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My Manxman

Mark Cavendish (of course)

[Christophe Ena/AP]

Last Friday, I mentioned to Gail that a certain event would be starting the next day and asked if she knew what. She did. “Three weeks of cheaters.” It’s difficult to argue with that assessment. But, hey, it’s the Tour (de France), and I love it. If I had any doubts, five seconds of watching on Saturday morning took care of that.

Beyond my love of the Tour itself as a competitive entity, I love watching the coverage on TV. Phil Liggett says some pretty silly things in the rush to describe developments that he watches on a screen along with us, but no matter. I’m in my third decade now of listening to him, and I can’t imagine a Tour without his company. (Paul Sherwen’s company too of course.) Plus, the passing scenery seems to draw me in more every year. And where once I was disdainful, now my heart melts when I see such sights as two sets of eight or so tractors and riders, each set driving in a circle, so that the overhead helicopter shot reveals the wheels of a bicycle in a farm field, along with other implements forming the bicycle’s body.
You can perhaps understand why I am waking up early every morning to view the coverage.

And then there’s the racing. No prologue Saturday. A real stage, and a dramatic one at that, with a late crash that separated Alberto Contador from many of the other race favorites. Sunday brought a team time trial, absent from last year’s Tour, and suddenly Thor Hushovd was in yellow, Cadel Evans just behind.

Monday was a day for the sprinters, and we all knew what that meant. Time to check out the form of Mark Cavendish, the Manxman of this post’s title, winner of 15 stages in the last three years. And the form of Tyler Farrar, local boy, the best American sprinter since the young Lance Armstrong and a strong favorite this year to win his first sprint stage after near misses the last two years.

With 5k to go, Cavendish’s HTC team was organized and in the front, with leadout man non-pareil Mark Renshaw back in the saddle after being dismissed last year when he was a little too aggressive in clearing space for Cavendish. It was Cavendish’s stage to win. But suddenly they disappeared from the front, with Phil completely confused in his calling of the race, wondering if Cavendish might have dropped back because of a crash. As they entered the final kilometer, Farrar’s Garmin teammates had formed a perfect leadout, with yellow jersey holder (and sprinter great in his own right) Hushovd leading the way, key leadout man Julian Dean on his wheel, and Tyler on Julian’s wheel. Hushovd dropped off, then Dean dropped off, and Tyler was off, passing Feillu and Rojas to win the stage. A stage winner at last! And on July 4! Wow!

It turns out that Phil blew it in his coverage regarding Cavendish, who was in the lead group the entire time, finishing 5th, just ahead of Hushovd and Dean, each of whom raised an arm in celebration as they saw Farrar cross the line in victory. It’s still a puzzle to me what happened, as they were unable to sort it out in the closing coverage.

On to day four, yesterday, an odd stage, with all the markings of a traditional flat race through Brittany until the final 2k, described by American Chris Horner afterwards as the hardest 2k climb he ever rode. That served to break up the field, and provided a dramatic finish with Cadel Evans just holding off Contador for the stage victory. With Evans just a second behind Hushovd in the general classification, one might have thought this effort would have put him in yellow. But Hushovd is riding so far like a great all-arounder, and he was right there in 6th, with no time gap, allowing him to stay in yellow.

Which brings us to today, a day for the sprinters. Here’s where I have to confess that even though Tyler Farrar is an American, even though better yet he is a Washington stater, even though his parents are old friends of my own friends Russ and Tobae, and even though I love to see him do well, I love Mark Cavendish just a little bit more. I can’t explain it. I just love watching Cavendish race and love watching him win. Which he did. Tyler wasn’t even in the mix today. The team kept Hushovd in yellow, but they didn’t mount an effort for the stage victory. Cavendish was his dramatic, exciting self, exploding past Gilbert and Rojas in the final 50 meters for the win.

Another great stage. We’re nowhere near the mountains, and already this Tour is full of drama. And don’t forget the closing stages. As I wrote last October, when this year’s route was announced:

What immediately caught my (and Joel’s) eye were the ante-penultimate and penultimate stages. Once again, as has been the custom the last couple of years, the penultimate stage will be an individual time trial. What makes it special for us is that it will be in Grenoble, where Joel spent the fall a year ago and where we visited him a a year ago next week. And the ante-penultimate stage will be a stunning day in the Alps, with climbs over the Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier as warmups for the stage-ending climb of Alpe-d’Huez. This holds special interest to us as well, since we made that climb 51 weeks ago today. (By car.) If only the timing of our trip were different.

But there’s time for that. Tomorrow, another day for the sprinters. Time for bed so I can get up to watch.

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