Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
A couple of weeks ago, during the whole Qur'an flushed down the toilet scandal, I was watching Fox News. Earlier in the evening Brig. Gen. Jay Hood had issued a report
stating that in fact the Qur'an had never been flushed down the toilet. His report did, however, confirm that American soldiers had urinated on, torn up, and otherwise sullied the book in a number of ways. On the little runner below the main screen - the headline banner - Fox proclaimed
"Report confirms: Qur'an not flushed down the toilet." Call it political bias, call it one media giant trying to highlight the mistakes of another, I don't care. Either way, it's shoddy reporting.
I bring this up because it is about the same level of coverage that the Tour de France receives here in America across all media outlets. On July 16 Georg Totschnig won one of the most difficult stages in the Tour this year, going solo off the front of the group for the final 35 mountainous kilometers. The New York Times
headline that day? "Armstrong retains the Yellow Jersey."
Turning the world's most grueling sporting event into the Lance Armstrong Show is pretty unfortunate. The Tour de France is a total epic. It is the world's longest parade, most grueling sporting event, and most cultured debutant ball all rolled into one. It is the perfect mix of real, sweaty hard work
and silly aristocratic pageantry
. And treating it as simply another mountain to be conquered by a super-human American sports hero deprives the race of its subtlety, complexity, hilarity, and history.
A handful of unreported delights from this year's Tour:
•About halfway through Wednesday's 17th stage from Pau to Revel, Eurosport reported the following: "Chaos back in the peloton!! Well, almost... Just as the last riders are crossing the railway line, the barriers come down due to an approaching train. Cofidis' Janek Tombak is the last man to cross the line - only just!! - but all the team cars are stuck behind. The train is not due for another 5 minutes or so...!"
•Armstrong refused to wear the Yellow Jersey at the start of stage five this year because he had only captured first place in the overall standings as a result of Dave Zabriskie
's fall the day before. Race officials had to stop the race one kilometer after the start, wade through the crowd of riders and plead with Armstrong to put on the jersey. After a few minutes of theatrical argument, he relented
, stripped down, put on the Yellow Jersey and informed the rest of the riders that they could begin the race again.
•During one of the final mountain stages, an overzealous spectator (of which there are many in the high mountains) stayed in the way of the oncoming race for a second too long and was run down by a camera crew on a motorcycle. As the driver untangled the bike from the spectator, the cameraman on the back smacked the downed pedestrian in the head for being a jackass. The crew then sped off as commentators and onlookers cheered.
•Michael "the Chicken" Rasmussen, standing in at an imposing 5'7" 126 lbs., created a national sensation in his native Denmark by going toe to toe with all the big names in the mountains. Sitting atop his bike at the start of the final time trial, Rasmussen was clinging to third place in the overall classification. In what the Daily Peloton called "the biggest Danish tragedy since Hamlet
," Rasmussen endured two flat tires, three bike changes and two crashes while tumbling to seventh overall. When asked if he had some word for the French press, he said simply, "No."
•In the annual Let-the-French-guy-win-on-Bastille-Day contest, David Moncoutie slipped away from a thirteen-man group in the last 30km to take the stage win. Of his victory, he noted: "It was a stage for a bold man, not for the best man in the Tour.... The real big stars had a day off today."
•In the less well known Score-One-for-Belgium-on-its-National-Holiday contest, Axel Merckx finished third after falling apart on the final climb of last week's Stage 18. He did, however, take the opportunity to make some unkind hand gestures in the direction of his fellow not-quite-winner Cedric Vasseur because Vasseur put on a last-minute burst of speed to take second place after having done virtually no work, letting other riders break the headwind
, all stage. Incidentally, Merckx was the runaway winner of the Be-Inspired-by-the-Birth-of-your-First-Child Jersey in this year's Tour.
•In the Try-to-Win-Because-You-Have-Extra-Motivation-on-Your-32nd-Brithday contest, Stefano Garzelli cracked on the final ascent into Ax-3-Domaines and finished a disappointing 12th.
•In the somewhat annual Be-the-first-rider-of-your-nationality-to-cross-the-border- into-your-home-co untry contest, German Fabian Wegmann was an easy winner during stage 7. After crossing the border, Wegmann sat up, enjoyed the cheers of the crowd, and was promptly swallowed up by the peloton
. His quest for victory received a bit of a blow when early breakaway companion and contender for the sprinter's jersey Robbie McEwan
left Wegmann to fend for himself while he hid in a bush. McEwan's tactic? To let the peloton pass him by so that he could rejoin without other sprint contenders knowing. He could ride in the safety and relative ease of the large group unmolested and therefore be in a better position to win the final sprint of the day.
•Several competitors took a stab at the Try-Harder-Because-You're-Near- Your-Hometown-Today contest. Sadly, none succeeded in winning his chosen stage. On his way to what would have been a sure win, Christophe Mengin took a spill trying to navigate a rain-soaked right-hander 700 meters before the finish line of stage six. "I've got a bit of a black eye where I think a brake lever or gear shifter hit it. I've got a sore hip on my left side," was all a distraught Mengin
•And then finally, things almost turned ugly during the rain-soaked final stage, which by tradition is always nine parts parade to one part race. Just before the group entered Paris, Gerolsteiner's Ronny Scholz attacked the peloton at a time when even crazy Kazak Alexandre Vinokourov
knew better of it. Miffed at the possibility of not getting to be in front for the first go around the Champs-Elysees, Armstrong rallied his troops to bring Scholz back to the group. Two lost teammates and about five minutes later, Armstrong gave some advice to the precocious German: Cut the crap. Only profuse apologies from Gerolsteiner team captain Levi Leipheimer could persuade Armstrong to forgive the gauche behavior.
All of these little incidents - the etiquette, the rivalries, the hijinx, the unofficial contests - that take place over the course of each stage are the things that make the Tour truly rich. Below you will find a list of media outlets doing what I've come to appreciate as the most entertaining coverage of the race.
- This is kind of the ESPN of the cycling world. It's the one everyone reads. Kind of hip, but definitely mainstream. Their live coverage is sparse and boring, but overall this site is far superior to the rest of the stuff you'll find in the American press.
- Far and away the most excessive use of exclamation points by any news outlet I've yet come across. The most exciting, up to the minute typed coverage on the web. Their features, however, are short and not very insightful.
- The most fun. Their Daily Jambon Report is usually hilarious and they manage to cove the world of cycling with a significantly wider scope than most others. Great stage recaps and analysis.
•In addition, all of these sites spend time covering the hundreds of bike races throughout the year that are not the Tour de France. That makes them interesting.
So, what to look for after Lance leaves? For one thing, the race for the Yellow Jersey will not be decided on the first day of the Tour next year. But the dashing Italian Ivan Basso
, who was every housewife's favorite three years ago, has clearly established himself as everyone else's favorite for next year. Perennial bridesmaid Jan Ullrich looked as strong in this Tour as he has in any of the previous eight and should duel it out to the end with Basso. Crazy Kazak Alexandre Vinokourov proved himself to be an undisciplined rider who will continue to surprise and challenge other top contenders but will ultimately pose no threat until he calms down a bit. Finally Alejandro Valverde, who beat Armstrong to the line in the Vosges this year, will be a top podium contender if he can avoid the sophomore jinx and continue to work well with his teammate Francisco Mancebo. Of course this will all be out the window two years from now when Armstrong decides he's tired of retirement.