[ed. The Tour de France: July 3-25, 2010; 3,642 kilometers (2,263.033 miles); winner (maillot jaune): Alberto Contador (Spain, age 27); second place: Andy Schleck (Luxemburg, age 25); third place: Denis Menchov (Russia, age 32); it took 91 hours, 58 minutes, and 48 seconds for Contador to complete la Grande Boucle.
For more information on the Tour de France people can read the two instructive articles written by Graham Lea in 2009; first, The Avant-Tour and second, So were the Riders all Heroes?]
(Swans - July 26, 2010) A successful Tour de France (TDF) requires the gathering of a few ingredients: A couple of hundred hungry riders within many teams with their indispensable commercial sponsors, a diverse route mixing various levels of difficulties, a collective stamina that borders masochism, a colorful folklore among the road-side spectators, a couple of rivalries, a bag of controversies, the appearance of personalities, the hope for as close a competition as possible, fair weather and compelling scenery, TV coverage in 180 countries, a good organization and support system, and, of course, lots of luck (good and bad). Mix all these ingredients in a huge cauldron and let the recipe simmer for over three weeks. The last gulp of the resulting dish will be swallowed on the Champs-Elysées in Paris on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. Depending on how right each portion of the ingredient is included in the mix -- in a disproportionate fashion -- this last gulp will leave a memorable taste on the palate of cycling fans all around the world for years and generations to come. The latest version of this annual celebration of la Petite Reine (1) in la Grande Boucle, while not a superlative success, did not disappoint. It's been a fine TDF deserving of an A grade, especially in light of this writer's personal satellite-provided trip down memory lane.
Most important was the duel that Spaniard Alberto Contador and Luxemburger Andy Schleck fought until the penultimate time-trial stage. Only 8 seconds separated them. Contador, being a better time trialist on paper, was supposed to win -- and el Pistolero did by a slim overall 39-second margin. But any mechanical failure or fall -- or a super performance by the Luxemburger -- could have made the difference. Here is a rivalry that has entered its second year in a row and will make the 2011 TDF all the more appealing. Great rivalries not only make a Tour mesmerizing, they get fans engaged as they pick their hero with a passionate display of single-mindedness. Rivalries build excitement, which is beneficial to all involved -- from the organizers, the sponsors, and the riders. Predictability and overwhelming superiority of any one rider turn fans to yawning boredom and throw the organizers into a fit of anxiety, as they are detrimental to fans' attendance and TV audiences with the obvious negative consequences for the sponsors. In 1961, when Jacques Anquetil (five-time winner of the TDF) declared that he would win the Yellow Jersey on the first stage and hold it, stage after stage, to the end, and achieved that once-in-TDF-history feat, the organizers were in despair and the fans kept whistling at and booing him. Gods are only allowed in the skies, not on earth. But his rivalries with Louison Bobet, Raphaël Géminiani, and Raymond Poulidor became the stuff of legend. The same can be said of Eddy Merckx with Poulidor or Luis Ocaña...and on, passing a couple of decades, to Lance Armstrong with Ivan Basso or Jan Ullrich (among others). The Contador-Schleck rivalry carries on the tradition. (Eddy Merckx, perhaps the most accomplished rider in the history of cycling, was also accused, like Anquetil, of "killing the Tour" and was told by the organizers not to participate in 1973.)
Naturally -- of the natural/emotional human sort -- fans tend to shun the superman of the day and associate with the underdog. In 2009, Contador was vilified for daring taking center stage to the detriment of his famous teammate Lance Armstrong and winning the Tour. As said, Anquetil was often booed. So was Merckx...and Bernard Hinault (another five-time winner). But Raymond Poulidor, known as Pouli or Poupou, who rode in 14 Tours, reaching the podium 8 times (the most in TDF history) without ever wearing the Yellow Jersey -- not once -- was and remains beloved by the French fans. Known as the "eternal second" for amassing bad luck after bad luck and continually playing second fiddle to either Anquetil or Merckx, Poupou came from a humble farming background. He spoke simply without any bitterness or complaint, always gracious with and appreciative of the fans and the sport -- a behavior that earned him an immense popularity (or poupoularité!) with the public -- like Andy Schleck, who in this year's TDF became the sentimental favorite... Losers can be winners!
Now, if in the public's mind a rider who deserves to win does not, somehow an explanation must be found. That's when controversies enter the race with a vengeance, from doping to lack of fair play, from cheating to mere bad luck.
Doping scandals came to the fore in 1998 when the Festina team was kicked out of the Tour once an elaborate Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) network was discovered. In the following years, which corresponded with Lance Armstrong's absolute dominance for seven years in a row, doping allegations ran rampant and several riders were caught taking PEDs -- the most famous being the defrocked 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis. Leaving aside the morality and the health hazards of PEDs, one has to recognize that the practice is far from recent. Riders have taken stimulants for a very long time. Jacques Anquetil was very forthright about using them, saying that cyclists had the right to use them. At one point he told an interviewer, "leave me alone; everybody takes dope." (2) Eddy Merckx made use of PEDs too and was caught three times. Even Poulidor admitted taking "a few vitamins and stimulants," though he was never suspected of doping. So, if "they all did it," some getting caught, others not, an equilibrium was formed. The top of the class remained at the top whatever the alleged or proven use of PEDs, because very few riders are without hesitation truly superior to the rest of the peloton (the "pack" or "bunch"), and that's why each squad has a leader that is helped by domestiques ("servants"). Looking at the bios of the few riders that have been and truly are a class above the rest, they all showed their exceptional sporting prowess and promise very early on during their childhood. Lance Armstrong, to take one example, began his career as a competitive swimmer at age 12 and won a triathlon by the time he turned 16. Two years later he became national sprint-course triathlon champion, and his talents culminated with his seventh consecutive TDF win in 2005. Even last year, at age 37, he finished in third place on the podium in the Champs-Elysées. So, whatever the morality and the negative long-term health effects of PEDs, the very best athletes tend to prevail, even when they are known for not having used, or been accused of using dope -- like Miguel Indurain, the five-time consecutive winner of the TDF (1991-1995), who, incidentally, was one of the rare stars much beloved by the public and renown for his generosity and simplicity. When all is said and done, PEDs are more of a sideshow. Only, in extreme circumstances dope will provide an advantage on the competition but it quickly becomes so obvious that the user gets caught and shamed (e.g., Landis, the bitter looser seeking vengeance...a truly despicable character...).
The notion of fair play is another great object of conversation among cycling enthusiasts that will deride a winner for lack of it if circumstances arise. Yet fair play is a recent phenomenon and there is nothing absolutely fair in the play. Until the 1990s no top rider or member of the bunch waited for a fallen competitor, and certainly no one but one's teammates waited for a general contender that suffered a puncture or another mechanical problem. Riders had to tough it up and suffer the consequences, including the Yellow Jersey. Only in recent years has it become customary to slow the peloton when a general contender falls, and even this so-called "custom" is not followed consistently. In this year's TDF, during Stage 2, an avalanche of falls occurred including Armstrong and the brothers Schleck. Fabian Cancellara, a teammate of the Schlecks who was wearing the Yellow Jersey, slowed the peloton to allow his fallen comrades to rejoin the bunch. The next day's stage, however, saw a very different outcome. As Cancellara and Andy Schleck were racing in front, the then Yellow Jersey, Christian Chavanel had two punctures and had to stop a third time to change his bike. Yellow Jersey or not, no one waited for Chavanel. Contador, a definite contender and eventual winner of this TDF, also had a mechanical problem. Neither Schleck nor Cancellara nor Cadel Evans slowed down. On Stage 8, Lance Armstrong, marred with bad luck, fell hard once and was embroiled in two other incidents. He was left cold to fend for himself with the support of his helpers. Armstrong may not have been a podium contender but he certainly could have been a top-10 finisher. That day, he lost the Tour for good. No one shed a tear. (Still, Armstrong finished within the top 25 out of almost 200 riders -- not bad for a self-defined "old man.") (3) Quite logically and humanly, when Andy Schleck dropped his chain during the 16th stage while wearing the Yellow, his next three contesters rushed ahead and did not wait for him -- for good reason. It never has happened. Had Contador flattened a tire during the time trial last Saturday, no one would have expected Schleck to slow down and wait. Had Schleck done so, both he and Contador could have lost the overall race to third-place finisher Denis Menchov.
Fair play only exists in one's figment of the imagination and is a red herring. Cheating makes no difference. It happens, but it rarely makes the difference and is most often caught by the officials and the TV cameras. Only aptitudes and circumstances reign. The best wins -- with luck on his side. In this TDF, Contador had luck and Cadel Evans, Lance Armstrong, Andy Schleck, and Samuel Sanchez did not. Fränk Schleck, Christian Vande Velde, and Tyler Farrar had to abandon with broken bones. Cadel Evans fractured his elbow, etc. But note that at the end of the day the top of the class finished where it should...on the podium. Luck, good and bad, does not trick talent.
Then, aside from the pageantry, commercial interests run high on the road to the podium. One wished to shun them, but how would the Tour and the riders carry on without them? The publicity caravan started in 1930. Money was in. Riders had to be paid in one fashion or another. Early on, and to this very day, riders -- but for a very select few -- depend on other working endeavors to make a living. In the early years, no one was paid to ride. Winning prizes added to one's daily income that was made in farming and blue-collar jobs. To this very day, professional cyclists come from the working class and working poor, those people who are so often depicted as lazy and uneducated by the know-nothing pundits and the lackeys of the moneyed class. Professional cyclists ride over 21,000 miles a year in training and races during a 15-year career (on average). Ordinary riders are paid around $50,000 a year but can increase their earnings to $150,000 through bonuses and appearances. In the TDF, the financial prizes are shared among the members of each team. So, Contador's 400,000 Euros cash prize will be distributed equally among his 9 teammates. For some reason the salaries of the "heads of state," as Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (the announcers for the TV channel Versus) call the top riders, are shrouded in secrecy. It is estimated that they make between one and two million dollars a year, which is a pittance in comparison to the salaries paid in other sports (e.g., car and motorcycle racing). But the bulk of their revenues comes from product endorsements (advertising), allowing them to bring home about $10 million a year. Rumors have it that Lance Armstrong in his heyday made about $20 million a year in prize money and endorsements. (4) Since bicycle races are admission-free to the spectators, the basic salaries depend entirely on sponsorship by equipment manufacturers and other corporate and banking interests and can vary from one team to the other. Still, today's riders have it much better than their forbearers who were dirt poor. (In 1947, Jean Robic, who won the Tour in the last stage, had told his new bride: "I can't afford a dowry, but I will offer you the first prize of the Tour.")
Are the relatively low wages worth the physical efforts of these athletes? Cyclists have often been called masochists and idiots for working so very hard for so little financial rewards -- rewards that did not even exist much in the early years when racers had a daily job to sustain their passion. But, how can one put a dollar figure on a passion? The adventuring climbers of Mount Everest don't risk their lives for a paycheck. The challenge to conquer a mountain peak or to ride up the col du Tourmalet (the climb begins at 2,329 feet above sea level and reaches 6,939 feet over 11.5 miles) is a call that defies rational explanations. And the TDF is not even as grueling as it once was. Today's riders have great support systems and the race is actually much shorter than it used to be. The first TDF was "only" near 2,500 kilometers but with just six mammoth stages -- one ran 471 km (Nantes-Paris). Of the sixty pioneers who started the race only 21 reached Paris. The winner, Maurice Garin, finished the first Tour 2 hrs 49 mns before the runner-up. The twenty-first and last contestant arrived 64 hrs 47 mns later. He was the lanterne rouge, the "red lantern" that was attached at the back of the bike so the rider could be seen by approaching vehicles in the middle of the night. They'd race alone without any help (mechanical, technical, medical, etc.) until the end of each stage, have two days of rest, and start all over again -- if the bike broke or had a flat the rider had to fix it himself and was not allowed to have it repaired by a third party. Food and water were also the responsibility of the riders... In 1910, when the racers rode to the top of the Tourmalet in the Pyrénées, the road was not asphalted. It was a dirt road muddied by the drizzling rain and the heavy fog. In 1919, the year the Yellow Jersey was created, 15 stages covered a staggering 5,560 km. Late into the 1960s and early '70s the distance of every TDF was between 4 and 5,000 km. Talk about masochism...or glory!
And so it goes. It's impossible to express one's love for the TDF. Yet, again, there is hardly a French household that does not possess one or more vélos, and any child that had the joy to watch the peloton whiz by on some remote road, like this writer did (on the D826) at the crossroad with the country road to Prunet (Zip code: 31460), never forgets the experience -- which brings the memory lane moment during the 2010 TDF.
It occurred on July 17 in the midst of Stage 13 that ran from Rodez to Revel. Here was a man who would turn 60 seven days later (talk about old men, Lance!) as he sat in the living room of a house built in the hills of northern California and watched the TDF on a 13-inch TV set, seeing his youth rolling and riding by through the cameras mounted on helicopters, cars, and motorcycles. The stage ran through Caraman to finish in Revel next to the Lac de Saint Ferréol. That was his youth territory. He had gone to school in Caraman. Every Sunday he would attend mass with his grandparents. After mass they would go to the pâtisserie and get éclairs au chocolat ou au caramel and other friandises. The school was a catholic school -- l'école de monsieur le curé. His first deep kiss took place there with the daughter of a local notable...which le curé would not have approved of had he heard of the feast. Two or three times a year, Grandpa would drive the lot to the St-Ferréol reservoir (think Canal du Midi) for a picnic, a swim, and the thrill to ride a pedalboat on the limpid blue water under a shining sky. It was there, all there, on a 13-inch TV set -- and it was close to heaven.
No present exists without one's past. The future is of no interest, whatever the American culture (and others) make of it. What counts is the spectacle and the memories. Much more could be written about one's peregrinations into nostalgia land, but it would detract readers' attention from the fact that this latest TDF was, indeed, a swell event.
And that's what counts!
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1. La Petite Reine ("the Little Queen") is the nickname given by the French to the bicycle, which in French is a feminine word (la bicyclette, aka, le vélo). The bicycle has been the Queen of the Road ever since the 1800s. Today, there are more than twice as many bikes on the road than automobiles. (back)
2. In 1967, Anquetil said in the French sport daily L'Equipe: Il faut être un imbécile ou un faux-jeton pour s'imaginer qu'un cycliste professionnel qui court 235 jours par an peut tenir le coup sans stimulants. ("One has to be a fool or a hypocrite to believe that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hang on without taking stimulants.")
The same year in Le Monde he said: Si l'on veut m'accuser de me doper, ce n'est pas difficile, il suffit de regarder mes fesses, ce sont de véritables écumoires. ("If one wants to accuse me of doping, it ain't difficult, it suffices to look at my buttocks; they really are riddled with holes.") -- Source: French Wikipedia. (back)
3. Actually, in 1974, at the same august age as Lance Armstrong, Raymond Poulidor finished second behind Eddy Merckx. The following year, as the Tour ended for the first time on the Champs-Elysées, Poulidor had a bad year and finished 17th. Commentators intimated that he should have retired; that he had missed the opportunity to leave at the top of his game. Poupou smiled and replied that he would come back in 1976 and would be on the podium again. He did indeed with a third place finish. He was 40 years old! (back)