Monday, July 10, 2006

The Tour de France, In Search of a Story Line

Lance Armstrong retired after winning seven in a row. The riders who finished second through fifth last year are out because of a doping scandal. So what's the story with the Tour de France?
The Tour, which covers more than 2,000 miles over three weeks, is an event that requires a narrative arc. Watching men ride their bikes day after day for three weeks isn't humanly possible without a coherent story line.

For seven year Lance Armstrong provided the narrative drive: Cancer survivor beats the odds. Lance and perennial runner-up Jan Ullrich. I'm clean and you can't prove otherwise. Lance and rock star girlfriend Cheryl Crow. Lance against the world.

Like a movie epic that takes its time getting to the point, the Tour has yet to develop a compelling narrative. Part of this is by design: The Tour spends its first week on the flat stages, giving the sprinters, who rarely compete for the yellow jersey, a chance to strut their stuff. As for the contenders, the first week only serves to eliminate some, lost to crashes or poor conditioning. Saturday's time trial did weed out the field to a certain degree.
Only in the second week, when the riders encounter the mountains, do we get down to the question of separating the contenders from the survivors and the fallen.
American Floyd Landis of Phonak (pictured) may provide the drama cycling fans are seeking. He is in second place by one minute after eight stages. (Serquei Gonchar of T-Mobile, the current leader is not considered a strong climber.)
Until recently, Landis has been cast more as a character actor. He was raised a Mennonite in rural Pennsylvania, and doesn't mind being thought of as an outsider. After several years escorting Armstrong up mountains with considerable verve, he stepped into a leading role last year with Phonak. Perhaps concious of the need to provide a compelling story, Landis yesterday let the world know that he plans to undergo hip replacement surgery later this year, as reported in the
New York Times:
Describing the pain, he said in an interview at his team hotel in Ch√Ęteaubourg before the Tour's eighth stage, "It's bad, it's grinding, it's bone rubbing on bone.
"Sometimes it's a sharp pain," he continued. "When I pedal and walk, it comes and goes, but mostly it's an ache, like an arthritis pain. It aches down my leg into my knee. The morning is the best time, it doesn't hurt too much. But when I walk it hurts, when I ride it hurts. Most of the time it doesn't keep me awake, but there are nights that it does."
A contrasting character is that of George Hincapie, who rode along Armstrong for each of his seven Tour victories. Last year Hincapie, was able to put aside his chores escorting Armstrong to break away and sin a stage for himself. Hincapie v. Landis would make a good story: the loyal sidekick against the guy who left to make his own fortune.
But Hincapie doesn't yet have the leading role on his team, Discovery Channel.
His teammate, Paolo Savoldelli stands 2:10 back, 20 seconds ahead, while Yaroslav Popovich, Jose Luis Rubiera and Jose Azevedo are all within 4:09 of the leader. Unable to declare a clear team leader at this point, Discovery may simply keep them together in the mountains and wait to see who last longest, which would resemble the team's strategy when riding for Armstrong. Then they would have three or four riders escort him up the slopes, dropping a rider now and then until no one else could stand the pace. The difference would be that the team doesn't know which rider to expect to be leading at the summit.
A similar succession drama is playing out at T-Mobile, Jan Ullrich's team. Andreas Kloeden was expected to ride in support of Ullrich's attempt to win a second Tour. But at only 1:50 back, Kloeden looks likes a genuine contender.
His team mate, Michael Rogers, who is actually ahead of him, has said that the team will likely ride for Kloeden.
Within a few days, we should see the contenders sort themselves out, and a coherent narrative break away from the peleton.
Photo: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

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