Sunday, July 27, 2008

La fin du Tour

Carlos Sastre, winner of the 2008 Tour de France

Paris_TdF_Sastre, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

The Tour de France runs throughout most of the month of July: a grinding schedule of 21 race days with only 3 or 4 days of rest. To give you an idea of how hard this competition is, the riders must ingest 9000 calories of food each day just to keep going. Even on the rest days they all train hard for three hours because, as one rider said, "your body gets used to the pain and if you stop for a day it's too hard to start again."

I followed a lot of it on TV this year, either live or the evening recaps. It was actually a good way to gauge how my French was coming along by listening to the commentary. For the first week or so, it was little more than "blah blah blah blah attaque!" or "blah blah blah chute!" (crash). But within a couple weeks I was actually capable of telling which rider they were discussing, so that really improved the experience. Anyways, the overall plan of the race stages varies year-to-year, but the final stage always finishes in Paris on the last Sunday in July. The overall leader ( le maillot jaune, or the "yellow jersey") going into the last day is almost always the final winner, because it is too difficult for one rider to overtake another on an easy stage such as this one (and it's sort of considered bad form to try). So in terms of suspense, the final day is not the best; it's more of a celebration and giant public event. The riders all arrive as a group in Paris from around 50 miles away, then they do eight laps of the Champs Elysées, which is another 30 miles or so. They keep a leisurely pace until they begin the final laps, when the competition heats up for the honor of winning the individual stage on the final day.


This year's yellow jersey, Carlos Sastre of Spain, won on the strength of a climb up the infamous "Alpes d'Huez," a 12-mile long torture chamber of 21 switchbacks and thousands of rowdy fans, whose idea of a good time is to get as close to the riders as possible without actually knocking them off their bikes. Sastre then held onto his lead with an amazing effort in the time trial on the next-to-last day of the race, despite all the experts' predictions that Australia's Cadel Evans would overtake him.


Evans ended up coming in second, and Sastre completed an impressive trifecta for Spain in the month of July: Wimbledon (Raffi Nadal), the European soccer championship, and the Tour de France. After the awards are handed out at the Place de la Concorde, the riders all do a slow lap around the Champs as teams, to huge applause from the crowds lining the course.

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