I have once again become hooked by the Tour de France. This happens every year: once one starts to watch it, the Tour exerts an impossible fascination, as the four flat-voiced American commentators take us through its many mysteries and arcane rules.
Of course, I have always been a sports jock, will watch almost any sport, but I have to confess this is almost the best of all (next to the All Blacks in full flight, as they have been in their two recent defeats of the Springboks). The Tour is undoubtedly the most punishing athletic event anywhere in the world, and if its competitors are taking some illegal substance to get them through it, well, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. I don’t see how they could survive the 21 day course, the 3,642 kilometres they have to cover, the immense climbs into the high mountains, the rattling over cobbles in small towns, without some sort of help.
Some things have really surprised me. As last year, an Englishman called Mark Cavendish has been prominent: in fact, with three stages won this year, he seems to have been the most successful rider on the tour. But today, after 16 stages, and with 172 of the 188 starters still in the race, Cavendish stands --- wait for it! --- in the 154th position.
Of great interest to Canadians has been the sterling performance to this point of Ryder Hesjedal, who stands in 10th place, an immense achievement. I caught up with the Tour this year on the seventh stage, and his results have varied from his highest placing --- third --- to placings as low as 78th and 52nd. More often he rode anywhere between 12th and 23rd, and all that, put together, puts him in tenth place, which makes him one of the stars of the Tour so far.
A few stages ago, the two top riders emerged in Alberto Contador, of Spain, winner last year, and a young man from Luxemburg, Andy Schleck, who are virtually running neck and neck, with only eight seconds separating them at the moment. They are two minutes ahead of the third cyclist, which, when you think about it, is not that much. So I would say they are not certain to finish first and second, but you never can tell.
Schleck was 40 seconds ahead until his chain came off two or three days ago and he lost valuable seconds, an event that Contador —rather mysteriously, I thought --- apologized for yesterday, because he was held to have attacked Schleck --- not a physical attack, but an attack on his position, an effort to get ahead of him, which was interpreted as kicking a man when he was down.
Where the event becomes really arcane is in the struggle between the teams. Many teams of riders are sponsored by various agencies or businesses, and the objective of each team is to ensure that their top rider wins. This seldom happens, of course, but the manoeuvring the teams do is tough for a layman to follow.
We are getting towards the end. Tomorrow they bicycle back over the route they followed yesterday, necessitating another climb thousands of feet up the so-called Col de Tourmalet, This is the last mountain stage --- there is a King of the Mountains, a Frenchman called Anthony Charteau, who stands in 43rd place in the general standings, although he is a hero because of his great mountain performance. and after this there are left with only one further long, flat stage towards Bordeaux on Friday, and then two short time trials (in which Contador is expected to outpace Schleck), with the race ending in Paris on Sunday.
Wow! What a drama!