Saturday, July 2, 2011
This from my friend Kim Peter Kovac: “Individual sport. Team sport. Drugs. Politics of the sport. Politics of teams (who will emerge as the big-dog on a team so that all the others have to be his ‘domestiques’ and help him). Scandals. Beautiful scenery. Men in shorts so tight you can see what religion they are. Racing kits covered with sponsorship logos, including the bicycle-seat manufacturer ‘Fisik’ whose logos are on riders’ butts. One hundred years of history. Finishing with 30 kilometers of at 10% uphill climb at the end of 200 kilometers in the hot sun (and do we wonder that they drug themselves?). Vacant attractive young women in goofy costumes giving the winners of each day’s stage their prizes (yellow jersey for the overall leader, white for the leading ‘young rider’, green for the leading sprinter, polka dot for the leading climber – and the ladies wear dresses with big polka dots for those prizes). What could be better?”
What else could it be but the annual running of the Tour de France?
First, some statistics on what is the premier bicycle race in the universe.
In 2010, the Tour was broadcast and/or covered on 121 TV channels, 72 radios, 400 newspapers and press agencies, 54 websites, with 2,050 journalists representing 35 nationalities. Broadcasts today are aired in 188 countries of which 60 transmit live coverage, and the official website hosted 10.5 million unique visitors.
The race is long and intolerably arduous, 3,430 kilometers of downhills, uphills, straightaways and treacherous curves through both the ugliest and most beautiful scenery France has to offer. More than 200 riders compete in several teams, with each team having a dedicated champion who will rely on ‘domestiques’ to make the ride a little less arduous by clearing a path or allowing the main rider to draft. The course is not roped off so fans are on the road as the riders cannonball by at an average 40 miles per hour. That’s average… Downhills can hit 60+ mph, uphills slow to a deadly crawl. There are crashes, such as the one this very morning when a rider hit a fan, went down, and caused such a domino of collisions and spills that this leg of the race was completely re-written in the last few minutes.
There is scandal, charges and countercharges of doping and cheating. Lance Armstrong, who has retired, is presently under a shadow, his seven victories at the Tour now suspect. The reigning champ, Spain’s Alberto Contador, has won the tour as well but his achievements are tainted too. In fact, when the Tour is over, Contador will have to await the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sports. He may well be stripped of titles if the court decides his performances were drug-enhanced.
According to Time magazine, the first Tour, held in 1903, was a bid by magazine editor Henri Desgranges to boost the circulation of his magazine. There were 60 riders, and the race was an unmitigated success. It was dangerous as well: racers rode single-speed bicycles through the night on dirt roads. They were likely to be attacked by fans of other teams, and a common ploy was to leave boards studded with nails along the race route to flatten the other guys’ tires. By the 1920s, the race had become seriously competitive, and nicotine and alcohol were used as performance enhancers. In 1967, a British rider died mid-race after taking amphetamines, and drug testing began.
But as all followers of sports know, users are always one step ahead of testers. Even though stage winners are tested daily, the drugging continues and a movement has begun among some fans to embrace a laissez-faire attitude towards blood boosters and other performance enhancing drugs.
Most fans agree that even the worst disgrace of one or several riders cannot strip the Tour of its aura, and that is because the Tour is perhaps the single most macho and demanding sport now being practiced. Three weeks of almost constant riding over all terrains and in all weathers. Seen in its true light, the tour was and remains the first and foremost display of extreme sports. It is demanding, unforgiving, passionate and more entertaining than almost any other spectacle and it will endure through and even thrive in its own controversy.