Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Greatest Thing You've Never Seen

I can certainly see why the Tour de France is not a major TV-audience sporting event. The perfect example was in Tuesday’s stage 16 where the top American hope was not on camera for basically the entire day because he found himself 35 seconds behind the favorites in a different group and so the announcers had no clue where he was. Had he dropped out? Had he lost 10 minutes on the leaders?

Would fans in LA watch Laker games if you couldn’t see what Kobe was doing the whole time?

The reason that Christian Vandevelde wasn’t on camera is that the TV networks are allowed three motorcycles with cameramen on board, and every network around the world who is airing the Tour gets the same feeds. There is no American producer in a truck somewhere calling the shots and asking for more shots of American riders and less of those from Luxemborg.

Despite that fair criticism of the sport, I still contest that the Tour de France really does make for great television, as long as you understand the sport and as long as you have a DVR.

So what is it that makes it so interesting? For one thing, it is accessible. They are not doing anything that any of the rest of us couldn’t do…they just do it a lot faster. During the Olympics, Americans fall in love with swimming and track and field for the same reason. I can swim, but it is amazing to watch them do it so well. Their arena is public streets that any of us can drive and ride and live on...not billion dollar stadiums where even on the paid tour you can't touch the grass! I can ride a bike, and given a week or two, I could have made it to the top of Cime de la Bonette-Restefond just like the 158 remaining cyclists in the Tour climbed Tuesday in a little over an hour.

Not impressed with that time? Never heard of that peak? It is the highest mountain pass in Europe. The climb itself is about 30 miles without any respite to a peak about 9200 feet up, and it follows 45 miles of riding that included going up and over another peak that was about 7000 feet. And in the last 18 days, the best riders had already spent about 64 hours in the saddle…the worst had spent close to 70. Having a hard time putting all of that in context?

Picture riding your bike 4-6 hours a day for three weeks straight. And for about a half of those, you get to ride on relatively flat roads (only gaining 1000-3000 feet in elevation for the most part). But you have to do it at about 40 miles an hour for the entire day, every day. Then on the other days, you have to climb over mountain after mountain, going up slopes at long as 25 miles at a time, gaining 7000-8000 feet at 10-15 miles per hour and then descending at upwards of 50 miles per hour (breaking the speed limit on most of these mountain roads), only race into a valley that leads you to the next mountain you'll climb.

Have you ever been to Los Angeles? Picture riding your bike from Pasadena up to the top of Mount Wilson and back down the other side to Palmdale, then turning around and coming back, then going back over. That’s one stage. The next day ride to Mount Wilson and then pile another Mount Wilson on top of it and ride to the top of that. Now you just went a little further than the ride to the top of Cime de la Bonette-Restefond like they did Tuesday.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Tour is that the leader board never changes in the “boring” flat stages, so why bother having them? The reason is that these guys are all so good that if they didn’t exhaust themselves on those flat stages, probably half of the peloton would have the juice to sprint up the ridiculous climbs. The flat stages sift them out and make it so that the only guys capable of sprinting up the climbs are the 7-10 “heads of state,” as the leaders of the teams are called.

There is no better argument that anyone could make for the sport of cycling than Stage 17 on Wednesday. If you miss it live (3:30 a.m. PST), it will be on Versus all day. But you will want to watch the live version or the re-air that comes on around 10 a.m. because they feature easily the best sports commentary team in any sport – Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. This one is called the Queen’s Stage because it is the hardest one, with the most, toughest climbs (despite what they went through today to “warm-up” for it!).

The stage is over 130 miles and begins with the climb that Lance Armstrong calls the hardest in the world – Col de Galibier. Almost this exact course was the one they took in 2001 when Lance Armstrong pretended to be worn out over Galibier only to crush the field up a later climb. After going over this mountain on which they gained about 8000 feet, they descend at break-neck speed even further and climb about 6700 feet up the Col de la Croix de Fer, only this one is a longer climb with steeper sections. Then they head back down the other side, matching the hardest stages they have done in the Tour if they were done at that point.

They then have a nice, easy ride through a beautiful forested valley to the bottom of the most famous climb in the sport, Alpe d’Huez which ends at a ski resort about 6000 feet above sea level (see photo). It isn't the steepest climb of the Tour (it is steeper than the other two this day), and it isn't the longest, but it comes at the end of a day on which they climbed about 45 miles and over 15,000 feet in total elevation! This is the one on which after Armstrong pretended to be worn out, he famously looked back into the face of his greatest rival Jan Ulrich, saw that he was broken and then dusted him.

Vandevelde was sitting back 35 seconds behind the leaders on Tuesday’s massive final climb, and had hoped to be able to close on them on the descent to the finish line. Unfortunately, he crashed and lost close to 3 minutes which he will try to make up on Wednesday on the most famous and grueling route in cycling, easily the hardest single athletic event in all of sports. Wednesday will be the last, best day to make up any great chunks of time and Vandevelde has three minutes 15 seconds to win back, but everyone he is chasing in the overall race for the Yellow Jersey will know what he has in mind, so no tricks will win it. This weekend someone will ride down the Champs Elysees in Paris wearing Yellow and he will likely have picked out that wardrobe Wednesday on Alpe d’Huez.

Give cycling this one day to win you over.


Joey K. said...

I wouldn't watch the Tour if you paid me to. It's just a bunch of steroid bikers riding through France. France + Steroids + French people + more French people + few Americans - Lance Armstrong = Boring.

My math is good!

Scott T. Bergen said...

I forgot about this common knock on cycling. However, cycling has no bigger a problem with steroids and doping than any other sport, it is just that they catch people and suspend them for two years on the first offense...so it makes more news than other sports. In fact, not only did big-time rider Ricardo Ricco get kicked out of the Tour for using EPO last week, he will get the 2-year ban from all races, he was fired from his team, his team's sponsor pulled their funding, and France deported him!