July 22, 2004

Yellow is a beautiful color

Posted by shonk at 12:16 AM in Sports | TrackBack

As I usually am around this time of year, I’ve been obsessed the last couple of weeks with the Tour de France. The coverage on the Outdoor Life Network is really outstanding, comprising live coverage in the morning, at least one replay of the live coverage in the afternoon and usually at least a couple of hours in the evening. A far cry from the measly half hour afternoon recap offered by ESPN2 back in the late nineties. Or, before that, the back-page story in the sports section in the early- to mid-nineties.

So what’s so great about cycling? Well, for one thing it’s very intriguing as the only team sport I know about in which the winners are individuals. We say that Lance Armstrong won last year’s Tour de France, not his U.S. Postal team, but without that team there’s very little chance Armstrong could have donned his record-tying fifth straight yellow jersey on the Champes-Elysees. No rider has a chance of winning without pretty significant support from his team, and I think it unlikely that Armstrong could have overcome his problems with dehydration and bad crashes were it not for a very strong effort from his team. The individual/team dichotomy also rears its head when two riders from the same team are in competition with each other. For example, in 1996, Jan Ullrich probably could have won the Tour had it not been for the fact that his team captain was the eventual champion, Bjarne Riis. Ullrich ended up with his first of five second-place finishes, though he did win the race the next year. A similar situation has shaped up this year, as Ullrich sits in fourth place, one spot behind T-Mobile teammate Andreas Klöden.

This dynamic is really just aspect of tactics of the Tour (and, by extension, other stage races). Teams with strong riders like Armstrong and Ullrich must protect those riders by serving as windbreaks and pacing the peloton to chase down breakaways, while teams without contenders for the overall title (and opportunistic riders) hope to gain glory (and sponsor airtime) by breaking away from the main field and trying to hold off the charge for stage wins. In the mountains, teammates serve as pacemakers, climbing as long and as hard as they can before breaking off, with no hope of winning either the stage or the Tour, simply to try to catapult their leaders over the climbs and further up in the standings. To me, there’s something inherently compelling in watching the likes of George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, José Luis Rubiera and Juan Azevedo from U.S. Postal, or Jens Voigt and Carlos Sastre from Ivan Basso’s CSC squad, or Giuseppe Guerini from T-Mobile, punish their bodies to try to put their team leaders in position for the race to the line and a shot at the yellow jersey despite the fact that they’ll never make the headlines (or, often, even the fifth paragraph) as a result of their efforts (and, furthermore, despite the fact that a rider like Azevedo might be able to finish on the podium himself were it not for his responsibilities to Armstrong). Armstrong and Ullrich may make the headlines and have the fat bank accounts, but they owe much of their success to their teammates and to the team managers who plot the strategy, timing escapes and directing chases. Admittedly, the reality of big stars depending in large measure on the support of their relatively anonymous teammates and coaches is not unique in the world of team sports, but in most team sports it’s the team that wins a championship, not an individual.

Getting back to this year’s tour, the biggest story, as it has been for the last six, has to be that of Lance Armstrong, currently chasing an unprecedented sixth consecutive title. Which, I’ll grant you, is a compelling story, but the fact is that Lance has already won five in a row, so everybody knows he’s good, despite the fact that he’s past cycling’s prime age range (typically 26 to 30 or 31). He came into this race as the favorite, and much as people may have had doubts about his fitness, given his subpar performance in the Dauphiné Liberé and small victory margin last year, I don’t think anybody could seriously deny that he had to be considered the pre-race favorite. Which is in stark contrast with 1999 when, although apparently a more complete cyclist than he had been early in his career, Armstrong was best known for having battled back from testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. He was mentioned as a possible contender, but I suspect that most people at the time thought just finishing the race would be miracle enough after having faced such long odds on surviving. He beat an admittedly weak field that year (lacking the likes of Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich), but the entire 1999 tour was a revelation.

Anyway, today is a good day to write about the Tour, as Armstrong crushed the field in the most anticipated stage in years, a time trial up the famous hairpin turns of L’Alpe d’Huez, finishing over a minute before Ullrich, who finished second on the stage, and more than two minutes before Ivan Basso, the only man who had been able to stay with Armstrong throughout the mountains. With nearly a four minute advantage on Basso, second in the overall standings, it’s likely that only a crash can now prevent Armstrong from winning the historical number six.

I remember watching and reading about Armstrong during the mid-nineties, when he was known as a day-race specialist (and, admittedly, a good one, having won the World Championship in 1993) and something of a hothead. He was actually too muscular to be a complete rider, standing out among the riders for his large and well-developed chest and arms. Nobody doubted his talent, but he was a far cry from what he is today, the most complete, most dedicated and perhaps smartest rider in the world.

The biggest non-Armstrong story of this year’s Tour, though, has to be that of Thomas Voeckler, the French champion who held the overall leader’s yellow jersey for ten stages before finally relinquishing it yesterday at Villard-de-Lans (dubbed almost immediately Villard-de-Lance by the journalists after Armstrong’s stage win and reappropriation of the yellow jersey). Despite being a relative unknown and not having strong climbing form, Voeckler managed to retain his lead through the Pyrenees, finishing a surprising 13th in stage 13, ahead of climbing specialists like Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo. Voeckler gave the French fans someone to cheer for other than the annoying and scandal-ridden Richard Virenque, and that’s always a good thing. Let’s hope Voeckler, who has displayed tremendous class and resilience, can hold off his competition for the white jersey, given each year to the best young rider, where he still holds a 3½ minute edge over the field.


You seem to write about sports with a British accent, as it were.

Posted by: Curt at July 22, 2004 04:38 PM

You seem to write about sports with a British accent, as it were.

If that's true in general, I really have no idea why. If that's just true of this particular post, I suspect it has something to do with the British commentators OLN hired to cover the Tour.

Posted by: shonk at July 22, 2004 08:55 PM

What I meant by that is that British commentators tend to combine summary and analysis in one long monologue, which American commentators don't do as much (maybe it's the attention span thing). I haven't noticed it as much in your other sports postings because it seemed that you were more intent on arguing a point rather than providing information about the event. I don't know if you have fallen under the influence of the commentators on OLN, but if you haven't started waving your arms around robotically like Bob Roll I will assume you haven't succumbed entirely.

Posted by: Curt at July 22, 2004 09:02 PM

I don't know if you have fallen under the influence of the commentators on OLN, but if you haven't started waving your arms around robotically like Bob Roll I will assume you haven't succumbed entirely.

Pretty hard to wave one's hands and type at the same time.

Posted by: shonk at July 22, 2004 09:30 PM

You describe Virenque as scandal-ridden and annoying, both of which I believe are true. I also hasten to add that Ullrich and Pantani both have committed multiple doping offences, and Armstrong has collaborated with one of the most infamous doping experts in sport, Michele Ferrari (not to mention the way he complains vociferously about every aspect of the Tour every day). I agree it is still compelling, and it is always important to remember that Jacques Anquetil, one of the quartet of five-times winners, was once asked about doping, responding in exasperation: "Do they expect us to ride up these mountains on mineral water?" Mabye I am just jealous because my coverage of the Tour has been exactly 50 minutes, including ads, once a week at 1.10 AM, and reading this post reminded me that I missed the last installment last night.

Posted by: tom at July 27, 2004 06:26 PM

Yes, Armstrong's relationship with Ferrari (whether innocent on his part or not) is unfortunate. For me, though, I'm willing to assume a person is innocent until demonstrated guilty. Given that Armstrong is one of the most-tested athletes in sport and that he's been at the top of the suspected doping list for the last six years and has never tested positive, I think that ought to weigh at least somewhat in his favor. Also, having already had a life-threatening illness once in his life, I would tend to think he would be less likely than other riders to use drugs, since he probably has a much stronger sense of his own mortality than those without that experience.

That all having been said, I certainly wouldn't want to make any sort of claim that he (or any other cyclist) is definitely clean.

Pantani, of course, is an entire soap-opera in and of himself.

Posted by: shonk at July 28, 2004 12:21 AM