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La Critique du Tour

Posted Jan 11 2009 5:40pm
Tomorrow morning when I wake up, there will no longer be a bike race on television. Again this year, I was addicted to Le Tour de France. Every year, I'm drawn like a moth to flame. Many's the night I was watching the tour, alone, in the dark, eating a gallon of vanilla ice cream or drinking merlot and wearing my fat pants. Like any addiction, I had to have my hit, but it never fully satisfied. What follows, dear reader, is my wholly amateurish "Tour in Review." Because He Who Shall Not Be Named is no longer practicing his trademarked blog format, I will use it here--imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

The Good: The Competition--Sort Of

This year's tour was unpredictable and truly contested. Le Maillot Jaune was on the shoulders of 7 or 8 men--a tour record I believe, and the outcome was in doubt until the last rider of the last day of GC competition--the final time trial. Likewise, anyone who loves cycling has to be encouraged about the future of the sport when looking at young riders like Andy Schleck, white jersey winner who time trialed like a cheetah and soared in the mountains like a bird of prey.

And what two, young American teams in the race for the first time ever: Team Columbia with FOUR stage wins for the human rocket, Mark Cavendish, and Garmin Chipotle with team leader and GC contender Christian Vendevelde, who was able to finish in the top five in the overall.

And then there was last year's winner Alberto Contador.

Oh, wait. Last year's winner wasn't in the race, not because it's been established that he's a doper, but because Les Francais don't like his team or his director and Lance Armstrong associate Johann Bruyneel. Any competition that does not allow the champion to defend when there is no basis within the rules to disqualify that champion is not a true competition. It is part bureaucratic exhibition--tres francais, n'est-ce pas?

Perhaps because the competition was not head to head, perhaps because of the design of the course with downhill finishes, perhaps because Le Tour was cleaner than in years past, this year's edition of the race did not involve victory going to the "strongest man." Arguably, the strongest, all-around rider in terms of being able to climb and time trial well was Denis Menchov, but he lost too much time descending from a mountain pass to a finish.

Cadel Evans is similarly strong, but (perhaps because of a wreck) he road (I think characteristically) not to lose rather than riding with the agression and hatred of his competition like Eddy Merckx or Bernhard Hinault or Lance Armstrong. As a result, he was never out on the attack in the mountains.

The eventual winner, Carlos Sastre, did attack--but then only once and on the last mountain stage. He took enough time out of the defensive Evans that he was able to keep Le Maillot Jaune all the way to Paris simlply by sucking less than he usually does in the final time trial. Not as inspiring as a battle of titanic superstars who gap the field in all major disciplines, but perhaps this is what we have to look forward to in an age where cyclists are less able to rely upon their pharmacists to supplement their own genetics.

The Bad: The Coverage--Sort Of

Whoever invented the Digital Video Recorder or "DVR" should receive the Nobel Prize for Science. DVR allows for the automatic recording of all tour stages, and without it, the coverage on the Versus network would be UN-WATCH-A-BULL. The less active portions of the race are just commercials with a side of cycling. Moreover, because Versus is not a premium, cable channel, most of the early morning commercials are HORRIBLE local or low budget commercials for get rich quick schemes, infomercial gadgets, or tax penalty lawyers. Among the worst offenders was Versus itself. Versus was worse than the Disney Sports Network (ESPN) in trying to cross promote other shows on the network. Beyond the wall to wall commercial time being devoted to things like "Contender Muy Thai" or Bull Riding or Extreme Cage Fighting, there is something fundamentally wrong in having Phil Ligget tell one about such stuff in his posh, British accent.

Being able to advance through the mind numbing commercials is indispensable. I suppose one watch the Tour without a DVR, but I'm not sure I want to try.

And if it's not Versus, it's Les Francais butchering the coverage. Since there is only one television feed, viewers all over the world are treated to camera shots of the French champion of this or that, who are not in contention for any aspect of the Tour, sometimes in lieu of the real action. Everyone knew Christian Vandevelde had the skills to be on the leader board for the final time trial, and with some luck might have vaulted from sixth position to the podium. he was in the top 10 on GC and literally caught and passed a GC contender on his ride. But we didn't see it. I guess it was too much to ask to have one motorcycle camera devoted to each of the top 10 GC men during their time trial.

That said, I do like the addition of Craig Hummer to the Versus anchor booth in lieu of Al Trautwig. Unlike some, I've no complaints with Paul Sherwin and Phil Ligget, whose voices are part of the fabric of cycling for me. And I really enjoy the Bobke.

The Ugly: The Drugs--Sort Of

There were some dominating performances by riders who screamed up the climbs in the Pyranees. As it turns out, they seem to have been pharmaceutically induced. The good news is drugs appear to be detected at this point, and when they are, the sport and its sponsors, unlike the major sports like baseball and football, are no longer content to sweep it under the carpet. A whole team abandoned the tour, a sponsor dropped its cycling program entirely, and cyclists were taken away in handcuffs like common criminals. In comparison, Barry Bonds still walks free, and if he goes to jail it will be (like Marion Jones) for not telling the truth under oath rather than for doping.

Joseph_McCarthy

That said, the anti-doping process, especially in Europe, is McCarthyistic. Valid competitors have been barred from the tour based upon guilt-by-association and ennuendo that would never suffice under American notions of due process. Test sample controls and procedures are abominable by the standards of most American labs. This can occur because all doping cases as between the sport and the rider, are matters of contract, which are arbitrated and not tried in court.

Sure, the riders agreed to that, but if you want to ride professionally, you've no real choice but to agree. Part of the reason Team Columbia and Garmin Chipotle have their own, independently contracted doping control programs is to protect themselves, their sponsors and their riders from a system that, in its vigor, threatens to sweep in the innocent along with the guilty.


The Conclusion:

The Tour will be back, and like a moth to flame, I will be drawn again to my addiction. Tomorrow, however, there's no bike race on. I guess I'll have to read a book.

The Extra:

The test of a good commercial is whether (1) it makes me forget to fast forward through it; and (2) makes me want to try the product. For my money, the only commercial that did both of those things during the whole three weeks were these. Enjoy.





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