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Le Tour

It's strange watching the Tour de France: I keep hoping for a decisive, defining moment, and it never comes. American sports are full of them — buzzer-beaters; walk-off home runs; fourth-down completions — but cycling seems to have almost none.

Lance Armstrong's backward glance at Jan Ullrich in last year's race was a glorious exception, of course. (Two dudes are biking up a wicked steep hill. First dude looks back at second dude — who many at the time think is the best cyclist in the world — sizes him up, shifts into a higher gear, and then just rides away from him, up the hill. Just like that.) This year, however, he's hardly been challenged (he leads by a comfortable margin after winning the two stages in the mountains completed so far); it's been enough for him just to ride within himself to blow the rest of the field away.

I've always liked cycling. (I once even subscribed to Bicycling magazine, which makes it one of only four I've ever bought subscriptions to — the others being the Economist, the New Yorker, and Scientific American.) It is, I think, one of the purest of sports — a distillation of will and effort and sheer physical dominance. It's about pain (a recent review in the Economist said, of two books about the sport, "You will not read two better S&M books this year"), but only because pain does not define an athlete's limits. And those limits are what cycling is really about.

So I suppose it makes sense that winning the Tour de France often won't have a defining moment — it's the losers that experience those moments, in this case cruel ones, when they find their limits are, alas, not enough to get them atop the podium. That sort of race is less fun to watch, but perhaps all the more impressive to win.

July 19, 2002 2:05 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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