Since I was young, I have loved cycling, especially the Tour de France, race for the 'Maillot Jaune' (yellow jersey), the golden fleece of cycling.
On July 3, the 97th annual Tour de France began. Considered the premiere and most prestigious and difficult race of any sport, there will be three winners in Paris after 3 weeks of riding top speed over 2,200 miles of flat roads, pave (cobblestones) and precarious peaks in the Alps and Pyrenees.
From a handful of individual European riders and 5 stages, the race has grown globally to 21 stages through France and numerous nearby countries. It ends on Bastille day with the overall best time winner donning the Maillot Jaune, and his team prouder and richer by large financial prizes.
In the last few decades, special prizes were awarded for points gained by the fastest sprinters at designated points in the race and the stage sprint winner. The green jersey is awarded to the fastest man. Nicknames have developed such as "Ale-Jet" for 2010 stage 1 and 4 winner Petacchi, and the "Manx Missile" for Cavendish, thought to be the fastest man in the sprints and winner of stage 5 this year.
As the Tour starts into the Alps and then the Pyrenees, the test of the climbers will challenge everyone. The rider who does the best will be "king of the mountains" and receive the red polka dot jersey for each stage. Finally, the white jersey is awarded the best young rider.
As a young girl, I loved the wonderful feel of cycling and convinced my twin sister that it was too dangerous for her. She finally agreed to give me the one bike we owned. I never really regretted my trickery as I flew over the broken streets in the Bronx with a team of girlfriends.
When at 13 my son took off on his Sears special, the joy in my heart could not be contained. By 15 he was racing and building bikes by stealing parts from my bike and working to buy the other gear. We followed the Tour de France yearly for three weeks at 3am as it came on for half an hour once each night.
The original riders actually rode at night and then rested in the day.
In 2010, after the 2nd stage in which 60 riders were injured in a crash, they struck and Cancellara sacrificed the day 2 stage win in which he would have received the yellow jersey in order to help his teammates. The entire peloton (large group of riders) slowly moved as a single unit across the finish line after allowing Chavanel to cross first to indicate a protest against the dangerous day (stage 2) and this prevented any team from gaining the advantage. Another strike occurred in 1975 when 2 stages were scheduled for one day without rest and the riders won. Never again were 2 stages scheduled in a row.
At the time my son became inspired. He read about Greg LeMond, the first American to win 3 Tours on a European team, and so began his passion for the sport. Twenty years later, in 2008, Greg LeMond spoke at the Air Force Academy in Colorado and my son got to ride with LeMond and appreciate what he has given to the sport, including his current fight against drugs and doping. My son currently is a top category "cat 2" amateur rider. I have joyously come out with his children in the heat and frost as only a cycling Mom can do. He asked me to bake cakes for a race he planned for his college team, and when I asked, "how many?" he calmly replied "700"!
He had a chance to ride with Lance Armstrong who changed the sport in America when he built an American team and won 7 Tours, which was never accomplished before. Armstrong is a cancer survivor and has brought his courage and spirit to everyone who thought life was over when dealt a bad hand. His book "It's Not Just the Bike," says it clearly. In the past, there have been 4 men who have won the Tour de France 5 times ( Eddy Merckx, Jaques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain). No one but Lance has been able to win 7 Tours. He is in this year's tour at age 39.
The mountains lie ahead. They are the true test. Many are watching each stage on cable channel Versus, as it is broadcast numerous times throughout the day.
What a change! Stage 6 starts soon and the "domestiques," which are the riders of the team that not only protect and feed the team captain but help him by providing the draft for him to ride behind to give him the rest. They actually pull him up the hill if necessary so that at the right moment that 'best man' can force that last heartbeat and watt of energy to add just enough speed to cross the finish line first for himself and for the team.
Of course, there are dangers and there have been 4 deaths of riders over the years. The saddest and most recent was in 1996 when Fabio Casartelli sped down the mountain at 60 mph. When the riders in the peloton pass that place they pay homage to his memory.
At the end of stage 5, Cancellara wore the yellow jersey, the "Manx Missile" Cavendish, possibly the fastest man in the world on a bike, was the stage 5 winner. Pineau wore the polka dots as king of the mountains. Thor Hushovd pounded his chest in the green jersey and Geraint Thomas was the best young rider in white. Of course, all that can change the next day!
Photo: Tour de France in 2008. (CC)