Tour de France can make memories that last a lifetime for cyclists, fans
July is my favorite month of the year. We usually take a family vacation to the ocean so the kids can play in the sand and water.
The days are long and warm and the riding is great. And finally, July is when I get to spend three weeks watching one of the most beautiful sporting events in the world, the Tour de France.
Today marks the final stage of the 98th edition of the Tour, which has become a global sporting event. It is broadcast in 190 countries representing every continent. Nearly 15 million people line the roads to see the race and the carnival of the caravan. The race features 198 cyclists and about 4,000 vehicles.
I remember when I first really got into the Tour. It was the summer of 1989 and I was living in Berkeley, Calif. Greg LeMond was battling with Laurent Fignon for overall title. It was an epic battle, but it looked like LeMond would come up only a few seconds short.
The final stage was a time trial in Paris. On that Sunday, a friend and I had gone to watch the Oakland Athletics play a day game. When the game was over, we tried the doors on a couple of the executive sky boxes and found one that was open.
We popped our heads in and asked a guy still hanging around if we could see if the Tour was on TV.
He found the channel (and also told us to grab a few cold beers and hot dogs). The Tour was ending with a time trial. LeMond had a seemingly insurmountable amount of time to make up, but at each time check, he was steadily chipping away into his deficit.
I was glued to the screen as LeMond finished. The clock seemed to be running agonizingly slow as Fignon turned over his pedals and sprinted toward the finish line. He finished just short and LeMond won his second Tour de France by a mere eight seconds. Imagine racing over 23 days and 2,000 miles and having such a narrow margin of victory.
My favorite event is the team time trial. The TTT will not usually determine the overall winner of the race, but it can have disastrous effects if a team gets a slow time.
In this event, each team starts at three-minute intervals and races against the clock.
Wind is one of the enemies of speed in cycling, and the rider in the front is typically working much harder than the rider in his slipstream, or draft.
In the TTT, the nine riders of the team must function as one. If a rider is too strong or fast, he can make life difficult for his eight teammates and actually slow the team down. Each rider will typically have a 10- to 30-second effort out front.
He is essentially sprinting as hard and fast as he can and then will drift to the back, where he sprints again to get on his teammates’ wheel.
To get an idea of how hard these efforts are, imagine you are on a hard 10- to 15-kilometer run. During this run, you sprint for 10 to 30 seconds as hard as you can. You get to “recover” at about a 5½-minute mile pace for a minute or so and then sprint again. This gives you an idea of what’s involved in a team time trial.
In 1989, the TTT was the second stage of the Tour. And although it doesn’t get much mention in LeMond’s victory, his team’s performance was a significant factor in his eventual triumph. LeMond’s team was considered weak and unable to support him for his bid to win the Tour, yet they somehow managed to place fifth in the stage and limit their losses to 56 seconds. This essentially set the parameters for his win in Paris.
This year’s TTT was also the second stage of the Tour, and it gave a great indicator of the strengths of the U.S. teams. The Colorado-based Garmin-Cervelo team won the stage and the four U.S.-registered teams all finished in the top six.
My 1992 Olympic TTT teammate, George Hincapie’s team, BMC, placed second and set the stage for Cadel Evans to establish himself as a contender.
He gained precious seconds over his primary rivals during the team time trial. As of this writing, we still have three hard days in the Alps, but my guess is that by the time this article is published today these seconds he gained will prove crucial. They may even have won him the coveted yellow jersey.