Caleb D. Spencer

Wasting July

An encomium to the Tour de France.

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And yet, confusing things a bit more, it is seldom the Yellow Jersey winner's team who wins the team classification of the Tour. This classification is awarded to the team with three lowest combined times and is demarked by yellow rider numbers in the daily stages and a presentation at the end of the race. Recently this competition has also featured some teams wearing yellow helmets while leading the competition, just as the leader of the individual competition is often resplendent in a yellow team kit, including a custom yellow bike, with matching yellow accouterments (sunglasses, shoes, gloves, and so on). At the Tour, yellow is the color of status!

Unless, that is, you are one of the sprinters, the riders whose skill and strength is covering the last 100 yards of the race at the highest speeds: for these sprinters, green is the coveted color and the rider who is winning this points-based classification wears the Green Jersey. Sprinters in the Tour are not like track sprinters. They must cover 120 miles before they sprint, carrying their heavier bodies over hills and through the wind, and then come out and charge down the final yards of a stage for victory. They are more like runners who sprint in the final yards of a marathon than pure sprinters like Usain Bolt. The jersey's points are awarded throughout daily intermediate sprints and at the conclusion of flatter stages, where the sprinters are expected to feature. Sometimes, though, the pesky breakaway manages to hold off the sprinters' teams; indeed, some of the most exciting stages are those in which the sprinters' teams wait to reel in the breakaway until the final kilometers, as there is always the chance that the punished riders who have been off the front of the group for hours will make it to the end and deny the charging sprinters.

The Polka Dot and White Jersey competitions round out the Tour's classifications, awarded, respectively, to the rider who earns the most climbing points by reaching the tops of hills and mountains ("King of the Mountain" or "KOM" is common parlance for this competition) and to the rider with the lowest time who is under 26 years of age. It is rare but possible to hold the Yellow Jersey and the White Jersey at the same time, as Andy Schleck of Luxemburg has done in recent tours. Actually it is possible to have all four jerseys at the same time, but in those instances where a rider leads more than one competition, the second place rider in the competition wears the jersey.

While the presence of these competitions within what seems like a single race may confuse new viewers, the sublime suffering of the strings of riders pounding across the roads, shown in the brilliant high-definition images of the cameras, keep many returning. And there is also the spectacle of the inevitable crashes of the Tour, as when one of the eldest and most loved riders in the peloton, a German named Jens Voigt, crashed spectacularly descending the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard in the 2009 Tour. The first week of the race, before the classifications start to really take shape, is especially crash-ridden, with pile ups at roundabouts, at the finishes, even at times during the push up small climbs as teams contest for coveted space at the front of the race and get their Yellow Jersey contender in position.

Violent and injury-producing spectacle is not, however, what sets the race apart from other sporting events. Instead, in many ways it's the race's amazing duration and, perhaps paradoxically, general lack of action that makes the Tour (and the other cycling "Grand Tours," the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España) unique. While the World Cup continues this month, complaints about the lack of action in international football matches will persist, but, if soccer is mildly boring to the untrained eye, a Tour stage can easily seem like three to four televised hours of colorful, spandex-matched cycling with five to ten minutes of excitement tacked on at the end—the kind of thing best watched in a recap on YouTube, if at all. Of course I could explain all the action that is happening in the various competitions of the race in the seeming inaction of a stage, but I won't, because it is this very tedium I find so delightful. For so much of the time in the race, nothing is happening—riders chat, smile, eat, even stop (off camera, usually) to go to the bathroom, and the race continues. But at any moment a crash or an attack can disrupt the tranquility, riders who were chatting amiably become enemies as they fight for position for their leader, or a mechanical problem to a bike can leave a contender stranded waiting for their team car and mechanic to come and get them up and running as the race cruises away before them.

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