By Maria Judnick
We believed that we would win. Despite Germany’s World Cup dominance, U.S. soccer is also a winner, drawing in more fans than ever before. So how can Team ‘murica supporters survive without the endless broadcasts, the ubiquitous social media votes for the hottest team, and the theatrical “GOOOOOAAALLLL!” announcements? Luckily, soccer isn't the only major sporting event that U.S. athletes are competing in this summer.
The 101st edition of the famous three-week cycling race, Tour de France, is currently underway. Although cycling’s reputation has suffered in recent years, due to doping scandals, there’s no better time to see who will be crowned King of the Mountain (best climber in a red polka dot jersey), Top Sprinter (green), Best Young Rider (under 25 years old who wears white), Best Team, and overall winner (a yellow jersey called the “maillot jaune” in French).
But cycling is more than just another opportunity to admire fit athletes wearing snug-fitting shorts. In a race where the difference between first and second can be determined by seconds, every moment of every day counts. Riders deal with a 21 stage race, traveling through new routes each year all over France (with forays into nearby nations) for just under 2,200 miles with few days off, fighting for space up and down treacherous mountain roads in often unrelenting heat, rain, or wind, with only the road, a team, and staff in a car for guidance. Stories of riders’ mental, emotional, and physical strength in this endurance sport are the stuff of legends.
With cyclists strategically joining a cluster of main riders known as a peloton (French for “little ball”) to reduce drag, it’s a wonder that every stage isn’t filled with more epic crashes. Commentators often reference Johnny Hoogerland’s dangerous brush with a French TV car in 2011 or Lance Armstrong’s unbelievable 2003 ride into a ditch to avoid a crash. And few can forget 1967’s tragic Tour when British rider Tom “Tommy” Simpson collapsed with a heart attack just two miles from the summit of Mont Ventoux, a gruesome mountain climb. His last words to the team mechanic were reportedly “Go on, go on,” hoping to still bring an English victory home.
Then there’s German rider Jens Voigt’s mythical 2010 Stage 16 ride. Voigt crashed, blowing out his bike’s front tire. With fractured ribs, severe road rash, and blood spurting from his left elbow (which later required five stitches), Voigt borrowed a child’s bike from the junior race following the athletes. He rode furiously for the next twelve miles, hoping to beat the SAG (support and gear) wagon to finish the stage. Because of his crash, the perennial crowd-favorite finished five days later in 125th place. Now the oldest rider at forty-two, Voigt is competing this year in his seventeenth (a three-way tie for most appearances) – and likely last – Tour de France.
This year’s Tour has also seen an unusual number of injuries, leading commentators to believe it is still anyone’s race. Monday’s Stage 10 ride saw two-time Spanish champion Alberto Contador (the biggest threat to current leader Vincenzo Nibali of Italy) drop out of the Tour with a fractured tibia during a high-speed fall, in which his bike broke in half. Contador joins the heavily favored British sprinter Mark Cavendish, perennial contender Chris Froome of Britain, and the young standout Andy Schleck of Luxembourg on the injury sidelines. If you're worriedWith American Andrew Tolansky having a disappointing Stage 10 as well, all of the United States’ hopes are pinned on Tejay van Gardener of BMC Racing Team, currently in seventh.
But fans shouldn’t just watch for the death-defying crashes or displays of grit. The Tour always features a few heart-warming surprises – in every stage, any rider can defy expectations and sweep past the peloton to take home a day’s victory. The end of 2012’s Tour, for example, saw all of England celebrating Bradley Wiggins’ historic first win, after suffering a broken collarbone the year before.
Although 3.5 billion people annually watch the Tour in 188 countries, the more than 12 million attendees enjoy an intimate experience. No other professional sport allows the fans to be up-close-and-personal with their favorite athletes without barricades, tickets, or assigned seats. Even though some fans (and cyclists) have been hurt by close contact, France maintains faith in their supporters – locals and visitors who stand sometimes for more than six hours waiting for just a few minutes of riders zipping past tiny hometowns, too fast to pick out any one face in the blur of bodies and bikes. While home viewers get to see the bigger picture thanks to helicopter-mounted cameras, featuring large-scale tributes to the riders dotting the untouched French countryside, the same feeling of awe remains.
Get in on the fun by July 27th (the last stage of the Tour); you'll forget all about your World Cup separation anxiety as you watch the world’s most exciting sport sprint into the history books on the cobblestones of Paris’ Champs-Élysées.