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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

July 10, 2014 at 5:47 PM

Tour de France: Why you can’t miss cycling’s greatest spectacle

Riders compete in the sixth stage of the 101st Tour de France cycling race, between Arras and Reims, France on Thursday.   Photo by Yoan Valat / EPA

Riders compete in the sixth stage of the 101st Tour de France cycling race, between Arras and Reims, France on Thursday.
Photo by Yoan Valat / EPA

BY JOANNE GARRETT

Why bother watching the Tour de France? Here are 23 reasons – one for each stage of cycling’s biggest event.
1. People like to say that riding the Tour is like running a marathon every day for 21 straight days. That doesn’t come close. These 198 “lucky” men worldwide work almost all year to become one of the mob to race a bicycle around 3,000 kilometers over all sorts of terrain in all sorts of weather to assist their team leader, of which maybe three or four have a chance of actually winning the overall title by posting the fastest cumulative time for the entire course. Yeah, they get two “rest” days, but often spend much of them traveling to the next day’s starting point.

2. After training for months and getting on the team, riders might crash during the first stage (See: Mark Cavendish crashing 200 meters before the finish and severely injuring his shoulder) and are unable to continue, Or even worse, riders might crash while warming up for the first stage and be out of the race.

3. These guys grow up dreaming of a calling that once was known as convicts of the road! See this Wikipedia entry for an entertainingly concise history of the Tour.

4. The profession that once proved far preferable to a lifetime in the coal mines has gained cachet and can pay millions for stars. It also produces competitors with nicknames from Maurice “The Little Chimney Sweep” Garin, to Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx, to today’s Vincenzo “Nibbles” Nibali (No surprise he prefers the nickname “The Shark”).

5. The race started as a publicity stunt to save a newspaper. It attracted riff-raff who engaged in gunplay during stages that started at 4 a.m. Now it is a major festival that towns vie to host, with millions of spectators and TV viewers and a publicity caravan that takes two hours to pass by while workers toss silly trinkets that seemingly sweet grannies will throw elbows into your gut to grab. Then there’s an hour or two before the riders actually come by, screaming past in less than five minutes (at 45 mph or faster if on a gentle downhill) to complete a spectator’s long day of waiting. At least 3,000 members of the media fill pages and pages of newspapers and the Web.

6. This worldwide stage has seen riders sit down and refuse to ride because of road/weather/political/safety conditions, and they have been stopped by snow pack, striking truckers parking their rigs across the road, angry mothers protesting nuclear power, cattle/dogs/sheep/stupid spectators on the roadway. Somehow the Tour rolls on, a fabulous classroom for scenic beauty, history and politics and generally learning about other countries and cultures.

7. Racers can expend up to 10,000 calories on the hardest days and are so hard-pressed to consume replacement calories that they lose weight and appear even more cadaverous at the end than at the start, when they are plush with 5 percent body fat.

8. The audacious cheaters have always used cutting edge techniques to stay one pedal stroke ahead of the authorities: hopping the train between start and finish, encouraging followers to strew tacks across the road to cause others to puncture, wearing disguises, ostensibly poisoning rivals, using EPO, testosterone, steroids, drugs that mask steroid use, human growth hormone, insulin, amphetamines, alcohol, various painkillers. Oh, the French! Once so completely nonchalant about drug use (how else could any human actually win this race?) Now watching the authorities pop the cheaters and clean up the sport and join the chorus singing the praises of riding on bread and water.

Spain's Xabier Zandio is shown after he crashed during the sixth stage of the Tour de France.  Christophe Ena / The Associated Press

Spain’s Xabier Zandio is shown after he crashed during the sixth stage of the Tour de France.
Christophe Ena / The Associated Press

9. On the best days, the stage roads have been paved recently and drain well. On the worst days, potholes and road debris produce terrible hazards, and a rider might lose control and ride right off the side of a mountain. Or railroad tracks might cause a crash and the rider will slide uncontrollably along the asphalt, with just a thin layer of Lycra for “protection.” Or the course might include pavé, bread-loaf-sized cobblestones making up the high-crowned pathway that is used only by farm machinery; racing on this shakes every bolt and cable loose and rattles the bile right out of the riders’ gallbladders. And the next day, they’ll get up and race again.

10. Riders are paid to get TV time for their sponsors, meaning they must accelerate away from the racing peloton and remain out front, sometimes alone, until the live coverage begins in order to advertise the company that signs their paycheck.

11. These riders know very few of these breakaways work, with their race director shouting and pounding on the car’s door motivating a victory; more likely they will simply lose the race of 197 against one. Just as likely as a victory, a freight train will come along and hold them up for 10 minutes and the race director won’t stop the group from catching up.

12. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen have been the English-speaking announcers for television coverage, combining 78 appearances as commentators and/or riders. Liggett is lyric and calm as he notes, “It’s a grovel, and then it gets steeper.” Sherwen intimately knows how a rider must “unpack the suitcase of courage” to take another pedal stroke. They make the American announcers pale in pathetic comparison. See “Dancing on the Pedals: The Found Poetry of Phil Liggett, The Voice of Cycling,” edited by Doug Donaldson.

13. Years of work and still a rider’s probable role will be as domestique, a housekeeper whose duties include drifting back from the racing group to reach the team’s support car, stuffing perhaps 10 full water bottles into pockets and down his jersey back and front, then making like Quasimodo to lug all that extra weight (a liter of water weighs one kilogram) while accelerating back to the racing group and finding teammates to hand out bottles. Or, going back to deliver/pick up sunglasses, rain jackets, food, nutrition bars or even to talk with the boss because the personal radios have failed. On hot days, doing that many times.

14. Bike handling is astonishing. Viewers can occasionally see a rider hanging onto his team car while the mechanic leans all the way to his waist out the window to make an adjustment or visiting the Tour’s medical car for attention. An unexpected steering adjustment or the bike rolling over a bump can catapult a racer into the ditch, meaning he’ll just have to do this all over if he is able to continue racing.

15. This might be the only competition in the world in which spectators can dictate the outcome. Amateur photographers step into the riders’ paths, a racer’s handlebars might catch on a spectator’s hat or bag, hurling the racer to the ground. Someone can leap out of the crowd and punch a rider in the kidneys with such force that the rider cannot continue racing. A television car driver might swerve to avoid a tree trunk and bang into a group of riders, pushing a racer into a barbed-wire fence and needing 33 stitches for his wounds.

16. It’s easy to learn French: Vive le Tour (long live the Tour!), peloton (group), tete de la course (leaders), lanterne rouge (the caboose’s red light, the last rider), jour sans (a day “without,” when the body won’t deliver what the mind orders), dopage.

17. Racers might be as old as Jens Voigt of Germany, who at 42 is racing in his 17th Tour, or debutants as young as 21-year-old Simon Yates of England who just last week finished third in his national-championship race.

18. Thousands of euros are at stake, with prizes for winning a stage, being the first to a mountain summit or a sprint point midway through a stage. Sometimes a stage winner is rewarded with the major produce of the region: crates of wine or his weight in cheese. Tradition dictates that prize money is pooled and distributed among the team members. So the overall winner’s 450,000-euro prize not only goes to his teammates, but he also distributes gifts of appreciation, often a luxury watch, but last year’s top sprinter gave his teammates custom-built, fixed-gear bicycles.

19. For many a Tour, regulations denied outside help for racers, meaning they had to be self-reliant. On top of racing, riders had to fix their own mechanical problems, ranging from a punctured tire to carrying the bike to the next town, finding the blacksmith and repairing a broken fork. Because they had no one to hand them food and drink, racers often stopped at a cafe for soup and were known to raid shops along the route, cleaning them out of wine and brandy or sticking their heads into the town fountain for relief from heat and thirst. It is easy to overlook that history while watching $10,000 racing cycles and team cars with all a racer might need or want.

20. Try watching this race without shaking your head and asking, “Why?”

21. After all the sweat and tears, broken bones and scraped bodies, the mechanical and bodily breakdowns, press of spectators and media, accusations of and defense against doping, the decisions by mere centimeters, the final stage’s end with several circuits of the Champs Elysees provokes such pride of accomplishment that even the last man in joins the pantheon of elite athletes who have gone the distance and finished the race.

22. Time to rest.

23. Relax and enjoy.

Joanne Garrett is a writer and editor who formerly worked as a desk editor for the sports section of The Seattle Times and currently produces content for the Windows 8 Sports App.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. Opinions expressed are those of authors, and The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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