I used to be a fairly accomplished recreational cyclist. Fifty miles in one day, or close to one hundred in a weekend--no problem. Someone saying seven (or thirty) miles was a long ride? An object of ridicule, someone to laugh at with my other cycling friends at a party.
That was over five years ago. Now, I can do seven, no problem, but I wish I could do fifty--or thirty, for that matter. If I start riding regularly again, I could. . .the only problem is this thing called life that keeps getting in the way.
Every July, though, I get inspired and take my new bike (the one I bought last year, and has, at most, fifty miles total on it, plus seven on the new wheels I bought over a month ago) because The Tour is on!
The Tour is Le Tour de France, of course, the Greatest Bicycle Race In The World. It's not a championship, it's prestigious, in the same way the Kentucky Derby or the Indianappolis 500 are the most prestigious races in their respective worlds. You say you've raced in the Tour, much less finished or even won it, and people--at least in the rest of the world--take notice.
Then there's America. If it weren't for Lance Armstrong, I doubt most Americans would know the Tour was going on right now.
But I know, and my girlfriend (also a formerly accomplished recreational rider) knows it. Others do, too, but not the way we know it.
It's a long story about how Le Tour became important to me (heck, to the two of us), but I (we) love it. I collect the Cycle Sport Tour Preview and Review issues, gobbling up little minutae like. . .well, for instance, this year Lance and Postal are riding on Shimano's new 10-speed cassette.
(What's that, you say? People have been riding ten-speeds for years! Ahh (the bike geek in me says), the cassette is made up of the rear gears. A ten-speed gets its name from the two rings in the chainring, up front, and the five gears in the cassette, in the back. Two times five is ten speeds, get it? A ten-speed cassette, coupled with two rings up front, is two times ten. . .twenty gears! Cool, uh?)
Anyway, bike geeks get off on stuff like that. Back to the Tour.
The first Tour I really paid attention to was the 1998 Tour, the one Marco Pantani of Italy won, and the one that almost destroyed the Tour. There was a doping scandal in the middle of it. . .an entire French team was kicked off of the Tour. . .the Riders protested it in the middle of a stage and had to be begged to race. . .
Opera doesn't have drama like that.
In 1999, an American, who just a short time before had been, basically, given up for dead by a French team, won The Tour. Yeah, it was Lance.
You have to watch the Tour with some good commentators (OLN has the best--their team includes three guys who have finished it, multiple times) because they'll explain it to you. Why the riders are in a line, why the team works for their leader, what's the difference between all of the jerseys. . .
And why a crash happens.
This Tour has been marred by crashes. Fortunately, it's the first one in which helmets are required at all times (unless a stage finishes at the peak of a mountain, and you're allowed to remove your helmets only on that last climb), and there's a Spaniard who is damn glad he was wearing his helmet today.
Joseba Beloki, of the Spanish team ONCE, finished second last year. This year, today's stage 9, he was racing down a mountain with Lance, in pursuit of a racer further down the road, at a speed that was probably over 60 miles per hour, when he locked up his brakes on the melting pavement, his tubular tire (which is glued onto the rim, unlike the clincher tires & rims us normal people have) rolled off his rim as the glue holding it in place melted, and he crashed into the pavement, fracturing his femur, wrist, and elbow, ending his Tour for this year. A helicopter-mounted camera caught the whole thing.
Hearing him moan in pain--a motorcycle-mounted cameraman was on the scene within seconds--is one of the most tragic and heartbreaking sounds I think I'll ever hear in my life.
Lance was right behind him. Too often, a rider may be drafting behine the rider in front of him--the lowered air pressure means you use up less energy to go at a given pace. When drafting, the two riders may be seperated by just a few decimeters.
Fortunately, Lance was several meters behind Beloki when he lost it, and, more important, he was at a hairpin turn on the mountain. Lance went off-road, and rejoined the peloton on the other side of the turn.
Señor Beloki lay on the side of the road, bloody and moaning, until two of his teammates, then a medical support vehicle, caught up to him a few moments later.
Señor Joseba Beloki, as fierce a competitor and as fine a man as ever raced a bicycle, ended his Tour today, moaning in pain and in tears, in the back of an ambulance.