The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Le Tour for Le Dummies
July is almost here and that means its time for The Tour de France. The only cycling race that Americans pay any attention to. This is a shame because cycling is a really great sport. Cycling, the Tour in particular, is the ultimate test of strength and stamina and guts and heart. It is full of athletes whose bodies are so finely tuned that most of us cannot even comprehend being in such good shape. And most of these guys don't have the egos that typically go along with such abilities. Most of us that watch Tour coverage are really only watching to see how Lance does so few of us really understand exactly how a stage race works or why it is a team sport.

The Tour de France consists of 20 stages and a prologue and covers about 2,100 miles (3,395k if you are French) and crosses the Alps and the Pyrenees mountains. Each stage within the tour is either a "road race" or a "time trial." Road races are typically about 100 miles and all of the riders ride together. Time trials are about 30 miles and the riders leave about two minutes apart so they will not have the benefits of drafting and team support. There are 22 teams in this years tour with 9 riders per team. The overall title goes to the rider with the fastest time over all of the stages.

The interesting thing about the Tour is that not every rider is trying to win the race. Most of the teams are there to provide support for their team leader. The US Postal team, for example, is there to help Lance Armstrong win the race. Most teams have riders with different specialties. Some are sprinters. Some are Climbers. Some of them are basically bitches, or Domestiques whose job is to bring water and food to the leader and chase down breakaways and ride up front to provide a draft for the leader. Having strong bitches... er Domestiques is crucial for a team leader.

The Rider with the fastest time at the end of each stage wears the "yellow jersey" the following stage. Some of the team leaders are not even competing for the yellow jersey. There are other races within the race. Riders can score points by being among the first few to reach the top of certain climbs. Climbs are categorized by their length and incline with category four being the easiest and "beyond category" being the hardest. Points are awarded accordingly. The rider with the most climbing points at the end of each stage sports the climber's jersey which is white with red polka-dots. Seriously. There are also sprint points awarded for being among the first few to cross certain lines in sprinting situations. The Rider with the most sprint points wears a green jersey. There is also a white jersey for the best young rider (rookie).

I think what I like best about the tour is that most of the competitors are not out to win at any cost. They are out to win if, and only if, they are the best rider. Several years back, Lance and German star, Jan Ulrich were leading a stage together. Ulrich wiped out and fell hard down a hill on the side of the road. Lance did not attack. He waited for Ulrich to catch up before he made his move. Last year the favor was returned. Lance and Ulrich were the top two riders. During the 18th stage Lance's bike got caught on a fan's bag and he tumbled to the ground. Ulrich slowed his pace and allowed Lance to get back in the race before he made his move. It may have cost him the race but he knew that when he did it. He didn't want to beat Lance because Lance fell. He wanted to beat him because he was a better rider. He wasn't. It should be an exciting race this year.

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