Tuesday, July 17, 2007

back in the saddle again

It's the start of the second week of the Tour de France, so it's about time the world, or at least that infinitesimally small proportion of it that drop in on this blog occasionally, knew what I think about the whole event.

Here's what I believe to be a few salient observations about the Tour de France:
  • It is, without doubt, and by a distance, the most gruelling, athletically, physically and mentally demanding event in world sport. Imagine cycling from, say, Cardiff to London every day for three weeks, with that routine only broken by the occasional stage which is either a shorter (40 miles, say) individual time trial where you've just got to hammer the whole thing out as fast as you can, or a mountain stage involving cycling up mountains twice the height of Ben Nevis.
  • Consequently, while cycling still has a bit of a doping problem, what's even more surprising is that there are guys who can complete the course at all without being out of their minds on drugs.
  • There are certain parallels between watching the Tour and watching Test match cricket, in that each day's action is long drawn-out (a full-length stage can last between 4 and 6 hours) comprising long periods in which not much happens, punctuated with moments of frantic action.
  • The flat mass-finish stages aren't all that interesting, to be honest, except for aficionados of sprint-finishing (i.e. the fight for the green jersey, probably the least interesting of the individual competitions). The real interest is in the mountain stages in the Alps and the Pyrénées, and in the various individual time trials which are where the Tour is won and lost.
  • Usually the winner is a time trial specialist who can hold his own in the mountains. All the great multiple Tour winners of recent years, Armstrong, Indurain, LeMond and Hinault, have fallen into this category.
  • Interestingly the Tour this year might be won by a pure climber, Michael Rasmussen. It's quite rare for this to happen, the last time was in 1998 when the late Marco Pantani won. The last man to win the King Of The Mountains competition and the overall yellow jersey in the same year was the legendary Eddy Merckx in 1970.
My first memory of watching the Tour de France was in 1985 when we went for a family holiday to Brittany. This was the year of the last of Bernard Hinault's five victories, and he was a Breton, so the whole place went quite literally bonkers. I don't remember watching much of Greg LeMond's first win the following year (the picture is of LeMond and Hinault, who finished second in 1986, ascending the legendary Alpe D'Huez), but I watched most of 1987's Tour when Irishman Steven Roche narrowly beat Pedro Delgado, including a legendarily insane mountain descent to make up a potentially Tour-losing time deficit and put him on course to be only the second man to achieve the legendary Triple Crown of Tour of Italy, Tour de France and World Championship in the same year (the inevitable Merckx being the other).

I also clearly remember LeMond's two victories in 1989 and 1990 after a life-threatening shooting accident in 1987, including the closest Tour victory in history when he hurtled through Paris at record speed to deny local boy Laurent Fignon (the picture is of Fignon and LeMond racing wheel-to-wheel the same year) in the closing time trial in 1989. The Indurain years, 1991-1995, were a triumph of ruthless efficiency over excitement, and the Armstrong years, through no fault of Armstrong's, were a bit monotonous as he ruthlessly destroyed the competition every year.

This year's Tour looks like it could be the most wide-open for years, and hopefully without the drug scandals that have dogged cycling in the past, not least after Floyd Landis' (now disputed) win last year. We'll see. The finish is on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday the 29th, but the likelihood is the Tour will be decided by the end of the last mountain stage on Wednesday 25th, or at the latest in the final individual time trial on Saturday 28th. My guess is it'll either be Rasmussen (pictured), if he can grab enough time on the mountains, or one of the allrounders like Andreas Klöden or Cadel Evans, if they can nick enough time off Rasmussen in the time trials.


The Black Rabbit said...

Well. I think you know what I think of the tour de france.

Don't get me wrong though, I love cycling - I'd just rather not watch it on television FOR HOURS.
I view the tour the same way I view the London Marathon - pretty bloody dull to watch (except when a cyclist runs over a Labrador dog, as happened yesterday - BRILLIANT!), and I even quite like long-distance running as a pastime. I hope to one day enter a Marathon, but I'd rather not watch it on television, rhino-outfits and all, thanks.
Cricket - the same, as well you know.

Maybe its a lack of patience thing with me, but probably not, as I enjoy playing golf (or used to anyway), AND enjoy watching hours and hours and hours and hours of it on television...
(by the way, The Open Preview should be completed on 26 by noon today, if I can finally get round to doing it).

The tour should stay in France. Where it belongs.
Not in London and Kent.
Not in Belgium either.

ps. Gary Imlach is a weirdo.

electrichalibut said...

Well, the whole Tour de France in France thing is a different issue, and I agree, it should be in France.

And (as I said in the post) I agree about the long periods of dullness as well - my advice is watch the hour-long highlights package on ITV4 at, erm, 7pm I think. Frankly I haven't got the time to sit in front of the television watching 200 blokes cycling past some sunflowers for 4 hours anyway.

But, like cricket, you either get it or you don't. No biggie.