My dear Readers, Le Tour always delivers! It's been only 9 days, but already there's Le Tour has been a veritable feast! To keep you entertained on the rest day, I've lined up a list of my Top 10 Most Delicieux Moments on the road thus far:
- Fabian Cancellara's Emotional Prologue Victory: Watching the tears spill over in young Mr. Cancellara's eyes as he realized that he had won the tour prologue in Liege, 2 seconds faster than Lance Armstrong's time, was just about the most delicieux way this year's Tour de France could have possibly begun. It was a moment that drew us in, immediately, to the emotion of the tour, and to what this race means for the racers. Cancellara's stunned look, and real joy at having succeeded so spectacularly in the first effort of his rookie year, was a moment of unguarded authenticity that gave us our first glimpse, for 2004, of the real poetry of this sport, and the way it can actualize a man in the space of one result, giving him a new stature before your very eyes. Cancellara started this year's tour with very impressive palmares, especially for one so young, as one of the best prologue time trialists, and most promising young men in the sport; but this is Le Tour, and the stakes were higher than ever. Cancellara is already scrumptiously tall, but I think he grew even a little taller in the Maillot Jaune that day, and the fact that he couldn't hide his feelings brought a palpable sense of his humanity to his victory, letting us all feel him as not only a name at the top of a list of results, and a face above the Maillot Jaune, but as a big-hearted, flesh and blood boy who had just made his dreams come true. Moreover, he's really, really handsome, and we at the Crazy Jane copy desk love it when the charming ones win! Monsieur Cancellara, it seems, has an ultimate career objective of winning Le Tour de France one day, and when he does, it will be delicieux indeed. Until then, we'll be keeping an eye on this one.
- Lance Armstrong Ready to Rumble in the Start House: I know it's cool to diss Lance amongst too cool for school hardcore cycling fans the world over, but love him or not, there is just no way to deny that he is an amazing man. That fact struck me with especial force looking at his face as he prepared to launch his 6th bid for Tour mastery in the Prologue starthouse. In the weeks leading up to the Tour, Armstrong was dramatically beaten by one of his top rivals in the Dauphine, was beset by a renewed attack on his integrity, and lined up a new sponsor to keep his boys together for next season, all the while being loved or hated obssessively by gazillions of people he doesn't know. And in the midst of all that (and, no doubt, about 7000 other things), he got prepared to attempt to write his name in the history books as the best Tour de France rider in 101 years of the race. Looking at his face in the starthouse, I felt all of that ephemera swirling around him - all the distractions and details - and then, I saw only his pure, unmitigated presence. Sport, let's face it, is trivial. I mean, when ugly things are happening in the world all around us, who cares which lycra clad monkeyboy rides fastest around France? The answer to that question was in Lance Armstrong's face, and in his very presence on the line that day: it's in his committed action, the certainty he feels in his own body, and in the way he puts it all on the line by just being there. Sport may be essentially trivial, but a great athlete can show us all the strength and poetry of human endeavor, and there's nothing trivial about that.
- US Postal's Peerless Team Time Trial Performance: Sheryl Crow, speaking after the Team Time Trial said that US Postal's ride was "like ballet," and I have to agree. This is Postal's second consecutive victory in this event, which is only won when the coordinated strength of the entire team is perfectly orchestrated, and it was truly gorgeous. There's been a lot of flap this year about new rules, and whether or not this kind of an test should be part of an event that offers up an individual winner at the end of the three weeks, but all of that, for me, falls away when you see a performance like the one the Postmen put in that day. Cycling is uniquely a team sport in which an individual claims the final victory, and so much of the special beauty of cycling is built upon that contradiction that it's my humble opinion that the Team Time Trail is one of the best days in the tour - the day when each man is truly no better than his team's collective strength and their ability to work together to achieve the best result they can. Is Lance stronger than the rest of his boys? Then he'll have to hold his fire. Are the featherweight climbers weaker than the big roleurs? Then they'll have to be carried along by the greater strength of their teammates. It's brilliant, and it would be a travesty not to include it. While I'm on this topic, I have to give a special mention to Benjamin Noval. I can't imagine how miserable it felt to have been left behind to gut it out in the rain, but he made it in under the wire, and that is an heroic effort. Chapeau, gentlemen.
- The True Grit of Phonak's Team Time Trial: Tyler Hamilton's Phonak team suffered more than its fair share of mishap during the TTT, with Tyler himself coming to an almost complete stop to await an essential teammate after a mechanical. Before the end, they had lost 4 men to flat tires and broken handlebars, and were forced to finish with the bare minimum of 5 riders to set their time, and they still held on for 2nd place. After Hamilton's bewilderingly brilliant performance in last year's Tour, lots of race fans were truly dismayed at his choice to leave CSC to take the helm at Phonak, but I think that choice is looking pretty darned good right now. With the strongmen of CSC riding all out and failing to take stage victories, it's hard to imagine how the whole team could be united in support of one G.C. contender after so many individual efforts, and Tyler knows better than anyone that it's going to take total dedication from a united team to challenge Lance Armstrong and US Postal. Tyler wanted that opportunity, and he looks to have found it with Phonak. The growing cohesion of this team under Hamilton's leadership, the kind that can produce a performance like the one they pulled out in their beleaguered Team Time Trail, is making Tyler's move look pretty astute. Phonak is looking better and better, and they've got a great contender to support. I hope they kick some ass out there. Also, I don't think I have to tell any of you that Tyler Hamilton is a total stud.
- Jan Ullrich's Poker Face: I said it yesterday, and I'll say it again today, what's this guy holding? I have no idea, and I just love that! Big Jan usually keeps quiet, and plays his cards close, and he's been virtually anonymous so far in this tour. Even so, it seems like every time I see his face, he looks cool, unruffled, and 100% serious. Jan is such an enigma! What's going on in that head of his? After 5 second place finishes in Le Tour, what's he thinking about being 55 seconds back on his stone cold arch nemesis? And, most importantly, what's under the hood this year? One of the things that amazes me most about the sport of cycling, is the way some of these guys return, year in and year out, to face the challenge of some unachieved goal again and again, and not simply with the same dedication, but actually, with renewed committment. Jan Ullrich won this race in 1997, and if Lance Armstrong had not come back from the edge of death to knock Le Tour on its ass, Ullrich would be being hailed as the second coming of Miguel Indurain right now; so, what keeps him coming back with his heart set on just one thing? Ullrich's got a tough hand to play here, because the only way he can improve is to beat Lance Armstrong. Ullrich's never been able to do that, but he's back, and he's ready to try again, and I think that's an amazing human quality.
- The Changing of the Guard - Young Guns Shine: When this tour started, I had expected to see sprint god Alessandro Petacchi steamroll into inexorable victory, day after day. I expected some challenge from the old guard - Mario Cipollini, Robbie McEwen, etc. - but what has been an absolute delight is seeing the youngsters of Le Tour stepping up to revel in the glory. Fabian Cancellara (23 years old) was first, with a Prologue performance that out-stripped all the favorites, then, victories for Tom Boonen (also 23 years old) and Pippo Pozzato (22 years old), and the Maillot Jaune for Voeckler (23 years old). I love the youngsters, and we've got some strong ones to look forward to in the coming weeks as well, with young bucks like Michele Scarponi, Michael Rogers, Mikel Astarloza, Sandy Casar and Sylvan Chavanel still holding their fire. I can't wait to see who wears white in Paris, but here's what I do know: it's going to be delicieux!
- Stuey O'Grady, Back in Green: Anyone who bit their nails to the quick watching O'Grady's battling performance for the green jersey in 2001, where he lost it on the Champs Elysees to the worthy Eric Zabel, has got to be cheering for this Aussie. O'Grady had some medical trouble with the circulation in his legs the following year, and in 2003 it looked like some not so friendly competition with Thor Hushovd on the Credit Agricole team didn't really set him up to contend. This year, he's got a whole new can of worms to deal with on the scandal-mired Cofidis team, and he suffered some of the worst luck ever in the first week of the tour, but all of that just made his victory even more satidfying. O'Grady seems to be a bit slower than McEwen at this point, but I like to hope he'll somehow pull it out in the end.
- Little Tommy Voeckler in Yellow: French Champion Thomas Voeckler escaped with a long breakaway and rode himself right into the yellow jersey, giving French fans something to celebrate in their home event. He did it with a brave, attacking ride - he only had to stay upright to claim the Maillot Jaune out of his break, but he kept looking for the win. In the end, he didn't get it, but it was the pride in his work that counted, in my book. Voeckler and his team have borne the burden well, with the Brioches La Boulangere team, unaccustomed to taking the reins in the peloton, riding the front like Champs. Voeckler's beaming face is a pleasure everyday at the end of the stage, I know he'll fight to stay in yellow as long as he possibly can, and that's awesome.
- The Workhorses: I know I said this yesterday, but every team has an Engine Room: those guys who are there to work, and they know it. Yesterday, I picked out two stand-up performances in this department - Servais Knaven's, and George Hincapie's - but they're hardly the only ones. The sacrifice and dedication of the domestiques in Le Tour has a long and auspicious history of heroism, and deservedly so. There's so much in the poetic order of professional cycling that hinges on the fact that for most of the field, winning means giving up everything, and letting go of any personal ambition. The role of the domestique is one of the things about professional cycling that is least understood by the uninitiated, but it's also one of the most deeply appealing aspects of the sport. I'm sure the work is sometimes thankless, boys, but it doesn't go unnoticed... by the ladies...
- Lycra! Lycra! Lycra!: All this and lycra costumes, too?! Allow me to put it this way: if all y'all want to rig up a sport that's packed full of that riveting stuff I just mentioned (and more), that is perpetrated by more than 200 fit young men entirely clad in lycra, many of them with sexy mother tongues (Italian, ladies? Am I right?), and charmingly broken English, and then sally them forth through the sunflower fields of France, COUNT ME IN, because the entire project is delicieux! I know Le Tour is serious business and all, but I am a red-blooded girl, and I can see a church by daylight.
Don't forget to send me your picks for the Delicieux distinction! We need all the help we can get over here, so e-mail me your choices at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post your comments at Le Tour Delicieux!