American sports fans, do you know what you're missing right now? The magical, the legendary, the completely captivating Tour de France. Yup. In fact, the Tour has already reached its first rest day after eight straight days of racing.
Let's face it: for cycling fans, the Tour is the pure Nirvana. Thanks to the Versus (formerly OLN) network, US fans (all 12 of them) of skinny tires, incredible bike handling, and human suffering can watch cycling every day for three straight weeks. It just doesn't get any better than this. It's like the NCAA tournament, the US Open, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals, and the World Series all rolled in to one. Every night -- every goddamn night -- cycling fans can kick back in their recliners (or on their stationary trainers), drink in the international flavor, and let the joy of cycling wash over them. Every night! For three straight weeks!
Le Tour de France: beautiful as a wake-and-bake Sunday morning on Percocet with a shot of anabolic steroids and an HGH chaser. Oh that's right, it's drug free this year. Photo of peloton climbing in Stage 8 from nytimes.com.
The major force shaping this year's Tour: drugs!
It is actually the lack of the drug use that is forming the character of this year's Tour. Though not a single rider has tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, nor is likely to, this Tour is being defined by drugs, or the lack thereof. Before the Tour began, the UCI, international cycling's governing body, forced every rider in this year's Tour to sign an anti-doping charter. All 189 riders signed the document (how could they not? If they didn't sign, they couldn't race and of course, they would look guilty as all hell) and they appear to be keeping their word.
In cycling, especially in the longer stage races, recovery is the name of the game. Those riders who can recover quickly from day to day and retain the snap and power in their legs for hundreds of miles, day after day, for weeks, are the ones who find glory in long breakaways, stage wins, and leaders' jerseys. Recovery capability is one of the primary reasons for performance-enhancing drug use.
This year, the subdued, relatively human pace and activity of the peloton are the best indicators that cycling has finally started to make some inroads against performance-enhancing drug use. In the long, flat stages that characterize the first week of the Tour, the crazy breakaways and ungodly pacing so typical of the last decade or so have been conspicuously absent. Similarly, with the exception of mountain climbing automaton Mickael Rasmussen, riders have been uncharacteristically conservative in the Tour's first two mountain stages. It's as if nobody is quite sure how their bodies will hold up to the daily grind of the Tour without things like HGH, EPO, and other forms of blood doping to help them. It's the first grand tour without the overwhelming presence of performance-enhancing drugs in many, many years, and the teams look a bit unsure of their capabilities.
That's not to say that this year's Tour hasn't been every bit as exciting and satisfying as the drug years, just different. With more nasty wipeouts than a drunken NASCAR race (is that redundant?), daily sprint finishes, intriguing team strategies and tactics, and a new crop of exciting young riders, the Prologue and first eight stages of the Tour have been totally satisfying -- and entertaining.
And then there's the mountains. They say that the NBA playoffs don't really begin for a team until they win on the road. Well, in cycling, the Tour de France doesn't really start until the first mountain stage. The mountains are the Tour. It's where riders can no longer hide in the warm, gentle, wind-protected embrace of the peloton, but must carry their own weight up and over the grandiose Alps and the terrifying Pyrenees. It's about pain and determination, skill and guts, strategy and strength. It's cycling in a nutshell.
Some of the Tour's highlights thus far include the following: