kubler, hot day, 1950

So here's to another July and another Tour. May it roll on forever.

Leave the kids, bring the wine.

 UPDATE: 07/09/2011

In Saturday's Stage 9, Alexandre Vinokourov, always a podium contender, American Dave Zabriskie and two Belgian riders crashed out on a turn, Vinokourov going down the embankment and ending his professional career by fracturing his pelvis and thigh. In another incident, 2010 Tour winner Alberto Contador went down after catching another rider's wheel in a crowd. And finally, a French television car took out two riders, Flecha and Hoogerland, swerving to avoid a tree along the roadside. Both were able to continue, Hoogerland only after extracting himself from the barbed wire fence into which he was unceremoniously flung. It even hurts to watch it, but enjoy it here with French commentary.

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