Thursday, July 28, 2011

Patrocles with a Chainring

I meant to talk about this year's Tour de France earlier, but it's been an insane week around here, what with the grandparents coming (and then going) and my work pulled me out of the house at 4am and not returning me until after sundown.

But I'm here at work late, watching a direct shear sample consolidate, and wanted to share some thoughts about the 2011 edition of the grandest of the grand tours.

But - this is probably the fortyzillionth time someone has made this observation but it's my first, so bear with me - this year epitomized what makes bicycle stage racing such a terrific sport.Because, and we've talked about this before, if sport means anything other than mere diversion and physical exercise it is a sort of bodily morality play, a struggle between ideas; ideas of training, ideas of what the human body and mind are capable of, ideas of right, and good, and wrong, and evil, all carried out in the gross physical acts of a small group of very fit people.

Every contest, whether it's a soccer match, a chess game, a debate, a bicycle race, is in effect an argument between different ideas of what is the right sort of match, game, debate, or race. How best to prepare for it, perform it, succeed at it.This is what makes international soccer so entertaining, or matches between clubs with very differing styles of play; because the two gaffers, the two teams, are wordlessly insisting that theirs is the better notion, and the contest is a way of determining who is right, or closer to right.

Which is what makes the effect of cheating - like the doping in cycling - so pernicious. Because if you don't know whether, and you suspect the likelihood of, the cyclist who ride so heroically today was powered not by will, or stamina, or great training, or brilliant technique, or aided by a ferociously organized team, but instead was fueled by some faceless chemist or physician concocting a blood transfusion or chemical cocktail...well, it makes the entire business less than pointless. Even if you consider sport a worthless entertainment if the contest is honest at least there is the simple truth of the winning and losing, the striving and the gain.

But if the business is a sham, and the achievements and disasters painted over with a taint of cheating, well...

At any rate, this year is supposed to have been a very clean Tour, and I am pleased with that.So the other thing that makes stage racing so satisfying is that the other business of sport is to tell a story, and the great stage races can tell stories with a delicious zest that is matched by no other sport I can think of.

Imagine a soccer match - no, a string of matches - played out every day over three weeks. Only instead of just two teams there are dozens on the pitch, all playing each other, and all for different aims; some to score goals, some to win matches, some to keep a clean sheet, some for individual brilliance, some for team perfection. And those matches would be played on a different pitch every day - some perfect lawns, some muddy fields, some with huge ravines and immense hillocks within them.

That's why a grand tour is so incredible.

Because both the cast, the setting, and the process of a grand tour are perfect for a wonderful tale. Here you have a large group of actors, these cyclists, some 200 of them. But they are organized into smaller groups; the teams, the specialities - climbers, sprinters, the great heroes of the peleton - the GC contenders - and the workaday domestiques...together they present a literally colorful patchwork congeries for our enjoyment.

Different, and yet the same everyday, lining up for the start whether for 200 kilometers of flat roads in Brittany or a short, brutal afternoon's climb into the Alps; the same names, the same faces, that we come to know over three weeks.And yet, changing every day, every hour, as the roads beneath them change. Today might be a day for the speedsters, the sprinters, rocketing across the finish in a rainbow of bone and muscle. Tomorrow may be a day for the climbers, dancing on the pedals as the poor sprinters sag back, hoping merely to finish in time.

Every day is a new match, under differing skies, over changing terrain, and all moving through time towards the final day in Paris. And there they are, the Hectors and Achilles and Ajaxes of our Illiad - the GC riders. Every day they rise or fall, every moment cycling on against the clock, ticking the kilometers off as they eye each other and the pack, needing to husband their strength yet knowing that that strength may need to be sacrificed to reel in a challenger or hold onto a championship.

The Armstrong Years, as great as that champion was, were a different sort of story. It was always about the Great Hero, always about which of the Trojans would fall to Achilles' fierce attack, and when. We always knew that the horse was full of destruction, just not where and when, and on whom, it would fall. Those years were incredible in many ways, but this year was just and incredible because its story was so much unlike the earlier one.This year instead of the one colossus, we had four pit fighters;
Alberto Contador - defending champion, but worn from the Giro and bloodied from the ugly doping cotroversy still hanging over him.
The Schlecks - fierce youngsters full of promise...but how much was still promise and how much ready to hand? And
Cadel Evans - the perennial also-ran, the lonely battler over many a lost campaign, only this year with a new team that looked ready to fight for him.Well, if you followed this Tour you know what happened, and if you didn't you've already stopped reading this post. Cadel finally donned his maillot jaune, a worthy champion at the head of a tough, well-led team. I will never forget Andy Schleck, though, riding away from the peleton on the day of the Galabier, riding like a hero, riding like a man possessed, throwing down the challenge to the other GC contenders. Or Thomas Voekler, who proved yet again that that famed yellow shirt can, indeed, make a man ride like he had the strength of two. Or the old god of thunder Thor Hushovd, at 33 and ten years veteran of the Tour, roaring to stage wins and a week in yellow.And, perhaps, the most dramatic three days in recent Tour history; starting with Scheck's incredible 60 kilometer attack that culminated in victory on the slopes of the Galabier, to Evans' ferocious ride up the Alpe d'Huez - even as Schleck rode Voekler out of yellow - that preserved his chance for overall victory, and finally his destruction of the Schlecks in the penultimate time trial stage that brought him home in the golden fleece to Paris.The glory......and the pain, the drama......and the grinding days in the saddle. We watched it all and it was a great story, a great Tour, another year we were carried away in the hollow ships.Vive' le Tour!

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