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Tour Thoughts

Eddy Merckx receiving tri-jersey in Brussels

[Mark Renders, Getty Images Europe]

I mentioned Friday that what might just be the biggest sports weekend of the year was about to begin. Well, I survived.

Saturday, in succession (with overlaps), were the Wimbledon tennis women’s final between Serena Williams and Vera Zvonareva, the World Cup soccer quarter-final between Argentina and Germany, the prologue time trial stage of the Tour de France in Rotterdam (yes, Rotterdam is still in the Netherlands — it hasn’t slipped into France — but the Tour often opens in another country), and the World Cup quarter-final between Paraguay and Spain.

Sunday brought a break from soccer, but the Wimbledon men’s final between Rafa Nadal and Tomas Berdych took place simultaneously with the Tour’s first regular stage, from Rotterdam to Brussels (France is getting closer). And no sooner did they end than coverage of the annual July 4th Nathan’s hot dog eating contest began.

It’s easy in all the excitement to forget that a baseball season is still running, but one is, and yesterday Cliff Lee pitched yet another masterpiece for the Mariners. His performance rises above parochial local interest because he is the most sought-after player in the trade market, and each successive outing adds to his sky-high value.

Every year I re-discover, when forced to choose, that I’d rather watch the opening stages of the Tour than the Wimbledon finals. I appreciate the significance (to themselves and to tennis history) of Williams’s and Nadal’s weekend victories. I loved seeing Navratilova (a goddess if ever there were one, and she looks it) in the stands for the women’s final. But, hey, I’d rather see the Tour. I can’t explain it. That’s just the way it is.

And soccer too, especially when the choice is the women’s final with Williams well on her way to victory or Argentina vs. Germany. I said Friday that “Argentina-Germany could be a game for the ages. Watch it if you can.” And what do you know? It was a game for the ages, just not in the way I imagined. Germany played beautifully.

But let me not run on about the obvious, as good as I am at it, and as happy as Joel has been to point this out to me whenever I say anything about the World Cup. Let’s focus on the Tour, which has been wild. Yesterday’s crashes destroyed the opportunities of such sprint-finish favorites as Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar. The crash just inside the one-kilometer kite brought most of the field to a standstill. Bizarre. And today was worse.

Yet, depressing as yesterday’s stage was, how could anyone not be happy to see the greatest rider of them all, the Belgian Eddy Merckx on the podium afterward to put the yellow jersey on Fabian Cancellara? (At the end of each day, the current leader in each of various categories stands on the podium to have the jersey of the traditional color put on, with the help of two beautiful, smiling women, on either side — yellow for the overall leader, green for the sprints leader, polka-dot for the climbing leader, etc. For each award, the women are themselves dressed in colors that match or complement the jersey.) Merckx celebrated his 65th birthday last month, and was the day’s man of honor.

I missed one cute moment, catching it only last night when I watched the podium ceremony again with Gail. Since there had not yet been any climbs, no one had earned the polka-dot jersey. In lieu of a climbing leader, Merckx came out with a jersey that was part yellow, part green, and part polka-dot, in recognition of his being the lone cyclist ever to win all three during one Tour. (The complementary women wore breathtaking polka-dot umbrella skirts.)

Part of the fun for me of watching the Tour is listening to Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen hour after hour, day after day, as they do their best to keep up with the action on the road. Phil has a habit of tripping over himself in his comments, but how can he not? He’s watching the same video feed we are, and can’t really know what’s going on. But he had quite a howler yesterday. As Eddy Merckx was joined by Bernard Hinault (who oversees the podium ceremony) in helping Cancellara with his yellow jersey, Phil noted that the two together had won ten Tours as members of the five-Tour club. Only one was missing, he added, Jacques Anquetil, who of course could not be a part of the ceremony, since he’s no longer with us.

Okay, yes, but, um, are you forgetting someone? (And no, I don’t mean Lance. It was clear enough that Phil viewed Lance as in another club altogether, the seven club. The five club was for those who have won the Tour five times exactly, not five or more.) I seem to recall a Spanish rider by the name of Miguel Indurain, who earned entry to the club, the only member to win his five in succession, 1991 to 1995. I imagine Phil was a bit embarrassed when he played that one over again in his head.

No matter. The Tour rolls on. Tomorrow it moves from Belgium (Wanze) into France (Arenberg Porte du Hainaut). I’ll be watching. And what do you know? It’s World Cup time again, the semi-final between Uruguay and the Netherlands.

Categories: Cycling, Sports
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