Showing posts with label Tour de France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tour de France. Show all posts

Friday, July 27, 2007

Can Cadel Evans bring it off tomorrow?

On the eve of the penultimate stage of this year's berated Tour de France, there's exactly one minute and thirty seconds between Cadel Evans and the yellow jersey. Theoretically, in tomorrow's 55.5 km time trial between Cognac and Angoulême, Evans should be able to beat Alberto Contador by anything up to two minutes. Now, I don't intend to start selling the bear's skin [as the old French saying goes] before the animal has been shot, but I have a feeling that Australia might indeed be on the verge of obtaining her first global victory in the Tour. Clearly, there are many observers in France who would be very happy if things could happen in this way, because lots of people have serious doubts concerning the case of Contador, and it would be ever so nice if he were to be brushed quietly out of the way.

There was a weird atmosphere in the Tour just prior to Rabobank's decision to fire Michael Rasmussen. Cycling aficionados have been observing the muscly legs of champion bike-riders for the last century, and they've ended up creating a more or less standard image of what is expected in the physical form of a great cyclist. Well, Rasmussen's legs are light years away from the standard picture. When you watch him walking from behind, he looks like a skinny kid who has just got off his toy scooter. Now, this could simply mean that we observers have formed a screwed-up impression of what cyclists should look like from a physical viewpoint. But it's perfectly plausible, on the other hand, that Rasmussen is really nothing more than a lightweight shitbox crammed with explosive chemicals.

Over the last few days, the cycling public in France has witnessed several unexpected examples of the deplorable conflictual relationship between the world body that governs cycling [the Union Cycliste Internationale] and the Tour organizers. I have the impression that the Union is jealous of the huge success of the French event, and is trying to recuperate part of the rich fallout of the Tour.

There has also been a lot of open talk about the doping phenomenon in other sports. Maybe we've simply moved into a high-powered era in which the old-fashioned notions of clean and honest sports can no longer exist. Sometimes I have a nightmare vision of what might happen if the authorities simply gave in, and allowed sporting champions to consume whatever shit they liked. If this were the case, tomorrow's cyclists would glow in the twilight with a bluish halo. Their thighs would be so powerful that bikes would need to be built out of new high-tech materials sufficiently strong to avoid being crumpled. And, when such cyclists stopped for a piss by the roadside, the grass and weeds would cease to grow there for several years.

A couple of days ago, I received an email from the organizers of the Tour Down Under, who are all excited about receiving the visit, next year, of Miguel Indurain. It goes without saying that, for this Australian cycling event, the victory of Evans in the Tour de France would be a gigantic happening.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Chicken out

Tomorrow morning [Thursday, 26 July], Michael Rasmussen won't be lined up for the start of the next stage of the Tour de France, which is henceforth in a state of total chaos. His team, Rabobank, asked him to step down. The Danish rider, suspected of doping, had not obeyed the rules of the game. It's a relief, in a way, to know that his frail silhouette will no longer be casting a shadow upon the probity of the Tour. But will this be the last unpleasant surprise of this Tour de France 2007?

Turd France

I'm not too proud of that pun, on a par with the title of a rugby guide just published by my celebrated compatriot Ross Steele... whom I first met when he and I were members of the school debating teams, respectively, of Casino and Grafton. [French readers might be intrigued to hear of the existence of an Australian country town named Casino... which doesn't look like Monte Carlo.]

The expression "Turd France" sounds a little like "Tour de France" pronounced by Australians who don't speak French. But it's spot on for designating the shitty stuff we're seeing at the moment I write. This morning, at the start of the third grueling Pyrenées stage, Michael Rasmussen's yellow jersey evoked merde in the minds of spectators who booed him: an unbelievable incident in the annals [double-n] of the Tour. As for the positive test of the heroic Alexander Vinokourov [where the adjective "positive" really means the exact opposite], that's the last straw on the camel's back. As they might say in French, it's the drop of urine or blood that causes the test tube to overflow.

Yesterday, on TV, we saw a charming public-relations lady attached to the Astana team informing us with a smile that their coach [vehicle] had been halted and searched—to no avail—by customs authorities. This morning, the following photo of a hotel visit by gendarmes suggests that the search for incriminating evidence is still under way.

On the one hand, it's great to see that the police, customs and Tour authorities are vigilant in a severe and successful style, because they'll inevitably clean up this dirty sport. But, if the mythical image of the Tour is stupidly destroyed by its own would-be heroes, and the financial sponsors back off, will there still be any sport left to clean up?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Tour talk

Yesterday's stage of the Tour de France—which moved through the magnificent region of Provence, around Arles, where I spent a few days not so long ago—was won by a South African rider, Robert Hunter. This was the first time a South African had ever won a Tour stage.

I thought it might be amusing to give my readers a few specimens of Tour talk. This information might be of help if you wish to sound well-informed and intelligent when conversing about the Tour de France. First of all, there's an all-purpose formula that has been exceptionally popular among cycling journalists this year. It consists of saying something along the following lines: In a stage such as this, it's impossible for a rider to win the Tour de France, but it's perfectly possible to lose it. You can serve that formula up with all kinds of sauces. For example, instead of talking about a stage, you might apply variations of the formula to other kinds of situations. For example: In joining that breakaway group, Cadel Evans is unlikely to increase his chances of winning the Tour, but he could easily run the risk of losing it. Or maybe: Using that special kind of bicycle in a time trial is unlikely to help him win the Tour but, if something were to go wrong, it could cause him to lose it. Etc, etc.

If you want to sound serious when talking about the Tour, never refer to the main group of riders as the bunch. Use the French term, peloton. But make sure you pronounce it correctly, not pay-loh-ton, but peuh-loh-ton, almost ploh-ton.

There's a funny cycling expression in French that can be learned easily and thrown into your comments when watching TV. Consider the common situation of a breakaway group some two minutes in front of the peleton. Often, a rider leaves the peloton and attempts to join the breakaway group, except that he gets stuck halfway. Stranded in this no-man's-land between the breakaway group and the peloton, should he continue to wear himself out, hoping that he'll finally catch up with the breakaway group? Or should he accept the idea that this task is too difficult for him, and wait for the peloton to catch up with him [to devour him, as cycling journalists often put it]? A rider who finds himself in this situation is said to be in a state of chasse-patates [literally, chasing potatoes], but nobody seems to know the origin of this expression.

In yesterday's stage, there was a crucial moment when Astana riders [the team of Alexander Vinokourov] suddenly produced an unexpected and violent burst of speed that broke the peloton into fragments within less than a minute. All the expert journalists such as Laurent Fignon and Laurent Jalabert started to use a technical expression, coup de bordure, to designate what had happened. By the end of the day, scores of journalists everywhere had borrowed this expression, but it's not certain they really knew what it meant. I'll therefore attempt to explain what it means. The following diagram represents a typical situation in which the peloton [moving towards the left] is riding directly into the wind:

Here, the red rider is momentarily doing all the hard work, plowing into the wind, whereas each of the green riders is protected from the wind by the fellow in front of him. You might even say that all the green riders are getting sucked along, to a certain extent, by the momentum of the peloton. I call this the snake effect because, when the leaders of the peloton decide to increase the speed, the riders are soon strung out in a serpentine form. You inevitably see striking demonstrations of this snake effect during the final stage on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

The following diagram represents the situation that existed yesterday, during the stage from Marseille to Montpellier, where a strong southerly wind was blowing in constantly from the Mediterranean and striking the riders from the side:

In this kind of situation, almost everybody [shown in red] is in direct contact with the wind. Even though it doesn't hit the peloton head-on, but merely at a right angle, the wind still hinders the riders considerably. A tiny group of four or five riders can take advantage of this situation by creating what French cycling specialists refer to as a coup de bordure, which I have translated as an edge effect. They collaborate by alternating rapidly their roles in a circular anti-clockwise sense, so that the rider who is about to take the lead is momentarily protected from the sidewind by the fellow he will replace. Behind these revolving lead riders, the peloton will tend to string itself out in a line along the leeward edge of the road (whence the name, edge effect), with each rider hoping vainly to have an opportunity of moving to the leeward side of the fellow in front of him. In this kind of unstable and tense formation, breaks can arise rapidly, whenever a rider cannot keep up with the fellow in front of him. And, unless riders behind the weak cyclist realize immediately what's happening, overtake him and catch up with the front riders, the mass of the peloton can quickly start to disintegrate... as it did yesterday, condemning the French champion Christophe Moreau to a disastrous delay.

Meanwhile, the main Tour talk, once again, has returned to the sad question of doping. If ever the entire block of German sponsors and media [not to mention the Danish compatriots of Michael Rasmussen] were to leave in disgust, it's certain that the Tour would have a hard time trying to get back onto its feet once again. So, let's hope that no major doping crisis occurs.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dog's life

Talking jokingly about a Tour de France cyclist running into a dog is even less politically correct than making disparaging remarks about the Pope's spooky eyes. But, since neither Marcus Burghardt nor the beige Labrador were injured in their spectacular collision yesterday, I take the liberty of saying that I find this sequence amusing:

Everything happened in the best possible way, as if the rider and the dog had rehearsed this crash as a stunt for a film. First, the dog moves slowly into a location where a collision with Burghardt is unavoidable. The cyclist, seeing that he can't avoid hitting the dog, brakes violently and turns his handle bars abruptly through an angle of nearly 90 degrees. At that same instant, the dog prepares itself for the impact by simply lying down flat on the road, whereby its heavy body becomes, as it were, an unmovable object, ready to absorb the considerable momentum of the moving cyclist, like a stationary rugby player about to tackle a running opponent. In such a collision, according to the physical laws of mechanics, something had to give. Fortunately, it was neither the cyclist nor the Labrador, but rather the front wheel of Burghardt's bike, which folded up like a sat-on pizza.

What I really like in this video is the way the dog gets up calmly and walks slowly away from the scene of the crash. It seems to be saying to itself, with disgust: "These days, a dog can't even cross a quiet country road without having to battle with bloody bike wheels."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Pair of giants

The summit of Australia's highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, is 2,228 meters above sea level. In today's stage of the Tour de France, the riders will tackle two giants, both of which are considerably higher than Kosciuszko: the Col de l'Iseran [2,770 meters] and the Col du Galibier [2,645 meters]. For Tour aficionados, the vision of these two Alpine passes is awesome. In the course of stages like the one that is about to start this morning, the concept of the Tour is elevated to mythical summits. Everybody knows already that there will be glory for a small elite—whose identities are still unknown—and suffering for many others. Here's a photo of the approach of the Iseran:

And here's a chart indicating the slopes from Val d'Isère up along the 17 kilometers leading to the summit of the Iseran:

In Tour de France terminology, slopes are classified into numerical categories, indicating their severity. But summits such as the Iseran and the Galibier are indicated as HC, hors catégorie (outside the categories): that's to say, so steep that they're well beyond the upper limits of the existing categories. That terminology reminds me of the alleged system of counting employed by Australian Aborigines: one, two, three, many.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hecatomb for Aussie cyclists

Yesterday was a particularly nasty day for three Australian cyclists in the eighth stage of the Tour de France, between Le Grand-Bornand and Tignes.

Stuart O'Grady, winner of this year's strenuous Paris-Roubaix classic, suffered terrible injuries—five broken ribs and fractures to three vertebrae and a shoulder blade—when he crashed on the descent of Cormet de Roselend, between Beaufort and Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

Michael Rogers was racing downhill splendidly when he crashed. At that instant, he was what the commentators call the virtual yellow-jersey holder, which means that his theoretical lead, timewise, put him in front of all the other riders, including the real yellow-jersey holder. Then, in a split second, Rogers was hurtled, as it were, from heaven to hell. There was a tragic TV sequence that showed Rogers lying on the road while a fellow-rider crawled back up out of the dense greenery on the slopes of the curve where he and the Australian had crashed. Later, viewers witnessed a sad event: Rogers weeping profusely as he stopped on the roadside, his right shoulder and arm in pain, and let himself be guided into the automobile of his team manager. [For a moment, I was tempted to take a photo of this event, as seen on TV, to include it in my blog. But there's no point in retaining such negative images.]

— As for the sprinter Robbie McEwan, who fascinated spectators by appearing out of the blue to win an earlier stage, he simply couldn't make it to the finishing line in the maximum allowed duration for the stage, so he was formally eliminated.

Meanwhile, the Danish rider Rasmussen won the stage and picked up both the yellow and red-dotted jerseys.

Talking of Australian cyclists, I'm always amused by the way in which French commentators speak of Cadel Evans, who is now well-placed as a forthcoming yellow-jersey candidate. His unusual first name [he's the only Cadel I've ever heard of] has the merit of being perfectly pronounceable by the French, with no risk of error, but things are not nearly so easy in the case of his surname. The French know how to pronounce the English words "even" and "heaven". Well, they figure that the Evans surname looks more like "even" than "heaven". So, they call him Cadel Ee-vahnz. Personally, I find this pronunciation as quaint as his first name.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

No need for religious wars in sport

I ignore the circumstances in which the Australian cyclist Robbie McEwan might or might not have said to football folk: "You chase a ball around for 80 minutes. We chase the yellow jersey for 3 weeks." In any case, I think it's a pity that these facetious words are used to promote TV viewing of the Tour de France in Australia.

There's no need to attack great sports such as rugby and soccer in order to boost cycling. It's idiotic to ignite religious wars in the sporting domain. Besides, the silly expression "proper tough guys" evokes the ancient epoch when soccer players were thought of, in Australia, as poofters. The worst idea of all would consist of encouraging soccer fans, if not players, to behave as "tough guys".

Talking about soccer, it's time to take action—maybe through some serious firing and hiring—if the Socceroos team is to survive. The 3-1 defeat by Iraq was truly ignominious. After the Tour de France, in cycling's off season, maybe they might be able to employ Robbie McEwan as a coach.

Friday, July 13, 2007

French cultural heritage

Besides its purely sporting dimensions in the domain of competitive cycling, an aspect of the Tour de France that thrills TV viewers is the opportunity of viewing helicopter footage of the fabulous architectural patrimony and landscapes of provincial France. Yesterday, for example, we saw splendid images of the ancient sanctuary on the hill of Vézelay, which was a departure point for pilgrims setting out for Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.

The density and beauty of these treasures, seen from the sky, leave the viewer speechless. They remind us, if need be, that France is indeed a jewel of civilization. There is no doubt that this TV presentation of the splendors of the land is an essential ingredient in the mythical charm of the Tour de France.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Exactly half a century ago [when I had just started science and philosophy studies at Sydney University, and was about to meet up with computers for the first time], the Parisian intellectual Roland Barthes wrote a book, entitled Mythologies, that made him famous overnight. In it, he analyzed various phenomena that had acquired the status of myths in French society. At that time, a typical example of a mythical object in France was the new Citroën automobile with stylish lines and hydraulic suspension:

It was referred to by a pair of letters, DS, that looked like a trivial codename. But, when these two letters were pronounced in French, they produced the word déesse, meaning "goddess". And that was exactly how French people looked upon this divine automobile. Barthes wrote: "I believe that the automobile, today, is a rather exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals." Barthes spoke too, in his book, of a less mechanical goddess who, at that same time, was being transformed into a myth in France: Brigitte Bardot.

In Mythologies, Barthes described the Tour de France as a cultural event that had attained mythical proportions, whose stars were like heroes in ancient legends, often moving through fairy-tale landscapes with quaint villages, green fields, mountains and castles.

As a longtime Tour de France fanatic, I've often been intrigued by the fact that we are constantly so fascinated by the stage of the race that is actually taking place at the present moment that we often tend to forget that this historical event has always had a legendary allure. Today's Tour makes us forget about yesterday's. To put it bluntly, each time we witness the Tour, it is as if we are seeing its magic for the first time.

Back in Paris, in a different domain, I used to have a personal "theory" to explain why I was capable, from one day to the next, of setting my eyes [no more than my eyes] upon such-and-such a female, encountered in the street or maybe in the métro, whom I would instantly think of as the most magnificent creature in the universe. I got around to believing that I surely had a deficient visual memory. The image of a new goddess would dominate my sensations simply because all the images of previous angels had been erased. Now, this was really a very bad explanation of what was happening: a little like saying that new sexual encounters are significant simply because we've forgotten all the previous ones. An analysis in terms of myths is more to the point. If I see the Tour de France constantly with new eyes, as if I'm gazing for the first time ever at a superb nymph, this is simply because I'm dealing with mythical phenomena. I'm no longer observing reality. I'm seeing extraordinary things that are happening, primarily, in my imagination. And—to borrow a Gaelic utterance—I never think that its like will ever be there again.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The big loop

That's the nickname in French of the Tour de France: la grande boucle. It's weird but wonderful to think that it'll be starting tomorrow in the streets of London. It's reassuring, too, to know that all 189 riders have signed the famous anti-doping chart imagined by the UCI [Union cycliste internationale]. In signing this draconian chart, a cyclist agrees to provide a DNA sample to the authorities investigating the so-called Puerto scandal. Furthermore, he declares that he's not involved in any ongoing doping affair, and that he doesn't intend to take dope. Finally, if ever he were to be caught cheating, he agrees to pay a fine to the UCI that would represent his total earnings for 2007.

The eyes of French spectators will be turned towards an amazing cyclist named Christophe Moreau, who recently won the prestigious Dauphiné Libéré and went on to become the 2007 road champion of France. He's amazing, above all, because of his age: 36. Many observers are convinced that Christophe's major motivation, which has pushed him to victory, is his first child, born on 23 April 2007. If so, that's certainly a far more healthier stimulus than dope.