Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Le Tour de France 2011

Mont Ventoux
A few years ago - well, maybe more than a few but once - you couldn’t find anyone in the United States who knew what the Tour de France was to save your life. Now it’s on TV. And not even on cable alone, but also on the national channels. It attracts 12-15 million spectators watching on 121 television stations around the globe.
     For the few among you who still don’t know what it is, the Tour is a three-week 2,500-km-long bicycle race around France that started way back in 1903. It has been run biked every year since then, except during the two World Wars. In addition to a few time-trials, it combines long days speeding across vast plains under the blistering summer sun with other days pedaling up steep, never-ending mountains in the Pyrenees, the Massif Central or the Alps and then coasting dangerously fast down the other side. Merciless, the Tour de France is known for separating the men from the boys... and yes, it’s all male. There was a version for women, an abbreviated version, but it was discontinued in 2009 for lack of organization and/or money and/or interest. (Jeannie Longo was the most famous of France’s female cyclists.)
Where Tom Simpson died
     Sixty riders struck out on that first race in 1903, but only 21 crossed the finish line. Since then it’s been the downfall of many a pretentious peddler who has had to drop out along the wayside, as well as the death of four cyclists. In 1910, one drowned ignominiously during a rest day on the Riviera. Then in 1935 and 1995 two others died in respective crashes, both during mountain stages. The most heart-breaking perhaps was in 1967 when British cyclist Tom Simpson died of a heart attack trying to pedal up the Mont Ventoux (alt 1,912 m / 6,273 ft); amphetamines were found in his jersey and in his blood. What was supposed to make him faster, to make him a winner, ended up killing him.
     There has been much written about le doping, the use of drugs during the Tour. It’s the race’s dirty (not-so-)secret. Everyone is tested before the race begins. Then two samples are taken after every stage, both randomly as well as for the race leader and stage winner. In 2006, the last American to win, Floyd Landis, was stripped of his title in spite of his protests when he tested positive. 2007 was even worse, with several riders eliminated for doping. In 2010 Spaniard Alberto Contador, three-time Tour champion, tested positive for a drug used by asthma patients, and then played the "tainted steak" card. But aside from that, the last two Tours have been free from positive drug tests, so maybe it’s getting better. Or maybe, with the use of oxygen-rich blood transfusions, the riders are just getting better at covering their tracks (pun intended).
     American Lance Armstrong has repeatedly been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs but has never tested positive... not once. He won the race 7 successive times - every year from 1999 through 2005. Before him, another American biker, Greg Lemond, won it 3 times: in 1986, ’89 and ‘90. That puts the U.S. in fourth place behind France (with 36 wins), Belgium (18) and Spain (13).
     But in spite of le doping, the Tour de France remains a tremendous physical feat. Many a French boy - and some from outside of the Hexagone - trains diligently all his life and dreams of one day whizzing across the finish line on the Champs-Elysées in Paris to win the coveted maillot jaune... or even to wear it for just one stage. And you can watch all of those boys try to do just that right now. The Tour, which started on July 2nd, will end on Sunday, July 24th. Check your paper for time and channel.

For more info on the Tour de France 2011, click on:

1 comment:

  1. When we were biking by Ventoux in Provence, in the early 1990s (yes, 20 years ago!), a bike rider on the Tour de France came screaming downhill in those same mountains, slipped off his bike on the gravel scattered on the mountain road, and his head hit one of the French little granite edge-of-the-road markers that are roughly 5 centimeters in elevation,
    And perhaps 20 centimeters on a side, and are totally worthless for keeping you on the road like a guard rail, but were perfectly OK for impaling the rider’s head and killing him instantly. Since then, helmets have been actually used by Tour de France bike riders, in part in response to this death.

    Our best rider on that bike trip went to attack one of the hills that the Tour had gone through a week or so before; Each stage has typically three hills, one of which is rated VERY DIFFICULT and the other two are UNRATED because it never crossed anyone’s mind that you would be stupid enough to climb up this hill and then survive the downhill at 80+ kilometers per hour. Our rider made it 1/3 of the way up the first hill, and gave up.

    These bike riders are phenomenal athletes