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July 25, 2007

Viva la bicyclette!

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Today, as you are reading this, over in France and a small portion of Spain, the 94th Tour de France is in Stage 16.

By the end of the day about 165 seemingly bionic cyclists will have burned over 10,000 calories as they travel through the Pyrenees at altitudes as high as 5,600 feet, up and down incredible mountaintops with 7.5 to 10% slopes.

Although relatively unknown in the United States, the Tour de France is reported to be the largest sporting event in the world. This year approximately 15 million spectators will line the route to personally witness the race - at no charge. And what they will see will whirl past them in 30 to 40 seconds.

For those not familiar with the Tour, it is dangerous, complex, and highly choreographed - if not ritualized. It is an exotic annual cycling event that very well may be considered the high opera of world sports. Every year the intrigue, mystery, drama, and much debated inevitable controversy is almost as exciting as the actual race itself.

Perhaps it would help if it were mentioned that Lance Armstrong of the United States won the race seven consecutive times from 1999 to 2005. A survivor of testicular cancer in 1996, he was not expected to live, much less win this race so frequently.

Since the race began in 1903, the most an individual athlete had won the race was five in a row by Miguel Indurain. Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil have each won the race five times, although not consecutively.

The International Herald Tribune, recently wrote that for "more than three weeks every July, the Tour de France is nearly a sovereign state, closing and opening roads to other traffic throughout the country and boasting its own police force, post office and the only bank allowed to remain open on July 14, the French national day."

The race originally began as a result of a newspaper publicity event, brainstormed by Henri Desgrange in 1902 to promote sports newspaper "l'Auto."

This year's race began in London on July 7 and will end 20 stages, and 2,200 miles later, with a sprint down the cobblestones of the Champs-Elysées in Paris on July 29.

This is the first time in the history of the race that it has started in London. The Guardian claimed "Four million people lined the streets to watch the British leg of the Tour de France and a further two billion watched on television."

This year's Tour travels from England, through a portion of Belgium and Spain and winds all through France. However, to give you an idea of the length of the race, it is roughly the equivalent of the distance from London to Tel Aviv - on a bicycle at an average speed of 25 miles per hour.

By the time a cyclist finishes, he will have burned a total of 118,000 calories, or the "equivalent to 26 Mars Bars per day," according to the BBC.

The Tour is a "stage race" in that the time required by each cyclist to complete each stage, which is started and finished in a single day, accumulates throughout the race. The accumulated time of each rider is known as the "General Classification" - "GC." The winner of the race is the rider with the best time at the end. Daily winners, as well as sprinters and climbers, are also celebrated daily.

The 20 stages include 11 flat stages, six mountain stages, one medium mountain stage, and two individual time-trials. They usually ride over four hours per day. Throughout the three-week Tour, they will have only two rest days, during which they take shorter team bike rides so their muscles don't stop pedaling.

Interestingly enough, a cyclist can win the Tour without winning any of the daily stages. The last time that happened was in 1990 by American cyclist Greg LeMond. Mr. LeMond also won the closest race in history when he beat Laurent Fignon by a mere eight seconds in 1989.

He did so carrying 40 shotgun pellets in his body from a hunting accident two years earlier - including, according to some published accounts, some pellets in the lining of his heart.

This year 189 riders began the race in 21 teams of nine. By the end of Stage 14 on Sunday, they were 165 cyclists remaining. Of the 24 riders who have dropped out, five have been disqualified as a result of finishing "outside of the time limit;" but many have dropped out due to injuries caused by the spectacular crashes that rival any NASCAR event, considering the precarious mountain heights and abrupt precipitous cliffs.

One rider, Australian Stuart O'Grady withdrew during Stage 8 from an "injury due to crash." He suffered five broken ribs, three broken vertebrae, a broken scapula, both clavicles broken and oh - a collapsed lung.

Of course, one rider, Spaniard Óscar Freire withdrew during Stage 7 because he was "saddle sore." Have you ever seen the size of those bicycle seats?

This is the training wheels version of an explanation of what is otherwise a relatively unexplainable world phenomenon full of great physical exertion, intricate psychology, and complex team tactics.

We've barely scratched the surface of the grandeur and excitement of the Tour de France. If you are interested in more information, check your cable listings for the "Versus" channel. Speaking French is not necessary and eating croissants is optional.

Viva la bicyclette!

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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