Just Another Tour: Once again, I was the only person in North America following the Tour de France live. Well, not really live. I was following it about 12 hours delayed on the primetime coverage of the increasingly indispensable NBC Sports channel. The coverage is a delight. The announcers are dead on professionals and the commentators have the right balance of seriousness and humor (Bob "Bobke" Roll is a great character). The scenery and camera work is amazing and beautiful, even if they occasionally miss the key events. Honestly, I love the panning shots of the colors in the peloton flying past some medieval castle -- really astounding images. Plus, it's great to have on in the background while writing or web surfing on your tablet.
Last year's winner, Bradley Wiggins, was out with an injury so his second in command, Chris Froome, inherited the ace Team Sky, then put on a show himself cranking out some astounding stage performances. The personalities of the two contrast significantly (although they are great friends). Wiggins was, well, let's call it forthright in his opinions, and more than a little salty in his language. Froome is about as soft spoken and polite as they come. His favorite band is Coldplay and his favorite movie is Shawshank Redemption. Honestly. Of the two I like Froome better. He paid his dues the previous year and got his shot this year, then just stomped everybody. He looks something like a space alien -- tall and blade thin with skinny angular arms and legs (he's 6'1" and a touch over 150 lbs.). It will be interesting to see how Team Sky sets themselves up next year. Will they want Wiggins back? If so, Froome should go somewhere else because he has no business being anyone's second banana. Also there is Richie Porte, who was to Froome as Froome was to Wiggins, just sort of laying in wait. Team Sky is sitting pretty and it's a fair bet whoever their top rider is will be the favorite next year.
As to the remainder of the field, well, Alberto Contador demonstrated that he cannot dominate a race now that he's off the juice. Sorry, I'm not a big fan of Contador. As filled with prima donnas as the Tour is, there is a still a fairly firm tradition of sportsmanship that Contador won't hesitate to violate if it suits him, doping aside. Cadel Evans, who won two years ago was never really close to contention. Next year's yellow jersey competition is going to be wide open.
Sprinting is wide open now too, despite being dominated previously by Mark Cavendish. Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel were all over him at every finish line. And Peter Sagan took the green jersey by being a more rounded cyclist overall and swamping all the mid-race sprints. It's strange not to see Cavendish as unbeatable and it's hard to tell what happened this year. Either he didn't get the team support he needed or he's just getting older (trust me, that happens fast and shows up quickly when thousandths of a second count). He was also the focus of what little controversy there was in the Tour when he accidentally sideswiped another rider during a sprint, leaving him on the ground near the finish. I seriously doubt there was any sort of intent to it, but Cavendish is profoundly prickish and so the French took the opportunity to vilify him a bit. The following day somebody threw a cupful of urine on him. (Try to imagine what it is like in the mind of an individual who saves his pee in a cup to throw on one if the riders in the Tour de France. You can't, can you? To call it sociopathic is generous.)
The other news was the emergence of a rookie Colombian rider Nairo Quintana who proved to be an amazing climber and won the white jersey as the best young rider. He has the personality of a cardboard cutout but that may just be due to youth and language. He was the only one who seemed to be able to challenge Froome in the mountains. The most promising American was also a rookie, Andrew Talansky who finished 10th overall and second to Quintana for the white jersey. I hope something comes of him. It'll be good for the sport to have an American in the mix for yellow, so perhaps I'm not so lonely in my viewership. Don't forget the U.S. has exactly one Tour de France winning rider in it's history now, thank you very much Lance.
Which brings me to a lurking problem. When following cycling you have to hold back. You have to be careful not to get too enthusiastic. Recent history suggests that any one of these guys might end up stripped of whatever victories they have because of the juice. In this way cycling is similar to baseball now. Baseball as it is being played on the field now is probably the best it has even been (I should really do a post on that), but there's always that little voice in the background that tells you not to get too excited because that other shoe is dangling by a thread. It's going to be quite a few years until either of these sports shake that spectre.
But it won't stop me from picturing myself on a long open road, pedalling smoothly in a tall gear through an expansive vineyard, then snaking into rustic village and past a 14th century abbey. I know exactly what it would look like.