Nathan's column: Never bored, possibly boared
The Tour De France is going on right now. Roads across America’s favorite toast- and fry producing country have been filled since the beginning of July with men in stretchy shorts, brightly-colored jerseys and the kind of physique that makes fashion models want to scream, “Just eat something, OK?”
Many drivers in this country might consider that large a collection of cyclists target practice, but elsewhere in the world it is a cause for celebration. Cycling fans camp for days to guarantee they will have a place to watch a bunch of sweaty men pedal past in about 15 seconds. In terms of time dedicated per minute of entertainment it’s a pretty terrible investment.
That might explain why some of the fans are a little, well, unique. One fan has been seen running alongside the cyclists wearing a helmet decorated with gigantic elk antlers. He runs for as long as he can keep up or until he hits a low-hanging branch. Another this year chased racers up the mountain carrying a stuffed boar. Still another was caught on television standing by the side of the road completely naked because, well, he’d been camped on the side of the mountain for several days with very little to entertain himself. It’s possible there was alcohol involved. And probably some pretty uncomfortable sunburn.
The fans are only part of the spectacle, though. For riders, just completing the Tour is a pretty remarkable accomplishment. It’s 21 days of racing that covers just over 3,400 kilometers which in miles is ... well, I don’t know, but probably a whole lot.
The demands that come with an event like the Tour, and the pressure to perform well, has led to some well-documented problems with performance-enhancing substances. American Lance Armstrong, once one of the race’s most celebrated champions, admitted in January that throughout his career he used substances like EPO, human growth hormone, testosterone and, “like a super ton of Red Bulls all at once.”
That last one isn’t technically against the rules, but it’s still probably a pretty bad idea.
Concerns about doping on the Tour have eased a bit since some of the sport’s biggest names have been caught and forced to sit out as punishment. People tend to believe the sport is cleaner now, although that might be a little like saying a pig sty is cleaner once you’ve shoveled half of it out.
There is still enough suspicion that a particularly good performance can raise some eyebrows. And not just because someone has been injecting a secret new eyebrow-lifting serum.
Consider Chris Froome, the African-born Brit who as of Monday was on pace to win this year’s race by a wide margin.
Froome, who finished second in last year’s tour but had done little of note before that, has been stronger by far than the other riders. While teammates and opponents wilted around him, he powered on. Last Sunday, on one of the most storied and most challenging mountains in the Tour’s history, he sprinted away from all of his closest competition. It was a remarkable display, although some have argued that riding the last kilometer on a big wheel was just rubbing it in.
That kind of dominance leads to questions, and while Froome has repeatedly denied he is putting anything inappropriate into his bloodstream, it doesn’t help that he has ended several interviews by crashing through a wall and re-riding that day’s stage on a unicycle.
There will probably always be suspicion at the Tour de France. It’s part of the sport’s legacy now. But for all of the uncertainty it’s hard to deny the race is one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
Until people start bringing stuffed boars to the Super Bowl, it’s truly one of a kind.