Monday, July 26, 2010

The beautiful sport

Some of the fun went out of reporting here on Ryder Hesjedal's Tour de France exploits when they making headlines in all the sports media. In earlier years, this blog was the only place beyond the cycling press that dug down into the small print of to find how the Tour's only Canadian was doing.

But I followed the Tour when there were zero Canadians. Because it's just the world's best spectator sport.

  •  It's simple.  The Tour is about athletes on bikes pushing the limits of human endurance. Watch the Tour cyclists cruise endlessly at 45 kph as if it was easy, and then push up a 25k hill with a constant 8% grade.  Watch them do it again the next day, and the next. There's the glory of sport.
  • It's complicated. Somehow a large group of cyclists is more aerodynamic than a small group or a single rider. From that little bit of physics comes all the endlessly subtle dynamics of team cycle racing. At first you just watch the peleton flow through the countryside like a school of fish. Then you begin to learn which teams are up at the front, doing the wind-breaking, setting the pace, and to learn why they are and on whose behalf they are doing it. All that individual effort turns out to be in the service of teamwork of the highest order. All that brute human endurance is disciplined to endless mental calculation and subtle communication -- it turns out to be a brain sport as well as a physical one.
  • It's real. The rules are not complicated. The equipment is basic. It's not set in a elaborately created stadium or arena. The playing surface is the world. The athletes are frequently at hand's length from masses of their most passionate fans.
  • It's beautiful. I started watching for the travelogue; all those spectacular paysages of France and western Europe, the backdrops of sunflower fields and ruined chateaux and spectacular mountain roads. I still love all that, but now I think the sport itself is even more beautiful.  
And in case you missed it, Ryder Hesjedal 7th overall.  That moment on the Tourmalet, Stage 19, the biggest toughest steepest longest mountain on the Tour, in rain and fog, when Schleck and Contador battled all the way to the finish line first and second, and then the cameras looked for the chase group close behind, consisting of all the rest of the race's handful of still dominant competitors, and it was smaller than ever and the commentator said, "Ryder Hesjedal must have been dropped," and then the camera cut back to the finish line at the summit, and there out of the fog loomed Hesjedal, not behind but ahead of the chase group, having relentlessly pushed ahead of them all, ahead of Denis Menchov, ahead of Vinokourov, ahead of Levi Leipheimer and Carlos Sastre and Lance Armstrong, "putting time into" all the great racers of the day and pushing his bike over the finish line on his own, consolidating himself in the top ten -- now that was a great moment in Canadian sport history.

Okay, Tour's over. And OLN-TV would rather rerun UFOHunters endlessly than cover the Vuelta d'Espana or the Tour of California or any other bike races in the world. Forty-nine weeks in which we will have to stick to Canadian history and parliamentary democracy.

(Photo: Le Tour website Stage 12: Kiryienka, Vinokourov, Hesjedal, and Kloden on the road to Mende.)

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