It’s been a banner couple of months for the sports fan. The Bruins beat the Canucks for the Stanley Cup. The Mavericks beat the Heat for the NBA championship. Federer beat Djokovic and Nadal beat Federer for the French Open Tennis title; then Djokovic beat Nadal to win Wimbledon. Oh yes, and the Canadian women appeared in the FIFA World Cup of soccer.
The most exciting event of all is still underway, and will be for another ten days or so, is, yes, I’m shilling for the Tour de France. The Tour de France is a three-week event. It began in 1903 as a shot in a newspaper circulation war.
This year, 2011, it features 16 teams of nine riders covering close to 3,500 kilometres of far from level terrain. Broken down into 21 daily stages, that’s about 160 kilometres a day, which, alone, makes me gasp. Grown men, who could be sitting in some Parisian bistro, munching a baguette or quaffing Dubonnet, instead put themselves through agony. How un-French is that?
Agony is the right word for it. Height and distance are formidable adversaries. Height means brutal mountain roads, which are hard enough on the way up. On the way down, a combination of hairpin turns and steep descent can send the incautious cyclist tumbling over a near precipice. On top of that, the roads to the summit are lined with over-enthusiastic spectators, some dressed in ridiculous costumes, who think it great sport to run alongside the riders for a few metres and give them a hearty slap on the back, sufficient in many cases to knock them right off bike stride. How French is that?
Then there is the agony of being stuck in the dreaded “peloton,” the pack. If some numbskull six places ahead of you errors, your goose is cooked. How French is that?
If that isn’t bad enough, how about staying clear of the pursuit cars full of camera-women and -men, equipment people, physicians and psychotherapists trained to coax terrified riders back on to their bikes. In fact, just this weekend, a passing car gave a cyclist a gentle nudge, which was sufficient to send him and another rider rear end over teakettle into a barbed wire fence. Who needs to watch NASCAR races? Cycling has better crashes.
There’s also something very cruel about the structure of a race. Inevitably, a few riders will break away from the peloton and set a cracking pace, taking it in turns with one another to share the wind-breaking lead. Almost inevitably, the pack will catch the leaders about a kilometre from the finish line and the leaders will wilt and fade.
That’s what racing in a team is about: some riders are nothing more than worker bees, tasked with tiring or blocking out the opposition, or breaking wind for the team all-star who gets to wear a coloured jersey and stand on the winner’s podium and receive flowers from beautiful French women. It has always surprised me that there are individual winners in what is patently a team sport, although I understand they share the prize money.
At least the Tour is a colourful event. In addition to the famous “maillot jaune,” there are green, white and even polka dot jerseys to vie for. How French is that? Each team wears a distinctive colour; for example, the Esukaltel-Euskadi team, comprised of riders from the Basque region, proudly wear an orange jersey, while the HTC Highroad team promises “a more retro look for 2011,” than its yellow and white jersey.
Of course, the protagonists are colourful, too. Seven-time winner Lance Armstrong has retired, but remains subject to doping rumours. There is Armstrong’s long-time batman, George Hincapie, riding alongside world champion Cadel Evans from Australia; Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal, who finished seventh last year, riding on the same team as Norwegian superstar Thor Hushovd; ace sprinter Mark Cavendish, from Great Britain, who has battled “dental problems,” and reigning three-time champ Alberto Contador from Spain.
Who could not but love the “Schleck Brothers,” Andy and Frank, from Luxembourg? They rank fifth and fourth, respectively, at the time of writing, without any apparent assistance from polka music. In 20101, Contador, of Spain took ungentlemanly advantage over then-leader, Andy Schleck, when Schleck had mechanical problems. This year, Schlecks have revenge on their minds.
I go on, “so it seems,” I hear you groan, but I thought that if I can get so hooked in via television, think what a “Tour de la Count” could do to my nervous system. We could easily create a circle route that encompassed the treacherous hills of Waupoos, the rugged intersections of downtown Picton and the more placid landscapes of Hillier. We could recreate the feeling of riding into Paris down the Champs Elyse by having the last stage wind through Wellington on the Lake. Better yet, we could put a distinct County flavour on the race by requiring racers to stop at every one of the County’s 30-plus wineries for a sample before staggering across the finish line. We run a successful marathon here, so why not a bicycle race? All that’s stopping us is the choice of some colourful jerseys.