Friday, July 9, 2010

Le Tour de France

It took me a while to understand bicycle racing.  At first glance, it looks like a massive swarm of bikes (the peloton) moving at uniform speed in a pack, with a few stronger riders way out in front who will clearly win the race.  I wondered why those in the peloton seemed okay with letting the break-away riders win so easily.  Shouldn't they challenge them, chase them down, at least try to win?  When I first voiced these criticisms to my husband, a longtime bicycle racing fan, he began the long process of explaining the strategies of the sport to me.

Now I understand the racers are actually on teams.  The strongest riders are supported by their team members, and each team member is called upon to do the hardest work on the days the course requires his personal strengths.

Some racers are sprinters; they excel on the flat courses and can attain high speeds for long distances.  Other racers are climbers; they have the power to race at fast speeds up steep mountain grades.  And some, the elite in the sport, are masters of both terrains.  They are the racers who win the Tour de France.  Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest of all time from that elite group.

The first time I saw Lance Armstrong race was the Tour de France 1999.  Hubby was excited a race stage was passing so close to our house that year.  He told me we had to find a place to watch early, because the police close the road at least two hours before the racers are due to pass.  We brought a picnic basket and found a quiet stretch of country road, and settled in for the afternoon.  Eventually, people lined the road to watch, but this pic was taken early, when we'd first arrived.

Before the racers come through, they are preceded by an hour long parade convoy of "floats," each decorated for a different sponsor of the race.  They blare rocking dance music and throw product samples and candy to onlookers.  The ambiance becomes very festive as the floats pass, getting everyone excited for the racers to come.  It helps lengthen the event, too.  Once the racers arrive, they pass in a blur, racing at 50 kph and out of view in a flash.  (How much fun would it be to man one of those floats?  Spending a month traveling around France, ending each leg of the race in a different village where parties invariably pop up for all the non-athletes on the Tour.  If I were younger...)

Interestingly, 1999 was the first Tour de France Lance Armstrong had raced in since beating testicular cancer (and he would eventually win), and this day he was wearing the yellow jersey, signifying that he had the highest accumulated racing points.  In other words, he was winning.  It was easy to pick him out of the peloton, since he was dressed in yellow.  Making it easier still to spot him, he was sitting up in the saddle, drinking from an official Tour water bottle.  As he passed, he finished off the drink and tossed it to the side of the road.  I kid you not: it landed in the middle of our blanket!  

This is a page from our vacation scrapbook 2003.

Lance Armstrong won an unprecedented seven straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005.  He retired from bicycle racing in July of 2005, but couldn't stay away from the sport.  He came out of retirement and competed in the 2009 Tour de France, finishing third -- an amazing feat for a man his age who hadn't been training during retirement.  And he's racing again this year.

I'd love to see him in the yellow jersey at the end of Tour de France 2010!

Me, (waiting for the 2000 Tour de France to pass) -- cheering on Lance!

Do you follow bicycle racing?  If you're interested in this year's 97th Tour de France, it begins on July 3rd and finishes on July 25th.  Information and routes of each stage are found HERE.  The best television station to watch the Tour is Versus.  Check them out HERE.

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