Here we are in the month of sporting foreignly. Yes, there’s the All-Star Game and the somnolent center of the baseball season, but that’s hardly a thrill. And no other American classics will get the blood pumping until the Hall of Fame Game kicks off preseason football the first week of August.
What we’ve got instead are alien sports or familiar sports in unAmerican venues. We’ve already had weeks of the World Cup where teams from countries you’ve never heard of have attacked balls with foot and head for hours on end. Is it still going on or already over? And if the latter, who won — Brazil or Germany?
In England, there was a tennis tournament on grass at Wimbledon and later in the month there will be Open golf in Liverpool which just seems wrong. The ‘pudlians have already got the Beatles and now they have hijacked the oldest golf tourney in the world from where it was invented? That leaves the poor Scots with nothing but kilts, pipes, haggis and Sean Connery.
Mercifully there’s something else to watch for the entire month — the Tour de France. I know, it’s french and for some reason we are supposed to hate them, though Jefferson’s fondness for them ought to placate even the Tea Party. And it’s true that the never-ending doping scandals have spelled death to hero worship. (Thanks, Lance. Live Wrong.) And yes, it is a weird throwback kind of sport that requires men to ride 2,500 miles in 21 days without an internal combustion engine.
One day they sprint. The next they drag themselves up agonizing mountains. Followed by a time trial and then up hill and down dale for five or six hours on those castrating bike seats. They eat in the saddle, They drink in the saddle. You don’t want to know what else they do while pedaling, pedaling, pedaling. Astronauts have it easier.
Often they crash going thirty or forty miles an hour in a tangle of blood and spokes. They careen off roads and down ravines or collide with idiot spectators intruding on the road. Broken arms, wrists, clavicles. Already three major stars have had to abandonee — sprinter Mark Cavendish with a separated shoulder requiring surgery, 2010 Tour winner Andy Schleck with a knee, and 2013 winner Chris Froome with three crashes over two days. He wasn’t alone as heavy rain, slick roads and cobblestones put a couple dozen racers on the pavement.
It’s possibly the most extreme sport ever invented and clearly insane, requiring impossible stamina, preternatural concentration and crazed courage. Grotesque, yet strangely hypnotic, oddly delicate — men like whippets on machines like Calder mobiles. All that and glorious French scenery to boot. This year began with three days in England– York, Midlands and the Home Counties run-in to London. Huge crowds all along the route.
Now we are riding along as the Tour circles the hexagon and watching as one historic region succeeds another. After the English start, the route appropriately enough commenced again on the English Channel and proceeds though World War I territory including Ypres (wipers to the Brits) and the one-time tapestry center of Arras. Then it’s on through Champagne country and into Lorraine, Alsace and the Vosges mountains. Soon they will be climbing the French Alps to Grenoble, then spiraling down to the sunny Sud for Roman Nimes and medieval Carcassonne. At last into the Pyrenees for grueling days that often decide the outcome. The race concludes with a few stages passing through delectable Gascony and the riverine beauty of the Dordogne until at last the survivors circle the center of Paris to sprint for the finish on the Champs-Elysees.
Along the way in Reims we will pass the Cathedral where the French kings were crowned, Nancy which Louis XV gave his father-in-law, Stanislaw, as a kind of wedding gift and Pau, the birthplace of Henry of Navarre who became the first of the Bourbon line.
Plus all the varied chateaux, stone towns, soaring churches imposing monasteries. Past legendary vineyards, rich fields with ripening crops, forested hills, lunar mountain peaks, crystal blue lakes and always the winding rivers with names like history set to music — Somme and Marne, Seine and Rhine, Rhone, Lot and Garonne.
In imagination, one can almost smell and taste the place as the bikes whizz past the sidewalk cafe, the brasserie, boulangerie, boucherie, patisserie, the majestic Michelin-starred temple of gastronomy, the small auberge, the neighborhood bistro.
It’s a race. It’s a vacation for the armchair traveler. It’s a history lesson. It’s time for a crusty baguette, a bit of Pont l’Eveque, a bowl of mussels, a glass of Tavel like liquid sunshine. Vive le Tour.