Two Takes on the Climb

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A sort of cheesy Versus screen grab from Tour de France Stage 9, the first Pyrenees day, on July 13. In the foreground: Maxime Monfort of Cofidis. He never showed any expression as he attacked on a tough climb. Behind him: David de la Fuente of Saunier-Duval, who briefly held the polka-dot jersey of the Tour’s leading climber. De la Fuente wore the same dramatic grimace all the way up the hill.

(De la Fuente eventually lost the jersey to teammate Riccardo Ricco, who in turn was ejected from the race after a reported positive test for a form of EPO; which ejection, in turn, caused Saunier, with de la Fuente, to quit the race.)

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Greg Lemond on the New Tour

Versus, the jock cable TV network that promotes its Tour de France coverage as part of its “Red, White, Black and Blue Summer” (the network also presents bull riding and some form of fighting in which heavily muscled males punch and kick the crap out of each other), has another mission. With the consensus view now apparently settling on the belief that professional cycling before now was unspeakably shabby and riddled with drug cheaters, Versus is bending over backward to emphasize cycling’s New Really Clean Era.

OK, great. The Tour blew itself apart the last two years by stripping the 2006 champion, Floyd Landis, of his title, and then seeing its 2007 champion in the making, Michael Rasmussen, fired by his team a few days before the end of the race. Unspeakably dirty or not, the Tour was reduced to a shambles and came to represent not only the greatest feats in athletics but the worst of the doping believed to afflict cycling and elite sports in general. However, it’s more than a little disingenuous for Versus, which made built a good audience and raked in good money promoting the legend of Lance Armstrong, to turn around and strike the pose that those days were the bad old days.

As part of its New Clean Era coverage, Versus produced Greg Lemond for an interview on Sunday. Lemond, a great champion in his own right who has made a second career out of trying to undermine Armstrong’s accomplishments, is a spokesman for the Righteous Really Clean New Cycling. Lemond was odd in the interview, a little disjointed and tongue-tied and inarticulate. One of the Versus personalities, Bob Roll, tried to set him up with a question on the new age in the sport: “You have a huge legacy in this race. How do you see the evolution of the sport as it is right now?”

Lemond’s answer:

“I’m more excited about the cycling than I have been in years, and I think there’s a big change, there’s good people in it. Bob Stapleton and Jonathan Vaughters [the men behind the newly sponsored Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia teams] are really making a big effort. I think there’s a desire I’ve never seen before. It’s good. I’m positive.”

Translation: Now that Armstrong and the disgraced Landis have departed the scene, Lemond can get into the sport again. And there are classy people involved, not the scumbags who helped Armstrong eclipse Lemond as America’s greatest racer.

Roll’s cohost, Craig Hummer, asked an interminable question about the meaning of two big name U.S.companies signing on as team sponsors in the last month or so. Lemond seemed to come unhooked from any thread the interview might have had.

“Yeah — you know — cycling is — I’m actually very bullish on just the sport in general. When you look about — look at congestion, you look at the diabetes problem in America, um, it’s probably the best sport to do in terms of low impact but high cardiovascular output. And so I’m really bullish on the sport in general as a leisure activity in America. It is a sport of people past 40, but we need to get those kids in high school, and I’m very optimistic, and the Tour de France, you can’t duplicate this, this is magic, and, uh, I saw it last year, and, I mean, when Rasmussen and Vinokourov, it was quite depressing to my sons, but they still watch cycling, they watched the Tour of Flanders this year. It’s a great sport.”

(Congestion? My co-watcher theorizes he meant asthma.)

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Phil’s Liggett’s Quote of the Day

From the Versus Stage 1 telecast of the Tour de France:

“The beautiful scenery of Britanny now, remember we’re in Britanny now for three days, that’s what they’ve paid for and that’s what we’re gonna get and enjoy here on the Tour de France because these narrow roads constantly twist and turn, the undulations are very, very special here for all of the riders and 43 of them in their first Tour de France.”

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The Tour 2008

With an exception of one day, our TV service has been off for about eight months. The one day we broke down and turned it back on was Super Bowl Sunday, and that just served as confirmation that 200 channels or whatever it is of satellite television wasn’t anything we were missing. For the most part, anyway. I will admit that it’s a little weird to hear people talking about Colbert or “The Daily Show” and think, wow, we just don’t look at that anymore.

And the other thing I’ve realized is that, the vulgar excess of the Super Bowl aside, TV is very much the way I keep up with the sports I still follow. So: no baseball this year and very little sense of how the season is unfolding beyond sporadic reports that the Cubs are doing well and that that poor, poor pitiful team in Tampa Bay is really having a year.

Tonight, though, we are linked up again to the broadcast world. The reason is the Tour de France, broadcast again on Versus. The first stage was today, and we got reconnected just in time to see the tail end of the first rebroadcast of the day. A Spaniard named Alejandro Valverde won in an oddly configured finishing section–a sharp descent followed by a short sharp climb that kept the usual contingent of crazy sprinters out of the picture. Valverde took the stage with a shocking burst of uphill acceleration in the last 250 meters that blew away a rider who looked like he had the stage in the bag. And besides the wonderful action, I knew the Tour was back when I heard Phil Liggett, back for the umpteenth year of melodrama, mispronouncing the winner’s first name. At various times it seemed to come out not only as Alejandro, but also as Alefandro, Alessandro, and, most weirdly and regularly, Alethandro. Phil, I missed you. MIthed you, I mean.

Tomorrow’s stage broadcast starts at 5:30 a.m. here, and we’re having our traditional “first Sunday of the Tour” gathering with some neighbors.

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The Tour 2008

With an exception of one day, our TV service has been off for about eight months. The one day we broke down and turned it back on was Super Bowl Sunday, and that just served as confirmation that 200 channels or whatever it is of satellite television wasn’t anything we were missing. For the most part, anyway. I will admit that it’s a little weird to hear people talking about Colbert or “The Daily Show” and think, wow, we just don’t look at that anymore.

And the other thing I’ve realized is that, the vulgar excess of the Super Bowl aside, TV is very much the way I keep up with the sports I still follow. So: no baseball this year and very little sense of how the season is unfolding beyond sporadic reports that the Cubs are doing well and that that poor, poor pitiful team in Tampa Bay is really having a year.

Tonight, though, we are linked up again to the broadcast world. The reason is the Tour de France, broadcast again on Versus. The first stage was today, and we got reconnected just in time to see the tail end of the first rebroadcast of the day. A Spaniard named Alejandro Valverde won in an oddly configured finishing section–a sharp descent followed by a short sharp climb that kept the usual contingent of crazy sprinters out of the picture. Valverde took the stage with a shocking burst of uphill acceleration in the last 250 meters that blew away a rider who looked like he had the stage in the bag. And besides the wonderful action, I knew the Tour was back when I heard Phil Liggett, back for the umpteenth year of melodrama, mispronouncing the winner’s first name. At various times it seemed to come out not only as Alejandro, but also as Alefandro, Alessandro, and, most weirdly and regularly, Alethandro. Phil, I missed you. MIthed you, I mean.

Tomorrow’s stage broadcast starts at 5:30 a.m. here, and we’re having our traditional “first Sunday of the Tour” gathering with some neighbors.

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Tour Arborists

[Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett on Sunday morning as they narrated an aerial view of a French chateau southwest of Paris:]

Paul (informatively): You might not know this but in a very secluded part of the garden there’s a very old tree, a sequoia which was planted around about 1860.

Phil (surprised): The sequoia is not , not a tree of, indigenous to France, it’s Africa, isn’t it, the sequoia tree?

Paul (reassuringly): I believe it is.

Me: Sequoia. Sequoiadendron. Metasequoia.

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Tour Guide

The Tour still has its lighter moments. Phil Liggett during this morning’s stage:

“This is the most beautiful area of France here.

It’s the home of the lavendar and the scent.

And of course it’s very agricultural as well. ”

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Nose of a Champion

Key moment from today’s Tour de France stage, as described by Versus announcer Phil Liggett, MBE:

“A bit of a runny nose for the yellow jersey.

Or was it sweat?

But he hasn’t put a wheel wrong yet today.

And I’m sure that he’s going to try to hurt these boys on the climb.”

The yellow jersey, Michael “Cow’s Blood” Rasmussen, did hurt all but one of the boys on the climb. Discovery Channel’s Alberto Contador easily won a short sprint-ette to cross the line ahead of the Dane. But Rasmussen and Contador had long before left the rest of the contenders struggling up the mountain behind them, so Rasmussen’s second-place finish was a huge victory.

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The Running of the Bikes

No big crashes in the Tour’s twelfth stage today, which, if you’re keeping score at home, ended with a sprint finish taken by the points leader, Tom Boonen of Belgium.

No wipeouts: apparently that’s exactly the opposite of what Versus, the network televising the Tour in the United States, wants to see. That’s because Versus, in an effort to position itself as the premier purveyor of knucklehead blood sports, is promoting bicycle racing as part of its package of violent, dangerous, jackass programming. The Versus ad campaign is “Red White Black and Blue Summer” (trailer here), and lumps in bicycling along with cage fighting (scary tattooed guys beating the tar out of each other) and bull riding (nothing crushes your spleen like a half-ton of angry beef on the hoof). Oddly, some versions of the Versus promotion also include yacht racing as one of its “pain is good” offerings. Just to make it clear that Versus is advertising cycling as a NASCAR-like crash fest, its daily Tour coverage now offers a daily recap of the top five crashes in this year’s race.

On a couple levels, “Red White Black and Blue” is dumb and disturbing. Dumb because no matter how you dress it up, and now matter how many big bike pileups you get on camera, you’re not going to suck in the same audience that’s turned on by the intimate orgy of violence exhibited in cage fighting or the stomping mayhem seen in the bull-riding arena. Just not going to do it. There’s no doubt that a crash in a bicycle race can be electrifying; but to really be excited and alarmed by it, you have to be one of the bike geeks who finds it fascinating to watch Men in Lycra for hours and hours on end. Most bike crashes happen fast and with little drama and the cameras are hardly ever in the right place to get a close-up view of the action unfolding. The crashes that are replayed and replayed again and again are the exceptions.

So that’s the dumb part. The disturbing part: What’s going on with us that so much entertainment, especially for younger guys, centers on such stupid and unrestrained violence; that so much of this entertainment tries to find an audience by selling the promise of seeing someone carted off to the intensive care unit?

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The Sprint Finish

Today’s Liggett/Sherwen call of the final 1,000 meters of today’s fourth stage in the Tour de France:

Liggett: Here comes the run by [team] Lampre now! As they try to bring Napolitano through! This is the first big sprint at the Tour and it is a free-for-all!

Sherwen: Julian Dean is there in the black and white and you can be certain that right on his wheel will be Thor Hushovd, one thousand meters to go, there is the flamme rouge, Quick Step [team] have got control now, they’re on the front but where is Tom Boonen? He’s not on the wheel of his teammates, there’s a line of [team] Milram, they’re looking after Zabel, there’s a lot of pink jerseys in there for T-Mobile, there’s a little bit of a switch, they’re going to start lining up for the finish line, they’re looking now at about 550 meters to go, Gerolsteiner [team] pulls off, still Quick Step in control. …

Liggett: Well, watch out for this little switch at 250 meters, it might disrupt the move here now, and still Robbie McEwen has not got through. I can see Robbie Hunter trying to get through, but they’re still not going to make a big sprint. And Julian Dean’s on the front now! Dean has found his man Thor Hushovd! Dean the champion of New Zealand! Hunter coming on Dean’s wheel! Hushovd opens the sprint in the center now! Förster trying to get through on the right here as now Thor Hushovd hits the line at last.

Sherwen: Thor Hushovd was perfectly set up for the win by Julian Dean, I just saw the black and white jersey, the Kiwi national champion was right in the right place, he sacrificed himself completely. You need a sprinter to lead out a sprinter. Big Thor has not been superb over the last couple of days but at the end of the day when you’re set up like that by Julian Dean you have to say thanks very much, mate, and you have to finish it off.

Comment: My reaction to these guys’ work usually ranges from mild annoyance to outright disgust — yeah, I ought to just chill; this is just a bike race on TV — but I’ll say something nice here. The end of a sprint stage is beyond hectic. The racers accelerate from 35 to 45 mph, there’s a mass of bodies flying around, and everyone’s madly jockeying for position. What impressed me here is that Sherwen picked Julian Dean out of the crowd a kilometer before the finish line; he knows the players well enough that he correctly predicted that Thor Hushovd would be on Dean’s wheel. That turned out to be the crucial moment in the sprint. To exit slack-cutting mode, though: Both Sherwen and Liggett missed the real drama of the last 100 meters, when Hunter, the South African sprinter, jumped from Dean’s wheel to Hushovd’s in a desperate attempt for the stage win. He timed his finishing charge about a half-second too late and lost by half a wheel. Hunter crossed the line shaking his head and fist in frustration.

Anyway: The point is that the Versus Boys do this part of the race pretty well. Things are moving at light speed compared to the normal baseball, football, or soccer game, and somehow they manage to keep up with it.

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