Monday, July 21, 2008

In Defense of the Tour de France and the other Grand Tours

My favorite month of the year is July because that is the month that the Tour de France is run in. I would like May (Giro de Italia) and September (Vuelta a Espana) but with the Tour de France I get live coverage everyday on Versus network. I also get replays throughout the day and a special prime time replay with Bob Roll and Craig Hummer at 8 PM each night.

In spite of the bad press that this year's Tour has recieved (3 failed tests, 1 team withdrawal and the loss of a large team sponsor) I am still a fan and I get more excited about the outcome as the Tour progresses. At the start I am not always familiar with the riders. I know the more famous ones such as Robbie McEwen, Cadel Evans and George Hincapie. Thanks to Cervelo the CSC riders get a lot of press so I know the Schleck Brothers and Fabian Cancellera. I also know Christian Vande Velde thanks to his tour diaries on Velonews last year. As the Tour moves along I start to know the names of the other riders and I even get the correct pronunciation.

I think part of the appeal for me is that cycling has a little bit of everything. Like NASCAR and F1 it has spectacular crashes like the one on the roundabout in stage 15 (that nearly took out all of Team Garmin-Chiplolte) or the exploding Specialized S-Works SL2 of Stage 13. Like baseball it has long periods where not much happens only to be wrapped up by a great finish.

There is both pettiness and great sportsmanship all in at once. When Denis Menchov fell during an attack on a climb in Stage 15 the other riders slowed down to wait for him to catch up. Image the other drivers in NASCAR pulling over and waiting for a driver with a flat tire or other mechanical problem. Of course the riders do it because they want to be treated the same way when they have a problem. It would stink to have a rider lose the Tour because of rain or a flat tire. There is not much that can be done about broken bones.

Mark Cavendish of Team Columbia provided a lot of excitement during the sprinting stages (a flat 100 mile plus ride with a big mass race for the finish in the last kilometer) this year. It was funny how the other riders could stop themselves from pointing out Mr. Cavendish's inability to climb. In fact Mr. Cavendish did not start stage 15 because he did not want to climb the Alps for little or no gain. He had his 4 stage wins and is now looking forward to riding Madison in the Olympics with Bradley Wiggins.

Like football there is also strategy and team work. Since a group of riders together use less energy than 1 rider by himself it is important for teams to work together. Riders are controlled by the team managers riding behind in cars. All the riders have radios and it is similar to a coach on the sideline calling in plays to the quarterback.

For the techno-geek there are plenty of shiny gadgets. From the carbon frame bikes with index shifting and aero wheels to the onboard computers that calulate watt power. Every Tour broadcast has a least one segment where the vendors can sell their wares. So far Bob Roll and Robbie Ventura have talked to Cervelo, Specialized and Shimano. I just learned about SRMs this year because I noticed that they were one of the sponsors of Team Columbia as well as several other teams. For me the technology is kind of a negative since I would rather be riding rather than reading a tech manual (too much like my real job) but I did run into another rider that swears by them (rather than at them).

Stage 16 will be tomorrow (Tuesday) and it will be interesting to see if Christian Vande Velde can keep up with the other contenders. The top 6 riders within a minute of each other so they are all going to have to stay together. There is a good chance that this years Tour winner will get to Paris without winning a stage. The big mountain climbs will be won by breaks that stay away and the GC contenders will be in the second chase group. I do expect Denis Menchov to breakaway during one of the climbs and then make the rest of the contenders chase him. Team CSC is strong since they will have at least 3 riders in the front groups for all of the climbs.

While the dopers do disappoint me (I understand) they are not ruining it for me. I only hope with I will continue to get the same level of coverage in the years to come. I sometimes worry about teams losing sponsors but then I remember that there are two American teams with European riders sitting at home for this years tour one even has last years 1 and 3rd place Tour de France riders. I am sure that that RockRacing and Astana are more than willing to take the place of Barloworld and Saunier Duval.

Watching the Grand Tours (Italy, France and Spain) on TV is a great way for me to visit Europe without the jet lag. I hope that it is a trip I can continue to make in the years to come.

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