Hhhuhh... Hhhuhh... Just... give me a... second to... catch my breath. After two and half weeks of bike racing, I'm exhausted. And I'm just watching it on TV.
As a fan of all sports (I’m still not convinced auto racing is an actual sport), I have casually followed the Tour de France for a number of years, tracking the daily results in the newspaper and watching the occasional highlight special on television. But all that has changed and there are several key reasons why this year is different from years past: My digital cable system carries the Outdoor Life Network, which televises every stage of the race; TiVo allows me to record each stage relatively hassle-free; and this Tour has been simply spectacular.
Yesterday was a rest day for the Tour de France and it couldn't have come at a better time. In what has been a self-propelled roller coaster ride through France, the centenial edition of the legendary bicycle race has been building tension and drama in unyielding fashion over the course of its first fifteen stages. Yesterday, the race reached its literal and figurative peak as American rider Lance Armstrong, on a quest to win his record-tying fifth Tour de France in a row, finally got his first stage win of this year's tour and took control of the overall race. But it was the manner in which he accomplished the feat that was so breathtaking. No secondhand account could possibly capture the moment. You had to see it to believe it. I saw it.
In the history of the Tour de France, four men have won five times, but only one, Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain, won five times in a row. Over the last four years, Armstrong has single-handedly put professional cycling on the map in the United States, riding for a team sponsored by the United States Postal Service and penning a best-selling autobiography chronicling his miraculous victories over testicular cancer and the world's most famous bicycle race. Since overcoming the big C, Armstrong has been a man possessed, seemingly immortal in his domination over the field of world-class athletes. This Tour, he has appeared vulnerable, maybe even beatable.
Armstrong’s troubles began in the Tour’s first full stage when 35 riders crashed as the pack turned around a dangerous corner on the way to the final sprint to the finish line. Armstrong bruised his right thigh, scratched his left shoulder, and tweaked his back. In the same pileup, Armstrong’s former teammate Tyler Hamilton fractured his collarbone, but stayed in the race and somehow still remains in the top ten. That was just Stage 1. Along the way, Armstrong has had to battle a heat wave, dehydration, and constant attacks from his main competitors in the mountains. The most memorable moment from this year’s Tour occurred in Stage 9 when last year’s runner-up Joseba Beloki lost control of his bicycle on the melted tarmac of a steep mountain descent and crashed violently right in front of Lance Armstrong. Amazingly, Armstrong did not panic and managed to avoid running into the fallen Spaniard by braking and pulling off the road into a field. Instead of getting back on the road heading into a hairpin turn, Armstrong continued pedaling through the field until he reached a ditch on the other side, where he got off his bike and carried it back onto the road in time to join the pack of riders speeding around the turn. Beloki broke his right leg, wrist, and elbow in the crash, ending his attempt to defeat Armstrong and win his first Tour.
Every great champion needs a great rival to test the absolute limits of his capabilities. Lance Armstrong has a powerful German rider named Jan Ullrich to do just that. Ullrich won the 1997 Tour at age 23 and finished second to Armstrong in both 2000 and 2001 before missing last year’s race with injuries. OLN’s announcing team of Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett (who by the way is covering his 31st Tour de France), have described Ullrich as "one of the greatest champions in the world" and "soaked in talent." They have compared his riding style to that of a diesel engine, taking awhile to get revved up, but able to sustain high speeds for long periods of time once it gets going. While Armstrong pedals at a fast cadence, often rising out of his saddle for power, Ullrich uses a higher gear, churning from a seated position. Ullrich used that power to great effect in a Stage 12 individual time trial win on Friday, finishing as the only man to complete the 29 mile course in under an hour, as a dehydrated Armstrong fought desperately to hold on to the overall lead. At the end of the day, Armstrong declared Ullrich the new favorite to win this year.
In the 2001 Tour de France, Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong were locked in their annual duel when Stage 13 rolled around. On the second to last climb of a punishing day in the Pyrenees, Ullrich overshot a corner and crashed into a ravine. Armstrong, proving himself a gentleman rider, slowed down and waited for Ullrich to recover and get back to the pack, obeying one of the unwritten rules of professional cycling, "You do not take advantage of a competitor who’s gone down with bad luck." Lance went on to win the stage and take the yellow jersey as the overall race leader. The very next day, the last of the climbing days in the Pyrenees, Ullrich and Armstrong were nearing the finish when Ullrich suddenly extended his hand in a gesture of respect and concession. Armstrong clasped the German’s gloved hand and the two rivals crossed the line side-by-side for third and fourth place in the stage. Armstrong went on to take his third straight Tour victory.
That brings us to Monday’s Stage 15, once again in the Pyrenees. With Armstrong looking fallible and downright human at various times during this Tour, the yellow jersey appeared to be in serious jeopardy. Armstrong’s overall lead was a meager 15 seconds over Ullrich and 18 seconds over Kazak rider Alexandre Vinokourov. Several other challengers still had outside chances to catch Armstrong, including Basque racers Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo, and shockingly enough, American Tyler Hamilton, broken collarbone and all. Despite an early attack by Ullrich and a confident breakaway by French rider Sylvain Chavanel, the top riders found themselves bunched together as they came to the final climb of the day, one of the steepest climbs of the Tour. Iban Mayo attacked, trying to put some distance between himself and the pack, but Armstrong didn’t panic, tracking him down and zooming past him. It was the first time in this year’s event that Lance Armstrong attacked the field. But, just as it looked like the four-time winner was back to his dominating form, a spectator’s bag caught Armstrong’s handlebars and violently yanked him to the ground. Mayo hit Armstrong and fell. Ullrich used his outstanding reflexes to swerve around the two fallen riders and stay out of trouble. Armstrong and Mayo quickly mounted their bikes again and tried to catch up to the confused group. Ullrich slowed down, and in a show of sportsmanship so un-American, Hamilton motioned to the rest of the top group to wait for Armstrong and Mayo. But Armstrong didn’t know they were waiting. While in a frenzy to catch up, his foot slipped off the pedal, sending his body lurching forward and his crotch painfully into the bicycle seat. However, he did not go down. Instead, Armstrong recovered yet again and, with Mayo, caught back up to the challenging group. When they were all together, Mayo decided to go on the attack once more. This time, Armstrong not only counter-attacked, he powered past Mayo and kept going. With 9 km to go to the summit and stage finish, Armstrong "put the other riders into difficulty," as the OLN’s Phil Liggett likes to say in his artful commentary. Ullrich’s face read agony. Hamilton fell back. Mayo and Zubeldia struggled to keep pace. But no one would catch Armstrong on this day. Fueled by the adrenaline from his crash, Armstrong performed his version of the Misty Mountain Hop through the foggy Pyrenees, seemingly dancing on the pedals. He eventually caught breakaway rider Chavanel, and gave him a respectful pat on the back as he passed him, as if to say, "If I didn’t need the time bonus for winning the stage, I would’ve let you take the glory today." With a pained grimace on his face, dirt on his back, and blood on his elbow, Armstrong crossed the line 40 seconds ahead of Ullrich, Mayo, and Zubeldia. He padded his overall lead and took control of his own destiny in his drive for five. The Outdoor Life Network’s studio analyst Bob Roll, not one to shy away from hyperbole, called it the best single day bike race he’s ever seen in his life. When asked how these bike riders can display so much sportsmanship and class while they endure tremendous amounts of pain and stress, Roll replied, "These are the toughest men on earth. Bike racing is all about suffering... The nature of the sport is so beautiful. And it’s such a compelling allegory to real life. You help out, you compete, and at the end, the best man wins."
This Sunday, the grueling three-week event, covering 2,130 miles in 21 stages will come to an end with its ceremonial ride down the Champs-Elysses. Whether or not Lance Armstrong will still be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris will most likely be decided in Saturday’s final individual time trial. Ullrich has already proven he can beat Armstrong in a time trial. Can he do it again? It’s not too late to jump on to the peloton and take a ride through France with the best cyclists on the planet. The Outdoor Life Network will be televising the remaining stages live and on tape throughout the days. CBS will broadcast a special highlight show on Sunday afternoon, including the last stage into Paris.
Unfortunately, my burning curiosity doesn’t allow me to wait until the evening telecast to watch it without knowing what happened. In my mind, the result is out there in the world and I have to have it. But, for me, the thrill is in watching the events unfold, even if I already know who won the stage and in what time. Sure, I’d rather be in the same time zone and watch the race live, but right now that’s not possible. Someday though, I’ll be one of those lunatic fans on the side of the road, waving their colorful towels at the passing riders like amateur matadors. Until then, the rest day is over and the guys are back on the attack. Now I have to catch my breath and see if I have what it takes to stay with them.