Friday, August 8, 2008

Dancin' like Lance

Wanderlust interrupted


Part two of a two-part series honoring the greatest sporting event in the world, other than Australian octopus throwing.

So the Tour de France has come and gone once again, passing by most U.S. residents largely unnoticed due to the fact that Brett Favre decided he'd rather spend his time surrounded by sweaty men in a locker room than with his family. Or something like that.

However, for those who did tune into Versus, a large portion of whom were undoubtedly wearing "retro" U.S. Postal and Discovery jerseys reminiscing about bygone days of American dominance, it was an exciting and unpredictable race that featured the emergence of talented young riders and crashes so horrific that they required immediate follow-up viewing on YouTube.

And above all, like so many epic races of the past, this year's Grand Boucle was highlighted not by doping scandals, as many members of the scandal-mongering press would have you believe, but by a stage decided on the legendary climb Alpe-d'Huez.

It was over the 21 "laces," as the French call the hairpin turns, that Spanish rider Carlos Sastre made his move, 121 miles into the day's race, to pull ahead of the breakaway and pull on the yellow jersey, which he would wear to the top of the podium in Paris four days later.

And because of his performance on the last true climb of the Tour, he not only won cycling's most coveted honor, but will also have his name placed upon one of the plaques that line the twisting mountain road to immortalize the fastest climber up the Alpe.

These memorials, which include Lance "I'll date whomever I damn well please" Armstrong, Fausto Coppi and the epilation addict Marco Pantini, are a testament to the importance of the climb in cycling history.

Accordingly, when I made my way up the 8.5-mile road back in 2004 on the day before the Tour racers arrived, I felt like a poser, similar to the Boston Celtics' goofy, token white guy Brian Scalabrine, who received a championship ring despite not having played a single minute in the playoffs.

Of course, the sense of undeserving was tempered by the fact that I was surrounded by thousands of cyclists who, like myself, would have a difficult time winning an amateur race even if they had begun blood doping while in the womb.

Due to the climb's average gradient of 8 percent, the suffering is enough to make it impossible to enjoy the breathtaking scenery over the French Alps.

However, even disregarding lungs that felt as if they had just spent two straight weeks confined in the Casino, it would have been difficult to take my eyes off the road, considering that the road was open and spectators were lining the entire route in preparation for the following day's Tour stage, for which an estimated 750,000 people were in attendance.

This meant that every time I went to blink sweat out of my eyes, I was in danger of running into a drunken German in an RV, a drunken Basque Nationalist spray-painting encouraging words on the road, or an insane couple on a tandem with an attached kiddie trailer. For twins. And, no, I'm not making that up.

Without a doubt, though, the chaos that preceded the arrival of the world's best cyclists made the ride not only memorable, but actually enjoyable, at least once I had peeled off my lycra and commenced with the beer-induced retrospection that follows any strenuous exertion.

For an hour and 15 minutes, I felt connected to those renowned names I passed, as if I were a kindred spirit to those that turned Alpe-d'Huez into a mecca and right of passage for cyclists around the world.

The following day my delusions came crashing down around me, as Lance danced in his pedals for 37 minutes, famously blowing past his nearest competitor, Ivan Basso, who had a minute head start for the time trial.

Then again, if you look at the picture of Lance in the July 22 edition of the Le Dauphiné Libre, you can just make me out in the background, so perhaps I am part of cycling history after all.

Jon Duval is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express.

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