It only comes around once a year, during Summer. Its here for three weeks or so, and then gone. Incredibly sweet and rare when its here, it defines Summertime. No, not Ranier Cherries. The Tour de France. Watching it, on NBC Sports (5 pm Pacific, 8 PM Eastern, repeats in the Pacific Time zone at 9 pm) has been nothing short of a Summer treat.
Bizarre, strange, and beautiful, the Tour of course has had many scandals. Lance Armstrong may or may not have blood doped to win. Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador certainly did. In the early years, in 1903, a few competitors boarded trains, and showed up near the end of the course to claim victory. Cheating is rampant in a sport where a sponsored team may cost upwards of $20 million in the Tour alone, not counting other races like the Italian Giro, the Spanish Tour, and so on.
But nowhere else can you see mile after mile of stunning French, and Swiss, and often Spanish and Belgian countryside. France really is beautiful, much of it. Beautiful in a way that takes your breath away. Of course the race doesn’t go through the banlieus, or grimy industrial parts of France. But still, the place is undeniably beautiful.
The spectators, all middle class Whites, seem to have a great time. In spite of hard times in Europe, camper van and RV and plain old car camping by the side of the road seems the norm. All to watch perhaps 15 minutes of cyclists go by. Spectators get as close to the world class athletes as across the dinner table. Some time closer. People run along side the cyclists at summits, where the road often narrows upon approach and the lane is perhaps no more than fifteen feet wide at that, choked with people.
Yes, the athletes have terrible physiques, no arm or shoulder development. They run a marathon every day. But the all middle class White riders don’t just sprint out like marathoners. They ride BIKES. Which means, aside from the absolute requirement of a skilled and strong team to win any of the FOUR jerseys at stake, gear selection, tactics, wind resistance, nutrition, water intake, and team work (including other riders from other teams in a break-away) are paramount. Heck besides the overall tour leader Yellow Jersey, there is the Polka Dot Jersey for King of the Mountains (after a candy company with a polka-dot wrapper that sponsored that jersey decades ago), the Green Jersey for the Sprint point champion, and the White Jersey for the best young rider under 25. Even if the favorite has the overall lead wrapped up, there’s always something at stake in the Tour.
Yes, there is corruption and underhanded play. Someone threw tacks on the road, causing 48 punctures to riders tires. But the leader Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky, told the peloton to slow down and wait for the other riders. A fitting gesture of sportsmanship. Watching the team cars, team motorcycles, and television motorcycles zoom around past riders is simply bizarre. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nor the French, Belgian, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Italian, and English fans turning out by the boatload over the course each day, all waving flags and cheering for the riders through some of the most picturesque and stunning countryside around.
The Tour, now in its third and final week, is well worth your time. [Today, Tuesday is a rest day before the Wed-Thur brutal Pyrnees stages.]