Time to pedal on out of France
Today’s sports question is: Should riding your bike through France be considered a major sport? Why a bike, and not, say, a scooter? And why France, and not a surface more conducive to biking, such as asphalt, or Nebraska?
This column will explore these questions, and in so doing we’ll learn more about the Tour de France, cycling, various cheeses, other sprocket-related sports, and perhaps just a little about ourselves.
I’ll bet many of you are unfamiliar with the actual rules of the Tour de France. It’s simple: 20 riders assemble at the starting line, a starter’s pistol is fired, and the first one to the finish line wins. Ha ha! We’re just kidding, of course. The actual rules are slightly more complicated than Bill Gates’ 2001 tax returns.
First, 20 cycling teams are assembled. Each team consists of nine riders — a team leader, and eight lackeys hired to make trouble. Yes, competitive cycling is much like the Roller Derby, with one rider competing for the prize, and an attendant team of thugs trying to run the other contestants off the road. Picture a NASCAR race with the pit crew allowed to drive their own cars — it’s like that, only with more crashes.
Riders compete in 21 different “stages,” which are courses in different areas of France and Belgium. Today’s stage, for example, begins at Foix Saint-Lary-Soulan and ends at Pla d’Adet — a grueling 222-kilometer run, which has thwarted even the toughest competitors over the years, although in 1940 the German army breezed through in about 15 minutes.
The winner of the Tour de France is determined by elapsed time — an aggregate of the time it takes each rider to complete each stage. So, it is possible to not win a single stage, and still win the overall race — sort of an Electoral College system for sports.
And here’s the best part about the Tour de France — Americans have won six of them! This is a far cry from our recent history, however. Prior to 1986, we were really terrible … Americans didn’t like the Tour de France — being distrustful as we are of any sport that requires skintight pants and a map of the Alps.
But after Greg Lemond of the U.S. won it, well, now we embrace the Tour de France. And, of course, we’ve ruined it.
Call him the Tiger Woods of cycling — Mr. Yellow Jersey, Lance Armstrong.
The Texas native extended his overall lead to more than 5 minutes Wednesday, finishing third behind Dutch rider Michael Boogerd in the 16th stage, which is the most difficult of the three-week Tour. He is poised to win his fourth straight Tour de France.
But, as always seems to happen with us, with great glory comes heavy baggage*. Armstrong, a cancer survivor who overcame great personal odds to win last year’s race, may not be able to outrun allegations that he is using performance-enhancing drugs. The rumors are fueled by the French media, which cannot believe that an American could ride a bicycle over such great distances in France without stopping to take photos.
The problem is, there’s not yet a reliable test to catch cheaters — the banned hormone erythropoietin, popular among cyclists, is hard to detect. So here’s what the International Cycling Union is doing: they’re collecting urine samples now, and will test them later, when an approved method is devised. And that may take six months. Sort of a pee now, pay later plan.
This would give Armstrong plenty of time to hide the yellow jersey, and spend the 2.7 million francs awarded to the winner (dinner and a movie should do it).
Is Armstrong doped? If he is, it’s sad — just the latest embarrassment in American sports.
Lately we’ve discovered that the baseball isn’t juiced, but our Major League players are; it is now alleged that NFL players routinely take steroids in the off-season; and let’s not even talk about boxing. Then there’s the Williams sisters throwing tennis matches to each other, and Allen Iverson could burst in here any moment with a loaded pistol, so I’m going to have to make this brief.
Why must we sully everything we touch? The Tour de France used to be a nice little jaunt through the French countryside, and was always won by a Frenchman, who was tanked up on wine and nothing else. They had names like Bernard Hinault or Bernard Thevenet or Laurent (Bernard) Fignon, and once, just for laughs, Joop Zoetemelk.
But then along comes the U.S., with its big money and its big sports media with their big satellite TV trucks, and oh-so-witty ESPN calling it the Tour de Lance. And now Robin Williams is over there mugging for the cameras. On top of all that, the U.S. Post Office is sponsoring the American team.
Yes, the Post Office — which is still in possession of my March issue of National Geographic, is sponsoring Lance Armstrong as he speeds through France. Hey guys, how about sinking some of that money into those glacial-like vehicles you call mail trucks? Once I get my postal delivery before 7 p.m., then I’ll feel justified in watching Armstrong pedal through Strasbourg on my dime.
But I digress. Let’s get the U.S. out of the Tour de France, and, in fact, out
of Europe entirely before we even mess up cricket.
* Baggage may be claimed in the main terminal until 5 p.m.
— Rick Chandler’s interactive sports column, Capacity Crowd, can be found at