"Epic" is, without a doubt, the most sorely abused adjective in cycling.
I bought some GamJams socks last week (Mike May shipped them out the next day: thanks!) and was pleasantly surprised not to find any ad copy describing them as "epic socks" and spinning tales of what cycling epicness I might achieve while thusly shod. So attuned am I to the tongues of marketers, advertisers, and brand managers who court my coin that my default expectation is to see the E word appended to any and all cycling merchandise.
But -- and I say this as someone who prefers Eurosport understatement to gladiatorial-themed Versus hype -- "epic" has found its rightful place in cycling of late. So richly layered with drama, so peopled with distinctive figures, with sordid and glorious history, with colliding worlds, clashing styles and competing philosophies, so sweeping, so nervous, so capricious is this 96th tour of France, it calls forth a Homer or a Virgil, a Dante or a Cervantes, a Milton or a, um, whoever wrote the Mahabharata, to tell of it. Someone needs to sing 'of legs and of the bicycle' in iambic pentameter, dactylic hexameter, rhyming couplets, or what have you.
Because this shit is complicated.
The headlines alone, about the aged Armstrong standing less than one second off the lead, about cocky Cavendish's feverish last-minute man thrusts, cool Cancellara's sperm-helmeted primacy, Astana's teal coating of the GC leaderboard, even the inter-Astanine leadership conflicts, give you information only in the sense that 10 is closer to infinity than 1. You've learned something. But in a sense you're just as far from understanding the Tour as you were before reading the headline.
The tour has twenty teams. Each has nine riders, a director and sponsors, sometimes a national identity, and always a character. Each of these teams, riders, and directors has a history, and for some it is long and for almost all of them, it is colored. When you know this history -- and I make no claim to expertise here but I know a little -- then when you see things happen or read those headlines, every newsworthy event stands against a vast backdrop of reputations and patterns.
You see a guy like Ignatiev attack, and you go, "OK, it's Igantiev. There he goes again. Of course he's going to go." In the TTT, you see Cancellara's teammates on his wheel, shoulders rocking, heads down, gasping, and you just smile and wonder what it feels like to ride that fast. You see Evans actually *drop* his teammates, like an idiot, coming to the line, and you think, "Yeah, that's the pompous ass who hangs his own portrait over his fireplace, trying to blame Silence for his losing time. Hey, we already know you can drop your own boys, Cadel. How about bringing the fifth wheel along with you and saving a few seconds in GC?! I hope you never win it!". You see Voeckler looking around in disbelief, alone at the finish, beginning a deliberate, relaxed, multi-kiss victory salute, and you say "finally!"
The experience is completely different when you know the characters, which is why we need an epic, why we need long-winded descriptions of Achilles' shield.
Witness my madness in this respect...
I saw Armstrong's exhilarating move with Columbia and Cancellara in stage 3, and I wondered... Was this just Lance racing smart and getting to the front at the right time, as he later claimed, or it was by design? A man who metes out his daily bread with a digital scale does not leave much to chance. He had two trusted domestiques with him, the old guard. And who was on the front of Columbia's break? Hincapie. The lieutenant. Faithful Georgie.
Could Lance rely on George to make a break, get separation from Contador, and then, after a Kazak beatdown of the field in the TTT, don the yellow jersey on the following day, just like old times? What would it take?
Cancellara would want to defend the jersey. (Class, class.) He would have to be involved in any move; otherwise, he'd close the gap himself and drag the entire field up. Cavendish wanted the stage win, and if George was in charge, Cav would need to be there to provide motivational cover. Hmmm... turns out everyone who would need to be there in theory just so happened to be among the frontmost 20 riders when the field hit the turn, just as if it were all planned out and agreed beforehand.
I smell conspiracy. Don't tell Alberto.
The next day, Lance apologized for calling last year's tour a joke. The timing made me wonder: was this a spontaneous outburst? A change of heart? Or was it someone's demand to go along with his plan on the previous day? Someone who harbored some bitterness over those remarks last year and wouldn't lend a hand unless Lance made things right in a public statement. Very interesting.
This was all windup for what I wanted to say about watching Armstrong, but I've already written too much. To be continued...