Wheel the love: Why Americans should be watching the Tour de France

LAURENT CIPRIANI / ASSOCIATED PRESS Germany's Tony Martin pedals an ascent during the ninth stage of the Tour de France, a grueling race with the subtleties of art.
LAURENT CIPRIANI / ASSOCIATED PRESS Germany's Tony Martin pedals an ascent during the ninth stage of the Tour de France, a grueling race with the subtleties of art.
Posted: July 15, 2014

FOR ONE month every four years, the World Cup turns the United States into a passionate soccer fan base. Before Americans shelve that fandom until 2018, perhaps we can be open-minded toward another sporting spectacle with international connections: the Tour de France.

The three-week, 2,200-mile bike race cruises through western Europe every July and continues this year through July 27. It's probably best known to Americans as the only sport with more performance-enhancing-drug issues - and less action - than baseball.

I was as disappointed as anyone to learn that Lance Armstrong had cheated his way to seven consecutive Tour victories. I can't defend cycling's dark doping history. But Armstrong brought a foreign, idiosyncratic sport home to the States and made me a lifetime cycling fan, which tragically rhymes with "lifetime cycling ban."

A friend once told me that the Tour de France was his favorite thing to fall asleep to, and I can see the sedative aspects: Phil Liggett's pleasant voice locks into the smooth cadence of the pedaling riders as cameras pan across grand European vistas, accompanied by the incessant drone of a helicopter rotor.

Each stage of the race seems long and uneventful until the end, as if the horde of meandering riders weren't in any rush until they saw the "5 kilometers left" banner. It may look like an unorganized free-for-all, but that's a misguided interpretation.

Cycling, like football or baseball, is a dynamic team sport with all kinds of strategic subtleties. However, instead of Super Bowls and World Series, participants vie for individual awards, like the yellow jersey given to the Tour winner, the polka-dot jersey for the Tour's king of the mountains, the green jersey for the fastest sprinter and the white jersey for the best rider younger than 26.

These individual awards are impossible to achieve alone. Even the greatest riders need teammates to pace them during this epic trek.

Personal glory for those who will spend most of the tour pacing their teammates comes in trying to win one of the 21 stages.

Early in the day during most stages, a group will separate out ahead of the peloton (a/k/a that meandering horde of riders), and the big group simply lets them go. The breakaway riders may get as far as 20 minutes ahead of the peloton, but their chances of survival are slim, because five riders cannot pace themselves as well as 205 can.

Rooting for the breakaway groups is much like rooting for Philly sports teams: it consistently ends in despair.

But these bursts of individual heroism show how the team aspect of cycling is so important.

When the breakaway group is eventually overtaken by the peloton, and the course serpentines through frenzied streets, teams with a sprinter emerge at the front of the pack. They aim to give their man the best position for the sprint, like an eighth-inning setup man.

The final few hundred meters is a war with no allies, but it's the culmination of a day of calculated team strategy.

Individual will is best tested in the mountains, where the air is thin and the narrow roads skirt nasty inclines. Every Tour de France winner has waged or defended at least one attack in the mountain stages.

A first-time Tour watcher should start with one of the mountain stages, which begin later this week and make up much of the latter half of the race. The nauseating climbs and breakneck descents make for pretty invigorating television.

I spent the summer mornings of my childhood mesmerized by the machinelike men hunting the yellow jersey on chaotic switchbacks of Alpe d'Huez, Col du Tourmalet and Mont Ventoux.

Watching the Tour navigate the peaks of the Pyrenees and the French Alps, you'll see one of the greatest sports dramas ever unfold.

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