Are you so over bike racing? Had your fill of gasping, spindly-armed men in Lycra? Been turned off by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's recent, ugly allegations against Lance Armstrong? As the sport prepares for the Tour de France and the Olympics ...
GIVE IT ANOTHER CHANCE.
The 99th Tour de France starts on Saturday in the Belgian city of Li√®ge and then wends its way through the Alps and the Pyrenees before arriving on the Champs Élysées three weeks and 3,497 kilometers later. The Tour is a terrible beauty, possibly the most grueling ordeal in all of sport. And while it still may not be simon-pure, it's much cleaner than it was even five years ago. Cycling has absorbed more body blows of late, with USADA going after Lance Armstrong. But the bulk of its case predates 2008, when the sport's governing body introduced a blood-passport program that is substantially effective. Yes, unscrupulous riders still cheat. But they have to do it in a much narrower window.
You see it in the racing. Today's elite climbers are several minutes slower than the top guys from cycling's Age of EPO. Performances are less predictable, more human—and, as a result, more exciting. Needing to make up for lost time last year, Andy Schleck launched an epic attack 60 kilometers from the finish atop a notoriously cruel Alp called the Galibier, riding to within 15 seconds of the yellow jersey. Inspired by Schleck's panache, Alberto Contador, in seventh place the following day, threw a Hail Mary of his own, forcing eventual winner Cadel Evans to chase alone for 80 kilometers.
Evans faces a daunting challenge this year from Brad Wiggins, a blade-thin Brit with an arid wit, hedgelike sideburns and a ridiculous skill set. A onetime velodrome specialist (he's won seven world championships and six Olympic medals, three of them gold), Wiggins added road racing to his schedule a decade ago. Always a dangerous time trialist, he has transformed himself in recent years into a top climber. The result: Wiggins begins this year's Grand Boucle on the roll of a lifetime. He's entered five stage races this season and won three of them—the Tour of Romandie, Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphiné—all the while holding energy in reserve for July.
His stated goal, to become the first Briton to win the Tour, is just half of his Brobdingnagian ambition: 10 days after the Tour, Wiggins will roll down the ramp at Hampton Court Palace, hard by the Thames, as one of the favorites in the Olympic 44-km time trial around London. This will be four days after the Olympic road race, in which he will ride in support of compatriot and pro teammate Mark Cavendish, whose website proclaims him The Fastest Man on Two Wheels and whose feats amply support that claim.
In a rare alignment of stars, in a year when the Olympics are in London, the best stage racer and the best sprinter on the planet are this pair of Britons, riding for a British-based squad, Team Sky. Actually, Cavendish hails from the Isle of Man, a windswept hummock jutting out of the Irish Sea. The isle is a "British Crown dependency" with its own parliament. But its head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, whom Cavendish chatted up as she made him a member of the Order of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace last November. That honor is conferred for meritorious civil service, which for Cav meant winning five stages at the 2011 Tour de France and the green points (top sprinter) jersey. The Manx Missile reminded Her Majesty that the Olympic road race would finish on the Mall just outside the palace. "I told her to give me a cheer when we come past," he said.
The brash, borderline arrogant Cavendish does not look the part of the most ferocious sprinter in a generation. "He's got pretty short legs and short little arms," notes the recently retired Robbie McEwen, another bantam-sized sprinter, "and that puts him into this aerodynamic position without having to contort his body. And it makes him really hard to pass, 'cause there's just no slipstream."
While Cav and Wiggins get on splendidly, their friendship could be tested during the Grand Boucle. That seems to be the hope of BMC president Jim Ochowicz, who foresees—perhaps wishfully—a "split alliance" on the Team Sky roster. With Wiggins chasing the yellow jersey and Cav striving for the green, Sky could be working at cross-purposes.
"Some days are Cav days," says Ochowicz. "You're talking about riding from kilometer zero to the finish [for the Manxman]. And you use almost the whole team to do that"—chasing down breakaways, keeping Cav out of the wind, saving him for the final mile. The next day, Ochowicz predicts, Sky team principal Dave Brailsford will tell the squad to ride for Wiggins. "And eventually," says Ochowicz, "something goes. You're burning up all your engines."
The Sky brain trust, not surprisingly, has had plenty of time to mull over this conundrum. Cavendish tipped the team's hand last week, announcing that he has trained differently for this year's Tour and expects to win fewer stages than usual. He has lost nearly nine pounds with an eye on the Olympic road course, a circuit race featuring nine climbs of Surrey's Box Hill. He's transformed himself into a puncheur—French for a rider strong enough to push a big gear on the flats and rolling hills and still stick with the true climbers, at least over a moderate hill.
Cavendish will have better than a puncheur's chance in the Olympics. For the sake of his climbing, however, he's sacrificed a sliver of his sprinting power, his top-end speed. "I am so much faster than the others anyway," he told the AP last week, "I can afford to lose a few percent in the sprint in order to be able to get to the line."
Meanwhile, BMC's Evans has had a disruptive off-season—between adopting a child with his wife and meeting the demands of a Tour winner—which was reflected in his results. The 35-year-old Aussie has just one victory this season, in a minor two-day race in Corsica. This year's Tour will also include 100 kilometers of individual time trials—an unusually high number. (Last year it was just 42.5.) Still, while Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Denis Menchov (Katusha) are both strong podium contenders, Evans and Wiggins are the favorites for the podium's top step.
Ochowicz figures that Evans and Wiggins will be roughly equal in the time trials. So can Wiggo hang in the high mountains? Will he crack in the third week, in the Pyrenees? Can Cavendish contend for the green jersey despite sacrificing a smidgen of speed to his Olympic ambitions? Will the racing be as dramatic as in 2011?
There are plenty of reasons to follow this grandest of grand tours. (Each stage can be seen on NBC Sports Network, and the July 7 and 8 mountain stages on NBC.) So crack open a Belgian ale and check out Saturday's prologue in Li√®ge. And if the race has a dull moment or two, lie back and think of England.
BRYN LENNON/GETTY IMAGES
TWO FOR THE ROAD Britain's hopes for a Tour de France title and for Olympic cycling gold rest on Team Sky's Wiggins (opposite), the sport's best stage racer, and Cavendish (below), the best sprinter.
BRYN LENNON/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]