Beyond the Peloton

July 14, 2010 10:33 AM

Happy Birthday, France!

On this day 221 years ago, the Bastille prison was stormed and a French Republic was born. The French still know how to buck against authority all these years later, just ask Raymond Domenech.

41367_1578193535_9195_n.jpgFor me, it was 12 years ago that I had the pleasure of spending a summer in Paris, covering the World Cup (say hello to Footix) and traveling the country. I caught my first Tour in person that year, one that was more soap opera than race, with cops hounding teams for doping everywhere on the road and catching them. Le Tour de Dopage, as it became known, in many ways destroyed cycling's image, from which it has not recovered.

It was the last Tour before the age of Lance. During that Tour, Armstrong was not on anyone's radar as a Tour contender. He had been to four Tours and abandoned in three of them. Then he was on his deathbed fighting testicular cancer. Not many people thought he'd live, let along come back and win seven Tours in a row.

Coincidentally (or maybe not so), it was the beginning of a long decline in French cycling. In 1997, Richard Virenque finished second to Jan Ullrich. Since then, no French rider has mounted the final podium and only two has managed to finish fourth in the ensuing 12 Tours. Most of them have been reduced to support riders or leaders on also-ran teams these days.

Today, two French riders went for the obligatory breakaway, trying to win glory for France on Bastille Day. Of course they failed miserably, unable to finish in the top three. A rider from Team Radio Shack - not Armstrong, not Levi Leipheimer, not Andreas Kloden - carried the day. Portugal's Sergio Paulinho nipped Vasil Kiryienka in the closest finish of this year's Tour.

It's been rough to be a French sports fan. The once vaunted national soccer team has become a global joke. France has been sliding in the medal standings in every Olympic Games since 1996, barely placing 10th in Beijing. And their grandest annual sporting spectacle has been utterly dominated by Americans and Spaniards, who have won 20 of the 24 Tours since Bernard Hinault last won for France in 1985.

But give the French this: They're still great sports. They flock to the Tour each year, support it and cheer the riders on, no matter the weather or who's winning. And they'll always have Paris.

Joyeux anniversaire, France!

Stage 11 Preview (Sisteron to Bourg-les-Valence)

After surviving four days of climbing, the sprinters will come out to play again in the next three days. Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi will fight for the green jersey while Mark Cavendish, whose mishaps in the early stages left him too far behind, will be out to win as many stages as he can. After an early Cat. 3 climb, the stage points downhill all the way to the finish, should be ideal for a furious sprint finish.

Prediction: Mark Cavendish. He's back to being his bad self. In Stage 10, he out sprinted both Hushovd and Petacchi to the line even without the help of a lead out. Andy Schleck will keep his eye on Alberto Contador and hang on to his yellow jersey.

A Member Of