The Tour starts
tomorrow today. For those of you who are not terribly familiar with it, the Tour de France is a twenty-stage bicycle race that takes place in the month of July every year, wherein (ideally) 198 men on 22 teams try to get their team leaders to put in the best showing in what is quite probably the single most difficult professional endurance sport in the world.
For the last seven years, Lance Armstrong has dominated the Tour, winning a record
five six seven times in a row. This is about equivalent to a tennis player winning at Wimbledon for about a decade straight (in part more difficult because you’re retirement age a lot sooner in life as a professional bicyclist than a professional tennis player). It gets more difficult to do what Lance Armstrong did when you consider the fact that he jumped into bicycling the next year after winning an uphill battle against a cancer that had metastasized and spread throughout his body, requiring (among other things) brain surgery. His chances of survival, in the estimation of his doctors, were slim and none — and it certainly wasn’t expected he’d ever be competitive as a bicyclist again if he did manage to survive.
On the contrary, he has simply gotten better every single year, winning the Tour every single year in which he’s participated after his struggle with cancer. He retired after last year’s Tour, having not only set a new record, but exceeded previous records by a couple extra wins in a row.
The Tour is changed forever, not only because of him, but also because he’s left it, and because of the attention he’s brought to the sport. He was inspiring — and he still is.
Things are happening. The Tour hasn’t even started yet, but things are happening. Some other incredible riders are being withdrawn or disqualified from the race because of a performance enhancing drug scandal being played out in Spain. Tyler Hamilton was already serving his two-year suspension for blood doping (increasing the red blood count in one’s blood, usually by withdrawing blood, putting it on ice, then reintroducing it to the system later) when this little mess hit: now, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Francisco Mancebo, and Alexander Vinokourov are also out for suspicion of using performance enhancing drugs. Even suspicion is enough to disqualify a rider from the Tour sometimes. Ullrich, Basso, and Hamilton are among my favorite riders. This year’s Tour will be a bit different.
Ullrich’s 32. His career is pretty much over at that age. He won the Tour in ’97 and came in second several times after that — he’s on the tail end of his ability to compete at that level, and is probably at about the point of retirement himself.
Basso’s an incredible climber, always fun to watch in the mountain stages, and probably Ullrich’s biggest threat (in my honest opinion) for this year’s Tour — or would be if they hadn’t both been withdrawn by their teams to avoid the possibility of embarrassment in case they might turn out to be guilty.
Hamilton once performed extraordinarily after breaking his collar bone on the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy). Have you ever tried to ride a bicycle with a freshly broken collar bone? Okay, now try riding it 40 miles per hour for several hours a day. No blood doping allows you to do that, which makes me doubly disappointed with the fact he was caught doing just that. Someone who can do that is either on PCP or possessed of inhuman determination. I rather guess it was the latter.
I’ll be watching the Tour. It’d be difficult to stop me. It just won’t be the same, though.