Christmas in July

Pro sports are so, so boring. They make me want to go take a nap. And the games take so long! I would rather spend those four hours sitting in my dentist’s waiting room browsing through weeks-old Us magazines. I would rather get an oil change. I would rather steam-clean my carpets in August than watch one more fucking pro football game.

Of course, my sentiments are not terribly controversial here in Great Whatsit company, but I live in Wisconsin, where people occasionally paint their homes in Green Bay Packer gold and green, and with a Vikings devotee who has been known to dress our dog in a purple jersey on game days. Every Sunday in the fall is like the Civil War around here.

I just don’t get it. First of all, WHY? Sports are grossly overrated spectacles that give ordinary people permission to act like idiots. “Fandom” lets people identify with and celebrate achievements they have no actual part in and feel pointless rivalries with people they don’t even know.

Some of it does look like fun. If you drive past Miller Park on a summer afternoon, you will probably see thousands upon thousands of Brewers fans tailgating in the parking lot. The smell of grilling burgers fills the air over the freeway, tempting me to pull over and join in the festivities. When your team and your ballpark are both named after beer, drinking a cold one outdoors in public is practically a birthright! Hey, can’t we just hang out here and skip the baseball part altogether?

That’s why these few weeks in July when I turn into an obsessive sports junkie are so strange. I watch the broadcasts for hours every day. The athletes’ online musings and comments to the press become engrossing. The teams⎯their interpersonal chemistry, their coaches, their statistics, even their colors⎯are sources of endless fascination. Here I am, jumping up and down in my living room, yelling at the TV, cheering on my favorites.

That’s right, folks⎯the Tour de France is on.

Pro cycling doesn’t have much of a presence in this country, at least not compared to Europe, and especially now that Lance Armstrong has retired. Still, the whole shebang, every stage, is broadcast live. The TDF goes on for about three weeks. The route changes every year. Here’s this year’s route:

The riders go about a hundred miles every day. Out of the two hundred or so who begin the race, dozens will not finish. They crash out, get sick, or fail to meet the time cutoffs. Over two thousand miles of racing, and the whole thing comes down to mere seconds’ advantage for the winner.

One of the reasons the Tour is so great is that it really comprises several different contests. Many riders specialize in different events, but the only way to win is to be strong in all of them. Some stages end in sprints, where each team works hard to bring a rider to the front for the last couple hundred meters. These are exhilarating.
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Other days are mountain stages, which test the riders’ ability to ascend insane climbs, jockeying for position in the Pyrenees and Alps, before descending at speeds just as insane (60-70 MPH).
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Sometimes, it all comes down to a time trial, which is simply the rider battering himself against the clock.
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Another reason is the breathtaking scenery, from the mountains to the Mediterranean coast. (For the love of God, please turn down your computer’s volume if you watch this next clip, or your ears will bleed.)
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This great scenic clip includes Jens Voigt literally breaking his face in a crash⎯not for the faint of heart.
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Finally, the best reason is the riders themselves. They are supremely badass, with so much of the soul that I find lacking in other pro sports. My favorite is Thor Hushovd, a Norwegian who is the current world champion. He wore the leader’s yellow jersey for the first week of this year’s Tour and is basically a perfect human specimen.

One of the best time trialists in the world is the Swiss national champion, Fabian Cancellara. He is another demigod.

Some think Mark Cavendish (right, with Hushovd) is the greatest sprinter who has ever lived. He is from the Isle of Man and they call him the “Manx Missile.” He’s kind of a dick about how great he is, but then again, he is the best.

A longtime favorite of mine is Australian Cadel Evans, a genuinely sweet guy who was a teenage mountain bike prodigy before turning to road racing. This year he may take it all.

Maybe one of the biggest rivalries in the sport right now is Frank and Andy Schleck versus Alberto Contador. The Luxembourgian Schleck brothers are equally tall, skinny, super-strong, and awesome. They ride on the same team and one supports whichever of them is greater on any given day.

Spaniard Alberto Contador is a jerk, plays a little bit dirty, is currently under investigation for doping, and is famous for saying last year, “”My relationship with [teammate!] Lance Armstrong is zero….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.” Nice.

If you catch only one stage of the Tour this year, make it the Alpe d’Huez this Friday. The Alpe d’Huez breaks hearts and crushes the best of men. It’s beautiful and terrible.

Loving the Tour so much makes me a hypocrite, it’s true. After Sunday’s Paris finish, it’s all over and I will go back to hating pro sports and their fans…until next July.

    17 responses to “Christmas in July”

    1. PB says:

      Who says there must be logic when it comes to passion? Obsession takes us with all the characteristics of a fabulous lover. Speaking of . . . Does everyone who cycles in this race have to pass a “super hot looking” test, because there does not seem to be a troll in the mix.

    2. F. P. Smearcase says:

      One result of this posting is me opening a jpg of Thor Hushovd in my broswer sufficiently large that half his face fills the screen. Scandinavia isn’t fair.

      It can certainly be alienating to be sports-indifferent in places where people love sports passionately. I think they should have made one episode of Friday Night Lights where some dorkwad moves to Dillon and is like “are you people NUTS?! ” I should write fanfic.

      The very idea of riding thousands of miles is deeply exhausting, so it’s nice to have this little glimpse of it, a manageable dose. Dumb question but, given the pictures above and the one thing they all have in common I’m wondering: do women do the Tour?

    3. Rachel says:

      No, but I think they could.

      Cycling is actually a pretty macho sport in Europe, despite how skinny and hairless the athletes are. (Even “Big Thor,” aka my imaginary boyfriend if I were straight, is only 82 kg, and he is one of the biggest guys in the sport.) It’s odd to see that type of masculinity without the accompanying misogyny and objectification of women you tend to get in the USA (see: cheerleaders, “man caves,” basically every Super Bowl commercial ever made).

      p.s. I would read Smearcase fanfic.

    4. AWB says:

      I have dated a few serious cyclists, and they have the most fascinating body shapes. Their upper bodies are super-thin and ropy, and their legs are massive, like the caricatures of cyclists in The Triplets of Belleville. Am I the only person alive who disliked that movie?

    5. Tim says:

      @AWB: You are not. I detested every moment of it.

    6. LP says:

      Ah, Ms. Berkowitz. Why? Why must a lovely essay about a sport you love begin with a gratuitous rant about people who love other sports? And why is it always assumed by non-sports-loving TGW writers that the rest of us feel the same?

      Yes, yes – In the post, you acknowledge in full your own hypocrisy, but still: Do you really believe that athletes in other sports lack the “soul” of cyclists? Why on earth would that be? And how, when your descriptions of some of your favorites include phrases like “He’s kind of a dick about how great he is” and “…is a jerk, plays a little bit dirty, is currently under investigation for doping,” can you possibly argue this is better than, or different from, athletes in other sports?

      I love that you’re so taken with the Tour. It’s truly an amazing spectacle and a feat of endurance, strength and strategy. But so are most top-level sports, and as a person who follows many of them closely, I can tell you that the soul, the stories, the drama is much the same in them all. It’s what makes sports so compelling, both as a player and as a viewer.

    7. AWB says:

      I agree with LP. I do think Ms. Berkowitz is dramatizing her hypocrisy for us, though, because obviously she knows that her bike-bigotry is absurd.

      The only problem I have with it is that I have known (see above) too many people who have a total lack of self-awareness about the classism and racism of embracing the glory and honor of a super-white super-expensive French sport while declaring that all other sport is stupid and a mindless waste of time. I think Ms. Berkowitz is acknowledging this as a problem, no?

    8. Rachel says:

      Oh LP, I was thinking of your objections even as I wrote my hissy fit. Your love of sport defies all my dumb stereotypes. Please try to keep in mind that I live in a household that purchases the NFL Sunday Ticket [a very expensive feature on satellite TV that entitles the owner to view and/or record *every single NFL game*, for those of you who are probably not wondering]. I watch a LOT of sports, often passively, and see the good in the bad in all of them.

      You’re right; the Tour is not special, not really. I often wonder why exactly it has captured my imagination. I think it’s at least in part due to the indifference of most Americans toward cycling: because of that, it’s easy to remain insulated from a lot of the commercialization rife in pro sports and imagine cycling as somehow more “pure.” But it’s not. Just because my imaginary BF Thor isn’t trying to sell US sneakers or sugar water doesn’t mean he’s above all that. The teams are even sponsored by corporations, not “cities”!

      So I concede. Just try to have some sympathy for a non-jock in a jock’s world.

    9. AWB says:

      I should add that I don’t really know many people who honestly don’t like any sports, so I don’t really know how seriously to take that as a position. The very few people I know who are totally ignorant of sport tend to be extreme anti-competition, anti-violence types–no loud voices, no sudden movements.

    10. AWB says:

      Rachel, there was an article a long time ago about the Netflix prediction algorithm in which they had found all these bizarre problems in trying to predict what someone will like. For some reason, Netflix accounts that rated Wrestlemania very highly also tended to rate Jane Austen movies very highly. I have always thought it funny to imagine that as a stereotypical American marriage.

    11. Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Rachel! As many of you probably know, I’m a sports fan and will watch or follow pretty much any sport, even if I don’t understand it very well. I’ve intermittently followed the Tour but am woefully behind on who’s who these days. It’s good to get a bit of the scoop.

      Anyone else think the Schleck brothers need to be tested to see if they’re human? They sure look a bit hobbit-y in that photo.

    12. LP says:

      Wow – the NFL Sunday Ticket! I am laughing, here. Now I understand everything. Rant on, dear ranter. A non-jock in a jock’s world, indeed!

      As an aside, I do find it amazing that in a world-class competition, where riders are shooting along at speeds of 60-70 mph, with nothing but a piece of superthin material to protect their skin and bones from the road, the spectators are allowed to stand so close that they actually sometimes bump into the riders and send them sprawling.

    13. Rachel says:

      The worst crash in this year’s Tour was caused by a journalist’s vehicle striking a rider while swerving to avoid a tree. Unbelievable. And up until a few years ago the riders didn’t even wear helmets! It took a number of crash fatalities to make that change in cycling culture.

    14. LP says:

      Yes, that crash was shocking, wasn’t it? Sooooo scary. Don’t know if you saw the clip of Hoogerland, the guy who was flung into the barbed wire fence, weeping on the podium as he receives the polka-dot jersey.

    15. Rachel says:

      Oh, boy. I was crying too! Thirty-three stitches and he’s still riding. So is Laurens ten Dam, with eight stitches in his nose.

    16. F. P. Smearcase says:

      I should add that I don’t really know many people who honestly don’t like any sports,

      OK, I basically qualify for this distinction. I enjoyed a match at the U.S. Open once and have very passively thought about going back, and when everyone else was enjoying the World Cup, I kind of rode their enjoyment and managed to get into it, but there is really never a time when I think “the fun thing to do right now would be to watch sports happen.” (And yes, this extends to the Tour de France. The idea of watching a bunch of guys ride bikes is just as awful as the idea of watching a bunch of guys chase each other up and down a field.)

      I wish I liked sports. I tried to like baseball so I’d have more in common with my sister, plus sports are the one thing you can reliably talk to a stranger about. It turns out you largely can’t deliberately like things.

    17. Dave says:

      I get into curling during the winter olympics. (And I was into it before it apparently became a frat-boy thing, thank you very much.) Any competitive activity, if you watch it long enough to start to follow what’s going on, can be dramatic. I used to hate boxing, but one night I turned on HBO and watched a fight and suddenly got it, in the sense that I could see the ebb and flow of the fight where before I’d only seen two guys hitting each other.