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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.