July 24, 2010

Tour de Force..Stage I

Permit a detour on the political road to November to indulge an old passion, but I always get sentimental around this time. It is one of the first signs of a dying year; that Fall and Winter are soon following.

Tomorrow, the tour de France's 20th stage winds up with the peleton navigating its final two loops along the Champs-Élysées. The final sprint -- and the glory that accrues to the winner of that stage is, by no means, reflective of the melodrama of the previous three weeks. I am here to tell my fellow Americans, you have no clue.

Just as the recent World Cup had its devotees in our ranks -- those inexplicably attached to seeing men cavort around on a large piece of lawn for 90-plus minutes in their underwear for seemingly no apparent reason -- I am one of those curiously addicted to the annual soap opera that eventuates each July in a country that we arguably have disdain for.

I beg your indulgence with some self-serving back-story narrative.

Some years earlier, I decided that running marathons makes one a terminally boring person. Late Seventies and early Eighties running parties consisted of discussions of carbo loading, interval training, and avoiding "hitting the wall". When my legs gave out in preparation for The San Francisco Marathon (not that The San Francisco Marathon, the other The San Francisco Marathon) I took up bicycling to work to augment my training and spare my rapidly disintegrating, 40-year-old knees, in the process discovering the bliss of spinning, and eschewing the madness of running 42 km at a stretch.

Cycling, while not a passion with me (yet), was a marvelous endeavor. The prospect of navigating between two major cities (er, very Southern Los Angeles to San Diego) under human power was a liberating experience. Whereas, before I was doing 35-40 mile training weeks running, now my regimen consisted of multi-hundred mile weekends tours. Life in the saddle was an absolutely blissful escape to  the interminably beautiful Southern California scenery and wonderful conversations with fellow riders. (Ever try meaningful palaver whilst running?)

Then there came that fateful day in 1988 on my way down PCH when I was invited into a passing double paceline of a local racing team. (For the record, Lightening Velo.) It was my first exposure to the aerodynamics of drafting and the economy of energy by sucking on the wheel of the rider ahead. We were motoring South into Laguna doing well over 25 mph and carrying on conversations while the two riders at the front did most of the work. Of course, everyone took their turn and -- at the end of the day -- 60 miles was covered and the only stress was on one's ability to invent interesting topics of conversation.

I was hooked. My faithful Bianchi was refitted with Campy parts and skinnier tires and I added a Bottechia to the quiver. No more if this touring crap for me. Soon the Campy gruppo were shed for Shimano Dura Ace -- the standard du jour and guaranteed never to cause a busted shift -- and I located a great new club forming in Long Beach and rejoicing in the name Velo Alegro. It was there that I suffered under the tutelage of some pretty fair competitive riders, learning the proper etiquette of group dynamics, road racing style.

Forgive a digression, but that club boasted innumerable state champions (the Bear Flag jersey), a few national champions (the U.S. jersey), and even two world champions (the five-band white jersey). So when someone told you to hold your line, you listened. One learned from the best in this club.

It was also here that I started racing and my career -- such as it was -- consisted of numerous "cone crits" (criterium races) around the Los Angeles area and, whenever I could get out of town, the all-too-infrequent road race. Never amounting to much, I was an interminable Cat IV on both the road and on the track (the velodrome) and on the verge of upgrading on experience to Cat III until health matters dictated otherwise. Let's just say that work stress and a hectic lifestyle occasioned one of those natural red alerts that afflicts people negotiating middle age.

So I gave up racing..but never my passion and appreciation for the month-long drama of The Tour.

Again, forgive the self indulgence; I'll continue this with an explanation of the dynamic of stage racing (as much as my pathetic knowledge permits) and continue my attempt to make fans of you all in explaining why Andy Schlect is content to let a Spaniard and 39 seconds remain between him and the top of the podium of the most prestigious bike race in the world.

-30-

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