It's a tough time to be a Chicago sports fan. The Sox are hovering at five hundred and the Cubs, well, is it too early to say "wait 'til next year"? Bears training camp is still a ways off and most of us remain in disbelief that the Bulls weren't the team that humbled the Heat.
If you're aching for some real head-to-head competition replete with speed, pure athleticism, and tactical teamwork, tune in to the Tour de France Saturday morning on Versus. Think of professional cycling as the lovechild of the NBA and Grand Prix racing fueled by rivalries that make the World Cup look like an afternoon tea.
Even though the Tour has been in progress since July 2nd, you can begin watching Stage 14 as if it were Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The first 11 stages brought the racers to the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. The real battle began on its steep slopes this past Thursday and has whittled down the competition to the top twenty riders, give or take a few. Saturday's steep climbs will mark the beginning of the end of this grueling 21-day endurance event.
Rivalries Run Deep
Three time TDF champion, Alberto Contador from Spain, is defending his championship against the Schleck Brothers from Luxembourg and Cadel Evans from Australia. Both Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans have finished second to Contador - Schleck in 2009 and 2010, Evans in 2007. Evans also finished second in 2008, a year Contador's team was not invited to ride.
Contador is considered by most to be the greatest mountain climber in the sport, having also won the Giro d'Italia twice and the Vuelta a Espana once. He is also considered by most to be a complete tool. His selfish and stupid tactics cost teammate Lance Armstrong a shot at his 8th TDF victory in '09 while inadvertently dragging Schleck onto the podium ahead of Lance. His questionable judgment (read; poor sportsmanship) in passing Schleck during a mechanical mishap on last year's Stage 15 allowed him to gain 39 seconds on his rival - the exact margin he eventually won the 92-hour event by.
It's a Matter of Time
The Tour consists of 21 timed stage races. The recorded time for the winner of each stage is added together to determine the overall time of the race. The amount of time each rider finishes behind the stage winner each day is added to his personal overall time. Every second counts over three weeks of racing. Last year's tour was won by a mere 39 seconds. The closest victory was 8 seconds when Greg Lemond won in 1989.
Bicycle Racing is a Team Sport
Lance Armstrong didn't win seven consecutive tours alone. (Go ahead and insert your doping comment here - feel better now?) He had incredibly talented teammates like George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer (both still racing) that set the tempo of the race, pulled him up the hills, chased down breakaways, covered his attackers, and helped him conserve energy until he needed it most. The Schleck Brothers and Evans have strong teams to drive them up the mountain passes. Contador is riding on a weaker team, so he'll have to work harder and attack more often to overcome his two-minute time deficit to Frank Schleck.
It's a Matter of Tactics
Steep mountain climbs separate the riders with the strongest legs and highest pain tolerance from the rest of the pack. Recognizing when an opponent is struggling the most and launching an attack is the key to widening the time gap. Watch for the Schleck Brothers to break out the "bait and switch".
Crashes and Breakdowns Will Alter The Race
Just when you think your hero is about to open up a lead and race ahead to victory, an invisible hand bitch-slaps him off the road. Crashes, flat tires, and bike breakdowns can alter the race in a heartbeat. Frank Schleck crashed out on the cobblestones in Stage 3 of last year's race. A flat tire on those same cobbles and a couple of small crashes put Armstrong into a time deficit he would never make up. So far, race favorites like Chris Horner, Dave Zabriskie, Bradley Wiggins, Alexandre Vinokourov, Jurgen van den Broeck, and Andreas Kloden have all seen their hopes dashed by crashes, placing them among 27 total riders that have abandoned the race (some involuntarily). America's own Levi Leipheimer would be in much better standing had it not been for crashes in this year's early stages.
Fourth Quarter Action
Just like an NBA championship game, the real action comes near the end of the race. Though coverage begins at 5:30am, you can easily tune in at 9am without missing too much. If you'd like to be brought up to speed on riders, teams, tactics, and tour history, it's a good idea to tune in earlier. Race commentators Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin are two of the best color guys in sports.
Tune In and Turn On
When you grow tired of watching millionaires swing sticks, tune in to the Tour. If you're a fan of strength, perseverance, determination, skill, strategy, and courage, the TDF will turn you on. Check your local listings for the NBC / Versus sports network.