Tour de France

196 Days and Counting

It’s New Year’s Eve, of course, so everyone is looking to send out 2012 in a riot of debauchery and wake up tomorrow with a fresh start. Personally, I’ll be trying what I usually try — finding a way to be debaucherous tonight and still wake up tomorrow for the first ride of the new year. For the record, in the past I’ve always had to choose one of those options, but hey…It’s worth a shot.

Early this morning I got a new year’s present in the form of the confirmation for my 2013 Tour de France trip. So I’m officially excited. My time there will be a little shorter than in 2011, but I’ll take what I can get. This year things will be changed up a little bit to celebrate that this is the 100th Tour. Organizers debated a complete restructuring of the final stage, which is traditionally more ceremonial than competitive for all but the sprinters, moving it from the Champs-Élysées to Alpe d’Huez. Luckily this isn’t what’s happening; apart from being a logistical nightmare in terms of crowd control, there’s no way a finish in that little mountain town could show the pomp and grandeur that you get with the wide boulevards of Paris.

Alpe D'Huez, seen from above

Whee! Some of the 21 switchbacks.

Thankfully, the finish in Paris is maintained (added bonus: Nighttime! Fireworks!) but to spice things up the winner will be decided on the climbs. Desolate and formidable Mont Ventoux is back this year, on Bastille Day, no less. The ITT, which usually determines the winner as the penultimate stage, is moved up to stage 17. Then to make things extra nasty, the famous 21 switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez will be climbed twice in one stage, and from there the riders proceed to an extremely bumpy Stage 19 and a summit finish on Stage 20 at the top of Le Semnoz. [Go here to see some beautiful photos of Le Semnoz by a guy who's a total cycling badass.] Perhaps the riders should just take the RER to Paris the next evening instead of pedaling, because they’re going to be worn the hell out.

Tour de France winners, 1995-present

Let’s just agree to not discuss what happened during that white part.

So this is going to be a fun race. But who to root for? Honestly, I’m having a little trouble keeping straight who’s on a doping ban anymore at this point…or who’s unbanned, but still disgraced. I’m sure we’ll hear plenty, plenty about how this has destroyed the sport and surely we’ll also hear that the Tour is trying to “recover” following the blot of the Lance debacle and the fact that now, apparently, none of the Tours count at all for anybody during the years that he won. Personally, I just watch under the assumption that they’re probably all filthy dopers, and that even with blood transfusions and clenbuterol-laden beefsteaks, they’re still amazing athletes and a pleasure to watch. Rather than getting upset at every new allegation or admission, I’ll save my energy for being pleasantly surprised if and when I find out someone’s actually clean. It’s all much easier to enjoy that way.

In 2009 I rooted for Alberto Contador, who seemed like the underdog, at least in this country: Despite his terrific talent he had the misfortune of getting in  the way of a Lance Armstrong Comeback, but managed to pull it out anyway. In 2010 I rooted for Andy Schleck, whose chances were mechanical-ed all to shit with Chaingate. In 2011 I waited for a comeback, but he choked in the ITT. In 2012 I hoped Ryder Hesjedal, one of my favorites, would continue his awesomeness momentum after winning the Giro (clean! by the way), but he crashed out along with approximately 80% of his team.

En français, s'il vous plaît. (AP Photo/Fabio Ferrari)

En français, s’il vous plaît. (AP Photo/Fabio Ferrari)

This year I’m torn, at least at this early stage, between the eminently likable Hesjedal and Chris Froome, whose performance in support of Bradley Wiggins was stellar last year. Plus his Stage 7 win was just so fun to watch and I’d like to see more of the same, although since everyone’s talking about him as a contender he’ll be lacking the element of surprise. And although I can’t find confirmation that he’s riding it, Peter Sagan has a lot of potential and I think he’ll become one of those horrifyingly indestructible riders that steamrolls everyone at everything…if not this year, then sometime soon.

Regardless, the difference between watching the Tour on television and being there in person is that who wins becomes a little less important to my overall enjoyment of the event. It’s mostly about the atmosphere and the chance to meet other enthusiasts/obsessives, with whom I share awkward tan lines and the ability to bore friends to distraction with talk of the sport. So…196 days and counting until my plane takes off.

And Happy New Year to everyone! I hope 2013 brings you all the fun and happiness you wish for.

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