Sunday, July 8, 2007

The greatest solo sporting event on Earth

Let's hope the UCI can start cracking down on doping, then maybe people will start to care again.

In 1903 the Parisian equivalent to Sports Illustrated, L'Auto (now known as L'Equipe), founded the greatest bicycle race on the face of the Earth and named it the Tour de France. The Tour was conjured up to increase newspaper circulation, which it dramatically did, but through the years has grown into what can be seen as the greatest individual sporting event on Earth.

Sure the Olympics can provide some outstanding individual efforts in track and field, swimming, and other such sports. Marathoners and triathletes have all of our respect with their strength, endurance, and willingness to compete in what seems to be more self-torture than sport. The cyclists that compete in the Tour de France have them all beat, hands down.

In a race that spans a little over three weeks, 2,000+ miles, and with a measly two rest days, it is hard to argue that any event can hold a candle to what these guys put themselves through in pursuit of the coveted maillot jaune or, yellow jersey. Just take a look at this and tell me that even completing the race is an easy feat. It isn't. That's right, these guys ride bikes at speeds reaching 60 mph (downhill, of course) across most of France, parts of Belgium, through the French Alps, and through the Pyrenees Mountains. For those who are not familiar with France's mountain ranges, the peaks of the Alps are right up there with the Rockies while the Pyrenees are not far behind. Every year several cyclists who specialize in flat land cycling (sprinting) drop out when the mountain stages begin while during the race the Voiture balai, or broom wagon, collects riders who can not finish or are too far behind.

Everyone who has even overheard a conversation or news piece about cycling will tell you that they don't care because most of the riders, in their opinion, are using performance-enhancing drugs. The types of drugs used in cycling tell you just how rigorous the sport is as most offenders are found to have taken EPO and/or given themselves blood transfusions to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood. Every sport has cheaters and dopers, very few sports have athletes who store up their own oxygen-rich blood with the intent of replacing their oxygen-depleted blood overnight. Hopefully, these practices are coming to an end as the UCI (cycling's governing body) has drafted tough, mandatory contracts for riders to adhere to. This year is already looking ten times better than last year.

Assuming cycling can put its recent sordid past behind it and pedal into greener fields, the Tour de France will remain as one of the top sporting events in the world. It is already the penultimate test of human endurance and the pinnacle of what a solo athlete can achieve in the world of sports today.

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Kenneth is a guest contributor to laissez-faire ball.

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