2010 Tour de France Primer for Americans

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The 2010 Tour de France is underway, with the opening stage taking place this morning. While I don’t expect many Americans to tune in during the holiday weekend, you do have three weeks left to enjoy this most epic of races. To help you get oriented for this event, today we provide a primer for Americans who are looking to experience the sport, possibly for the first time. Last year Lance Armstrong returned from retirement to finish third. Now Lance has announced this will be his last tour, and he’d really like to win. So expect coverage of this event on ESPN and other national sports outlets to be high.

Doping in Cycling:

Doping 300x199Lets get this out of the way first. Yes, there is a doping problem in Professional Cycling. In recent years, numerous riders have tested positive, and have been expelled from the race and the sport. The good news is that most of the names associated with doping scandals will not be racing in this year’s Tour, although a few of them are indeed back. Cycling has a tarnished reputation for doping, however in my opinion the sport should be applauded for catching the cheats, and getting rid of them. Riders are tested numerous times during the race, and all throughout the season, much more extensively than you will see in any other sport.

In the 2008 Tour, 180 riders entered, and only 8 were caught up in doping scandal. That is less than 4.5%, and the biggest names were caught using MIRCERA, a new form of EPO which had just recently been developed. The testing kept up with the cheaters, and even the newest form was detected. The 2009 Tour de France was able to conclude without being marred by a single positive doping result. Despite the accusations from Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong has never failed a drug test, despite being among the most tested athletes in all of sports. Cycling has never ignored their doping problem, and they have always been at the forefront of fighting it. I wish the same could be said for other sports that we enjoy.

Cycling Terms

Cycling certainly has its own language. For the most part, we’ll try to avoid using the French terminology, but below are some terms that you should be aware of as you read this primer, and watch the coverage.
Peloton – The main group of riders.
Break, Breakaway – a group of riders that take off ahead of the Peleton.
Chase – single rider or group that tries to catch up to the leader or breakaway group.
Domestique – A designated rider who sacrifices personal performance to help the team.
Drafting – Riding closely behind another rider, saving energy.
GC, General Classification – Tracks the overall leader based on time.
Time Trial – Simply a race against the clock. Each rider rides individually.
Team Time Trial – A team race against the clock, ultimate test of teamwork.
Prologue – A short time trial that opens the Tour.
Flat stages – Minimal climbs, typically feature a bunched sprint finish.
Mountain stages – Big climbs, dominated by the Climbers and GC men.

Jerseys:

Tour 1.de.France.2005.jersey 300x211There are several competitions going on during the three week Tour de France. The most prestigious of which is certainly the general classification. In addition, earning a stage win in the Tour de France is a prestigious event in itself. There is also a team competition which awards the team with the lowest overall time. At the conclusion of each stage there is a podium presentation (with babes) for the stage winner, and the winner of each jersey. Below is an overview of the primary jerseys.

Yellow – General Classification, Overall leader on time
Green – Points Classification – Most consistent rider, sprinting points leader
Polka Dot – King of the Mountains – climbing points leader
White – Best young rider – overall time leader under the age of 25

American Riders:

The United States has eight riders entered into the 97th Tour de France, which isn’t a large percentage of the field, however they will have a major impact. In today’s opening Prologue, the United States had 4 of the Top 11, and 5 of the Top 25. In a field of 197, that is fairly impressive. Of the eight, only one is riding in his first tour. As you can see, some of these names are really creeping up there in age. However there is an entire generation of cyclists who grew up watching Lance Armstrong that are poised to crack this lineup in future years. I’ve included the Twitter page for each of these riders, although surprisingly the only rider in the group who isn’t on Twitter is the youngest, Tyler Farrar. They’re arranged below by expected impact:

Lance Armstrong, 38, RadioShack (@lancearmstrong)
Lance 75x75This is the one name that hopefully needs no introduction. This is Lance’s 13th time entering the Tour de France, and he has won a record 7 times (consecutively too). Armstrong retired after the 2005 race, but returned last season to finish 3rd to younger men, Contador and Schleck. Lance says he is primarily racing to raise awareness for his cancer fighting charity, Livestrong, but he would definitely like to contend for the general classification. Lance still excels at time trials, and in the mountains, but his biggest asset may be his new team, RadioShack, and the tactics of his longtime friend, Johan Bruyneel. This will be Armstrong’s final Tour de France.

Tyler Farrar, 26, Garmin-Transitions
Tyler 75x75Tyler made a big splash in his first Tour last year. Unlike the other riders profiled here, Farrar is a sprinter, and will get demolished in the mountains. His time will come in the flat stages, towards the beginning of the Tour. It is very possible that he won’t even finish the entire 21 stage event, but he is looking to make an impact among the fast men. He finished last season with 12 victories, and took two stages in the Tour of Italy this year. He’ll be looking to compete with the dominant sprinter, Mark Cavendish. In short time, with the retirement of the old guard, Farrar could become the biggest star in American cycling.

Christian Vande Velde, 34, Garmin-Transitions (@christianvdv)
Christian 75x75Christian had a stellar 2008 season, finishing 4th overall in the Tour de France, and leading the Giro d’Italia for several days. Unfortunately he suffered a major crash at the 2009 Italian race, and struggled in the Tour de France before finishing a surprising 8th. He is the leader of the American team, Garmin-Slipstream, and is an underdog for the overall title. Despite suffering another crash in Italy earlier this year, Christian hopes to be on top form in France.

Levi Leipheimer, 36, RadioShack (@levileipheimer)
Levi 75x75Levi is easily the second biggest name in American cycling over recent years. He has won his hometown Tour of California for three years straight but failed to defend his title this year. This will be his 8th time riding in the Tour de France, with his highest finish coming in 2007, when he finished 3rd behind his teammate Alberto Contador. Like Lance, Levi excels in time trials and in the mountains. It is anticipated that Levi will ride for his teammate Armstrong again this season, so don’t expect him to seek much personal glory.

George Hincapie, 37, BMC (@ghincapie)
Hincapie 75x75George is a favorite of American cycling fans, due to his longevity, loyalty, and determination. He is riding in his 15th Tour de France, and rode with Lance Armstrong in all seven victories. George’s ability to cut the wind in front of Lance on the slopes of the low mountains was instrumental in Armstrong’s success. He is the epitome of a team rider. He has had individual success in time trials and stages in the past, but last year his primary role was as a lead out man for his team’s sprinter, Mark Cavendish. This year he is with a new American team, BMC.

David Zabriskie, 31, Garmin-Transitions (@dzabriskie)
Zabriskie 75x75David is a time trial specialist, and has won stages in each of the grand tours (France, Italy, Spain). He finished 2nd overall in the 2009 Tour of California. This will be his 6th entry into the Tour de France, and his most successful ride came in 2005 when he held the Yellow Jersey for several days after winning the prologue.

Brent Bookwalter, 26, BMC (@brentbookwalter)
Bookwalter 75x75Brent is a time trial specialist, and is starting in his first Tour de France. At today’s Prologue, he already has recorded an 11th place finish. He’s considered a good team rider, and will be working for his team leader, Cadel Evans. He finished 2nd in the opening stage time trial of the Tour of Italy and is a promising talent for the future.

Chris Horner, 38, RadioShack (@hornerakg)
Horner 75x75Another veteran of the sport who is surely approaching retirement, Horner was left off of Astana’s roster last year. However he followed Armstrong to RadioShack and he now expects to serve the role of domestique. This is his 4th Tour de France and he is here as the ultimate teammate.

American Teams:

Many people don’t realize what a team sport cycling really is. 22 teams will participate in this year’s Tour de France, each containing 9 members. Each team certainly has their own goals. While some will be riding for one man in the General Classification, others will be looking for stage victories in the sprints, or just to get some television time in France. A typical team is well rounded, with climbers, sprinters, and domestiques. As you watch the Tour, you will notice the teams riding in formation, with the leaders of the team drafting behind their teammates, conserving energy until the final climb or sprint. Lance Armstrong is definitely one of the strongest riders ever, but he also benefited greatly from having one of the strongest teams around him, built to help him succeed. Below we will feature the four teams that will be of the most interest to American spectators.

Team RadioShack (RSH)

RadioShackRSHTeam RadioShack is a new team, co-owned and led by Lance Armstrong. Armstrong essentially resurrected his former team, Discovery, under a new sponsor. That included bringing back his long time manager, Johan Bruyneel, and teammates Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden, and Yaroslav Popvych. So now that he has the band back together, and everyone knows who they are racing for, Lance Armstrong looks poised to return to the podium in France. The only problem is that he is old, and the true stars in the sport now can dominate him in the mountains. Still the team is fairly strong, and nobody rides a better tactical race. So despite the drama and the doping allegations, Armstrong, with fellow Americans Leipheimer and Horner, represent the best chance the United States has at winning the race.

Garmin-Transitions (GRM)

GarminGRMIf you are turned off by the drama and doping allegations that surround Lance Armstrong, but still want to root American, then Garmin-Transitions is your team. The team was established in the United States in 2007, and will feature three American riders in this year’s Tour. Garmin-Transitions is noted for having extensive internal doping controls. This team is riding in its 3rd Tour and has shown very well at the first two. Team Leader Christian Vande Velde isn’t a big name like Lance Armstrong, but he boasts two Top 8 finishes in the past two years. He is in good form, and should finish in the Top 10 again this year. However he isn’t the most exciting part of this team, for that we look to Tyler Farrar. The young sprinter had four Top 3 finishes at least year’s tour, but wasn’t able to get a stage victory. He is looking to break that streak this year, and should have some great battles with Mark Cavendish. Garmin-Transitions plays the role of underdog very well.

Team HTC-Columbia (THR)

ColumbiaTHRThis team has an extensive history in the sport which may not be apparent to all who tune in. They were originally formed as Team Telekom, then became T-Mobile. Following doping scandals the team then moved to the United Stated under the name Team Highroad, and is now named for sponsors, HTC-Columbia. The team doesn’t have a single American riding in the tour, however they will most likely make a lot of noise early with sprinter Mark Cavendish. Cavendish won four stages at the 2008 Tour de France, and then six more in 2009. He is easily one of the most exciting young riders in the sport, and oozes confidence. In addition to Cavendish, young rider Tony Martin is another to watch on this team.

BMC Racing (BMC)

BMCBMC1BMC is a relatively new team, established in 2007, and riding in its first Grand Tours this year. They were aggressive in the off-season, signing a number of major international riders. They include 2009 World Champion and two-time Tour de France runner-up Cadel Evans, 2009 U.S. Road Race Champion George Hincapie, and 2008 World Champion Alessandro Ballan. Their goal will be to get team-leader Evans on the podium, but they face an up-hill battle. Hincapie is the only American on the team, and BMC is actually a Swiss-based bicycle manufacturer, so they don’t provide as much to root for as some of the other teams on this list.

What to Watch:

So now that you know who the major players are for U.S. fans, how do you watch this spectacle? Well first of all, Versus has all of the coverage for the Tour de France again, and they do an excellent job. They have a four man team that tackles the action in groups of two. Each day coverage starts at around 8:30 AM ET with a pre-race set show (usually from the finish line). They then proceed to cover that day’s stage in semi live fashion. The finish is live, but normally the beginning of the stage is summarized with video clips. The morning coverage is handled by Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin, and they tend to focus primarily on the race. I normally Tivo this coverage, and watch it in the evenings. Ligget and Sherwin are excellent, and honestly I enjoy their accents.

Versus

Ligget, Sherwin, and Roll

However if you are a cycling novice, you may prefer the evening coverage. Each evening at 8 PM ET, Bob Roll and Craig Hummer present prime-time expanded coverage. Expanded means that they cover more than just the race. They profile riders, teams, history, and locations. While they don’t focus as much one the race as the morning coverage, its a very long race, so missing a few minutes here and there isn’t going to hurt you. They also focus more on educating the viewers about the sport, the equipment, the tactics, etc.

Both shows are presented in glorious high definition, and we mean glorious. One of my favorite parts of watching cycling is the HD helicopter filmed panoramas of the French countryside and architecture. In addition, this year Versus is offering streaming HD via a $29.95 subscription on their website. So if you’d like the watch the event live from your office, they have the perfect solution for you. If you’d like a little taste of how fabulous this sport can look on television, check out this promo :

… and the images below should give you further indication of the beauty of this sport:

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As for which stages you should watch, that’s really up to you, as I’m going to watch all of them. If you prefer watching a heart pounding sprint finish, then the first week of the Tour will contain mostly flat stages. If you’d rather watch an epic battle up the slopes of mountains, then the stages in the Alps and Pyrenees in the later two weeks of the Tour are more your speed. If you really forced me to choose, here are a few stages I would recommend :

  • 07 06 04.cobblestonesStage 3 – July 6th : 8 Miles of the route will be on cobblestones. Yeah, cobblestones. Don’t miss it.
  • Stage 8 – July 11th : Probably the first time the main contenders will begin to compete.
  • Stage 14 – July 18th : Big mountain finish as the race enters the Pyrenees
  • Stage 17 – July 22nd : Huge mountain finish at the historic Col du Tourmalet.
  • Stage 19 – July 24th : Final Time Trial – Will likely determine the final race order.

Hopefully now you have a better understanding of this sport, and will tune in to watch. If you need further convincing, consider this; the French suck at the Tour de France. I haven’t done the math yet, but there will most likely be more French riders in this event than any other nationality, yet the Frenchies will make only a minor impact on their premier event. So if you enjoy watching the French struggle for some semblance of national pride, this is the event for you.

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