Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tour History and the Chain of Events

I'm not a big fan of Indy car racing, it's the noise, but I remember a race where the famous guy leading, like Mario Andretti or someone, only had a couple laps to go and was pushing the limits by not stopping for fuel - sure enough he ran out with a lap or so to go and lost.

Perhaps my favorite was the horse race where the jockey fell off because the saddle buckle failed, but the horse continued to run and won, but they didn't.

In every sport the clock keeps ticking, the race continues, the contest races on. I don't know who invented sports, any kind, but I'm certain the first contest had rules, well, maybe just one rule to start. I'm sure those earliest titanic battles, before the media hype and screaming fans and instant replay went something like - I can outrun you to that tree... ready...go! or maybe, I can throw my spear farther than you... see, did it.

The curious thing is we did invent rules. We got intrigued by them, then finally obsessed by them. Often, the more rules the better. They invested legitimacy in event via the person or group that could not only play the game, survive the ordeal, conquer the challenge, but could do so "within" the rules.

What's interesting is we really hate the rules - unless of course they help us, or our team, or our "guy." That's why we classify and subcatagorize the rules such as, "ethical rules", and "moral rules", and of course rules of "letter" and those of "spirit", because the actual rules don't always fit us, our team, our guy. Bicycle racing is a simple sport with lots of rules (only outnumbered by the number of banned substances a rider can't use), especially the Tour de France. And this edition, 2010, has been one for both the history books and the rule books.

Of course interpreting the rules is why we have officials, media, fans, and on rare occasion politicians - and maybe most importantly blogs, so we can rant and babble, over analyze, and debate, until the race is finally settled on the roads, the only place it will ever really matter.

What makes bicycle racing more interesting than most sports to me is the marriage of man and machine. Both can triumph and both can fail. Like man, machines aren't perfect and occasionally have mechanicals. Mechanicals are as much a part of cycling as tired legs and exhausted lungs. To quote Andy Schleck on the Tour's rest day, "the Tour is not going to be decided by a chain slipping.” I agree, but I think he meant to say "This Tour." If he had checked the history books, even as recent as his dad's time riding for Eddy Merckx, he would know mechanicals have decided Tours.

There have been dozens. The most famous of these mechanicals has been widely retold, with accuarcy and lore, about Eugene Christophe who had to walk and run for 14km down the Col du Tourmalet's east slope to the village of Ste. Marie-de-Campan (which was at the 55km point on Tuesday’s stage 16 westward route), where he found a blacksmith’s forge and took four hours to effect the repair before continuing. What most people don't know is he repeated this fork faux pas in 1919 while in yellow with one stage remaining - holding a mountainous lead of 28 minutes disaster struck on Stage 14 with over 160 km of cobbles (yes, this year's precarious pavés only totaled 13.2 km... hmmm, so much for history?) and Christophe lost nearly two and a half hours fixing his own forks. BTW... no one waited for the yellow jersey.

Ask past pros what their thoughts are when mechanicals befall your competitors...

"At my time, when others had mechanical problems, we would just attack," said Laurent Fignon, a Tour winner in 1983 and 1984.

"I would have given Contador a rollicking if he had waited for Schleck. That's the race," said Frenchman Jean-Francois Bernard, third in the 1987, a pundit for daily newspaper L'Equipe's website.
Stopping vs not stopping? The Tour is a bicycle race - game on. But it's also the Tour and the Tour has always been more than a race. It's human drama on the greater landscape of life, and in that drama you are judged ultimately not by what you win, or lose, but the class and character you show when life tosses you a mechanical.

Again from today's rest day interview Schleck said, “Yesterday Alberto spoke with me, and he apologized,... He said (attacking the race leader during a mechanical problem) was the wrong decision, but it’s hard to make a decision in these moments. I’m not angry anymore. That case is closed for me, and it should be for other people as well. I don’t like it when fans boo at Alberto, and yesterday I told every TV station that I spoke with that to get the message across. He’s a big champion, and for me, the case is closed. End of story.”

I think Andy Schleck's story is just being written, I think its hero will be one we admire for his character. It will be a class-ic.

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