When Johnny Hoogerland ascended the podium to be awarded the polka dot jersey as the Tour de France’s king of the mountains, if you’re anything like me, you exhaled in relief. At a certain level we could relax with the assurance that justice could be found on such a public stage.
What I doubt any of us expected was seeing Hoogerland overcome with emotion. I am unable to imagine anyone stonefacing the screen as the Dutchman struggled to bring composure to the stage where all achievement is vaunted. That moment may go down as the defining episode of this year’s Tour. It stands as a testament not to athletic achievement but the esteem that comes from the struggle for achievement that underlies all athletic endeavors.
Among cyclists, I’ve yet to hear a single person denigrate that moment of emotion as anything other than the sheer shock of incredulity at having managed something that would for most of us be manifestly unthinkable. Not that climbing out of barbed wire and riding our bike even five miles is impossible—no, the point is that to most of us such an act is unthinkable. After an accident in which our heels have pinwheeled past our head on our way to landing on a bed of nails, getting back on the bike is pointless.
And that’s the difference. Within my life, no bike race I might conceivably win has the power to redefine me so completely as a person that getting back on the bike becomes a reasonable sacrifice. After all, that’s what we’re talking about. Getting back on the bike is a sacrifice; in doing so, you are giving up a level of wound care and pain relief that are the first priority to the rest of us. Aside from the suffering we accept cycling to be, getting back on the bike is guaranteed pain.
The effort Hoogerland made to continue in the Tour is an object lesson in what it takes to reach this level of the sport. However, the real gravity in his effort is what it tells us of Hoogerland’s future, how he views the value of his work to this point in his life, the value of being selected to race with a pro team, being selected for the Tour, the question mark of what he has yet to achieve as an athlete. It’s easy to see how the effort he made to swing a leg back over the bike and resume riding was a statement of gratitude. Most cyclists will never get the chance to ride the Tour.
You want to know what it takes to don the polka dot jersey? I suggest that each of those stitches is but a tiny window into that work.
Hoogerland’s name was barely known to most of us before the Tour started. In my head he was just another Dutch cyclist. Now he’s a hero, not of the Tour or of cycling, but of the human spirit. After all, who walks out on a dream as the whole of the world gasps for you?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
ASO has a dilemma. Cycling fans all over the world don’t much like the course for the 2009 Tour de France. The criticism of the course has been consistent: No fireworks. It’s a shame, really. The Tour’s technical director created a course that was intended to make stage 20 up Mt. Ventoux pivotal.
It’s easy to make the case for ASO’s decision: They wanted the outcome of the race to remain in play for as long as possible. It was a response to what they considered conservative racing on previous mountain stages when the leaders would ride tempo marking each other and rarely attacking. They wanted a worthy victor to be found at the last possible moment—on the slopes of Mt. Ventoux.
It’s an interesting idea, but the dissatisfaction the public feels illustrates the problem. You follow the Tour de France to see dramatic racing on a daily basis. If ASO wants a winner-take-all race decided on hors categorie climbs, then they should revive the Classique des Alpes.
Any one stage would have been acceptable in another year’s course. A mountain stage without a mountain finish isn’t a problem, but when there are so many of them they become a pattern, we’re deprived of the detonations that are so thrilling.
Further, had the GC been more thoroughly clarified, if not decided, then George Hincapie would not have been in a position to take the yellow jersey, if only for a day. Garmin had their reason to chase—to avoid a split—but as an example of negative racing, what they did was minor compared to Columbia’s efforts to disrupt the sprint. Chases get disrupted all the time, but everyone expects a sprint to unfold with all possible haste.
To be utterly fair to the ASO, if their goal was drama, then they did, in fact, succeed. In movie making, the worst thing that a director can allow to happen is for the audience to become bored and tune out. In “Psycho,” that Janet Leigh takes a shower isn’t interesting, but our anticipation keeps us riveted. Our expectation for drama has kept us tuning in.
The sense of relief at the mountaintop finish on Verbiers elicited world-wide Twitters of “fireworks.” The shame for ASO is that while the audience is happy, Verbiers provided exactly the thing they wanted to avoid—a GC selection so clear as to determine the final victor.
But that’s the score isn’t it? Contador is almost unquestionably the finest rider in the race. It’s unlikely any GC contender can put even a minute into him in the final TT.
The question remains: Did ASO really miss the mark? After all, you, I, and the rest of the world have been on the edge of our seats waiting for Anthony Perkins to pull back the shower curtain. However, the course does have a significant flaw. By awarding double points to the final climb of each stage, rather than just those final climbs placed at the end of the stage and used for an uphill finish, the organizer has allowed the polka-dot jersey of the King of the Mountains to be held by the least deserving leader of the classification since Laurent Jalabert won it in 2002 (as likable as Jalabert is, he wasn’t the best climber that year, not by a longshot), after finishing the race in 42nd place overall, more than 1:17 down on Lance Armstrong. Franco Pellizotti sits in 46th place, 24.26 down on Contador.
Jalabert’s win was the reason the ASO elected to double points on the final climb of each stage. Had the organizer awarded double points only on Arcalis and Verbiers, Pellizotti would not be in the polka-dot jersey and Alberto Contador would be within striking distance of it, if not already in possession of the famed maillot pois.
We’re more than two weeks into the Tour and the first real shakeout in the GC has just taken place. The ASO rarely makes the same mistake twice, so we’re not likely to see another Tour take this long to separate the gold from the ore.
Contador’s performance on Verbier puts his muscle-flexing on Arcalis in a new light. While his attack on Arcalis did nothing to dispel the leadership tension within the team, he did the team a huge favor by not taking the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees. Astana would have been worked by now if they had spent the last week defending the jersey.
Contador may be possessed of more self-confidence than one might otherwise guess. And though Cadel Evans told the AFP that Bradley Wiggins could still win the Tour, it seems more than likely the only podium spot that’s still in play is that lowest spot. It could go to either Wiggins or Andy Schleck … or maybe Andreas Kloden.
Provided Contador doesn’t lose time in the Annecy time trial, his lead should allow him to ride conservatively on Mont Ventoux. He may be the only rider who won’t have to worry about attacks. Perhaps the most interesting question remaining is if Bruyneel will try to sweep the podium with Contador, Armstrong and Kloden. It would be an historic performance.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.