Fascination with the Tour de France

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(Host) The centennial year of the Tour de France is underway, and Commentator Mary McKhann says that American Lance Armstrong may be racing into the history books.

(McKhann) We Americans tend to have a pretty narrow worldview when it comes to sports. Football, as all Americans know, is played by 11 hulking men in helmets and padding who throw and kick a pointy-ended ball. For everyone in the rest of the world, football is what we call soccer. If it isn’t baseball, basketball or football, we pretty much don’t care, unless an American is doing very well at it. But if it’s a game that American’s don’t play, cricket for example, most of us know nothing about it.

Bicycle racing is one of those sports about which, except for a few American successes, we would probably know virtually nil. But Greg LeMonde captured our imaginations a few years back, winning the most prestigious of bike races, the Tour de France three times (in ’86, ’89, and ’90), before his career was cut short by a hunting accident.

Then along came a guy named Lance Armstrong, who had just overcome cancer that nearly killed him. Four years ago, the feisty young Texan won the Tour over a strong international field. The next year, he did it again. In fact, he has won the grueling, three-week, 2,000-plus mile challenge for the past four years.

Armstrong is poised to do only one other man has ever done. A victory by the Texan would tie the record set by Miguel Indurain of Spain, who won five times from 1991-1995. Three others have won five Tours, though not consecutively, and Armstrong did it after battling back from the brink.

It won’t be easy however. This year’s contest marks the strong return of 1997 tour winner Jan Ullrich of Germany, who is coming back from nearly two years of injuries and a drug ban. Another challenge to Armstrong could come from former teammate, American Tyler Hamilton.

The race, broken up into 20 stages, started in Paris Saturday and travels clockwise around France, through the Alps and Pyrenees, finishing on the Champs-Elysees July 27th. The peloton will be comprised of 22 teams of 9 riders each, all chasing Armstrong and his US Postal team as they attempt to ride into history during the 100th anniversary of the Tour.

Armstrong will making this attempt in a bizarre political climate where the Congress of the United States — presumably intelligent, mature people — actually renamed potatoes boiled in grease “Freedom fries” because the French didn’t agree with us about invading Iraq.

Whether that will have any effect on the race remains to be seen. My daughter, who has lived in France for the past 10 years, assures me the French can, and do, distinguish between the people of a country and its government.

Armstrong’s heart and courage are unquestioned, and he carries the hopes of untold numbers of cancer patients and survivors. So whatever one’s political views, in this case, I sure hope sports trumps politics.

This is Mary McKhann from the Mad River Valley.

Note: After bicyclist Greg LeMond’s hunting accident, he made a big comeback by winning two more tours. Later, LeMond developed mitochondrial myopathy and he retired.

Mary McKhann is a freelance writer and editor of the Snow Industry Letter. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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