Gear Change Up

Thursday, July 27, 2006

"Brit! What happened at the Tour de France?!"

The lateness of this analysis is due to a combination of factors. One, French lunch. I am currently reading a book by a somewhat misguided individual who is explaining why Europe is going to dominate the 21st century. I promise you, Europe will never dominate any century if the French keep insisting on taking 2 hour lunches everyday and kicking Brit out of the internet lab. I can't get anything done, and I'm not even a productive member of society. Two, after I got back to Nevy from the tour, I kind of collapsed, and I am working on un-collapsing. It was fun, but man I am tired. Three, the race may be done but the Tour is not actually over, as we're waiting on drug test results for Floyd Landis, the winner-of-the-moment. And four, the biggest reason of all refers to the question posed by many of you that makes up the subject of this e-mail. And if you wanted a short answer, the better question to ask would have been, what didn't happen at the Tour de France?

It was crazy.

It was fun.

It would have been amazing even without all the scandals that happened and are still going on. This will be portrayed over and over again throughout my excessive use of the bold and italics functions that are available for me to use to display extreme excitement.


The Mystery of Liberty Seguros...
Maybe I had been in Nevy too long and not following the news as closely as I should have been. But I left and picked up a car in Lyon, where after ten months of travel I finally made my somewhat triumphant return to driving, and driving on the righthand side of the road. I was a little rusty, but fortunately everyone is bad at driving in France, so I fit right in. Sweet. I rented France's social equivalent of a Volkswagon Golf, and came to the realization that I had been traveling for way too long when I picked it up and thought, "Wow, look at all this space!" I could throw in my backpack, my bike, all my food, and still have space for a British guy named Martin. I zipped out of Lyon train station with the freedom of the open road and not a care in the world.

Except for a slight curiosity. I had caught the headlines of one of the papers as I headed out of Gare de Lyon, and something caught me as funny. The Astana-Wurth cycling team was under suspicion of doping. Being a cycling fan, the doping was not what had grabbed my attention. It was the fact that the team was called Astna-Wurth, not Liberty Seguros, which is what it had been called for a while now. I thought to myself, "Self, isn't it odd for Liberty Seguros to completely pull their sponsorship on the eve of cycling's biggest event?" Liberty Seguros is the Spanish version of Liberty Mutual, so I knew they couldn't have gone out of business. Huh. Isn't that funny that it all happened pretty much a week before the tour starts.

The Prologue to the Prologue
I arrived in Strausborg and set up my fabulous tent (brand: "North Pole" (this will later prove to be different from "North Face")) at Strausborg's municipal campground. In the future, for those of you looking to follow the Tour de France, absolutely, positively, camp. Bring a tent. First, it is the most practical way to go. With a tent I was able to stay in the campgrounds in the towns of all the finishes. In contrast, some people I was working with through Outdoor Life Network had to find places sometimes 50 kilometers a way. And if they have trouble finding places to stay, you are really gonna have trouble. So camp. It's easy. Second, its so fun. Because everyone is camping and everyone is there to see the Tour. So the campgrounds are filled with cyclists, cyclotoursts, and everyone who really just wants to be a part of the event. It was such a positive atmosphere.

I got to Strausborg on the evening of the 29th, and woke up the next morning (June 30); the day before the Tour started. I went for a ride, and got in touch with Bob Roll at OLN, and we agree to meet up over in the media area. I head over and call Bob, and OLN is lost. Not a problem, I figure I'll just hang out as security has not been set up yet so I can go anywhere. So I watch the mechanics from Team CSC work on the bikes, talk to some journalists, and all in all pretend I am supposed to be in this area and know what I am doing. Suddenly, inexplicably, everyone starts running. In the process of trying to fit in, I decide to start running too. It was a mad dash to the Holiday Inn, and not because of the free breakfast buffet. It is because Bjarne Riis, the director of Team CSC is about to announce that "This is a huge problem for our team, but we will just have to regroup. The tour will go on." I stayed and watched the whole press conference which occured in at least six different languages (unreal the linguistic ability of European cyclists. I guess they have to be able to talk shit in a variety of different languages). And then I get a call from Bob Roll.

They're still lost. "What are you doing?" he asks, and I tell him about the press conference. "Really, what does Bjarne Riis have to say?"
"Well, he says it's going to be a big problem for his team but they will regroup and the tour will go on."
"Hey Bob?" I ask. "When I say, 'It's a big problem for his team,' what am I referring to?"

What is going on?

What's going on is that the team directors have voted unanimously to kick their own riders out of the Tour if they are connected to a drug scandal that broke in Spain a few weekis before the tour started.

This is huge. It would be like if baseball managers decided to kick out players associated with steroids (not even tested positive, just associated), and then announced they would forfeit the season due to having these players on their team. Absolutely unheard of. And it took out three of the Tour Favorites. Twenty two riders in total. So if you had asked me at that point, "Brit, who is going to win the tour?" the answer of course would be who isn't going to win the tour? I was so glad I had brought my bike along, I figured they'd be so desperate for riders that I would finally get my chance. Wrong again. Not only were the riders being kicked out, they were kicked out and not replaced. So, for example, a team like Astana-Wurth who had four riders connected in the drug scandal in Spain would ban those four riders from riding. A cycling team consists of nine riders, to kick out four leaves you with five, and to start the tour you need six. So not only were teams losing riders, the Tour lost teams like Astana-Wurth. And that explains why Liberty Seguros had yanked sponsorship just before the tour.


So then bike riding actually begins...First the flat stages...
I wasn't as focused on results while watching this Tour de France. Mostly because when you watch the Tour from the sidelines and don't understand French, unless you have a collaborative decision-making comittee of Americans, British, Kiwis, and Australians cluttered together trying to decipher the six words of French they actually know, you don't know whats going on. So in terms of results, if you really want to know how the tiny Italian guy you never heard of did, I direct you to

This explains why the Tour de France is not a bike race. I know, some of you are sitting by your computer wondering, "If its not a bike race, why was I getting up at 6 AM to watch?" The answer of course is, yeah, why were you? they show it again in prime time. But it's not a race then either. You see, the Tour is a French Event. And watching the tour is an all day extravaganza, and actually watching the race is a fifteen second span of time. The tour is an all day event in that the town that the tour is departing from, going through, or arriving in \ncompletely shuts down. Thousands upon thousands of police line the route, and if you want to get across, better go early. Otherwise grab a seat.

Grabbing a seat is all there is to do all day, so people will line the barriers starting around 10 in the morning. The race gets there around five in the evening. In between, you get some food. You go to the bathroom. You watch the people on stilts. You sweat a lot because someone forgot to tell France that it's actually really far north. You talk to the peope next to you if they speak english, and if not you smile at them a lot, ask them where their flag is from, and it's usually from some obscure province you never heard of but is days away from becoming an independent country. You watch the battle among sponsors for handing out hats, and you yourself end up wearing about seven hats just to make them stop giving them to you.

That's one way to do it. After the first few stages I got smart and rode my bike around. The Tour is the biggest promoter of cycling I have come across in my travel, and not just because its a bike race. It\'s because when you shut down every single road the only way to get around is by bike. Way more successful than any bike to work day. And its fun because then people know you\'re a cyclist and they want to talk to you about your bike, and bam! You\'ve killed another 20 minutes. Only 3 hours before the riders come! At this point the race is put on the jumbotron and you can follow their entire progress across 200 + kilometers.

The Publicity Caravan
About an hour and a half before the riders come through, the publicity caravan arrives to entertain the crowd. Its not so much entertaining, but if a giant schoolbus painted like a fish was blaring its horn and spraying everyone standing in your frontyard with a hose, admit it. You would watch. The publicity caravan is made up of over 140 vehicles assigned to sponsors of the Tour de France. After offering up large sums of money, they have earned the right to drive their vehicle with their logo at 25 miles an hour for six hours for three weeks along the race course. They usually make the best of this by completely decking out their cars in the form of lions, water bottles, electric grills, and assigning two to three girls to sit in the back and wave. In the US we call this an "internship," and these girls will go back to their university and report that they got real business experience with Credit Lyonnas. So everyone wins.

But that's not all. Before the departure of the prologue in Strausborg, I was able to see into one of these publicity vehicles, and in the back under where the girls sit were tons of boxes and bags and other gear. "Hmm," I thought. "I wonder...what are they gonna do with all that junk...all that junk inside their trunk?"

The answer is throw it at you close-range from a speeding vehicle as hard as they possibly can. And after three weeks of waving (elbow-wrist-elbow-wrist), these girls are throwing hard. The other job of the sponsors is to give out tons of free stuff to the waiting crowd, and they use the carvan to distribute their various bottle openers, pens, and (noooo!) more hats. People actually like the caravan more than they like the race. They get more out of it and it lasts longer. Some people even leave after the caravan comes through, assuming that 1) no permanent damage was done while wrestling over a key chain, and 2) they were not run over by a jar of pretzels when trying to escape with their prize.
Fully mature adults will really resort to assault to get a keychain?
What about a refrigerator magnet?
Yes...if the refrigerator magnet is a cow, and the cow is wearing earings.

Then the race is getting exciting because the riders are getting close and the break might actually escape. This is when the we all get excited because they think, "Maybe this time someone will defy the peloton and triumph!" But the peloton usually catches the break, swallows the break, and spits it out the back. Its actually very demoralizing. The race ends in a sprint, and we all go watch the award ceremony so we can actually figure out who wins and who is in yellow.

And then...jump in the car, drive a few hours, crash (as in sleep), get up the next morning and do it all again. So went Week One.

The Pyrenees and the Alps
For those still considering following the tour live, here's another pieve of advice: Skip the flat stages, go to the mountain stages. Because this is where you see the art of watching the tour. The amateurs in the flat towns show up at the finish. But there is nothing to describe the scene of a mountain stage of the Tour de France.

This is where the true advantage of camping comes in. During the Tour de France, the French police let you camp right on the mountain, right by the side of the road, and wait for the race. This way the real die-hards have a chance to see from a good spot, and the French police don't have to worry about people driving up the day of the race because they are already there. It's actually really a great way to vacation. You grab the wife, the kids, the dog, the beer, the bikes, the lawnchairs, you drive up a mountain, and you hang out and wait. People just pull over on the side of the road and either park the camper or pitch the tent. And there they are. They bust out the folding table, the baguette, the cheese, and the board games, and they occasionally glance down the side of the road to see if the Tour is coming when it is not scheduled to arrive for about three days. After all, you don't want to miss it. The best part about this is that it's not just a few people. I cannot stress this point enough:

Thousands and thousands of people are just camped all along the road on this mountain in the middle of nowhere.

And then the publicity caravan comes and they go crazy. And then the race comes and they are equally as excited.

And then they pick up and move on to the next stage.

I was able to watch from the Pyrenees on Col de Marie-Blanc, Col de Tourmalet, and Col des Ares. In the Alps I was able to watch from Alp D'Huez, Col de Galiber, and Col de Joux-Planes. Fun never stopped.

Favorite stage to watch...
Was Stage 17, when I got to watch from Col de Joux-Planes. It didn't start out as my favorite. The day before American Floyd Landis had bonked in the mountains and lost the yellow jersey by eight minutes. I woke up depressed that morning, but I still donned my Phonak hat and rode the col (definitely harder than Alp D'Huez), and on the way up, I was able to take a poll by the number of people yelling to me that 1) Landis was finished, and 2) I seemed to be climbing the Col pretty well. Somewhat positive. I wore the Phonak anyway, figuring Landis needed all my help he could get.

I rode back down to my car to pack up my tent, and then I found a good viewing spot about four kilometers up. I got to chatting with a couple of Aussies and a couple of Danes. The Aussies had a little black and white battery powered TV in the back of their van with an antenna, which was great because it was the only way any of us could follow what was going on. What was going on was Landis had not only recovered from the day before, but he was breaking away, and the peloton was in a panic. So the five of us were crowded around the window of a 1985 red renault van watching the race on a three inch black and white TV while the publicity caravan went by, while the race officials went by. We watched on TV as Landis hit Col de Joux-Planes, the last climb of the day and the last HC of the tour, and took off. He dropped the T-Mobil rider who had been clinging on to his back wheel, and let loose. We jumped away from the TV to see Landis come up the road at about a 9 percent grade. And he was hammering. We set our watches as he passed to take our own splits, and waited for the chasers. And waited. And waited! The next rider did not come by for six minutes and eleven seconds. Landis was riding for yellow. We jumped back to the TV and watched and waited. Landis won, and moved from eight minutes back to thirty seconds back. He would win the Tour. We all knew it then. My Aussie friends had green, my Dane friends had polka dot, but I had yellow. All that was left was a time trial, and in a time trial (barring disaster) you already know. The challengers that were left would not be able to beat him. The Fin de Course truck passed, and I jumped back into my car to follow my American instinct of "Must Beat the Traffic," but on the way down I had my windows down, the radio blasting, and my hat on backwards because it was a great day to be an American. Even better than the Fourth of July. I knew then that Landis would make up what time was left in the time trial, and go to Paris victorious after being eight minutes down and declared for dead. Too good to be true.

Too Good to be True.
A couple days after his victory in Paris, drug test results have shown that Landis has tested positive for an elevated amount of testosterone in his body. Landis has repeatedly denied these claims, and nothing official will happen until the results of the B sample are known, which will be at the end of this week, sometime before lunch. If the first set was positive, the second set is expected to be so as well.

So where to go from here? Well, cycling is really two sports in one. The first sport is the bike racing part. The second sport, which can be kind of fun in a disheartening kind of way, is watch the cyclist defend himself against positive drug tests. Landis claims the elevated levels could be due to a variety fo reasons...

1. He was taking drugs for his hip (which actually is bad and will need to be replaced)
Possible, but unlikely. Ever since the 2000 Olympics where Romanian gymnast Andrea Raducan was stripped of all around gold due to accidently ingesting banned substances through a cold medicine provided by an official team doctor. Ever since that, team doctors have read labels.

2. He has a naturally high level of testosterone in his body
Maybe. But then I think he also would have tested positive in the Pyrenees. Reports have also been released that say some testosterone in his body was found to be synthetic.

3. He had a beer the night before and this messed with the testosterone levels in his body.
See, I told you this was a fun sport. This is a very true claim, it was published in all the French papers, and I had to include it. Now, I know I am going to really crush some dreams here, but it needs to be said. Beer is not a performance enhancing drug.

I want there to be no misunderstanding: Beer is not a performance enhancing drug.

Again, Landis still needs the B test to come back. But this, in a word, sucks. It was supposed to be a clean Tour. It was supposed to be a turning point for the sport. I think for me, the most disappointing part was displayed in my initial thought. Usually with such a scandal, my first thought would be, "Unbelieveable!" Unfortunately, regardless of Landis's guilt or innocence, it really is pretty believeable, and its not shocking at all. And this is what bike racing has come to. They thought they fixed it in Strausborg, but the dopers stayed one step ahead.

It's sad. Mostly for the people of France, because remember. This is not a bike race, it's a French event. And make no degrade the event in this fashion is highly offensive to the French. In Bjarne Riis's words, the Tour will go on. It made it through two world wars. The drug scandals of the past years (1998, 2006, and also all of Armstrong's career if you count, "He keeps winning and there are no drugs! This is a scandal!") are bad, but they won't kill the Tour. Still. I don't know what happens now. I'm waiting for the results. And then we go from there I guess.


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