Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Le Tour

Okay. Today a change of pace. Time for some fun. Readers of The Bush Diaries--the blog that morphed a few months ago into The Buddha Diaries--may remember my curious passion for the Tour de France, the mother of all bicycle races. I caught the bug as a teenager, when I had my own red racing bike, which I rode somewhat klutzily around the Sussex downs. To feel the rush of wind through my hair and around my body was an escape from the confines and the miseries of boarding school, a kind of ritual cleansing in the salt air along the tidal river in the valley. Being a somewhat unaccomplished mechanic, though, I suffered through countless breakdowns and tanglings of the Benelux derailer gears, and remember often sitting by the roadside fixing flat tires and adjusting worn cotter pins...

Ah, youth! Anyway, back then the only way to follow the Tour was to read the French newsapapers. My favorite was Le Firgaro. And my heroes were the like of Francois Coppi, the great champion of his day--this was the 1950s, friends, a good while ago. I confess that I abandoned the Tour for much of my adult life, and was drawn back by the victories of an American, Greg Lemond, followed by the spectacular feats of his successor, Lance Armstrong. In my younger day, the prospect of an American winner of the Tour would have been unthinkable. But, as the saying goes, times change.

Despite the doping scandal--and a huge disappointment last year with the controversy that threatened to deprive Floyd Landis, the putative winner, of his title--I have tuned again this year. The giants from recent years have mostly been eliminated from the cast of characters, either by age and fatigue or by association with doping investigations. But some of them pedal on, as furiously as ever; and there are new faces to watch. I'm grateful for daily coverage by Versus, with its great team of reporters and commentators, a couple of whom have sweated through the gruelling Tour more than once themselves. Their commentary is articulate, leavened with intelligent and entertaining humor--the droll Bob Roll can be allowed his admittedly generous share of corn--and remarkably well-informed. And the countryside through which the riders pass is a reminder of the joys of European landscape and the magnificent architecture of buildings great and homely. This year's start in London and progress through the county of Kent to Canterbury was a symphony of green hills and forests, with the occasional reminder, in a church or country manor, of the centuries of history still alive in English life.

And then there's the excitement of the race. I guess it takes a bit of a fanatic to sit through those hours of watching the patient "peloton"--the main group of a hundred or more riders--sweeping along behind a small breakout group and waiting for the right moment to catch up with them: it's a dramatic moment when they do, swallowing up those few brave souls who sped out ahead like a whale ingesting a stray mouthful of plankton. The most exciting moments are inevitably the last few minutes of each stage, when the teams' individual expert sprinters vie for the chance to cross the finish line first. These are dangerous moments, too, as witness yesterday's massive pile-up yesterday in Ghent. Battling for position in a swarm of a hundred or more speeding bicycles can easily lead to a slip or a collision that will bring the whole delicate balance crashing down. Fortunately, I believe--I have not yet heard the final tally--while many fell, few were injured in this spectacular crash.

Anyway, just to give neophytes a taste, here's a picture of yesterday's finish line, with two Belgians (in blue jersey's) finishing first and second in their native country--a cause for celebration.

More, I'm sure, as the race progresses over the next three week.

1 comment:

WH said...

I'm a big fan, too. I'm bummed that it's not on OLN this, since I can't tune in at the gym anymore.

Oh well, I can still catch the recap on Cycling News.