As I sit here now, watching the final stages of the 2010 Tour de France, it is incredible to think of all that has happened on this year’s tour. The first few stages were a train wreck of crashes and disasters, those were some of the ones we were able to see while we were in Belgium. The team I cheer for, Garmin, lost its lead rider almost immediately. Another race favorite lost the yellow jersey (that’s first place) when the wrist he broke the day prior, and kept secret from the rest of the racers, got the best of him. Since that point, it has been a two man race and after all 2,200 miles 90+ hours of racing the second place man will finish a mere 39 seconds behind the overall winner. Lance Armstrong, fell back after a series of crashes early on, finished in 23rd place, 39 minutes behind the winner. If you think bicycle racing is for wimps, I dare you to pedal your bike up a mountain, get to the top, start to roll down at 40mph, and jump off your bike…..not going to do it, are you?
So how does it work. It is simple really. The rider who has the shortest overall time wears the yellow jersey each day, making him a target for all other riders. At the start of the race, that first place jersey often changes hands each day of the race as different riders are able to showcase their strengths at different points. Once the race reaches the mountains though, usually the strong climbers take over and the competition narrows to a handful of riders. In addition to wining the overall race, you can also win points for certain climbs and sprints and these points also factor into the competition for other jerseys. Sprinters will compete for the green jersey (mostly during flat stages) for being the best sprinter or the dotted jersey for the best climber. Lance may not have won, but his team took first place in the team category this year and that certainly counts for something.
This year we managed to arrange our travel so that we could see a couple of stages. There are no tickets sold to watch the tour and by some estimates it is the most watched athletic event (probably not counting television viewers) in the world. Images on television of spectators on the Tour usually involve people dressed as comic book characters chasing after riders as they pedal uphill. We saw the tour arrive in Brussels on its first day and depart on its second, enjoying the array of crazy advertisements, festival like atmosphere, and barriers separating us from the main raceway…so unfortunately I did not get to dress up like Superman and run alongside the riders.
The reason I love the tour is that it is probably the most dramatic, and most athletic event on television. As a former (and future….) endurance athlete I have extreme respect for any man who can sit on a bike seat 4-5 hours a day for over 3 weeks as while crisscrossing two mountain ranges, several international borders, and around flamboyant and annoying spectators clogging the roadways. The equivalent in other sports simply does not exist. Lebron’s athleticism simply doesn’t come close to Lance’s, sorry. It is a true test of physical limits as riders who can’t keep up, begin to fall back and out of the winner’s circle. This is the world’s greatest endurance event and watching as human limits are tested, each day, on live international television, is what brings me back each year.