Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Really Beautiful Sport

Around Castle Graybeard we are watching the Tour de France as we do every year that Versus (and before, OLN) have been carrying it.  For the last month or so, as the World Cup hype machine has gone into overdrive, I've heard a lot of references to soccer as "the Beautiful Sport".  IMAO, that's just not right.  The Tour de France, and grand cycling tours in general, are the real beautiful sport.  And - is it just me? - but I'm not half as annoyed by the sound of those "Vuvuzelas" as I am at hearing and seeing the word "Vuvuzela" everywhere.  Mrs. Graybeard and I are fans of Lance Armstrong, but would be shocked silly to see him win.  He is an incredible athlete, but is over the peak of the sport.  He may be more fit than any other 38 year old out there - but he's 38.  Chances are, last year's winner, Alberto Contador, will repeat. 

What is le Tour de France?  (Same applies to the Tour of Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and other grand tours)  How is the winner determined?  Simply, the guy who rides the route around France in the lowest total time wins.  The tour typically last 3 full weeks, 21 days, around 2300 miles or so.  There's two days off, so while the average is over 100 miles in a day, there are short days that might measure 10 to 30 miles.  Grand Tours are a mixture of individual sport and team sport.  Because of the potential (and reality) of enormous crashes, times are usually given to groups where bikes overlap length, so if you finish last in the group, you get the same time as the first, and if you crash in the last 3 km of a stage, you get the same time as the last in the group.  This allows for a bad, bike-breaking crash to not cost you the minute to get a replacement bike and get to the finish line.  There is a great deal of strategy and tactics, making it an event that combines aspects of intellectual strategy with athletics; chess, poker and racing.
Field sprints feature this sort of carnage a large percent of the time.

One of the aspects that always impresses me is how the route is lined with spectators, sometimes in random spots along these 100 mile routes.  They get a few seconds of riders going by, then go home.  In the major stages, crowds grow to over a hundred thousand fans.  They may camp out for days to watch the riders go by, and wait days to get off the mountain.  It's as if it's a Super Bowl every day for 3 weeks, and the game comes to you, instead of you going to the game. 
Typical crowds spread along the sides of a mountain stage

On a typical day, there is a breakaway of a handful of riders away from the main group of riders (the peloton), mostly to get their sponsors names on TV, but to take that once or twice every tour chance of winning the day.   It may surprise non-cyclists that a stage that's 120 miles long over flat terrain is considered too easy for the big names to try and get ahead; they wait for much harder stages.  Perhaps the most interesting part of bicycle racing, and what sets it apart from other sports, is that competitors must cooperate.  Because the physics of riding a bicycle at the speeds they ride is so brutal, you must take turns riding in front, breaking the wind, so that you can keep the required speed up.  Riders shelter each other from the wind, saving 20% of their energy and more in big groups, allowing their bodies to recover.  If the breakaway is to succeed, the members of different teams must cooperate.  But, the guy who is in second place, or farther back, has an advantage as the race approaches the finish line.  I have seen the leader literally stop in place to get the second guy to go around him and stop trying to stay behind him.  One of the most intense events to witness is a bunch sprint, where all of the teams put their fastest sprinters up front, protecting them from the open wind until the last few hundred meters.  Then the sprint specialists take off, achieving speeds of over 40 mph. 

The pattern of the multi-Tour winners, especially Lance, and Miguel Indurain, has been to stay in the group (peloton) most of the time, saving energy for the individual time trials and mountain stages.  The Tour categorizes mountains as 4 (easiest) to 1 (hardest) and then throws in some climbs that are so difficult they are "beyond categorization" or HC.  The most famous climbs in the Tour are these HC mountains, almost always with a mountain top finish.  Names like Alpe d'Huez, Mont Ventoux, and Col du Tourmalet are the places where tour legends have been made.  As a Lance Armstrong fan, I will always remember his performance on Sestriere in the first tour he won, as well as the Alpe d'Huez time trial. 

The Alpe D'Huez time trial: Lance in the alley of noise.

So find the VS channel on your cable or satellite system and check it out.  I'm recording the 2 hour version every afternoon and watching in the evening.  Tomorrow, Monday, July 12, is the first rest day.  The coverage will be a summary of the first days of this years race.

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