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The Tour de France

I have a cycling-mad fiance, which means that every July is a month of the Tour de France. Usually I’m not that excited about it, but this year has been a Tour to remember. Cadel Evans won, which was very cool for several reasons (one of the main ones being that we lived in Australia last year where we came to know and love Cadel and the Aussies).

Most people in the United States are hardly aware of the sport of cycling, apart from the two words “Lance Armstrong.” The Tour de France, for those of you who don’t know, is the largest and most prestigious cycling event in the world (even more so than the world championships). In fact, the Tour garners a larger TV audience than any other sporting events except for the World Cup and the Summer Olympics (both of which only happen once every four years).

The Tour encompasses 21 days of racing (“stages”) that meander around France, passing through the mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps before finishing in Paris. A rider who can win the Tour (“the general classification”) must be strong in most areas — good at riding uphill in the steep mountains, good going downhill, good at time trialing (a special timed stage where each rider rides a course alone), and good at avoiding crashes. A rider with these characteristics is usually supported by the rest of his nine-person team, who work together to help their leader consistently finish each (each day of riding) in the least amount of time. The rider leading the general classification is indicated each day by wearing a yellow jersey that has become the signature of the Tour. Within the Tour, there are other smaller competitions for riders who might not be suited to competing for the general classification: a King of the Mountains competition for the climbers, a Sprinter’s competition, a Best Young Rider’s competition, and a Most Combative Rider. Each of these sub-competitions also has a colored jersey, the strangest being the King of the Mountains jersey — white with red polka dots!

One thing that I think is unique about cycling is the way you watch it. For people from afar, like me, we see it on TV like anything else. But if you happen to be in France in July, then it is wholly different. People line the route, especially in the mountains (where the riders are moving a bit slower), to get a glimpse of their favorite riders. No matter how much you love great sports venues like Fenway Park or huge places like Wembley Stadium, it’s hard to beat the Alps or the Pyrenees as a stadium. The crowds are enormous and everyone has a chance to see the riders up close and personal as they pass.

For the past few years, the Tour de France has been a battle between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, and this year was expected to be another contest between the two. However, leading up to the Tour it was clear that Cadel Evans, who had finished second in the Tour in 2007 and 2008 (with little help from his team), was in extremely good form and was in the hunt for the yellow jersey. And he rode like he wanted to win — his team kept him out of trouble near the front of the group, he took little bits of time where he could, he was consistently strong in the mountains, and excelled in the time trials. When the dust settled in Paris, he was a minute and a half ahead of Andy Schleck, which is a solid margin by Tour de France standards.

This year’s Tour de France in numbers:
– 3,430: number of kilometers ridden by the riders over 21 days of racing (that’s more than 2000 miles).
– 86:12:22: time that it took winner Cadel Evans to complete that distance. That works out to an average speed of about 39.8 km/hr, or about 25 mi/hr. If you do the math, you also realize that the riders were spending more than four hours a day in the saddle — some days they did more than six hours of racing.
– 3:57:43: amount of time that Fabio Sabatini, the last-placed finisher, finished behind Cadel. Almost four hours!
– 198: number of riders that started the Tour
– 167: number of riders that finished the Tour in Paris three weeks later. That’s a 16% non-finish rate, which was unusually high this year.
– 9: number of riders on Cadel’s winning BMC team that made it to the finish in Paris.
– 5: number of riders on Team Radioshack that made it to Paris.

It’s impossible to underestimate what this means for Australia and Australian cycling. Never before has an Australian won the Tour de France. It’s not quite like Jamaica having a bobsled team — there are plenty of successful Aussie cyclists in the professional ranks — but it might be like the US beating Russia in hockey in the 1980 Olympics. The Australian newspapers are comparing it to when Australia won the America’s Cup yachting race against all expectations in the 1980s. Two weeks into the Tour, Julia Gillard (Australia’s Prime Minister) announced that there would be a national holiday if Cadel won the Tour. I guess she’ll have to live up that that promise…for us in Vermont it’s now back to work, but this year’s Tour will definitely remain a memorable one that the next ten years will be compared to.

Below are a few great shots from this year’s Tour.
(Disclaimer: these are not my pictures; they were taken by great photographers including Veeral Patel, Wade Wallace, Cor Vos, Photoreporter Sirotti, Onev, and others.)

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