Monday, August 07, 2017

[Sports] Bore de France

I remain one of the nine total Americans who follow the Tour De France. This year's race left a lot to be desired. It was almost a forgone conclusion that Chris Froome would win. His team, Team Sky, buys all the high end cycling talent up and stays laser focused on the Tour from the instant the previous year's Tour is complete. The race organizers did what they could to make it more competitive -- reduce the number of finishes on the tops of mountains, reduce the number and length of time trials -- but it made no difference. An individually great cyclist like Froome could theoretically be overcome with good tactics, but not when the team around him is so totally superior. Time and time again, he would be surrounded by two or three teammates when his competitors were more or less on their own. So much so that even when he had a bad day, or looked like he was vulnerable, nobody else had anything in the tank to take some time out of him. This was exactly what was expected beforehand and it is exactly what occurred.

The battle for the sprinter's championship was a bloody mess. Defending champ Peter Sagan got himself disqualified, very controversially, by taking out one of his competitors who happened to also be on of the most recognizable names in sprinting, Mark Cavendish. There was a stretch in years past when Cavendish was unbeatable and he was still as likely to take a stage as anyone else. In the course of a sprint in the early stages they collided resulting in an tour ending injury to Cavendish. Upon further review, the Tour Administrators disqualified Sagan, imply he was the cause of it. Replays suggest that wasn't remotely true but, like Froome, Sagan has been very dominant and has been on the short end of efforts against him in the name of competitive balance. It wouldn't surprise me if this played into the decision to DQ him, in the hopes of making the sprint championship more interesting. As it turned out, it more plain weird than dramatic. After the loss of Sagan and Cavendish, Marcel Kittle, also a great sprinter, started to dominate, but when the Tour moved into the mountains he burned himself out trying to keep up, eventually dropping out entirely. The ultimate victory went to Australian Michael Matthews. It was well earned and he had contenders to fight off until the last day, but there was the lingering feeling that with so many big names gone, circumstances played a big role in his victory.

So, yeah, it was not a Tour that I would expect to increase viewership. The TV coverage was decent this year, though the commentators still are not the best, they are getting better and are at least entertaining. They have a tendency to shy away from controversy and occasionally miss the obvious -- at one point they couldn't understand why the crowd was booing Chris Froome; it was obvious they weren't booing him, they were saying "Froooome!" Also, the scenery and setting of the French countryside is simply gorgeous. It makes me want to take a bike tour of Provence.

With Froome aging and Sky cyclists anxious to lead their own teams, the current speculation is that next year should actually be less of a foregone conclusion. I and the eight other Americans watching hope so.

Tangent: I am proud to say during the Tour I completed my first ever 100 mile bike ride, referred to in endurance cycling circles as a Century. It took a few minutes over seven hours (not including breaks). It was as grueling as it gets and it laid me up for days afterwards. The TdF riders ride over 100 miles a day for weeks at a time all at a pace roughly twice as fast as mine. It really put their skill in a new context for me. That context being a blown mind. It really is remarkable how far elite athletes are above casual athletes like me.