A few years ago, my son and I spent a summer watching the Tour de France.
As the race wound its way around the countryside, up the Alps and down the Pyrenees, my teenage boy asked me to explain what was happening.
I tried my best, but the intricacies of the race were tough to explain. Why was the “lanterne rouge’’ (like a caboose, the last rider in line) smiling? And why did that cyclist sneak away from the group, knowing he would be swallowed, Job-like, by the leviathan of riders that would eventually chase him down and spit him out?
The 100th running of the Tour de France begins Saturday in Corsica. The race was first held in 1903 (it was suspended during the two World Wars) as a marketing stunt designed to stimulate newspaper sales. Since then, it has become one of the biggest sporting events of the year, with millions of spectators cheering (and sometimes offering a little push) as their heroes race by.
One day, perhaps next year, I will be one of those cheering spectators. But for now, I plan on parking myself in front of the screen for most of July. Some days I wonder: If I had raced in college, 35 years ago, could I have been a contender? And then I come to my senses and realize, in a word, no.
My wife cannot understand why I spend hours staring at the close-up shots of wheels spinning and legs pumping. And why I stand and shout and pump my fist and root for Fabian and Tejay and Thomas and Bradley. But not Lance.
Explaining the draw of the Tour is like explaining the power of jazz. That other Armstrong, the one who never doped his way to the podium, said it best: “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.” But if you give it a try, especially on a day when they climb Mont Ventoux or L’Alpe d’Huez, you might get hooked.
My son once asked me whether I could ride all 21 stages, back to back. I smiled and shook my head.
“How about if you did it over a whole summer?” he inquired.
“Maybe. What I could do is a stage. Perhaps the next day I could do another one. And that would be it. I would be fried, and on the third day I would crack.”
What a way to go.
Friends ask me whether the riders dope. I’d like to say no, that in the post-Lance Armstrong era, all of the riders are pure. What I believe is that most of the riders are clean. What I know is that the cheaters — the ones who get caught and the ones who get away with it, all of them — cast a pall over the rest of the peloton.
Cheating in the Tour de France has a long and sordid history. Nearly 100 years ago it was wine and amphetamines, even strychnine and cocaine. And sometimes tacks strategically placed in the path of rivals, or Rosie Ruiz-like hopping on trains to circumvent mountains.
With GPS tracking, the train is no longer an option. Though I suspect that microdosing with EPO, HCG, and testosterone continues.
Everyone knows about the “maillot jaune,’’ the yellow jersey given to the rider holding the fastest overall time. There is also the green jersey for the fastest sprinter, the polka-dot jersey for the king of the mountains, and the white jersey for the fastest rider under the age of 25.
Sadly, the lanterne rouge is no longer recognized, as too many riders were sandbagging it so they could make it into the record books (and earn big fees in the offseason) by finishing in last place. Too bad the race organizers seem to have left their sense of humor at the starting line.
Who will win, who will crack, who will crash, and who will get thrown out for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs this year?
British cyclist Chris Froome is the favorite, though I’m hoping Tejay van Garderen, an American who rides for BMC, pulls off the upset.
Sometimes I dream, and these are the happiest dreams of my life, that I am riding with the pros. But when I wake up, I realize that I am just a happy amateur, another middle-aged guy trying not to be the lanterne rouge as I race up the big hill on my Sunday morning ride.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.