Vive Le Tour de France

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

During stage 15 of the tour de France, the riders were going into a routine roundabout in a flat area. The television showed the amazing scene that it has showed so many times before: an aerial shot of the peloton splitting like a colony of cells and flowing quickly in both directions around the circle. Then someone on the left side fell, creating a pile up. Remarkably, one instant later someone else on the right side of the circle also fell. Both sides of the roundabout were piled with riders from two unrelated simultaneous crashes.

A few seconds later the television showed the peloton somewhere further down the road. A rider at the front of the group held up his arms and gave the sign for the whole race to wait for the crash victims. Everyone slowed down.

The incident reminded me again of the strange appeal of bicycle racing, the beauty of the flowing TV images, the difficult and dangerous nature of the endeavor, and then the weird pack mentality. Sometimes the riders are chivalrous: they wait for their adversaries. Sometimes they ease up to let someone else have glory. At other times, they are cruel. Riders band together, gang up on others, and crush their hopes.

It was a good tour, marked again by drug use, it’s true, but as exciting as ever. It may be actually be the drug intrigue or the lack of Lance Armstrong that has given the tour a maverick unpredictability and a great deal of drama. There were so many great performances: The 23-year-old Luxembourgan Andy Schleck, riding audaciously alongside his brother Frank, and grabbing the white jersey for best young rider. It was a great tour for Luxembourg. Besides, the Schlecks,there was Kim Kirchen, of Team Columbia, who wore the yellow jersey for four stages. It was also a great tour for the Isle of Man. The 23-year-old Manx sprinter Mark Cavendish (also of Team Columbia, an American team) won four—count them four! – stages. American rider Christian Vandevelde had a breakout year, finishing fifth overall. Then there was Riccardo Ricco, the daring, sometimes crazy Italian sprinter who rode to glory and then drug-tested to infamy. A familiar tale.

As Marshall’s drawing illustrates, there were a lot of riders celebrating through the three weeks. The overall race was up in the air until the very last day (not counting the ride into Paris). It came down to a fight between Australian Cadel Evans and Spaniard Carlos Sastre. It was a battle between team strength and individual skill. Sastre, a seasoned climbing specialist, was a member of the outstanding CSC squad, including the best riders on the tour: the Schlecks, Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O’Grady, and the big German Jens Voigt. The team controlled the race, particularly in the mountains, and didn’t let anyone else get away from their sites. It was O’Grady who led Sastre up the critical 17th stage on the Alpe d’Huez. Until then Sastre had been laying low. He was in contention, sure, but it was his teammate Frank Schleck who wore the yellow jersey. Then as if the whole thing was going according to CSC plans, Sastre let his teammates carry him along, then took off on the top of the toughest hill and gained a minute and fifteen seconds on his rivals. But would it hold up?

Evans, meanwhile, was usually isolated on the hills. His Silence-Lotto team did little to protect him or to drag him along, but he stuck with the top riders and then counted on his real strength, the individual time trials, the stages when riders race alone against the clock. It was the second time trial that proved decisive. Everyone thought Evans would be fast enough to gain back the minute-fifteen from Sastre, a traditionally poor time trialist. But Evans struggled, and Sastre, the unassuming team man, put in the best individual performanc of his career to shock the world and win the tour. CSC set the table, and Sastre served up a stunning performance.

Will he test positive?

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