On July 5, 198 riders — nine of them American — set off from Leeds, UK on a 2,276-mile bicycle race. They rode to London, bent into Belgium, and then spent the majority of their time scaling the altitudinal circumference of the perimeter of France. In 21 days, they’ll cover the distance from Manhattan to the Las Vegas strip.
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Every minute of their grueling progress is broadcast on American TV (NBCSN, and some on NBC primetime), and we’ll take one fairly broad guess and say you and the majority of your friends haven’t watched one single pedal stroke. Not that we blame you. On the surface, cycling is mind-numbingly repetitious: a cluster of dudes in spandex with oversized calves and emaciated arms pedaling through the countryside for countless hours. When the riders finally cross the finish line, one guy dons a yellow jersey (not even gold) and gets a double kiss from two French ladies. And then that’s it. Sleep and repeat. Same thing, every day, for three weeks. It tries American patience. It ruins our sense of immediate gratification. And then there’s the doping.
Bringing up Le Tour at every opportunity in the last three weeks granted me no new friends, and America’s popular interest in competitive cycling has been best described as “rising and falling alongside Lance Armstrong.” I was told: it’s no fun to watch a sport made up of cheats. I was told: the scenery is nice, but everything else is rubbish. While the doping antics and Union Cycliste Internationale’s (UCI) ineffectual control are marks against it, there is an argument for something more that happens when nearly two hundred of the world’s top athletes line up and decide to race to Paris on human-powered transportation. There may be something in the spectacle, I’d say, even more interesting than the yellow (and polka-dotted, and green) sheep.
Domestique: From French, literally meaning “servant.” The term refers to the eight riders on a team who serve the lead rider, helping get their number one man across the line first.
Slingshot: The technique of riding in the slipstream of another rider to reduce drag and conserve energy, and then “slingshotting” forward past him for the win.
Broom Wagon: The SAG (“Support and Gear”) wagon that follows the racers. In every race there’s an entire motorcade of cars and motorcycles fueling up riders, changing flat tires, and — in the unfortunate event — picking up the stragglers off the rear.
Arrière du Peloton: From French, literally meaning “the rear of the platoon”. This is the back of the main group of riders, a place where riders can conserve energy (the drag they face is reduced by up to 40 percent here), or the last place a rider’s seen before being dropped.
Tailwind: The single best thing to happen to a cyclist. A wind pattern that pushes the rider forward, as opposed to fiendish headwinds or crosswinds.
Bonk: To hit the wall and completely run out of energy. It happens to the best (some sooner than others).
A third of the way through this year’s Tour, racers met with the cobblestones of northern France. It was a gloomy day with scattered bursts of rain. The roads were slick and the dirt between the cobbles melted away, leaving jagged crags of rock for racers to jounce over. Riders catapulted over their bars, into spectators and each other. There were more crashes than you’ll see in the entire Nascar circuit. About halfway through the stage, last year’s winner, Brit Chris Froome, hit the deck, got up limping, and stepped into his team car. He’d called it quits.
Out front, a rider named Lars Boom rocked his bike under his body — left, right, left, right — and pumped his way across the finish line, then burst into a primal scream. His body was caked in dirt. He looked like he’d just left the swamp. These were the visible signs of the strength and fortitude it took to conquer the stage. And that’s part and parcel of what makes the Tour great. First place doesn’t go to some slick-legged wearer of runway-level spandex. It goes to the man who eats dirt, spits it out, and carries on.
As the tour headed into the Alps, two-thirds of the way through the race, Stage 14 ended with an epic climb up Chamrousse, an 11-mile mountain road with an average grade of 7.3 percent. The race officially classifies it as hors catégorie — “beyond classification”. A crafty Italian, Vincenzo Nibali — a national champion and prior winner of the two other Grand Tours (Italy’s Giro d’Italia in 2013 and Spain’s Vuelta a España in 2000) — sat comfortably in the General Classification (the overall) lead. He had more than a two-minute cushion on the guy in second place. He’d already won two race stages. If he finished steady, he’d build his lead.
With four miles to go, Nibali left a group of lead riders and attacked a breakaway. He catapulted away and reached the two men ahead of him. Then, with two miles to go, he dropped the two and continued on to a solo victory. He didn’t need to do it. He wanted to. He wanted to send a message: Nibali, the “Shark”, wasn’t simply going to lead the GC — he was going to stomp out all the competition. He barked to the rest of the peloton: I’m the strong man, don’t even try to catch me. It was a fantastic show of power and prowess. Nibali left his guts on the tarmac.
Pissed off at the pest, Voigt did what came naturally: he bit the bug with his teeth, crushed it, then swallowed it.
Then there’s the story of Jens Voigt and the bee. (At 42, Voigt is the oldest rider in this year’s Tour.) During a stage of the Tour of California — America’s premier cycling race — a bee stung him on the lip. Pissed off at the pest, Voigt did what came naturally: he bit the bug with his teeth, crushed it, then swallowed it. He said he wanted to suck every bit of honey out of the bee. That’s the dominant attitude in cycling. Destroy. Conquer. Overcome.
Cycling didn’t live and die on Lance Armstrong’s shoulders. The suffering and long-term exertion, the climactic triumphs and the adverse elements all thrived long before one American enjoyed a decade of dope-fueled dominance in the sport, and it’ll continue on beyond and despite the scandals that currently mire the sport in controversy. The Tour de France covers ground on some of the most scenic landscapes in the world, but the flora and fauna aren’t what this race is about, aren’t what draws the 15 million spectators lining the streets, donning unitards and cheering like fans at an actually exciting moment. It’s not scenic views and rolling vineyards that cause millions more to wake up at dark hours to watch live extended coverage as Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen commentate.
General Classification: The rider with the lowest cumulative time in all stages of the race. This is the overall winner of the race. In the Tour de France, the Yellow Jersey.
Mountains Classification: The rider with the most points earned for reaching any categorized climb before other riders. In the Tour de France, the Polka Dot Jersey.
Points Classification: The rider with the most points earned for reaching mid-race and finish line sprint points. In the Tour de France, the Green Jersey.
Young Rider Classification: The rider, 25 or younger, who has the lowest cumulative time in all stages of the race. In the Tour de France, the White Jersey.
This race is about some of the greatest athletes in the world competing against each other, the elements, and a serpentine route charged with every possible incline. It’s about taking that route and using it to crush your supremely conditioned competition. It’s about being stretched to cover the width of the continent of Australia at maximum speed over the course of three weeks and still having the determination — and, as any cyclist will admit, the downright anger against elevation and road and bicycle and the acid burn in your muscle’s depths — to grip the handlebars hard and drive into the pedals looking to break the carbon’s fibers if the bicycle won’t go just that one more bit of fast.
That is the spirit of the Tour de France. That is the crux of the world’s greatest bicycling race. That is the show of the world’s finest giving everything in a brilliant display of endurance, grit, and human determination. Watch it. Record it on your DVR. Don’t miss the final days of the greatest human powered spectacle on earth.