What a strange sport, cycling.
More than any sport, it contains multiple stories and multiple champions, wheel to wheel on narrow mountain roads.
The Tour ended Sunday where it always ends, in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
When the survivors struggled up the Alpe d’Huez on Saturday, either Phil Liggett or Paul Sherwen, both English, noted on NBCSN that from the peak of that mountaintop the riders could see the Eiffel Tower. Whichever one it was, he was being poetic, but what a symbol for this singular event.
I remember the penultimate race in 2004, a time trial out east in Besancon, that made Lance Armstrong champion for the sixth straight year. As soon as work was done, I jumped into the car with James Startt and Sam Abt, two Americans in Paris. James started his engine and gunned onto the Autoroute. I close my eyes for a few minutes and woke up and saw a strange phenomenon looming out the back window. It was the Eiffel Tower, all lit up on a summer evening. James had found a time warp. We were in Paris.
The same thing happened Sunday in rainy France, when the peloton skidded its way into Paris on the ritual final day. Every finisher was a champion of the human will. That’s why people stand in the rain or sun and cheer.
Saturday’s true finish up the Alpe d’Huez had three champions, all properly celebrated by Liggett and Sherwen. .
There was a Frenchman, Thibaud Pinot, barreling ahead on the final climb, to win the stage, a victory for the host country, living on the memory of past glories. (Like England in soccer.)
Then there was a Colombian, Nairo Quintana, showing panache, the favored character trait of the Tour, by trying in vain to win the Tour with a blast up the Alpe.
And there was the actual winner, Chris Froome of Great Britain, who gained from a great support system and his own dogged riding, to win another Tour.
It is a strange sport. My friend Alan Rubin, soccer keeper and mentor, added a comment on this site recently, wishing he knew more about the sport. I always felt the same way -- and I was covering it, or at least writing columns, often about the apothecary wing of cycling.
The best I could tell Alan is that the Tour is a mix of the Daytona 500, the New York Marathon, the roller derby, and the old single-wing formation in American football, when everybody pulled to lead the ball-carrier.
My advice would be to read the collected works of Daniel Coyle, David Walsh, John Wilcockson, Juliet Macur, Sam Abt and James Startt.
You’ve got almost 49 weeks.
(Sam Toperoff lives in the Alps with his family. He played basketball at Hofstra and later taught there and has had an admirable career writing books and documentaries before retiring in France. The Tour de France has been in their region in recent days; I suggested he send his impressions.
(At first, Sam was going to write from the largest town, Gap, but then he wrote why that was not possible:
(“Local shepherds will be staging a manifestation – protest -- because the government is protecting wolves, which they claim are attacking their flocks. Italy, just across the mountains, doesn't have a wolf problem because the shepherds sleep with their flocks; French shepherds do not. Still, the local shepherds plan to disrupt the Tour by loosing 3,000 sheep when the cyclists approach Gap. Seriously. I'm not making this up; this is France, and I love it.”
(Instead, Sam waited until Thursday, and he wrote these words and his daughter Olivia took some photos.)
By Sam Toperoff
Good evening Mr. and Mrs. North America and all the ships at sea, let's go to press. (It's an opening that takes me back to my childhood and so does riding a bike around Laurelton, Queens, when I was about nine or ten.) I always thought bikes were for kids. Not in Europe they ain't!
I've never been as taken with the Tour de France, the best bike-riding ever, since I watched the great Bernard Hinault bike past me to victory forty years ago on an uphill climb I could barely manage while walking. I had found myself in the French Alps par hazard and since there were no basketballs around and no one to hit fungoes to, I had to start biking. Frankly, it was the most demanding physical activity I'd ever engaged in. I biked these hills in summer until I was seventy. I actually put the bike away on my birthday after I came up two hairpin turns from a road below my house and barely made it.
The other day, to win the 18th stage of this year's Tour, Romain Bardet went up scores of hairpins and scaled the Alps themselves during a 170-km. race while being chased by 170 other world class riders. These are remarkable athletes indeed because of the physical and mental demands they face daily over three-week period. All in all, the race is over 2,000 miles.
Bardet is a young Frenchman, and a Frenchy winning even a stage has become a rarity these days; no one from Gaul has won the Tour since the above-mentioned Hinault, who did it thirty years ago! And so tonight, French television is nothing but Bardet, Bardet, Bardet.
Of course, it's hard to watch the Tour without wondering how these men can do what they do, especially when it comes to their need to recover overnight after such enormous effort. Even though all of Lance Armstrong's victories have been vacated because of his now-admitted use of illegal stimulants, it is hard to watch such remarkable performances and not remain somewhat cynical.
The Director of the Sky Team, for whom Christopher Froome rides, the Englishman Sir David Brailsford, is on television almost daily assuring viewers (his French is perfect) that his team is clean. "I don't blame people for being cynical," he said the other day, "but other than the unlimited testing of my team and giving the public my word, what can I do?"
The shadow of Lance Armstrong still shades the Tour. I despise him for what he did. Worse, he put doubt in my appreciation of what I am witnessing; cynicism's worst effect is that it robs one of pleasure. And poor Chris Froome -- a truly great rider -- and young Romain Bardet -- and my particular favorite Alberto Contador -- they all become objects of suspicion. Nevertheless, I'll be in front of my set for tomorrow's stage.”
1. A friend of mine grew up in Jamaica Estates, Queens, right behind the Trump house. They were mostly nice people, my friend said, but when a ball went over their fence one young Trump would grab it and say, nyah-nyah, you can’t have it back and scurry into the house. My friend says Donald Trump was always a nasty little kid.
2. When John McCain came back from Hanoi with broken arms and unbroken spirit, he and some other vets organized a pipeline for sending goods to the poor people of Vietnam. My wife sat next to one of McCain’s guys on a flight out east; he said the senator did not like publicity about the operation. I once interviewed him in his office (about Olympic business) and asked him about the pipeline and he shrugged, eloquently, as if to say, it’s the right thing to do. I sometimes scream at the tube at the loopy things he says, but I really like him and have not the slightest doubt that he is an American hero.
3. Make no mistake about it, the Republicans have made this an easier world for Donald Trump to spread his foolishness. For over six years they have run a campaign of ignorance and malice and, yes, prejudice about the twice-elected President. McConnell and Boehner and Graham have questioned Obama's motives, his actions, and, with their silence, even his birthplace in Hawaii. I think it is because they cannot handle having a moral and educated man of African and American descent, as the smartest man in their room. Their behavior has created a monster. Donald Trump is their golem.
There is not a single statue of a real woman in Central Park. Good grief.
I did not know that until Thursday when Jami Floyd did a segment on WNYC-FM about this ludicrous injustice.
Juliet of Verona. Mother Goose. Forty-four statues of men, but none of women who actually walked this earth. .
My first response was, of course, Grete Waitz. She flitted through the streets of New York like a super-powered sprite from Norway, nine times ending up in Central Park as the winner of the New York Marathon.
And still no statue?
One could argue that her athletic achievement was the greatest by a female athlete within the borders of the big city. She owned the town, nine Sundays in November. She set an example of talent, grace and will, and New Yorkers claim her, despite the statue of her in Oslo.
Waitz passed way too young in 2011, at the age of 57. She remains the embodiment of the sport. Men and women think about her when they put one foot after another.
I know there is a statue of Fred Lebow, the big macher who built the New York Marathon, on the east side of Central Park. I jogged a few miles alongside them, through Brooklyn, in 1992, the day Waitz escorted Lebow, who was dying of brain cancer, on his last run around the city. But this is no time for Tracy-and-Hepburn sentiment.
Waitz deserves her own statue, right near the finish line on the west side of the park.
Obviously, there are hundreds of deserving women to right this wrong. My mom is out there, telling me, “Eleanor Roosevelt! Dorothy Day! Marian Anderson!"
People were calling WNYC, nominating Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Marie Curie, Jackie Kennedy, dozens of worthy people.
Nobody ever ruled Central Park the way Grete Waitz did. In a New York minute, get her a statue.
It was my first day around the Tour de France, a rainy morning, July 14, 1982.
There was a time trial that holiday, around Valence d’Agen in the south, but it was too early to go out in the rain.
I was with Roby Oubron, former cyclo-cross champion and then a mentor to Jonathan Boyer, the first American to ride in the Tour.
Roby was a true son of France, a resister during the war who loved America. He met me for breakfast in the hotel and brought along a friend, but I did not catch his name.
I tried to follow the shop talk in French, and they slowed it down enough for me to be included. We dawdled over breakfast, more than the basic croissant and café au lait. Then I asked the waiter for the check.
“Ah, non!” Roby blurted. His friend, a polite older man in nondescript foul-weather gear, was also asking for the check, but I had gotten there first.
Trying to overcome the language gap, Roby explained that his friend was wealthy, loved cycling, and always paid, always. I politely told the man that the New York Times would insist, journalistic ethics and all.
The man seemed bemused by the concept of journalists grabbing the check, but he nodded his head gravely and thanked me.
Later, in the car, racing around behind Boyer on the time trial, Roby explained to me, as best we could work out, that his friend was Guy Merlin, the founder and proprietor of Merlin leisure homes and camps all over France. Guy Merlin sponsored cycling teams, and his $20,000 condominium in the south of France was the largest prize for cyclists on that 1982 Tour, I found out later.
We barreled around southwest France the next few days -- Rob Ingraham, Boyer’s agent, called Roby “Mario Andretti," for his heavy foot – and my short visit ended up in the Pyrenees, with the goats. Roby knew everybody. He would drive alongside Bernard Hinault on some narrow mountain pass and ask why he was making a breakaway. It was like sitting in a baseball dugout during a game with a wise elder like Ted Williams or Roy Campanella.
I adopted Roby as my alternate father-figure and think of him every Quatorze. As long as Roby lived, he told the story of how I grabbed the check from Guy Merlin.
* * *
Bonus: a short video of Roby winning a cyclo-cross stage, July 12, 1945, apres la paix.
I was watching the Tour de France on Tuesday morning as it swept through the city of Charleroi, in Belgium.
My mind went back to a nasty morning in 2004, at a staging area in the very same Charleroi, when I had a taste of the grim war being fought by Lance Armstrong’s minions.
Totally by coincidence, I am reading the new book about the battle of Waterloo, by Bernard Cornwell. Another conqueror also passed through Charleroi that fateful month of June, 1815. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte.
So now they are fused in my mind, the man on horseback, the man on the bike.
As the Tour began in 2004, a new book came out, “L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong,” by David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, containing many accusations of doping by Armstrong and his team. The book was only in French. I bought a copy at the Brussels Airport and was reading it as the Tour began in Liege.
One of the most convincing sections was about an Irish masseuse, Emma O’Reilly, who recalled how Armstrong had tested positive for steroids in 1999, only to have a doctor file a note saying Armstrong had been using a form of steroids to combat saddle sores, an occupational hazard.
If anybody knew whether Armstrong had saddle sores, it would be his masseuse, O’Reilly said -- and he did not. She described the panic in the Armstrong bus about the positive test, until a servile world cycling federation accepted the doctor’s ludicrous note, and Armstrong pedaled onward. I alluded to the negated positive. It did not go un-noticed.
That drizzly morning in Charleroi, Armstrong’s lawyer-manager, Bill Stapleton, sought me out as we enjoyed coffee and croissants before the day’s stage began. He pointedly told me that Lance had never tested positive. Yes, he did, I said, for steroids. That was not a positive test, he said. I understood his legal point but more important I realized, these people are serious, and they are going to fight on every point.
We all know how that ended, years later, with Lance’s confession on Oprah. I think about him while watching the Tour. I saw him win his last three titles. He was the greatest rider of his time. I suspect just about all of them cheated. I hear he has downsized, in his own private St. Helena.
Napoleon also held a staging area around Charleroi, 200 years ago. He had come back from exile and had re-claimed much of the French army and was convinced his decisions would always work out. He would feint one way, go the other way, and rout the English and the Prussians. . But they stood up to him, in terrible fighting, on the road north in an area known as Waterloo.
In July of 2004, I spent several nights in a motel near the battlefield but never had time to visit it. I was reading “L.A. Confidentiel” and riding in a press car with two copains and getting the cold eye from Lance’s perimeter defense.
The truest words spoken after the Women’s World Cup final were from Megan Rapinoe, the most consistent electric charge in the Americans' seven matches in Canada.
“Our benchmark is winning,” Rapinoe said after the 5-2 victory over Japan. “I would think we would have to be considered one of the best teams there ever was.”
She and her teammates had the right to celebrate that victory, this World Cup, this championship, this year.
They also have the right to be seen in a continuum from the great American team of 1991-1996-1999 -- personified by Christie Pearce Rampone, on the sidelines that day in the Rose Bowl, symbolically on the field Sunday in B.C. Place.
The American women are the greatest long-standing national team outlasting the 1980 American male ice hockey team and the Dream Team of men’s basketball put together for the 1992 Olympics.
The women have taught Americans to appreciate the sport itself – a slower, less powerful but perhaps more visible version of talent and teamwork and perseverance than the men’s game.
Because they came first, I have revered the women of the ‘90’s – the personalities, the skills – comparing them to the Founding Fathers who materialized late in the 18th Century. How could there ever be a collection like Loudy Foudy and Hollywood Chastain and the rest?
The other day I drew a line from Briana Scurry to Hope Solo, audacious keepers, but there are also comparisons between Michelle Akers (still the best female player I have ever seen) to Carli Lloyd, who took over a World Cup final.
Ever since that evening in St-Denis, France, in 1998, I have believed that the best singular performance in a World Cup final was by Zinédine Zidane, who danced and dribbled and passed and headed France to a championship. Take a look:
Now I am willing to put Carli Lloyd in that category for the women’s game, not so much for grace, although goodness knows it takes footwork to run those routes, but for desire. Lloyd has been aching to be delivered from stodgy peripheral assignments.
On Sunday she already had two goals and then lofted a ball from midfield that caught the Japanese keeper out of position, squinting up to the sun, and Lloyd blasted the ball over her fingertips, just because she could – an athlete at the peak of her game. When things calm down, I want to hear Lloyd's description of what she sensed, downfield: Take a look:
Later, Lloyd just missed a fourth goal and you could see the bemused look on her face:: Do I dare regret that? Yes, I do.
They all dared. They all succeeded. They gave us entertainment and terrific football and also sportsmanship, with Japanese and American players treating each other with respect while competing at a high level.
And let us note that FIFA, that disgraced organization, and the absent Sepp Blatter, having as bad a year as Donald Trump, afraid of extradition, did expand the WWC to 24 teams. They gave us new teams that had their moments, like Colombia, out-dribbling and out-juking the Americans in the Round of 16. When the new teams go home, they can tell their federations, look what we did in Canada.
There is a growing history to women’s soccer, ranging from Akers to Linda Medalen, the Norwegian cop who loved to bust on the U.S., to Marta, to the Chinese and the Germans and the Japanese, and now the team of Abby Wambach and those magnificent defenders.
Han Solo was a character in Star Wars. I never understood the plot, couldn’t figure out who was on whose side, but I did understand a human (Harrison Ford), out there trying to right wrongs, or whatever he was up to.
That brings me to goalkeepers. They are a different breed, most of them lone rangers, wearing bizarre costumes and sporadically called upon to save the day. Hours of tedium, moments of terror, as somebody said about pilots.
A few great keepers are phlegmatic, like Dino Zoff of Italy, but many more are expressive lunatics, like Gigi Buffon, also of the Azzurri. They scream at their teammates. They disrupt the opposition.
The United States goes into the final of the Women’s World Cup against Japan on Sunday relying on Hope Solo, not to be confused with Han Solo, although maybe yes. Some people think she should not be representing her country because of allegations of a family brawl, but I don’t think her case is comparable to the Ray Rice affair.
Solo will be in goal on Sunday, perhaps to replicate the brash tactics by Briana Scurry that helped win the WWC in 1999. Scurry had the gall to leave the line and intimidate a Chinese player during the shootout that would decide the championship. She took the chance of being shown a yellow card and earning a do-over for the shooter.
Was it cheating? Was it gamesmanship? I say the ref went for it, and that is part of any sport – the slide step by a pitcher on a pickoff, the head fake on the line of scrimmage that induces an offsides call, the dive in basketball. Any way you look at it, Briana Scurry is a great keeper who helped win a World Cup.
Hope Solo also commandeered the goal zone in Tuesday’s semifinal, after Germany had been awarded a penalty kick. Solo went into her disruptive mode, wandering around, fussing with her water bottle, wasting seconds, icing the German kicker.
By the time Solo decided she was good and ready, the German player was licking her dry lips and turning her head for assurance from the sideline. She emitted a weak shot that skittered a foot wide to her left. Disaster. The U.S. went on to win the match.
Intimidation is part of the sport, but it has its limits. I thought Tim Krul of the Netherlands was way over the line with his pro wrestling behavior against Colombia in the 2014 World Cup. He should have been red-carded for gesturing at the opponents, but maybe guys get away with more. I had no problem with Scurry’s quick start in 1999 or Solo’s need to hydrate for 90 seconds in 2015.
Every team needs an audacious keeper who could make a difference in a final.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.