Sunday, July 4, 2010

So It Begins

What a fascinating, modern world we live in!

I finally started paying attention to the day just before 0830. The tube was still on, now tuned into one of those noisy, live audience, NASCAR racin' talk shows...ugh.

I clicked around until I found the LIVE Feed of the Tour de France Prologue from Rotterdam, in Holland. Beautiful, rich HDTV images of the wet streets in Rotterdam's afternoon showed thousands of cycling fans lining the course.

Earlier this week, I watched VersusTV's Tour de France Preview Show. Again today the announcers are pumping their favored storyline: Lance Armstrong vs Alberto Contador. The Old Lion vs the Heir Apparent. Last year they were teammates, not this year.

You may have heard of Lance Armstrong. He's the Texan who won the World's most famous Grand Tour. Grand Tours are three week bicycle races. Lance won the Tour de France seven a row. Last week, Lance announced via Twitter: "I'm ready for my last Tour de France"

The Spaniard Contador has won the Tour twice. He's the next Big Thing. Young, gifted and on his way up, the sky's the limit.

I don't need any prodding to get excited about Le Tour, but television loves conflict, hence Lance vs Alberto...

Pro cycle racing is interesting on many levels. It's an individual sport, and it's a team sport. In pro road racing, the individual wins or loses, enjoys the glory or infamy, but only with the help of his team. It takes a strong team to protect a top contender through three weeks of racing, so he can shine on the right days to win a Grand Tour.

The team works for it's leader. They protect the leader from attacks by opposing teams who are working for their leaders. Team mates will "break the wind" for the leader, that is they will ride just ahead of the leader to do the hard work of breaking through the air, allowing the leader to expend less energy in the draft. A well rested leader is fresher, and better able to counter attacks from his rivals.

The peloton is the huge group of racers that make up the main group of riders (198 riders start the race). This dense group really can fly when all are working together. Once the peloton makes up it's mind to chase, they can catch, or bring back almost any small group of escapees who've "broken away"

The Breakaway is a small group of racers, or a single rider who accelerates away from the peloton and goes it alone. This is the province of brave men, who are almost always caught by the finish line. Winning a stage on a break away is a huge accomplishment, and for most pro riders is a career highlight.

The first week of Le Tour de France is contested in Northern France, where the roads are flat and wicked crosswinds can take their toll. This year, the Organizers have added pavé, ancient cobblestone roads. These sections of pavé are rightly famous as sectors of the Paris-Roubaix Bicycle Race, one of cycling's Spring Classics.

First run in 1896, Paris-Roubaix is a tough of it's nicknames is: l'enfer du Nord, The Hell of the North.

Originally, the moniker was bestowed on the route in the wake of World War One.

In 1919, carload of the race's organizers along with the press, set out to reconnoiter the route after four years of artillery shelling and trench warfare. From Great Britain's ProCycling Magazine:

"They knew little of the permanent effects of the war. Nine million had died and France lost more than any. But, as elsewhere, news was scant. Who even knew if there was still a road to Roubaix? If Roubaix was still there? The car of organisers and journalists made its way along the route those first riders had gone. And at first all looked well. There was destruction and there was poverty and there was a strange shortage of men. But France had survived. But then, as they neared the north, the air began to reek of broken drains, raw sewage and the stench of rotting cattle. Trees which had begun to look forward to spring became instead blackened, ragged stumps, their twisted branches pushed to the sky like the crippled arms of a dying man. Everywhere was mud. Nobody knows who first described it as 'hell', but there was no better word. And that's how it appeared next day in the papers: that little party had seen 'the hell of the north."

The fog of time has changed the sentiment to fit the times now, so The Hell of the North" refers to the treachery of the cobblestones, that often decide the outcome of the race by attrition, mechanical failures, tire punctures, or crashes. Hell indeed...

Tuesday July, 6th Stage Three will be contested over 128Km of these roads including four sections of pavé. Those racers that make it to Tuesday's Finish Line will be covered in mud or dust, looking like refugees of war.

High drama? Damn right! Just one note in the symphony that is bicycle racing.

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