David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” is a sprawling, impossible novel, 1079 pages long with hundreds of foot and end notes that break up and expand on the multiple plot lines. It chronicles the tragi-comic exploits of a Canadian separatist group, a prep school tennis player and a half-way house addict, among others. It’s a book that bites off far more than any one novel could chew, but it is absolutely and stunningly brilliant.
The Tour de France is an impossible bike race—21 stages, thousands of kilometers, high mountain passes, time trials, bunch sprints. When Henri Desgranges concocted it, it was as the most audaciously challenging sporting event on the planet, like nothing sporting cyclists had ever attempted. And from its inaugural year, it has always sought to fulfill bike racing fans’ wildest dreams, an infinite jest.
In Foster Wallace’s book, there is a video cartridge, referred to as “the entertainment,” which is so compelling that it completely incapacitates anyone who sees it. It literally blows their minds. “The entertainment” is a comic element, but only because it doesn’t exist. There is no one perfect entertainment.
One of the things I don’t like about grand tours (I know, blasphemy!) is that they attempt too much. There are 21 races within the one race, but there are also mountains, points and young rider competitions going on simultaneously. There is the team competition. There are intermediate sprint points, combativity prizes. There is so much going on, there are so many opportunities to win SOMETHING, that it can begin to feel like a cub scout jamboree. Everyone leaves with a prize, and so, some years, none of the prizes seems to hold any great value.
The 2011 Tour de France was not one of those grand tours. The general classification battle between the Schlecks, Cadel Evans, Thomas Voekler and Alberto Contador inspired each of those riders to amazing rides. But also we watched Phillipe Gilbert storm the green jersey, before Mark Cavendish took it back. All the while JJ Rojas stole points to remain close. Andre Greipel took a stage off his former teammate/nemesis, as well. In the climber’s competition, we watch Johnny Hoogerland write a modern cycling legend, climbing out of a barbed wire fence to pull on the polka dots. Garmin-Cervelo won the team competition by animating the first week of the event and then launching Tommy Danielson into the top ten.
Did a day go by without some great story being told in carbon fiber, sweat and chain grease?
When I was younger I was a much more earnest reader of serious fiction, and I plowed through “Infinite Jest” over the summer of 1997. I loved it, but holy shit, that’s a book you can’t recommend to anyone else without looking like a pretentious jerk. Anyone who publishes a novel in excess of 1000 pages is taking a big gamble. If it fails, it’s an epic failure, and, if we’re honest, sometimes the Tour de France fails. This was not one of those times. In the wake of Angelo Zomegnan’s kamikaze Giro d’Italia, Tour director Christian Prudhomme needed to deliver a legitimate epic.
And, like Foster Wallace, he did, combining compelling characters with clever plot twists and iconic settings. It would be a stretch to call the Tour de France an infinite jest, but its perseverance, and the sheer quality of this year’s version, in the face of the ignominy of the last decade, suggest there is something enduring to the grandest of all bike races, something ineffable that holds our attention, even when common sense might suggest we turn away.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The cliché says you can’t win the Tour de France in the first week, but you can certainly lose it. It’s a shame really, because so many pro teams organize their season around the Tour, the possibility for stage wins, for sponsor publicity, for glory. Something simple like the swerve of a car or a wet bend in the road can play havoc with a pack of riders grand tour thick and first week nervous.
Those who lost the Tour in the first week are easy to list: Alexandre Vinokourov and Team Astana, Alessandro Petacchi, Jani Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Team Radio Shack, Tom Boonen and his QuickStep squad, and Bradley Wiggins.
Aging Vinokourov fractured his pelvis in a gruesome looking crash over a concrete barrier and down into a ditch. The sight of his teammates gathered around, along with a team doctor, carrying him back up onto the road, signaled the end for the Kazakh team. Vino went off to hospital. The rest rode desultorily up the road to chase onto the neutralized peloton. Even Roman Kreuziger, who might have pretended to be riding for GC, injured his wrist earlier in the week. Not sure what the boys in electric blue and yellow will do for the next two weeks, but we will see.
Another elder statesman of the road, Alessandro Petacchi, has managed to be involved in exactly nothing in the opening stanza. Tipped as an outside bet to nick stage wins off Mark Cavendish, the Italian has instead been conspicuous only by his absence.
Team Radio Shack are going only slightly better than Team Astana. One possible GC man, Jani Brajkovic, crashed out with a concussion and a broken collarbone on Stage Five. Chris Horner left the race two days later also with a dramatic head injury. Levi Leipheimer has been on the deck as often as Captain Ahab, falling out of GC contention, and then Andreas Klöden, the Shack’s one remaining hope, injured his back on Stage Nine. They’ll drag themselves to the finish, but this, apparently, will not be the year Johan Bruyneel forgets his old buddy Lance.
QuickStep are never in France riding for the general classification, but with major crashes leading to the abandonment of Tom Boonen, their best hope for a stage win, and heavy injuries to Sylvain Chavanel, their strongest breakaway chance, QuickStep will likely be walking away with nothing in 2011.
Team Sky also lost their main GC hope when Bradley Wiggins did his collarbone on Stage Seven. With Geraint Thomas, Stage Six winner Edvald Boasson-Hagen, and Rigoberto Uran still in the race, Sky has plenty left to ride for, but conceding the GC battle must hurt a team whose stated goal is to win the Tour with a Briton.
There is also a small group whose fate is still too hard to discern.
Much has been written over the past week about Alberto Contador’s misfortunes and seeming vulnerability. When he lost more than a minute on Stage One, commentators were already saying his race was over, but these storylines are predictable. In truth, an on-form Contador can pull back his current deficit in a single Alpine attack. More worrying for the Spaniard is that multiple crashes have left him battered and bruised, especially a bad right knee which could steal his explosiveness in the steeps. Furthermore, his SaxoBank-Sungard team never seems to be with him. Even when he’s tucked into the peloton, his support team is seldom in evidence. Will they be there when he needs them most, in the Pyrenees and Alps?
Another too soon to tell is Ivan Basso. The Italian decided to forgo a defense of his Giro d’Italia title to focus on the Tour, and now, at the end of the first week, Basso has managed to remain upright, but he is 3:36 down on GC, and he’s a crappy time trialist. You can count three or four GC faves Basso will outclimb when the road turns up, but the podium will be a big stretch.
Perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over Tour Director Christian Prudhomme. On the one hand, first week drama is always good for the Tour as the real fireworks seem to fly on the climbing stages of weeks two and three. However, the riders and teams are feeling as though the course is too dangerous, and some high profile crashes and injuries reinforce the notion that the new game in grand tours is putting the participants through the wringer.
Multiple accidents involving caravan vehicles call into question the Amaury Sports Organization’s ability to manage all the moving parts, and cramming 22 teams of 9 riders each through some of the tiny roads of northern and central France looks like a not very good idea too. Fans, especially those who’ve never crashed, seem to love the carnage, but in the end, we all want to see the race decided by the quality of the riders, not by simple attrition.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Unlike amateur golf, pro cycling does not use a handicapping system to give riders of unequal talent an equal chance at winning the race. That is why, Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme deployed the “dumb ass spectator” strategy to bring the peloton down, outside the 10k banner, with Alberto Contador caught up in the resulting mess.
Oh sure, it looked like an accident, but could Prudhomme really have hoped for more? From the moment the UCI cleared Contador to ride, he was instantly installed as favorite to win. Having watched Lance Armstrong ride away with the yellow jersey in the ’00s, Prudhomme HAD to do something to take his race back.
And so, on an innocuously straight road where the pack was just ramping up the speed to set up the finish, a spectator leaned out, looking up the road for some reason, rather than back at the swarming velo mass flying by, clipped Maxim Iglinsky of Astana and sent riders tumbling like a gym full of dominoes at the end of a long college weekend. Contador wasn’t injured in the pile up, but he lost 1:20 on the stage, slightly less to the other race favorites, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Andreas Klöden, et. al.
Do not believe anyone who tells you Contador can’t overcome that deficit. He can. But that deficit is going to turn the 2011 Tour de France into a race.
Stage winner Philipe Gilbert perpetrated a half kilometer sprint to take the day. He dropped Fabian Cancellara. He gapped the entire lead group. A late breaking Cadel Evans couldn’t chase him down. It was exactly the sort of win that makes Gilbert the most exciting racer on the road today. On the podium, he pulled the yellow jersey over the Belgian champion’s jersey. That, my friends, is a bad ass maneuver.
Also, a big thumbs up for the new intermediate sprint rules. We were particularly surprised to see Mark Cavendish fall sound asleep in advance of the line, allowing both Tyler Farrar and Andre Greipel to come over top of him. Perhaps it’s true what he’s been telling the press, that he’s really only interested in stage wins.
The new set up for green jersey points turns 21 stages into 42. Sort of.
And on we go to the Stage Two Team Time Trial (TTT). I will be wearing a skin suit while watching from my couch. It’s an attempt to shave some time off the 3hr 30min live coverage that will keep the lawn from getting mowed and my children from getting parented.
In a departure from recent tradition, Christian Prudhomme released the list of Tour de France team invitations early. Twenty-two teams were on the list, the eighteen ProTeams and four wild cards, all French. The managers of FDJ, Saur-Sojasun, Cofidis and Europcar must have been giggling over their morning croissants. Mauro Gianetti at Geox – TMC, excluded from the race, despite having former Tour winner Carlos Sastre and regular podium finisher Denis Menchov on their roster, was not nearly so pleased.
Prudhomme insisted his team selections were about supporting French cycling, but not everyone bought that explanation.
As John Wilcockson wrote for VeloNews, Geox-TMC’s summer vacation is less about Prudhomme favoring French teams, but rather more about old vendettas against Giannetti. The Italian had managed the Saunier-Duval team of Ricardo Ricco, the Italian climber banned for two years, busted at the 2008 Tour. No matter that Gianetti immediately fired Ricco, the Geox-TMC boss in persona non grata for Prudhomme and ASO.
Is it odd then that BMC rides so many ASO events, despite their connection to the Phonak team, also run by Andy Rihs? Phonak won the 2006 Tour with their leader Floyd Landis. Has there been a more embarrassing event in recent Tour history than Landis’ disqualification?
This week’s Group Ride asks the following: Is Geox-TMC’s exclusion fair? Does the invitation of demonstrably weaker French teams hurt the race? What do you think about ASO punishing teams for the behavior of past riders?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International