Monday, August 02, 2010

[Rant] Surreal Tour

Surreal Tour: I was probably one of three North Americans who kept up with the Tour de France replays once Lance Armstrong was out of it after the fourth or fifth stage. The race was an extended exercise in Fellini-esque action.

First, Lance crashed. Then crashed again. Then again. Then again. I lost track, but it happened often enough that he found himself many minutes behind the guy he was supposed to battle (and eventual winner), Alberto Contador, who I hate, for reasons I'll get to.

There was a leg with extended segments over cobblestones, and if you have ever ridden a bike over cobblestones at any speed, never TdF speeds, you know the true meaning of the term "pain in the ass." In fact, there were so many crashes and other difficulties early on that at one point a huge mass of riders just decided to stop racing and finish all together in a big bunch as a form of protest. Like virtually all protests, it really didn't have any clear point. It was never stated what they wanted changed or who they were upset with. Nobody was hurt by this protest except the riders who were hoping to make up time on that particular stage. Essentially, it was a bunch of bratty athletes acting out. But it's important to remember, this was in France. Things are different there; they are not meant to make sense.

Why didn't some riders defy the protest out of self interest? Well, the answer to that question is part of what I like about cycling. There are unwritten rules of sportsmanship and communal duties. This is especially true for the riders bunched up in the peloton. It's this air of sportsmanship that I find appealing. Sadly, it was petty boorishness that dominated the tour this year.

Take the aforementioned Contador. First, I don't like him because he hosed Lance last year. Every team has a main guy -- the guy who is supposed to be the focus of their efforts, the one everyone sacrifices for in the interest of him winning the Tour. Last year, when Contador and Lance were teammates, that guy was supposed to be Lance, but Contador defied instructions and usurped Lance's position on the team, thus forcing the team to support Contador over Lance if someone from the team was going to win (it's a complicated situation but that's essentially the jist of it). It may sound like he was just being competitive, but it's the equivalent of, say, a batter swinging for the fences to make a home run record when he's been given the bunt sign in an effort to win the game. Even if it works, it's a dick move.

Another unwritten rule is that once the race leaders are established, they should not lose position because of mechanical issues. The idea is that the better cyclist should win, not the one who got lucky because nothing broke on his bike. This was famously displayed five or so years ago when Lance was leading and got his handlebars entangled in the handbag straps of some idiot spectator. Word was passed and all the other racers slowed to a crawl until Lance caught up. (Imagine something like this happening in NASCAR when Tony Stewart gets a flat tire.)

Well, cruising along about half way through the race, a exceptionally talented young cyclist named Andy Schleck was in the lead with Contador second. Suddenly, Schleck missed a shift and his chain came off. It took a few seconds for him to repair it. Guess who didn't stop? Contador ended up taking the lead for good. After coming under intense criticism and getting booed, Contador prepared an apology and posted it on YouTube. Note: he did not give Schleck a head start the next day or anything. The amount of time Schleck lost due to the malfunction: 39 seconds. The amount of time Contador won by: 39 seconds. The master of the dick move struck again.

Apart from that, there was a fistfight. Or what passes for a fistfight between two 120-lb., spandex and helmet wearing cyclists. The more jaded among us would have called it a slap-fight. An Australian rider got disqualified for trying to head-butt another cyclist while passing him. And at one point, riders had to maneuver their way through a herd of sheep that were trying to cross the road. All that was topped off by streakers along the roadside. Fellini would have been proud.

The worst appears to be yet to come, though. All that vaunted sportsmanship doesn't really extend off the course with respect to doping, and although there weren't any immediate doping disasters this year, the ghost of the previous years were hovering above. Specifically Floyd Landis, a previous miracle tour winner who was stripped of his title because of doping is now the main source for a broad-based investigation into doping in cycling by the FDA. He has accused Lance of doping over the years and claims to have directly witnessed it. He also has a book coming out.

(Aside: I fail to understand why the FDA needs to be involved here. I like the sport of cycling, but the in the litany of things that I would spend my tax dollars on, it doesn't approach notice.)

I fear sportsmanship may go by the wayside in cycling as it has just about everywhere else. We may come to see this year's Tour and the tipping point into crudity. Despite that, I'll probably watch next year. I still marvel at the ability of these guys to go for five or six hours at a rate I could probably only hope to keep up for a few seconds on my Schwinn. And I want to see Contador lose. Maybe he'll fall over a sheep and everyone will just pedal on by.