Tour de France: Rest Day Notebook

Your Phil Liggett Quote of the Day: Uttered during Sunday evening’s recap show in an otherwise entertaining mini-segment on the Italian TdF champ Gino Bartali. Phil needed to explain why Bartali’s two Tour championships occurred 10 years apart. This is what came out: “It was done either side of World War Two. And of course World War Two spoilt many, many millions of people’s lives.”

Memo to Versus sound mixers: Here’s a trend. Versus is using that newfangled “rock and roll” music as soundtrack for some of its rider profiles. Sweet. But it’s mixing the music so loud in some of the segments that you can barely hear what the “actuality”–the person talking–is saying. I don’t think this is strictly a matter of having fogey ears.

Versus ratings: After three years of doping scandals, Lance-less pelotons, and sagging ratings, Versus is seeing a big bump in viewership this year. During the first 10 stages of this year’s Tour, the live morning telecasts have jumped from 270,400 viewers to 479,800 viewers. As MediaPost notes, the ratings are also substantially higher than they were during Armstrong’s last Tour, in 2005.

Enraha! After his show of strength on the Verbier climb that ended Stage 15, Garmin’s Bradley Wiggins got lots of attention. He talked almost manically about his “day by day” focus. The rhythm of “day by day,” the accent, the vehemence: it was all very familiar. It came to me: Wiggins was channeling Scott, the crazed driving instructor in “Happy Go Lucky.” Scott has nicknamed the rear-view mirror “Enraha” as an arcane mnemonic device. His reminders to use–“Enraha! Enraha! Enraha!–are grating in the extreme. (And for the record, here’s part of what Wiggins said: “I never think too far ahead. Eveyone keeps talking to me about what’s ahead, what’s ahead. That doesn’t help my concentration. No, I go day by day. i’ve trained myself mentally as well as physically, and i go day by day, that’s what we do. How can you think three days ahead when you’ve got two days before that? That’s how you crack. That’s how you cock things up. So, day by day.”

Tour de France Stage 14: Idiot non Savant

The delightful aspect of today’s stage: George Hincapie, in his fourteenth Tour, coming within a whisker of taking the yellow jersey. If you weren’t keeping score at home: At the end, the peloton brought back Hincapie’s breakaway just enough to deny him the maillot jaune (or MJ, as I’m seeing it tweeted). A slightly less delightful aspect of the stage: the post-finish recriminations about what various teams should have done, or shouldn’t have, to allow Hincapie, one of the class acts in pro cycling, to keep the prize. Some accuse Astana and the Armstrong/Bruyneel brain trust of setting a pace at mid-stage designed to keep HIncapie within reach. Some accuse Garmin-Slipstream of chasing aggressively late in the stage, providing the peloton with the impetus that allowed Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2R) to keep the yellow jersey.

To which we say: Please. It’s a race. A wise man–or a man at any rate–once said, “No gifts.” If there’s one guy in the entire peloton who understands what that means, it’s Hincapie himself.

And, if there’s one man who doesn’t understand that, it’s Phil Liggett. When Versus joined the stage live, with a little more than 100 kilometers to go, The Bebington Blatherer first noted the surprise of the day: that Hincapie was close to being the race leader on the road. Then he noted with shock and clucking disapproval that Hincapie’s old friend, Lance Armstrong, had ordered Astana to bring back the breakaway. He said this not once, but twice. He ignored the fact the time gap was hardly changing. He ignored the absence of any sign that Astana was putting out an effort. He ignored the time gap as it began to grow, a sure sign that no chase was under way. He ignored the fact that Johan Bruyneel, not Armstrong, would be the one to order any move. And he ignored the fact that just about any apparent move in the peloton 100 kilometers from the finish was not likely to have much significance.

To give Phil his due, though: with a nudge from Paul Sherwen, he did change his tune when the gap grew to seven minutes, then eight. Soon, he started waxing poetic about what life would be like when Hincapie had the yellow jersey. Teammate Mark Cavendish would be appreciative, Phil predicted: “George Hincapie is usually Mark’s roommate in the hotels, and George looks after Mark, it’s like a dad looking after his son. And he’ll be only too happy if he’s looking at a yellow jersey at the end of the bed of his mate, George Hincapie, tonight. It will be a very successful and a very nice feeling.”

Oh, Phil. Goofy. Prolix. Tireless. Not often with it. How can we not love you? How can we not be exasperated?

Tour de France: Chateau of a Doubt

We’re already more than halfway through the Tour, and we’ve refrained thus far from the familiar and pleasurable pastime of hurling brickbats at Phil Liggett. Yes, the Liggetisms are still filling the airwaves. But maybe from a temporary lapse in mean spiritedness, we’ve been cutting the Bebington Blatherer some slack (yes, he’s from a town called Bebington on the Wirral, near Liverpool).

And actually, the truce will remain in effect, because Phil and his somewhat less objectionable sidekick, Paul “The Widnes Whippet” Sherwen, aren’t really the targets of the whine we’re about to uncork. No, it’s their producers, the off-screen folks who shape the Tour telecasts, we want to address. So:

Dear To Whom It May Concern:

Enough with the chateaux already. Yes, we know France is an old and beautiful country with lots of eye-catching architecture. We remember that from last year’s Tour, and the one before that, and the one before that. Previous to the advent of Tour broadcasts in the States, we recall these history-text facts about France and the French: They helped us defeat the British. They had a revolution. They cut off heads, lots of heads. Wine. Statue of Liberty. Dreyfus. World War I. Maginot Line. De Gaulle. Indochina. Freedom fries.

Here’s the thing about having Phil and Paul reading their note cards about the Duc d’ Old Spice and the Comtesse Haagen-Dazs and the beautiful homes they built and maintained on the brute labor of their Renault-driving serfs: It ain’t informative, and it equally ain’t entertainment. So what’s it doing on your air? The droning of dates and names and who changed his socks and knickers where in 1576–that’s exactly the impoverished approach to history that repels 98 percent of those forced to endure it in classrooms.

Yes, Phil and Paul have to say something when the French whirlybird is circling Le Chateau de Fromage Grande and that’s the picture the folks at home are seeing. It would actually be refreshing to hear them just say what they’re actually thinking instead of the rote “facts” about the place: “Can you believe the size of that place?” “Says here it was built by the Vicomte le Ouizze in 1692. When do you think they got indoor plumbing?”

Very truly yours &c. &c.

That’s it. A modest plea to liberate us from the tyranny of the present’s dull grasp of the past. Besides that, after hearing Phil and Paul’s attempts to describe where they were in the Golden State during past Tours of California, I always wonder whether what they’re telling us bears any relation to what we’re seeing.

(A down-the-street informant tells us that the grand country houses and alleged cultural commentary are also a fixture on French TV. Our Informant (OI) says: “BTW, TV5Monde also does chateaux commentary, and they spend a lot more time on the chateaux, even do split screen with ongoing race action. So there’s a need to fill — a twitter feed with good sidelight details.” She also tells us we’re all wet on our distaste for the dry historical TV tidbittery: ” I like the extra pix and commentary of the chateaux, churches, and field art; it connects the event to a time and place. Sometimes it’s interesting, always good trivia. One of the things I missed during the Giro was any look at the countryside, and any informed commentary.”)

We’re Back

I’ve neglected this little blog–partly a symptom of neglecting something far more serious: riding. But I won’t go into all that just now. For the next three weeks, anyway, I’m back.

In just a few hours, the lads will start clicking in and another Tour will be under way. There may have been a time earlier this season when I felt I had some idea of the shape of professional cycling this year; I mean, as much an idea as I ever have. I don’t have that sense now, and I haven’t been reading the racing media. In the U.S.A.’s general media–the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, with its story today from a Hearst reporter somewhere–the Lance Armstrong fog has set in and set in good. Meaning that if you’re following the race from North America, it’ll be hard to see around the Lance legend during the Tour, or at least until it cracks, if it does.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine he’ll win this one. Even getting onto the podium will be tough. The competition on his own team is tough, let alone what the rest of the peloton will throw at him. Still: Contador had a low moment during Paris-Nice. Leipheimer has had some wonderful rides this year, both in California and Italy. But he didn’t produce the sort of indomitable performance in the Giro that might make you think he can break Lance.

No predictions, anyway. Except for maybe a couple non-racing ones:

–Cadel Evans will sulk, throw a memorable tantrum or two, and finish out of the money. Crikey. Even the guy’s Twitter feed sounds whiney and fussy.

–The race will be rocked by news that one of the riders was caught doping. I hope it’s Cadel.

–Paul Sherwen will not announce he’s retiring the “suitcase of courage.”

–No one will “turn themselves inside out” during the prologue Saturday. Sunday, riders might start doing just that during the first long breakaway.

–Untold numbers of riders will “dance on the pedals” shortly before experiencing “a spot of bother.” Phil Liggett says you can count on it.

–Sheryl Crow will knock Lance off his bike just as he’s about to win the Mont Ventoux stage. All she wanted was to have some fun. …

Stage 16: Your Phil Liggett Quote of the Day

Phil’s World: Commenting on some Australian fans waving an inflated marsupial: “There’s the Aussie kangaroo on the far right there, that must be the encampment. Mind you, it looks a bit like Ayers Rock out here just now … or Ulla-ma-roo, as they call it these days.” That would be Uluru, Phil.

Sherwen’s Turn: Paul on Alejandro Valverde descending: Valverde’s going down this like a pinball. He’s absolutely on the edge of his seat trying to get back in contact with the yellow jersey group.”

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Stage 12: Your Phil Liggett Quote of the Day

A few stages ago, when Manuel Beltran got tossed out of the Tour, Phil portentously talked about how the Tour was going on “with head held high” (as our noble cyclists pursue the goal of Clean Riding). Another rider was tossed out of the Tour after a positive drug test yesterday. And today, one of the most excitiing riders of this year’s race, Riccardo Ricco, was driven away in police custody after testing positive for a form of EPO. Do such developments stay Portentous Phil from his sermonizing? Not hardly. Here’s Phil at the end of today’s stage, won by another sensational young rider, Mark Cavendish:

“It’s been a sad day for cycling with the disqualification of another rider who still believes they can beat the system. Well, we’ve got news for you, Riccardo Ricco, the system is getting better tthan you guys, and we are catching you up.”

Beyond the slightly “1984”-ish tone of this pronouncement–I’m thinking of the movie versions of the Orwell story, with tele-screen announcers urging viewers to turn in wrongdoers–this is a breathtaking statement. Riders like Ricco–lionized on the same broadcast just days ago by Phil and company–cannot beat the system. And who is the system? Phil says it’s him and all his friends: the scolding Bob Roll, the clucking Paul Sherwen, and the attendant host of cycling purity nannies.

Sorry, mates: By watching this broadcast, I did not sign up to be part of a crusade against an evil I’m not sure is really evil And even if the evil is there, the fervent and hyper-moral missionary campaign Versus and Phil are promoting are more distasteful to me than the ills they say they’re trying to cure.

End of rant.

In other Phil quote news:

Describing a chase that gains time, then loses it: “The yo-yo of the elastic has not snapped yet.”

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Stage 10: Your Phil Liggett Quote of the Day

Due to an actual standard work-day schedule on Monday, we missed our Tour TV-watching appointment. In watching the replay, the one featuring Bob Roll and the Craig Hummer, we weren’t taken with very much of what we heard; and of course we were separated, for one race day, from our muse, Phil. That’s all by way of saying we have an honorary Phil quote today from Christian Vande Velde, who for a moment anyway captured the true spirit of Phil:

Hand in hand: “First of all, I’ve looked after myself from day one, from December on. And that’s been more a psychological change for me than anything else. I’ve changed my preparation, what I’m thinking I can do, what I possibly can do, and also physically. I think it goes kind of hand in hand with myself.”

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Stage 9: Your Phil Liggett Quote of the Day

Lovely lumps: “There’s the mountains now. There’s no way out, only over the top, and the riders know it. It’s an awful long detour if you want to go around these big lumps of … of granite down here in the south of France.”

The divine cyclomedy: “The tempo is spreading the sprinters at the moment down the hills. Very shortly the middle-distance climbers will find themselves in trouble because the pace at the front of the pure climbers, the men who are now in their playground. This is their garden, and they’re going to take revenge over the week of purgatory.”

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Stage 8: Your Phil Liggett Quote of the Day

We found the bad apple: “(Team) Liquigas in disgrace after the disqualification of Manuel Beltran found positive after taking EPO. He is out of the Tour de France, but the rest of the riders go on, with their heads held high.”

(I’m extra-special curious to hear what Phil has to say when the next positive test comes in. EPO, for the uninitiated, is erythropoieitin, a substance that can enhance the blood’s ability carry oxygen.)

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Stage 7: Your Phil Liggett Quote of the Day

Watching the stage winner, Luis-Leon Sanchez of Caisse d’Epargne, on the podium: “It doesn’t look like he’s been anywhere today. I reckon he’s come straight from breakfast right on to the podium. Look at those eyes–sharp as a nut.”

And also: David Millar describing how his bid to break away collapsed: “We just ripped it to pieces that first half of the race, but then unfortunately (Lampre’s Damiano) Cunego crashed and everyone started chasing me and it went a bit … a bit pear shaped.”

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