Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The 2012 Tour de France—Brits, Tacks, and a Newf

Numero Uno: Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky. Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty 
The 2012 Tour de France ended last Sunday. It was a pretty uneventful TdF as they go, with a rather tame and puffed-up contest between last year's winner Cadel Evans of Australia (Team BMC) and Brit Bradley Wiggins (Sky) being trumped as the new big rivalry. It's just a coincidence, but they are two of the least mediagenic riders in recent memory. Wiggins' peckishness and his camp's caustic comments about his teammates make the dyspeptic Evans seem like a publicist's dream. I don't believe they should change their personalities, but there is something to be said for at least being polite in front of millions of viewers who (could) support you. And actually, his public face did evolve by the race's end, as he let his legs and his teamsmanship (leading out for sprinter Mark Cavendish, for one) speak.

Wiggins has encountered some brisk competition from young teammate and countryman Chris Froome and American Teejay van Garderen (BMC, always referred to by Paul Sherwen with the dumb qualifier, "the American with the Dutch sounding name." That said, the tv team, covering the race has been excellent, as usual, led by Phil Liggett.) This Montana upstart, leading the white jersey (young rider) competition, has shown he has the potential to win, and he has helped underscore Wiggins as a sourpuss while endearing himself to American audiences with his frequent, affable media appearances. 

The Tourminator, Peter Sagan. Photo: Graham Watson.
Other bright stars this year included Peter Sagan (Liquigas), the powerful young Serbian (Cyborgian?) sprinter with jaw-dropping finish line speed and with climbing potential, who has finally has given Mark Cavendish some humble pie. As the commentators kept reminding us, Sagan is just finding out his capabilities, and that's freaking out everyone for the future. Other sprinters who've performed well include big-legged Andrei Greipel (Lotto/Belisol) and Fabian Cancellara (Shack/Nissan), an electric presence  who took off mid-race on paternity leave. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas)  also proved strong contenders.

I don't want to talk about doping, but such is the state of the sport that it can't be avoided. Thoughts of Lance Armstrong and his peers Jan Ullrich, and Alberto Contador (on suspension) are still fresh in our minds not just because of their heroic rivalries, but also because of the USADA case against Armstrong that has been dominating headlines. There have also been a couple of 2012 retirements attributed to possible doping, most prominently by Frank Schleck of the beleaguered Radio Shack/Nissan team—which lost his brother, and bright star, Andy Schleck to injury before the start, as well as team director Johan Bruyneel who thought his role in the Armstrong case would be a distraction. The team reportedly has had problems paying its riders. Frank Schleck issued a statement that sums up the paranoid and ultra-defensive approach by the riders, with a clause written in the litigious-ese pluperfect. "If this analysis confirms the first result," (a forbidden diuretic) "a complaint will be filed against an unspecified person for poisoning." Brother Andy, and the Shack team rebuilt around these Luxembourgian brothers, can't be too pleased.

And poor Cadel. Even years after Lance's retirement, he can't escape his Armstrong's shadow. (Will the sport ever?) Several of Lance's old domestiques have been summoned to testify, most significantly George Hincapie, one of the most inspiring riders to have competed in our generation. In his final TdF, he was BMC's wingman to Evans, helping him finish a tough stage in the Pyrenees that saw the ugly scattering of tacks on the route that led to 30+ flats; three for Evans alone. (An unleashed Newfoundland that appeared like some great black wooly mammoth wreaked havoc on a subsequent day, causing a crash that would've been comical had it not been ludicrous; it may have imperiled Philippe Gilbert's shot at the Olympics.) George was honored by leading the field onto the Champs Elysee. Wiggins guaranteed his win on Saturday by dominating the time trial, with Froome second overall and Nibali third, and Van Garderen finishing a very promising fifth.

It should be mentioned that several cycling stars either opted out of the Tour with an eye on the Olympics, or tailored their regimen to favor the Olympics, another reason competition flagged somewhat. Questions remain: is this event so brutal and demanding that in order to be competitive, you have to dope? Why would you not use everything in your power to gain an advantage, especially if it is pervasive? And if Armstrong is brought down, would it be the first in a chain effect of allegations that would taint an entire era, like steroids in the home run era of baseball, if it hasn't already? And who in the world would scatter tacks on the route, or let a huge dog run unleashed with the peloton imminent? All fodder in this bizarre, enchanting love letter to France.

No comments: