Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Tour de France 101

Welcome, Tour de France newbies!: You know all about cancer survivor/celebrity babe magnet/notorious egomaniac Lance Armstrong winning the grueling 3-week Tour de France an astonishing 7 times, and you even know that last year's winner US' Floyd Landis got busted for some sort of weird testosterone thing, though it's not clear to you whether he really did it like the baseball players who suddenly double in size in one season or whether it's all just typically whiny French sour grapes. Still, the Tour's caught your attention for good, and you're ready to see what all the fuss is about. Maybe you've even--despite committing the egregious sin of ignoring the beautiful Giro d'Italia in May--read my handy pre-season cycling dictionary here. But to understand why six whole hours--not just the last five minutes, trust me--of any Tour de France race-day coverage specifically is so exciting--you, as did I and many fans before you, could really use a primer on the greatest (or at least most prestigious) show on earth. So, my humble intro:

The Commentators: follow the Gospel of Phil (Liggett) and Paul (Sherwen) and you can't go wrong, and if you don't have the sense to obey, I have no use for you. They will not only educate you on the history of the Tour and who to watch when why in this one, but you will gain an invaluable knowledge of local attractions, regional agricultural outputs, and every bottle of wine they've enjoyed at each prior stage in this area since about 1969. Follow Bob Roll, and you'll not only be entertained, but, tho' he pimps just a little too hard for Discovery for my taste, you'll learn a lot despite yourself. Listen to Al Trautwig, and you'll burn in hell for all eternity; I'm sure he means well, but he's--how does one say this delicately?--an idiot.

The Teams: identified by the hideous, flourescent, and distinctly un-macho tight spandex outfits that crack you up because they look like a pack of wussies compared to say football players. Don't be fooled by the prom-dress colors--while you're sitting there drinking beer and scratching yourself, any one of these pretty boys can whup your !@# six ways to Sunday. Colors of the main ("General Classification" or GC) contenders to watch: Discovery's uncommonly studly blue and black for American Levi Leipheimer; pregnancy-test-sponsor Predictor's pink and black Aussie Cadel Evans; Astana's baby-blue Alexander Vinokorouv and Andreas Kloden; and Caisse d'Epargne's and CSC's red-and-black Alejandro Valverde and we love Carlos Sastre, respectively. Blue-and-orange Rabobank's Denis Menchov wants it, but I'm still pissed that he took Roberto Heras' last Vuelta a Espana over some inconsequential EPO bust then largely sucked every since, so we're not counting him. Hmmm, despite the overwhelmingly easter-egg colors of the rest of the peloton, I'm just noticing that the GC contenders are mostly on very manly-colored teams....

The Jerseys: besides their team kits, different types of riders are aiming for the honor of wearing different colored jerseys that signify different things, and massively increase your chances for a truly extortionate cash-cow of a deal come contract-renewal season:
--Yellow: the coveted Maillot Jaune or leader's jersey. Yes, Lance's. Even wearing this for one day is the proud highlight of any rider's career, though of course what really counts is who's wearing it on the final day in Paris. Contenders: see above.
--White: Young Rider's. You're 25 and under, which means generally too young to have any tactical brains or to be at your physical peak for a three-week trek through hell. Contenders: I can never pick this one right, ever, but T-Mobile (hot pink)'s lacking a strong GC contender after losing or kicking out every rider that matters, and has lots of high-caliber jailbait, so maybe one of their boys'll take it.
--Green: Points, or, more accurately, Sprint. You rack up points by breaking off the front of the pack and racing across selected mini-finish-lines at various places along the course--and sometimes, if someone is threatening your team's big sprinter's chances for it, you'll have no hope for the jersey but be ordered to go take the points just to keep them away from someone else--but what really grabs the cameras is for you to wear it as you thunder across the line in a tight bunch finish on a sprint stage. To watch: light-blue Milram's Alessandro Petacchi; green Credit Agricole's we love but he's been in crap form all season Thor Hushovd; teal-and-fuschia Lampre's upstart Daniele Bennati; pink Predictor's Robbie "Head-Butt" McEwen.
--Polka-Dot: it's the King of the Mountains, baby! The most exciting race within the race for my money, these are generally tiny little mountains monkeys who can crush the entire Alps, and their gasping sap fellow riders, at an astonishing pace. To watch: Rabobank's Michael "the Chicken" Rasmussen, and...well, everyone else, despite some brilliant climbers over at orange Euskaltel, Caisse D'Epargne and Astana, is pretty much toast.
--and, Another Anomaly: the national champions have all just been crowned, and they get to wear their national champion jersey all race while the rest of the team is stuck with their general-loser team kit. If you're a national time trial champion, you only get to wear it in a time trial.

The Stages: generally divided into Prologue (the stage-before-the-first-stage), which puts someone into the yellow jersey for the real start of the race; Sprint, mostly flat; Rolling; Time Trial, an individual race against the clock with no teammates around to protect you; and Mountain. In the prologue (which is a time trial) and other tts, look for: CSC's Fabian Cancellara; US national tt champ we love Dave Zabriskie; yellow Saunier Duval's irritating reformed dope-fiend St. David Millar, keen to win in his hometown start in London; Discovery's George Hincapie or Levi Leipheimer for, if not the win, a nice high placement. For the Mountains: we love yellow Saunier Duval's Iban Mayo, who once beat Lance and has since been psychologically-crushed-now-recovering in the wake of the resulting Next King of Cycling hype; CdE's Alejandro Valverde, who's never made it through a Tour; Alexander Vinokorouv, who may hand the stage win off to whatever superdomestique hauled him up the mountains if it won't threaten his chances for the yellow jersey in Paris; CSC's surging Frank Schleck. Rolling'll be whatever breakaway won't threaten any team leader on any particular day, and Sprint is the green jersey suspects above, except it's Robbie who'll snake around from the out-of-contention butt-end of the group and surprise you every time.

Finally, an Oddity: the Tour riders are usually numbered with No. 1 being last year's winner, then his teammates, and sequentially down the line, which not only helps you identify individuals in a sea of indistinguishable spandex @#$es, but provides a handy guide to who to hope for. But this year, with Floyd Landis about to be hosed out of his Tour title despite the bungling of incompetent French lab nits, but of course not in time to confirm the numbering, and 2nd place Oscar Pereiro not having had a chance in hell of being there frankly if all of last year's serious contenders hadn't been kicked out just before the start on doping charges, the befuddled Tour organizers are starting poor Pereiro at 11 and everyone else muddles in after that. Y'know, craptastic field last year or not, he did almost take the thing, and has been a good sport about the whole Landis hoo-ha despite the lingering suspicion he should've been the boy swarmed by podium babes and champagne spray in Paris--could they have found it in their hearts not to emasculate the boy quite so much?

Anyway, there's lots I'm forgetting, or flat blowing off, for now, but I'll get around to it as we go. In the meantime, stake your place at the side of the road with the other screaming nationalist wingnuts, try not to take out any riders with your camera, and don't forget to yell, Allez Allez!


munchen said...

My husband and I bet every night on who we think will win each stage...we get 3 picks, with 3 points if your first pick wins, 2 points if you second pick wins, etc. I am looking to hedge by bets by finding sites that offer picks...so let me know if you have any picks to share on the next stages...Thanks! Enjoyed your first post.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering what year did the Team take over the Tour?
And who was the last solo rider non team supported rider to win?