I'm not a morning person. Never have been, never will be. Well, except for Saturday cartoons when I was a little kid, and the occasional late night that runs into sunrise. Yet, for the past week, I've been waking up easily (sort of) at 8 a.m. to watch each passing stage of the Tour de France.
My hatred for mornings, you see, is counterbalanced by my love for cycling. Any kind of cycling. I started as a BMXer, and while I remain a BMXer at heart, I've since expanded into mountain, track, and road. I share my studio apartment with 11 complete bicycles, and enough parts to assemble a half-dozen more. And despite my current freelance existence, I recently spent close to $2,000 on a brand-new Orbea road bike, a 17 or so pound creation of aluminum, carbon and steel that provides equal amounts of pleasure and pain. In between nights of carousing this holiday weekend, I managed rides of 30 and 40 miles, concentrating on pedaling steadily and seeing how fast I could go (34.1 mph). Mainly what I learned is that I'm quite out of shape--my beer consumption probably being rather higher than that of the average road professional.
Which brings us back to the Tour. I've always been aware of it, of course, seeing that it's the most celebrated bicycle race in the world. I probably first really knew what it was when Greg LeMond was winning in the '80s, and started watching--at least a little--when Lance Armstrong started his run. But until this year, I hadn't paid this close attention. And until I started riding (for me) big distances, I didn't really appreciate what went into this kind of race.
I've ridden bicycles my whole life--30-plus years now--and I can barely fathom what these guys accomplish over three weeks in July. For example, my high speed of 34 mph was established in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, coming down a long hill in the big gear. Hammering. Wind whipping through my helmet, fluttering my jersey and buffeting my ears. It felt super fast, and it bled away once the road levelled out. Yet these guys AVERAGE that, top it--while going uphill at times, through rain, screaming fans pressed to both sides of the road, and other cyclists constantly running inches off their wheels--for 100-plus miles and four hours at a stretch. And then, at the end, they stand in their pedals and sprint for the line, hitting 40-plus, banging shoulders and elbows and somehow staying on two. And then they get up the next morning and do the same thing, only faster. Anyone who watches cycling and thinks it's boring has obviously never ridden.
Like stock car racing and even track events, it's difficult to comprehend just how fast people are traveling just by watching the TV coverage. With everyone tight in packs of equally fast competitors, the sense of relative speed is tempered greatly. But with the Tour, you get a better idea than in other events. Look at the team cars following, the motorcycles with the time boards pulling ahead, even the spectators and dotted lines rushing past. That's speed.
As fantastic as it would be for Lance Armstrong to win a seventh-straight Tour (an unprecedented amount), I'm rooting for a former BMXer from Australia named Robbie McEwen. A tiny, sinewy sprinter, McEwen has already won two stages, and placed third in another. Of course, he was disqualified from that stage for putting his head in the chest of a competitor (who happened to be elbowing him at the same time--while they were both at full bore). McEwen is also known to end stages by wheelieing across the line. As a BMXer myself, how can I not be on his side?
But Armstrong is still inevitably a huge presence. It's fast approaching a year straight that I've been wearing a yellow LiveStrong band. It's always meant a lot--my grandfather died of cancer when I was six, and my aunt passed from myeloma a few weeks back--but it's this time of year when it means the most. Hopefully some of the previous explains why.