I found out, much to my surprise and pleasure, that my daughter-in-law Angela not only watches the Tour de France, but also reacts to its subtler nuances. And though she’s coming to it from a different perspective from mine, I have found in our Facebook conversations that Angela and I have a lot in common as fans of the race.
Her comments have provided some gravitational force toward which my reflections have drifted as the race winds down. Two tough days of mountain racing in the Pyrénées confirmed the earlier trends in the race rather than realigned them. Last year’s winner Cadel Evans has been way off his 2011 form, sits in sixth place at 9:57 back, and is not even the best-placed rider on his own team. Brad Wiggins has held the Yellow Jersey since Stage 7, and consolidated his lead in a mountaintop finish yesterday. He should be even farther ahead after the Saturday time trial, unless his teammate in second place, Chris Froome, pulls out all the stops. But as always there are a dozen “races” going on at any moment in the Tour, and here’s where the complexity, charm, and nuanced excitement of the race really comes out. And as in every mass sporting event, there are the good and the bad, the angels and the demons.
Angela says that she likes the modest, humble, unassuming type of cyclist. The first thing that crossed my mind is the famed quip by Leo Durocher, feisty manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s: “Nice guys finish last.” He meant that winners are by nature aggressive, self-confident to the point of egoism, driven to excel. What top cyclist is modest and unassuming? Well, actually Brad Wiggins comes close. After a bad behavioral beginning to the Tour, he has been a model of off-bike deportment and good manners on the road, waiting for Evans when he picked up a tack (or was it a brad?) and flatted on Stage 15, encouraging Froome to go ahead of him at the end of the climb yesterday, and saying that Froome is worthy of winning the Tour some day, even after Froome had done some rather petulant boasting about his own superiority.
Then there’s Tommy Voekler. He’s a believer in the simple concept that in bike racing you try to cross the finish line first, not always the strategy applied to three-week races. So Voekler cannily wins stage 10 out of a breakaway group, senses he has a chance to win not the GC race but the polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey. He’s so far behind Wiggins that the contenders for the yellow jersey won’t chase him, and he’s a darn tough, persistent rider who is the best I’ve ever seen at pulling out a little extra energy after he looks ready to be medivacked from the finish line to the emergency ward. So he goes on an epic escapade on Stage 16, garners lots of KoM points by being the first over the top on several climbs, and wraps up the Mountains title the next day. Two stage wins and a Paris podium—not too shabby for a gutsy, game rider. Everybody loves the faces Voekler pulls when he’s under pressure and flirting with the red zone: a veritable gallery of anguished grimaces, and unlike the mugging of former KoM Richard Virenque, these are just spontaneous expressions. Angela thinks Tommy is too quick to swat off annoying spectators, but I think one needs to have ridden near one’s limit to appreciate how life-or-death everything seems in those moments, how intolerant of interference one gets.
I also like the “hard men” of the tour, tough as nails, guys like Jens Voigt, who can ride at the front for hours, just banging it out. Jens was in one really good break in this Tour. He’s 40 but seems 30, and is a very nice guy off the bike, apparently. I’ve already praised his teammate Fabian Cancellara. But another “hard man” emerged yesterday in Chris Anker Sörensen. He reached down to get some newspaper out of his front wheel spokes and caught his fingers. Pro cyclists use aerodynamic spokes, so each one was like a dull knife cutting his fingers at about 90 rpm. His hand was bleeding so badly that his left side bar tape was bright red. The TV commentator thought he had cut his leg too because so much blood was dripping onto it. After the stage he had stitches, and he will need a skin graft. But of course he rode today’s stage, and ended the day sitting in 14th place, about 18 minutes behind. He wins the “put me back on my bike” award.
One of the other tour angels is the likeable, up-and-coming American Tejay Van Garderen, who is the higher-placed teammate of Evans and could be on a “contender” trajectory for this race. Like Froome and a number of other young riders he’s pretty big, over 6 feet. This seems to be a trend in the sport—even the big boys can climb.
Angela says that any rider who proves to have taken EPO or other PEDs is off her list forever. This struck a deep chord with me as a fan, because I too have a strong “say it ain’t so, Joe” streak in me. I want to believe in the heroic strength, skill, and will of athletes. If I can’t, sport means that much less. It’s kind of like the “great man” theory of history, I guess. So Fränk Schleck is off her list now. Yes, the same guy who complained that he couldn’t hold form long enough to do well in the TdF, into which he was thrust when his brother Andy broke his pelvis in June, the same guy who said he didn’t want to be the team leader of RadioShack because he would get blamed if he failed, that guy tested positive for a banned substance. Today the B sample confirmed the result. So he’s not just a runner-up, but a cheating runner-up, one of the devils of the Tour, a man who is willing to sully the reputation of his sport, his team, and himself in the highest-profile event of the year. Now he will be blamed because he failed everybody. He, of course, has proclaimed his innocence. He’s currently trying to track down the mystery source of the drug he unknowingly ingested. His quest is analogous to O. J. Simpson’s. Well, Fränkie, you can’t say your friends from back home brought you contaminated steak, because Alberto used that one last year.
Angela says she doesn’t like personalities like Mark Cavendish or Peter Sagan, presumably because they are not humble or modest. She would have hated Robbie McEwan. I know what she means, and I’m also annoyed by the boastful style in which they demolish their opponents. I think it’s largely the huge adrenalin/endorphin/testosterone rush they have to muster to sprint like they do. Three hundred meters of unbelievable intensity. But these guys don’t do it with the elegant aplomb and even humor that Mario Cipollini had; it’s all snarling muscle-flexinging and fist-pumping. Not that Cipo lacked the passion and power, but being Italian he seems to have been able to channel the old Renaissance ideal of sprezzatura, or “grace under pressure,” sometimes expressed as “never let them see you sweat.” But did you see that Stage 18 finish today? No denying it, Cavendish was sahweeeeet!
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.