Like many American males my age, I first started following the Tour de France around 7 years ago in 1999 when Lance Armstrong won his first Tour. Of course, I’d always followed the Tour casually when Greg LeMond won in 1989 and 1990 and then again when the great Miguel Indurain rattled off 5 consecutive Tour wins in the early 90s. But I never really follow the race closely until Lance got involved. And ever since then, I’ve been a huge fan of professional cycling.
It’s really an amazing sport for a lot of reasons. Why?
1st: The athletes are incredible. To put out the effort required to get themselves around these courses at the speed they do is just incredible. They’re probably the greatest endurance athletes in the world.
2nd: There are always tactics and strategies being played out. To the casual observer it may just look like a bunch of guys pedalling like mad to get places as fast as possible, but that’s really not the case. Riders are being moved around strategically depending on the goal of each team (each team consists of 9 riders in the Tour). For some teams, their goal is to win the overall standings at the end of the race in Paris. Some teams focus around a sprinter with the goal of winning stages or winning the green jersey, which designates the best sprinter based on a pre-defined points system. I could go on forever, but just suffice it to say that the strategies in play are fascinating.
3rd: It’s a sport for the people to experience and enjoy. This isn’t like football where many people can’t ever really step onto the playing field and really see what NFL play is like (they might be very seriously injured if they tried). It also isn’t like hockey where you need to live near a rink, find a time that the ice is open and get lessons to get started. Biking costs a little to get off the ground, but once you have it, you’re good to go. And if you want to compete against the best, it’s just a matter if timing yourself, seeing what sort of MPH you can sustain, what sorts of hills you can climb and how well you can descend down a road. Much like golf, you can “equalize” the difficultly of being one of the riders in the race or one of the players on the course. The only major thing you’re missing is the pressure of the moment.
4th: It’s great exercise. Spending a few hours per week on the bike can really help get anyone into better shape. It’s not nearly as hard on the knees as running on pavement can be for most of us.
I would go on, but it would take me too long to write about all the reasons that cycling is such a great sport.
Next I’ll give you a quick breakdown of the cycling season:
Early in the year: A few smaller stage races, such as the Tour of Australia. Because the weather is nice down there during our winter, they hold some races down there.
Spring: The “Classics” of northern Europe. These races are usually one day to a few day races that favor “all around” riders (combo sprinters/climbers/flat roaders) or the sprinters in the case that it’s a bunch finish. These include races such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Amstel Gold and the Paris-Roubaix. You can read about the whole UCI ProTour here.
Late Spring: The “Grand Tour” season starts in May with the 3 week long Italian Giro D’Italia. This is one of three Grand Tour races, with the Tour being one of the other two. It’s followed by the Tour warm up races such as Dauphine Libere in France and the Tour de Suisse in Switzerland. These are stage races like the Grand Tours, but they typically only last for a week or less. They usually test some of the types of challenges that will face riders in the Tour, such as time trials and mountain stages.
Summer: Finally, the biggest race of the year, the Tour de France. Most of June is spent resting, getting ready for the Tour, riding a warm up race and, boom, July hits and the Tour is underway. The Tour usually starts off with a week of flatter stages, usually including a time trial. Sometimes there’s also a team time trial where the 9 riders on each team have to ride together — that wasn’t included in this year’s Tour. Then it either hits the Pyrenees (a mountain chain near Spain) or the Alps (a mountain chain near Italy). If it hits the Alps first, then it hits the Pyrenees second. Or vice versa. There are usually around 3-4 mountain stages in each range and those stages typically decide the outcome of the Tour. If a rider isn’t strong in the mountains, then he can’t win the Tour. Typically, Lance would put the hammer down on an early mountain stage, blow away the other contenders and then play a defensive role for the rest of the Tour and cruise to victory. There’s often another individual time trial towards the end, but it hasn’t really mattered much since Lance has been around. He’s had a close call here or there, but I’ve always been very sure he’d win the race when it came down to the day of the final time trial. Especially considering he was probably the best time trialist in the race, even compared to the time trialing specialists who were often hours behind him after the mountain stages were over with. It’s an incredible event and this year’s Tour wraps up this weekend in Paris. Unlike most Tours, the time trial this Saturday will decide the outcome of the Tour. I’m really excited to see what happens.
Fall: After August, the Vuelta a Espana wraps up the Grand Tour season in September. Much like the Italian and French versions, the Spanish version is a 3 week stage race featuring time trials, sprint stages, mountain stages and everything else. While the two smaller Tours aren’t as prestigious, winning one is still like winning a major in golf or a grand slam in tennis. It’s a big deal and everyone wants to win them, especially cyclists racing in their home country.
The rest of the year (including periods that I skipped over) is filled in with various national championships, world championships, smaller races, etc.
So that’s a basic intro. I want to write another entry focusing on this year’s Tour soon so people can watch the all-important final time trial coming up on Saturday (just one day!) with some idea of what is going on. Make no mistake about it, this year’s Tour is an epic that won’t be forgotten in cycling for a long-time. I guess I have to get it done tomorrow.