The Longest Race Of All

photo: road bike lapierre
First you get one of these, then you ride for three weeks.

The Tour de France 1998 Edition

Paris:- Thursday, 2. July 1998:- Now that you can see the light at the end on the tunnel of the 32 or 33-day World Cup, here comes the 23-day 85th edition of the Tour de France.

France's very own invention of a mega-sporting event will not even wait until the World Cup is over. However, in order to make sure the world is big enough for a little overlap, this year's 'Tour' starts with a 'prologue' - or sprint - in Dublin on Saturday, 11. July; over a 5.7 km course.

Just in case your attention is turned to Paris' Parc des Princes at 21:00 on this day - to find out which soccer team gets third place and which team finishes out of the money - the Tour's first 180 km stage starts on Sunday, 12. July - from Dublin to Dublin! - which is not supposed to conflict with the World Cup's final game, to be played at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis at 21:00.

See what is happening? Because these two giant events do overlap, I am overlapping myself with these complicated paragraphs.

Now I guess you want to know why, if this sporting event is called the 'Tour de France,' it starts in Dublin - which is more than a fewgraphic: tour in ireland kilometres offshore out in the Atlantic Ocean and a time-zone away?

This years' 'Tour de France' starts in Dublin, Ireland, for a perfectly good reason.

The short answer is, the 'Tour de France' is not simply one of your usual three-week bike races. The long answer is - since I am not a SportsReporter, I do not know what the 'long answer' is.

Basically, if you are in Europe you may have noticed that the 'old continent' is full of big, crowded cities. You might have spent so much time noticing this that you never realized that Europe also contains a lot of countryside, which is not full of big, crowded cities.

In fact, between average-size, not-so-crowded, little cities, there are hundreds of thousands of villages and between them is countryside. What the Tour does, is go from medium-size city to average-size city, and zips past the hundreds of thousands of villages and the countryside between them.

Since the Tour de France is not run roundy-roundy in a stadium, the zipping through the countryside allows hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of bike racing fans to line the routes of the race and gives everybody a chance to see their favorite racers or teams, for a split-second. Once.

By now you may think I am not heading in the right direction about explaining how Dublin can be the start of the 'Tour de France,' but if you are thinking this, you are wrong.

The place bike racers practice bike racing is out in the countryside. European countries that have a lot of countryside, are fertile breeding grounds for bike racers. Even racersgraphic: tour in france from smaller countries like Luxembourg do not suffer; their racers have a wide choice of nearby larger countries in which to practice.

After the racers get to Cork, they fly to Roscoff in Brittany, to do the French part of the tour.

Dublin, being on the island of Ireland is a little short of handy nearby countries for practicing racing. However the clever Irish have arranged matters by having most of themselves live in Dublin itself, thus leaving most of the rest of the Republic free for bike racing.

Ah, those little windy country roads they have, are good for something besides shifting sheep from one patch to another, after all!

Ireland's one big disadvantage for practicing bicycle racing is that it has hardly any mountains. This is made up for by racers-in-training stopping often at local pubs for training. After a couple of jars, even molehills can seem like mountains.

I'm not saying Stephen Roche, Sean Kelly, Seamus Elliott or Martin Earley actually trained in this manner. Between them, they participated in the Tour de France 38 times. Roche won the whole shebang outright in 1987, and all of them had plenty of 'stage' victories, going all the way back to 1963 for Elliott, who first rode in the Tour in 1956.

The fact is, once you get a competitive racing bike, training is relatively inexpensive if you live in a poorer-type country with lots of twisty, windy, hilly, bumpy, country roads.

The organizers of the Tour de France recognize this, so, going back to 1954, the Tour has started in 12 cities outside of France. It even started in West Berlin in 1987, but I have no explanation for this - I mean - at that time West Berlin had no 'countryside.'

Anyhow. Day one: sprint around Dublin. Day two: have a 180 km 'loop' stage, from Dublin back to Dublin. This gets Dublin on World Sports-TV two days in a row; unless something extraordinary happens in Paris. Day three: have a 200 km stage from Enniscorthy to Cork. Day four: Roscoff to Lorient, stage of 171 kms.

You can stop looking for Roscoff in Ireland; because it is in Brittany. The tricky stage between Cork and Roscoff is achieved by airplane with thebike racers sitting in comfortable seats, wearing their seatbelts - a safety item they do not have on racing bicycles.

From Roscoff, the 'Tour' stays for a long time within France - hencegraphic: tour de france brochure the name, 'Tour de France.' On the 18th stage, on Thursday, 30. July, the 'Tour' leaves France briefly for a visit to Switzerland and Neuchâtel. From here they all take a ride over a mountain pass through a tunnel, to La Chaux-de-Fonds, still in Switzerland. Then it's back to France, to Autun.

My info source for all these 'facts:' the Société du Tour de France©1998

On Sunday, 2. August the whole circus arrives in Melun by TGV. Then it runs 147 kms into Paris and they have their trophy sprint around the Champs-Elysées in front of anybody who is left in town.

When the last finish line is crossed, the whole gang - all those still in the race - will have pedalled for about 3,850 kms in three weeks.

Of the 21 'stages,' 12 will have been on what the organizers call 'flat land' but which we would call 'slightly hilly.' Two stages will have been on 'average' mountains and five stages will have gone up and maybe over, 'high' mountains. And, as sort of a bonus, everyone will have run two trials against the clock.

Seven 'stages' are described as 'difficult.' On Monday, 27. July the Tour will do the 15th stage, the Grenoble to the Two Alps one. The length of this stage is 189 km, but it goes over four mountains, or passes, and the lowest is 1566 metres above sea level; while the highest is 2645 metres.

Big numbers like these do not tell all the story, because what counts is the length of the climb and the grade of it. While the 15th stage has the Col du Galibier with a height of 2645 metres, its length is 18.5 km and the grade is 6.6 percent.

On the following day, the Col de la Madeleine is lower at 2000 metres, but the climb is 19.4 kms and the grade is 7.7 percent. On top of this, this 16th stage has a total of five mountains to climb, and it begins with a 15.1 km run up a 7.2 percent grade, followed by a short 7.3 percent grade. Kind of leaves you breathless.

In all there will be 20 or 21 teams, each with nine riders. At the beginning of the year, 16 teams were with previous high rankings were selected to race. After the Tour of Italy and the Dauphiné Libére results were known in June, four more teams were selected. The organizers reserved the right to add a fifth 'joker' team if they wanted - and since I don't know anything about this, I know the names of no teams.

The colored shirt deal goes like this: the rider with the lowest overall elapsed time gets the yellow shirt at the end of each stage - even if he comes in dead last that day.

The green shirt goes to the rider who leads with overall 'points,' whatever these are.

The white shirt with the red polka-dots does to the days' best climber. Whether this shirt can be won on days of 'flat' racing I don't know.

There are a bunch of other daily prizes: for young rider, for fastest team, for most 'aggressive' rider, and for the winner of the 'halfway' sprints - of which there are three per stage from the first to ninth stages, and two per stage from the tenth to the 21st stages. These prizes are obviously important to the riders involved, but don't expect the awards of the days' prizes to be highlighted during the nightly 30-second TV report.

And now, the grand prize: for the number one overall least-time, highest-points, I don't know what exactly - but, comme même! - 2.2 million francs! Everybody else gets to share the remaining 9.8 million francs.

I shouldn't forget to mention - as you will notice if you are watching - that all these teams and riders have sponsors. The whole 'Tour' has multiple sponsors; one firm will supply all the rolling cars you will see at finish lines for example. Only one brand-name of Champagne will have its cork popped at each days' victory ceremony.

I am pretty certain all the towns where stages either start or finish, also put up some bread for the privilege. There is a lot of hard money involved with this Tour de France.

But it doesn't mean you should think about this a lot.

What you should think about is the 180 or 189 guys who are going to be on their saddles for 22 days, going like hell on the so-called 'flats' and tearing themselves to pieces going up those big mountains as fast as they can go. Comingphoto: bike helmets down the mountains they also try to go fast, but bikes don't have much rubber on the road and the brakes aren't super - so there will be tumbles and injuries and broken dreams.

These helmets are not just for downhill racers, but for everybody on a bike.

Bike racing is tough and the Tour de France is the toughest nut of them all. When there is no evening TV-report on Thursday, 23. July, it will be on account of their one day off - after 11 straight days of hard racing.

If, on this day, you have been lying around the pool for 11 straight days, I think you should get up and at least play a couple of round of table-football, in homage.

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