Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reading the Tour

Part of the Tour de France yesterday
I wasn't sure how to follow the Tour this year.

When I started following it, it was just the show that hooked me -- the landscapes, the spectacle, the endurance, the unfolding beauty and sophistication of race strategy. When I first discovered ("columbused"?) a Canadian in the race, he was invisible, never on camera, never mentioned by the commentators, never covered in Canadian sports coverage.  Following Ryder Hesjedal required serious work down deep inside the classifications on the tour website.

Then Ryder became a star. He won a grand tour, contended for stages, climbed like a champion. grabbed the camera frequently, and earned a place in the verbal tics of the commentators, who could not say "Hesjedal" without saying "the big Canadian boy." So I fell back into my usual sports situation.  Like following hockey after Easter or baseball in September, I was becoming a Tour front-runner, gripped by how my team and my guy were doing.

Suddenly we have a Tour without Hesjedal.  He placed high in the Giro d'Italia this past May and announced he would skip this year's Tour de France in order to contend for the Vuelta d'Espana later this summer. It's plausible; few riders do all three. But his team, the US-based Garmin, has a slew of hot young riders coming up. Most of them are Americans, with more potential than Hesjedal the diffident Canadian as the new face of post-Armstrong cycling in the US. Garmin's 2014 Tour promotion is all around a young Yank called Andrew Talansky.  You have to wonder if this leadership sharing -- Talansky the Tour, Hesjedal the Giro and the Vuelta -- is a genuine partnership, or if Hesjedal may have to look for a new team soon.

Defanned, I found myself unsure how to watch the Tour this year. Not quite a week in, I'm learning again.

You can watch soccer in 90 minutes (actually, 120 minutes plus the penalties, too often)  The Tour is more like an enormous novel or a long-running series. You just have to sink into it and let the meaning emerge gradually. I'm still not rooting for anyone in particular (though there are two Canadians deep in the weeds of the tour).  But there are more than enough storylines.

  • Who knew Yorkshire was so beautiful? 
  • Who knew England would turn out such crowds, or that they would shut down London on a Monday for the Tour de France? 
  • Jeez, look at the role of injuries:  Mark Cavendish, the leading sprinter, out on the first day, and Chris Froome, the defending champion, out yesterday.
  • Moving to see them racing through a landscape of First World War cemeteries, with the Tour helicopter cameras circling round Canada's "Brooding Soldier" statue at Tyne Cot (above).
  • Ah, so that's how cobblestone sections can reshape the whole race. Yesterday's race was cold, wet, mud-soaked, and absolutely terrific. 
  • Hmm, Vincenzo Nibali, a rather uncharismatic Italian but almost Hesjedalian in his dogged competitiveness, "put time" into everybody, and is emerging as the most serious early contender. You have to have been watching all week to understand how a 2 minute advantage is huge in a race that spans three weeks and 3600 km.  
  • Das Boom
  • A Dutch racer called Lars Boom, and you have to be seriously into the Tour to be aware of him, is a proud dad with a very cute little kid.
  • Canadians Christian Meier and Svein Tuft are 140th and 144th.  And this is good. Tuft, particularly, is a key member of their Australian Orica-Greenedge team. (Maybe Hesjedal will join the Aussies next year!)
  • Aren't TV sports networks the biggest moneymakers in broadcasting? Tour coverage in Canada shifted from TSN 2 to one of the SportsNet channels this year, and while I thought TSN was unreliable, SportNet is seriously cheap and chintzy about their coverage. No pre- or post-race commentators, different commentators without explanation during the race --it's kinda disorienting. Not hard to imagine the jocks in head office just going through the motions until hockey returns.
  • Yeah, Andrew Talansky is doing well, the Garmin team seems strong around him, and he gets coverage as an American anyway.
Anyway, this novel ain't half written yet, but this may be it for TdF coverage here this year. Indeed, fair warning, this blog is soon about to go into summer hiatus for a while.

Update:  Tour of Alberta, September 2-7. Just saying.

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