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Posts tagged ‘cycling’

RIP Laurent Fignon

If you’re the average sports fan, or even a casual cycling fan, the name Laurent Fignon may not ring a bell. But if your love of the Tour de France pre-dates the arrival of Lance Armstrong, then you will join me in grieving the passing of this noted French rider.

Laurent Fignon leads Greg LeMond up a climb

Professional cycling in the 1980’s was a sport in transition. Still little-known outside Europe, Americans were making their first impact on the sport with the 7-11 cycling team and home-grown riders like Alexi Grewal and Andy Hampston (and some whippersnapper named Lance …). At the same time, a young American rider named Greg LeMond was beginning to make a name for himself riding for a series of European teams. He won his first Tour in 1986, and after a two-year absence due to injury, returned in 1989 to try and reclaim his title.

Meanwhile, Laurent Fignon has enjoyed a successful professional cycling career that had begun in 1982 and included back-to-back Tour victories in 1983 and 1984, afterwhich he was hailed as the country’s newest sporting superstar. Injuries slowed Fignon in the mid-80’s, and he, too, looked to 1989 for redemption.

The 1989 race quickly became a two-man contest, and Fignon and LeMond traded the lead through the weeks. The peloton entered the final stage of the race, a 24.4 km individual time trial, with Fignon enjoying a 50-second lead over the American cyclist. The contrast between the two couldn’t be more apparent as they entered the start house: Fignon, the classic French cyclist with professorial glasses and a ponytail, rode a bike with standard handlebars and spoked wheels; Lemond, representing the future direction of cycling, wore a teardrop-shaped helmet and rode a bike with triathalon-inspired “aerobars” and a disc wheel to decrease air resistance.

In cycling, fifty seconds is a huge lead, particularly to try and overcome in an individual time trial. Fignon, ponytail blowing in the breeze, rode secure in the knowledge that the maiilot jaune awaited him at the finish line – the French media were convinced of his inevitable victory that they had already printed memorial editions of the newspapers. But LeMond, riding ahead of the Frenchman, pedalled furiously and used his aerodynamic tools to full advantage. Word reached Fignon that LeMond was eroding his lead and he put the hammer down, but it was too late. In the end, LeMond beat Fignon’s overall time for the three-week race by eight seconds – the closest finish in Tour history. Upon crossing the finish line and realizing he had lost, a distraught Fignon simply released the handlebars and allowed himself to crash to the ground – one of the most memorable images in cycling history. It was a race for the ages, and helped cement the legend of LeMond – and American cycling.

Laurent Fignon was 50 when he lost his fight with intestinal cancer last week.

Au Revoir, Lance!

Another Tour de France is in the books, and while it should be noted that Alberto Contador successfully defended his title from last year (giving him three in the last four years), this race will be remembered as the last ride of a legend.

I don’t think you can overestimate the impact of Lance Armstrong on the sport of cycling. Professional cycling has always been big in Europe, where the Grand Tours all exist, but outside the region there was scant attention paid. Even when Greg LeMond made his splash in the late ’80s, winning three Tours de France, the spotlight on the sport was brief.

Armstrong was always different. A triathlete by training who seemingly was too bulky to be a successful cyclist, Armstrong nevertheless was a rising star in the early ’90s, winning stages of the Tour in ’93 and ’95 as well as the national and world Cycling Championships in 1993. Riding for the powerful Motorola team in 1996, he surprisingly dropped of the Tour de France during Stage 7, and later was able to place no higher than sixth in the two races he entered in the Atlanta Olympics that fall. It was only a few weeks later that he was diagnosed with his now-famous cancer.

Lance’s survival, recovery and subsequent dominance of his sport are well-documented. Considered by most to be fortunate if he survived Stage 3 testicular cancer, Armstrong rebuilt his ravaged body into that of a cyclist and won a record seven consecutive Tour de France events. After several years away from the sport, he returned last year with the Astana team – joining Contador and many of his US Postal Service / Discovery Channel teammates and managers – and placed a very respectable third. Opting to form his own team away from Contador, Armstrong brought his new Team Radio Shack to France hoping to improve on last year’s result and possibly add to his win total.

Alas, that was not to be. Age has a way of catching up with us all, even elite athletes – and for them, often in the most public of moments. For Lance, age caught up with the now-38-yr-old cyclist on the first mountain stage of this year’s Tour, where a combination of mechanical failure, bad luck and old legs left him far behind the much younger leaders. To his credit, he rode out the Tour, even challenging for the win of a mountain stage later in the race, but the comeback is over and an amazing career is at an end.

Back to Contador for a moment. If you’re into conspiracy theory, here’s an interesting one for you. Contador won his first of three Tours in 2007 riding for the now-Armstrong-less Discovery Team and manager Johan Bruyneel. His second win came alongside Armstrong and with Bruyneel leading the Astana team. This year, while Bruyneel, Armstrong and Team Radio Shack took the team victory in the Tour, Contador was the overall classification winner for Astana – his “Kobe without Shaq” moment, if you will. Now that Lance has hung up his spandex shorts for the last time, TRS and Bruyneel need a leader – and Contador, riding for the perpetually underfunded Astana team, might be just the guy.

I’m just sayin’ …

Tough Break, Tony …

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is nursing a broken elbow suffered in a bicycling mishap Saturday night. His Honor was pedaling along Venice Boulevard when he was reportedly cut off by a taxi, causing him to fall. His crack protection detail was along for the ride, but apparently unable to finger the particular cabbie.

As someone who was a full-time bicycle commuter for several years, has pedalled over 5,000 miles on the pavement of Los Angeles, and has survived two car-versus-bicycle encounters, I can sympathize with the mayor on this one, and am glad it wasn’t worse than it was. Seldom is there a happy outcome in these events, and the truth is that drivers in Los Angeles just don’t look out for cyclists. When I ride, if forced to blend with traffic, I assume I’m surrounded by idiots who will do the worst thing at the worst time. I’ve learned all the tricks of survival on the streets (like looking at the wheel of a stationary car you fear might pull out into your path – you’ll see the rotational movement of the wheel much quicker than the forward motion of the car).

If anything good comes out of this, perhaps it will be a better understanding that if cyclists and motorists are genuinely expected to co-exist, it’s going to take a combination of cooperatino and new infrastructure.  One of the candidates running against Councilman Tom LaBonge is cycling activist Steven Box, who was quick to point out the challenges Villaraigosa faced unsuccessfully while riding in a decidated bike lane:

“Venice Boulevard is notorious for having all of the trash cans block the bike lanes. Venice Boulevard is notorious for having motor homes block the bike lanes. And Venice Boulevard is notorious for having fast traffic that uses the bike lane to squeeze through even when bicyclists are in the bike lane,” he said.

Personally, I don’t think striping will ever be the answer – if anything, it gives cyclists a false sense of security and can lull them into believing they are safer than they really are.  The only real solution is physical separation, but as we learned with the Metro Rail system, it’s hard to wedge new infrastructure in among the pavement jungle that is Los Angeles.

Villaraigosa is resting comfortably back at his Getty House residence.  His office says he will try to resume a normal schedule of business sometime this week, although I’m sure he’ll make the kickoff of girlfriend / reporter Lu Parker’s new charity tonight – after all, he doesn’t have to buy tickets … 😉

You Pathetic Little Man

There are things in this world that I find particularly irritating and useless – gum that sticks to the bottom of your shoe; spiders that spin their webs at eye-level in my back yard; the “Jersey Shore” kids getting rich for being nothing more than bigoted, ignorant trolls. You can add to that list disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis. Landis, one-time domestique to Lance Armstrong and the USPS Big Blue Train, was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after he failed a drug test during the event.  Now, after years of denial, he’s decided he just can’t live a lie, and wants to spill his putrid guts – throwing his former comrades under the bus along the way.

Landis fought vigorously to regain his maillot juane, but lost at every juncture, denying all the way that he had ever done anything illegal.  Now that’s it’s clear he’s never going to win, never going to return toracing form and never going to be accepted by the racing community, he’s firing off emails and interviews to anyone who might listen, including ESPN and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Landis confirmed he sent e-mails to cycling and anti-doping officials over the past few weeks, implicating dozens of other athletes, including seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong; team management and owners; and officials of the sport’s national and international governing bodies.

Armstrong, who is currently competing in the Tour of California, told reporters Thursday: “I have nothing to hide,” and “history speaks for itself here.”

“It’s his word versus ours … we like our word, we like our credibility,” Armstrong said.

Landis also accused American riders Levi Leipheimer and Dave Zabriskie and Armstrong’s longtime coach, Johan Bruyneel, of involvement in doping.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said in a statement Thursday that they would open an investigation into Landis’ allegations.

It’s worth noting that the WADA was the same group that supported the previous Armstrong witch hunts, all of which turned up nothing.

Particularly troubling to me is Landis’ willingness to implicate George Hincapie, one of the most straight-up guys in the peleton.

In the e-mail to Johnson, Landis said he had blood extracted in 2003 inside the apartment Armstrong owned in the historic center of Girona, Spain, and that it was stored in a refrigerator there along with blood extracted from Armstrong and teammate George Hincapie. Landis said Armstrong asked him to stay in the apartment on one occasion while Armstrong was away in order to make sure the refrigerator did not malfunction.

He also said in the e-mail that a team doctor gave him and Hincapie, who he said was his roommate during the 2003 Tour de France, syringes filled with olive oil in which andriol, a form of testosterone that can be taken orally, had been dissolved.

Hincapie said he was disappointed to hear Landis’ accusations.

“I have been a professional on the circuit for 17 years — which is one of the longest careers in the peloton. During that time, I have earned the respect of my peers and a reputation for working hard, honestly and honorably,” he said in a statement.

Landis, meanwhile, claims to still not understand how he failed that test in 2006 – apparently, he took performance enhancing drugs, but not the one they caught him for using. Riiiiiight – like somehow there’s honor among thieves.

I am a die-hard Lance Armstong fan, and consider his comeback from cancer and subsequent string of seven consecutive Tour de France victories to be one of the greatest sports stories of all time. I’ve also gone on record as saying that were I to learn he had cheated along the way, it would change everything – and that’s exactly why I don’t believe he did. With all that was on the line, and all that he had to lose – and all the scrutiny he was under – we would already know if he had doped. If someone ever provides proof, then I will listen. But this sounds a lot like one more disgraced athlete trying to salve his broken ego by tarring those around him.

I’m reminded of a moment from the 2004 TdF  where Landis was riding in support of Armstrong.  They were nearing the top of a climb, only a couple of clicks from the end of the stage, and Lance knew whatever danger he faced from his rivals was through for the day.  So he asks Landis, “How bad to you want to win a stage?”  “Real bad,” replied Landis, sensing Armstrong was about to give him that chance.  “Run like you stole something, Floyd,” was Armstrong’s response, and off went Landis.  But as bad as he claimed he wanted it, he couldn’t get the deal done, and was run down by Jan Ullrich, ultimately forcing Armstrong to attack and win the stage.  Floyd Landis was all talk on that day, and is all talk now.  Ultimately, champions win and cheaters lose, and there’s no question in my mind who is which in this story.

Guess It’s A Matter Of Relevance …

This is less of a post than a simple acknowledgement of my place in the world.

Like a lot of folks, I have a Twitter account – several of them, in fact. The primary one, @marlinnut, was established to allow fans of the site to follow us, and for me to send along news tidbits. Some of you may recall our first effort at Twittering from the marlin grounds last season – a wonderful success that almost ended my marlin career:-)

Because there’s only so much marlin news, and because it’s so convenient as a way to update multiple data sources, I tend to use it as well to fire off little snippets of my life as well. After all, unlike those other fishing sites you frequent, there’s really no easy way to differentiate between marlinnut the site and MarlinNut the person – we’re pretty much one and the same.

I get mixed reactions from the Twitter feed – some love it, some don’t. the biggest complaints tend to fall into two related categories. One group wants more news tweets – hard, when there’s not more news available. The other group would be those who aren’t really interested in my musing about bubbles running down the windshield as I sit at the car wash, and wish that I’d excise all the personal tweets altogether. That last group is probably out of luck, inasmuch as it’s my tweetstream, and the whole “me and the site-joined-at-the-hip” challenge mentioned above.

As Ron White would say, “I told you that story so I can tell you this one.” Among the minority of folks who are positive about the personal elements of the @marlinnut stream are my fellow cyclists. Whenever I mention where I’m riding, or the difficulty of the climb, or how much I think headwinds suck, I tend to get more comments and retweets.

That’s not surprising, considering cycling’s biggest star is a Twitter addict. @lancearmstrong has announced everything from his return to professional cycling to the birth of his most recent child via Twitter, and often news stories will quote his tweets verbatim. Earlier this week, after winning the Leadville 100 mountain bike race in Colorado, Armstrong was flying to Europe when he fired off a quick tweet:

lancearmstrongHey Glasgow, Scotland!! I’m coming your way tomorrow. Who wants to go for a bike ride??12:41 PM Aug 17th from UberTwitter

The result?  200 riders show up and stop traffic in downtown Glasgow.  Armstrong was apparently blown away …

lancearmstrongThanks to everyone who turned up to ride in Paisley! I figured we’d have a nice ride for a dozen or so. But 100’s came. Haha! Awesome!6:35 AM Aug 18th from UberTwitter

I tell folks I’m going for a ride and they bitch; Lance tells ’em and they flock.  It’s good to know where you stand … or roll … :-)

Let The Sniping Begin …

With the 2009 Tour de France complete, you knew that some of the tensions between Team Astana’s two leaders would probably go public, but who knew it would get this chippy this fast?

"I'm commuting to work

"I'm commuting to work"

The fun started on Monday, when Alberto Contador returned home with his Tour de France trophy.  Asked his feeling regarding the smoldering feud between himself and the freshly-unretired Lance Armstrong, Contador didn’t hold back.

“My relationship with Lance Armstrong is zero,” Contador said late Monday in his hometown of Pinto outside Madrid. “He’s a great rider and he did a great Tour. Another thing is on a personal level, where I have never admired him and never will.”

Armstrong returned fire using his weapon of choice, Twitter.

Seeing these comments from AC. If I were him I’d drop this drivel and start thanking his team. w/o them, he doesn’t win.

And …

hey pistolero, there is no “i” in “team”. what did i say in March? Lots to learn. Restated.

Just for good measure, he retweeted a message from fellow rider, Axel Merckx

A champion is also measured on how much he respect his teammates and opponents. You can win a race on your own not a grand tour.

It remains to be seen if Contador has a comeback or will just sit at home polishing the trophies he’s won from the last four grand tours he’s entered – all with the support of the Astana team he’s now without, BTW.  Meanwhile, Lance is hanging out in the Bahamas, unwinding and “training” for the Leadville 100.

Stay tuned …

Cycling Conspiracy Theory?

Next year's TdF colors?

Next year's TdF colors?

I like that Lance Armstrong is a cycling god, but I love the fact that he’s a tech guy. As we mentioned earlier, he was one of the guys who helped introduce the new electronic age to the Tour de France, and he’s a tech junky. Don’t look for a press release or interview from Armstrong – all the good stuff comes via his Twitter page. Heck, he even tweeted the birth of his new son.

Knowing that he likes to release the best details to his Twitter followers first, everyone’s collective ears perked up when this came across the stream this morning after the day’s TdF stage was complete:

lancearmstrong: Making a very cool announcement on Thursday re: a new American partner for our team in 2010 (and beyond). Stay tuned!

Notice that Lance is making the announcement, not the Astana leadership, and it’s an American partner. Could be very interesting, particularly considering the relatively fragile condition of the Astana team right now.

Astana is a Kazakhstan-based cycling team with a checkered past. Once known as “Liberty-Seguros,” the team took on the Astana name in 2006 after Kazzakh native Alexander Vinokourov was able to secure funding from his country’s government (“Astana” is the capital of Kazakhstan). The team’s financial ties through Vino became problematic when he was banned from cycling for two years in a doping scandal following the 2007 edition of Le Tour. At about the same time, the former Team Discovery folded, leaving their management and riders in search of a new home. Out of the rubble of the two came the new Astana, featuring defending TdF champion Albert Contador as their leader.

Unfortunately, the baggage of the doping scandal under the previous regime kept Astana from riding in the 2008 Tour, providing more than enough motive for Contador and Astana to win both the Giro d’ Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. Things were rolling right along, until first Armstrong announced his intention to return to professional cycling with Astana and Vinokourov’s declaration that, as the former Astana leader, he expected to reclaim his rightful position when his ban ended in 2009. Even though Astana is poised to win Le Tour and place three riders in the top five, turmoil abounds.

So what does this all mean? To me, the sponsor is obvious – the same multi-national conglomerate that has funded the production of all those yellow armbands and other products for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. I feel quite comfortable predicting the team will be Nike-Livestrong, kitted out in black and yellow.

But what team will it be? Will Astana simply be renamed, or will Armstrong start from scratch? Does he pluck another struggling team from the ranks and, injected with all that Nike cash, turn them into a recreation of USPS/Discovery? How about High Road or Slipstream, the two American-based teams racing in this year’s Tour – does he make a deal with one of them? It should be very interesting.

This much we know – if cycling is to grow in America, Armstrong must be involved – he’s too personally invested in the success, and too closely tied to the sport in the minds of most casual fans. By forming his own team, he can ride Le Tour next year as a finale, then sit back and savor the success as Team Nike Livestrong rolls on into the future.

Stay tuned …

Thursday morning update:  They just  made the announcement – it’s “Team Radio Shack,” and it’ll be a brand new team.  OK, maybe the Nike thing seemed a little bit too easy – at least Radio Shack is Texas-based.  And the geek in me can’t wait to see the first team bike – the Trek Radio Shack TRS-80!  :-)

The Sound Of Silence

Most people see the Tour de France and just see a bunch of guys in Lycra shorts riding their bikes. What they don’t realize is that it’s one of the most technologically advanced sporting events in the world. From the ultralight carbon fiber bike frames to the aerodynamic helmets – to the cutting edge doping scandals – a lot of new technology comes to the public first via Le Tour.

If you own a cellphone, I’ll bet you also own an asshat – particularly if you live in California. Hopefully, you’re not an Asshat and are instead a responsible user of the device, but in either case you owe a debt of gratitude to those guys on the bikes, because much of the technology involved was developed for the Tour riders. Back in the mid-nineties, the race team sponsored by Motorola (which included a young rider named Armstrong) pioneered the use of microelectronics for communication within the peleton. In the past, tour cars containing the team directors would follow behind the pack, and motorcycle riders would scoot up alongside the cyclists to pass messages. But Motorola put earpieces on their riders, keeping them in contact with the team director, and TVs in the cars to let the teams know what was happening elsewhere on the course. Now, teams could share strategies in private without other teams knowing, and could pass information along to every rider, making it that much harder for someone to surprise the peleton.

The folks at Le Tour like to consider themselves historians, and bristle at the idea of technology changing their beloved race. So, in concert with the UCI, the governing body of professional cycling, they decided to ban the radios and TVs for two stages of this year’s tour – Stages 10 and 13. Yesterday was the first of those stages, and the teams were none too happy. Riders claimed that safety would be compromised and competition diminished, and they certainly did their part to insure the latter was true. No one wants to admit it, but it was clear that the peleton decided that if they couldn’t have their radios, they’d turn the stage into a leisurely ride through the French countryside. Instead of powering along as normal, they slowed down to around 15mph – beach cruiser style! In the end, no one was hurt and the stage ended up with a typical sprint finish – won once again by the blazingly fast Mark Cavendish of Team Columbia. The Tour made their decision, and the peleton told them what they thought of it. Now we wait to see what happens next, as many believe the ban will be lifted before the next radio-free stage on Friday.

UPDATE: And they were right, as UCI opted to cancel the radio ban planned for Stage 13. The statement referenced how the ban was “compromising” the Tour – a nod no doubt to the leisurely pace – and that they would revisit it in the future. That’s exactly the right way to handle it – and the manner in which the ban should have been considered from the beginning.

Rest Day Sports Rant

This being the first of two rest days on the 2009 Tour de France, it would be easy for me to claim the need to take a blogging rest day as well. But as much as our readers might vigorously support that notion, we soldier on … :-)

– File this under “You Knew It Was Coming,” but apparently the David Beckham Experience is being branded a failure. When Becks signed with the LA Galaxy two years ago, he was declared the second coming of Pele and the Man To Save Soccer In America. Hasn’t quite worked out that way, has it? Two coaches gone, a GM buried and now the once and future captains of the Galaxy are at odds with each other. I have nothing against Landon Donovan calling out Beckham for his role in the heavy-handed orchestration of control of the team. Donovan is every bit the world-class player Becks is, and unlike Beckham played by the rules and came home to the Galaxy from Europe when he was supposed to. Now, he did screw the pooch by venting his spleen to a reporter (who promptly put it into his new book) rather than to Beckham directly, but hell – how’s he supposed to talk to Becks when he’s off in Italy? Beckham is back in SoCal now, and none too pleased with the whole thing, and is trying to defend his professionalism. Personally, I think any semblance of professionalism – at least as it relates to his commitment to the Galaxy – has long since left the station. All he can do now is ride out his time with the Galaxy, do what he can to raise the image of soccer in LA and hang out with Tom C and those other galaxians until he can split town for good. UPDATE: Bring on the humble pie. Donovan and Beckham had their little talk, and there’s no question who’s who’s bitch now. Donovan’s quote for the media: “We’re getting past it, we’re moving on,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of things I regret. I regret the way that I went about this process and I also regret some of the things I said.”

– C’mon, tell the truth: you thought Lance Armstrong would have cracked on the first big climb of the Tour, didn’t you? It’s OK to admit it – you won’t be alone. Lance was beyond riding age when he retired 4 years ago; to be riding competitively at 37 is some kind of freak show. But then, he’s already demonstrated a superhuman will once before … or rather, seven times. After the first nine stages, Armstrong sits 8 seconds behind the yellow jersey and 2 behind his teammate, Alberto Contador. The team time trial, won in dominating fashion by Armstrong’s Astana squad, put so much time into their competitors that after only a week this tour has come down to pretty much a two-man race. Contador won the first season after Armstrong’s retirement, and his break from Lance to leapfrog him in the standings mid-week shows that he perceives Armstrong as much as a rival as a teammate. Lance performed remarkably well in the Pyrenees, and should maintain his position until the Tour reaches the Alps in a week. That’s when the race will be won, and that’s when it’s gonna get really interesting around the Astana team dinner table …

– Major League Baseball has reached the All-Star break, the traditional mid-point of the season, and with that pundits will look back to the first half for signs of how the season will play out. Naturally, I’m one of them … :-) So what have we learned so far? Well, with the single exception of the Dodgers, the National League sucks this year. We’ve seen it play out that way in the All-Star game for the last few years, but now we’re seeing it in the standings. LA has the best record in baseball, but you have to pass three American League teams before you get to the next best from the NL – and that’s only because Philly’s won five in a row. I mean, the Marlins are only 2 games over .500 and are still in the race – not pretty. The Dodgers are putting up balanced numbers, and have only gotten better since the return of ManRam, so barring some un-Torre-like tent folding, expect them to have a spot in the World Series. The AL’s a little trickier to handicap – Boston was out of the gate quick but is fading, and the Yankees bought bats are finally starting to come alive. The Angels lead the west for the moment, but they’ll remember they’re the Angels by the playoffs and insure that whoever takes the East takes the pennant. Should be an interesting second half …

– By any definition, the death of Steve McNair is tragic – another celebrity gone far too young through less than natural causes. But watching the coverage of his death, the investigation into his murder, and his funeral over the weekend, I noticed one significant difference from most of the recent deaths in the media. McNair was killed by his 20-yr-old girlfriend, who then shot herself, While it was noted that McNair was married with children, you’ve seen very little of them. I don’t know if it was a deliberate decision by the news media (unlikely), a result of the actions of the family during this period (possibly) or just luck, but the wife and kids have avoided the media circus that traditionally enveloped anyone near the celebrity in question. In this case, that’s a great thing, since they really aren’t the story and shouldn’t be forced to deal with the grief and embarrassment in public. I’d like to think that somehow the media recognized that sticking a microphone and camera into the widow’s face and questioning her about her husband’s girlfriend on the way to the funeral was wrong. I guess we’ll see, but I’m not holding out a lot of hope for next time.

Vive Le Tour?

Here’s the line I’d like to be able to use to start this entry:

Saturday marks the beginning of the greatest sporting event on earth, the Tour de France.

There was a time when I’d have had no problem making that statement. Just on sheer numbers alone, Le Tour makes most athletic events pale by comparison.  During the course of three weeks in the July heat, 180 riders will cover 3500 kilometers of French plains and alps.  With only 2 rest days, it’s as difficult and daunting mentally as physically.  These are the greatest athletes in the world … period.

Problem is, like any high-end athletic competition, Le Tour has been plagued by scandal.  Long before there were drug tests, there were drug takers in the Tour.  Amphetamine use was so bad at one point that riders died in the saddle, and some of the most sophisticated designer performance enhancing drugs were created for Le Tour.  The late ’90s were particularly difficult, with entire teams banned from the event for blood doping.

The appearance of a post-cancer Lance Armstrong and his dominant US Postal Service team quieted the storm for the seven Tours he won, but as soon as he retired the controversy returned.  The winner of the 2006 event, Floyd Landis, had his title taken away after a positive drug test late in the event, and Michael Rasmussen was kicked out while leading the 2007 Tour after apparently dodging the drug testers.  So many leading riders didn’t even enter last year’s event that it ultimately came down to a battle of relative unknowns for the prized maillot jaune.

But, as they say, what’s old can be new again, and there’s a “new” rider in the 2009 event – Lance Armstrong himself.  Returned from a three-year retirement, Armstrong is riding for a revamped Astana squad – the very same team kicked out of the 1998 event for doping.  But this is very much Armstrong’s team, led by old friend Johan Bruyneel and populated by faces familiar to fans of the Posties’ Blue Train.  Lance has said that he’s not in the race to win, but rather to continue to raise awareness of the battle to cure cancer, and Astana indeed has a pair of potential podium finishers in Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador, the 2007 TdF winner.  But Lance has looked remarkably racy in his comeback events, the Tour of California and the Giro d’Italia, and if he gets his shot you know he’s gonna take it.  If nothing else, it should bring back the star power sorely lacking in the last few years.

As a side note, we’re going to try the Tour de Stance once again this year.  Readers of the SCMO Fishing News back before we calved off the MarlinBlog will recall that about five years ago I mirrored the riding of the tour, getting out on the bike each of the 21 riding days of the event.  Of course, I was a much bigger, less fit person than I am now, so if we’re gonna do this we need to do it right.  I’ll definitely mimic the type of stage – flat, mountain or time trial – but I need to figure out the right way to determine the distance for each day.  And, since I’ll be out fishing this weekend, I need to work in a couple of double days to make up for the two stages I’ll miss.  But those are just details – the key is to get out and ride!

Should be fun … 😀