Other Sports
Other Sports

Tour de France, F1 Racing and Other Sports Updates

| by Sports Nickel

In just the past decade we have witnessed an explosion in the range and depth of sports-viewing opportunities for fans here in the United States. The growth of multimedia technology coupled with the increase and variety of its availability and subsequent decrease in price has democratized the options available; no longer is the American sports fan shackled to whatever the networks and a limited range of sports networks are willing to broadcast.From the computers that occupy many a fan’s work desk to the phones which have become an indispensible pocket accessory for a large swath of the populace, we no longer have to wait weeks, days, hours… even minutes to find out how our favorite team has fared. Whether you’ve latched on to your local baseball team or your alma mater halfway across the country or even a soccer club halfway around the globe, the advent of instantaneous information has allowed us to become both more intelligent and more diverse in our spectating choices. Where once a fan like myself would be forced to cling to every international newspaper available in the county library and spotty AM radio broadcasts for a lifeline to that wider world of sports that ESPN and the Wide World of Sports chose to ignore, now all it takes is a wi-fi signal or satellite feed and we have full-season, in-depth digital access — live and on-demand 24/7…   

… that is, until you don’t have the access. We are apt to take all this technological advancement for granted until it fritzes out on us. I recently was forced to come to grips with this as soon as I came home from a camping trip this past weekend. Early Sunday afternoon we were approaching Eugene from the south on the I-5 when I decided to snatch my phone from the glove compartment and fire it up to find out who had won the Tour de France earlier that morning. I hit the power button and watched as it went through its first few opening screens. The sequence was going fine until the finale, when it should’ve loaded up the home screen and allowed me access to the digital world for which I’d paid my monthly dues.   

It froze.   

Nothing.   

And there I’ve been for the rest of the week since, trying vainly to see if the thing would work and now left to wait for a replacement to get sorted. We don’t know what we’ve been missing until it is gone. It reminds me of the bike crash I suffered, oh… over a year and a half now. It’s amazing how life can sort things out in weird ways and prevent things which seem natural from taking place. But a series of twists and turns have prevented me from replacing the rig, dysfunctional since that Chevy van’s bumper made contact with my drivetrain. I can find other ways to get around, one reason why that vehicle keeps getting put lower on the triage scale than our myriad other pressing needs. But in this digital age, as a writer, a do-it-all phone has become a tool too invaluable to go without for this long. Just as our information has sped up, our need to attain it faster and faster exponentially increases as well.   

But a Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America is resourceful. Just as I find my ways to get around (there’s a reason we were given legs, after all) so too can I find my ways to keep up to speed on the events going on around the world. I don’t catch it all, but I catch more than a sane man might deign to tackle otherwise. After a lifetime spent seeking the next new thrill to devour on the smorgasbord of sports, it’s too late to stop the gluttony now. So tuck in that napkin, grab the knife and the fork and get ready to gorge. Better yet, set down the cutlery, grab your stein and hoist it high — it’s high time we salute all that this week had to offer as we settle in to the feast…   

    

DIFFERENT YEAR, SAME OUTCOME IN THE END…    

Ultimately 2010 yielded the same top two riders at the Tour de France. Alberto Contador, perhaps even more talented than even seven-time champion Lance Armstrong was in his prime, ascended into the ranks of the truly elite with his third maillot jaunein his third straight appearance. (Had his Astana team not been disinvited by race organizers ASO in 2008, Contador likely would have made it four in a row this year — after all, he won both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España in that 2008 season.)    

2010 Tour de France final podium

Schleck, Contador, Petacchi and Charteau -- the final cast of jersey winners in the 2010 Tour de France, soaking in the accolades on the Champs-Elysees...

In a mirror of the blessed year Spain had two years ago, the Iberian giants have once again emerged victorious on multiple fronts. Contador’s victory capped a month that saw Rafael Nadal complete his second French/Wimbledon double and Spain follow their Euro 2008 victory with the nation’s first-ever World Cup in soccer. And at just 27 years old — the same age Armstrong was when he won his first Tour title in 1999 — the Spaniard is just emerging into the prime years of his career.    

Of course, in the years to come he’s going to have a hell of a formidable opponent in Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck. The Saxo Bank rider came in second again this year… and the deficit proved even more maddening when one realizes that the 39 seconds which separated the two men in Paris can be explained by the now-infamous chain drop Schleck suffered on the Port de Bales in the Pyrenees just when he was going on the attack. At 25, Schleck is now a two-time winner of the maillot blancgiven to the best young rider at the Tour. He’s getting stronger year after year, and as we saw this year only misfortune separated the two strongest riders in the peloton from one another.    

Now thoughts turn to the Vuelta and the upcoming UCI World Championships in September. Who will travel to Spain to race the season’s last grand tour? Who will be the main challengers to take the rainbow stripes this year… and is current world champion Cadel Evans, who will be racing on home soil with the championships in Australia this year, amongst those favorites? Stay tuned over the next few weeks as cycling’s season does anything but wind down following the Tour de France. And if you missed the final weekend of coverage, here are my thoughts on the final four stages:    

  • STAGE 17 (Pau to Col du Tourmalet) –Today the Tourmalet was the mythbuster that once and for all separated the two real contenders of the 2010 Tour de France from all the pretenders that still had reason to dream about the maillot jaune. Winds and rain whipped at the riders and fog encapsulated the hundreds of thousands of fans clogging the roadside along the legendary Pyrenean mountain pass. It was serving as the final summit finish of the Tour before the road turns toward Paris — the second time it would be summited in this race as a centenary celebration of its first appearance in the route. What did the stage prove, and what did it refute?…   READ MORE
  • STAGE 18-20 (final weekend wrapup) – And like that, the Tour de France is over once again. It is funny how — when you’re into your third straight week of sleep deprivation after waking up to watch stages live at five in the morning, writing as much as you can for daily coverage and generally thinking about little else besides the sport — a writer can suddenly find himself all too willing to embrace a weekend away right as the race is culminating in its crescendo of catharsis after twenty-two days of questions. I found myself waking up, starting some water heating on the stove to brew some coffee… and wishing I could watch the final stage into Paris. There’s just something about missing that moment of history that can be a little unsettling after investing so much time in following a stage race….   READ MORE 

    

ODD RUMBLINGS IN FORMULA 1…    

This past weekend Hockenheim hosted the German Grand Prix, an annual stop on the Formula 1 circuit that has seen a new champion emerge frequently on its course. We saw Ferrari right its ship, returning to the 1-2 place atop the podium that was so long familiar to it on the circuit. But was it a fairly-won fight? Fernando Alonso got the late pass on teammate Felipe Massa, leading many to feel that collusion led to Alonso — the two-time former champion who was higher in the points coming into the weekend — getting the victory. Massa, back to top form just in time to get another crack at the Hungarian Grand Prix next weekend, has been running strong at the front throughout the race. Only a wide line through a late turn allowed Alonso to get past him, and he clung tightly in the Spaniard’s draft all the way to the finish. The powers that be issued a $100,000 fine to the Ferrari team — but the positions were not reversed or penalized in any way despite the fact that it was clearly a case of team orders (which have been outlawed in F1 since 2002 after another infamous Ferrari incident between Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher).    

Massa leads the German GP

This sight wouldn't last: Massa leads Alonso midway through the German Grand Prix before team orders relegated him to second...

After watching Red Bull sow similar dissention in its ranks at the British Grand Prix, when the latest version of the team’s front wing was removed from Mark Webber’s car and placed on Sebastian Vettel’s in qualifying due to standings position, this move seems to me like just another reason why McLaren is likely to walk away with the team prize this year and will probably see one of its two drivers take another world championship… with the second right behind on points. Defending champion Jenson Button was certainly much more prescient in joining the British outfit this season than I assumed. At the time I thought leaving Ross Brawn — the man who made Michael Schumacher who he was at Benetton and Ferrari and resurrected Button’s flagging career last season — was the worst decision Button could possibly make. Now it is obvious that it was genius; no alpha-male battles have emerged between him and compatriot (and former world champion) Lewis Hamilton, and while the team has not always proven to have the best setup for the track on any given week they’ve never failed to at least have the second-best setup. Consistency has been the buzzword, and fair play between the two sets of drivers and their crews. If things were nearly this harmonious at Red Bull and/or Ferrari, the Britons would be nowhere near such a lofty position in the standings at this point of the season.   

But that’s hardly all right now. It seems that Bernie Ecclestone, czar of Formula 1, is now clamoring to reduce the number of teams in the top level of open-wheel racing. Disparaging over the fact that the new teams welcomed into the fold have failed to produce results this year, Ecclestone now says that he could envision a team or two folding before the 2010 season even ends. At the same time, the FIA is also looking at the possibility of expanding the grid to 26 cars. The sport can’t have it both ways — either they want Formula 1 to be representative of the elite of the elite, or they want to expand to encompass a broader representation of the global spectrum. It is a question of parity versus the chance of seeing a Cinderella emerge.   

After all, without failures a team has no chance to develop into more. Take the case of Force India. Rechristened out of the ashes of the former Jordan team that had changed ownership several times throughout the middle of the decade, the Force India squad took to the circuit in 2008. They would go over a year and a half without a result. Then, in back to back races in Belgium and Italy, the Indian-sponsored outfit struck gold. First Giancarlo Fisichella landed on the podium in second, with teammate Adrian Sutil taking fourth the next week. It would allow them to end the season in 9th, out of the cellar with 13 points. This year the technological knowledge the team gained over its first two years learning the odds and ends of what worked and what didn’t has allowed the team to run more consistently. While they haven’t challenged the McLarens and Red Bulls and Ferraris of Formula 1, they have managed to insert themselves amongst the second-tier candidates for podium placings and a mid-level spot in the team race. (With 11 top-ten placings so far this year, the team is 6th with 47 points to date.)   

And the sport needs more stories like that. When Brawn GP managed, mainly through the technological wizardry of one man (Ross Brawn and his BGP001 chassis), to take the driver and team titles last year, it was a blow to the dominant teams of the sport. These victories can still be won… but a team must manage to get its feet wet and fall a few times in the creek before it can navigate the waters successfully and really make a concerted effort to ford the river first…   

    

THREE-WAY SHOWDOWN SET IN STOCKHOLM…    

Love it or leave it, the 100m sprint will forever be the glory event of the casual sports fan. It is a distance most anyone can at least fathom trying to run for speed (say the same thing about, oh, 800m or a mile and watch the reaction you get from the average Joe) and it inevitably breeds some of the most dominant personalities to grace an athletics competition. The recent triumvirate of men at the apex of the event are finally going to square off, head to head to head, come August 6 in Stockholm at the next leg of the inaugural IAAF Diamond League season.   

Powell, Gay and Bolt in action

We'll get to see this scene once again in a week come Stockholm, when Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay and world-record holder Usain Bolt battle in the Diamond League 100m event...

Currently atop the standings after having competed in the League throughout the season, Jamaica’s Asafa Powell has been dominating the sprints throughout the season. But that is largely because we haven’t seen his compatriot, world-record holder Usain Bolt, in action for the most part this year. Simultaneously, Tyson Gay of the United States has been missing in action throughout large swaths of the Diamond League season at 100m and has yet to claim a single point at a meet yet this year (though he sits in a  distant second behind fellow American Walter Dix). So when the three, widely billed as the fastest trio alive at 100m, meet up against one another in Sweden next week it is going to be a must-see event. I wouldn’t be surprised if ESPN affords the race coverage a spot on its SportsCenter Top Ten list that evening with the tension it’s bound to generate. Now we just need to hope they’re all coming to Scandinavia in top form, ready to light the track ablaze underfoot.  

But we’ve also got track action ongoing at this moment. Take the 100m event at the currently-running European Championships right now for example. Dwain Chambers, the current European and world champion at 60m, had come to Barcelona seeking the last step of his career redemption. Chambers, the British sprinter who was popped for performance enhancement after the BALCO case blew the lid on the prevalence of designer steroid THG in track and field and sat out two years for his indiscretion, has returned to the sport and tested cleanly back to the upper echelon of his profession. But the redemptive tale was not going to round out to fruition this time. Chambers came down the track with the lead, but with 30m left to go — 10m further than the distance where he’s enjoyed his most recent current successes — he started fading. It allowed 20-year-old French prodigy Christophe Lemaitre to sweep in for the victory. Chambers was also passed by fellow British runner Mark Lewis-Francis for silver and by Lemaitre’s countryman Martial Mbandjock for the bronze, relegated by his diminished closing speed right off the podium into fifth place in the end.   

So Chambers, after his 2002 title was stripped retroactively for his steroid use, misses out yet again on European glory. The track is a cruel mistress for runners, especially at short distances. There is no margin for error; the slightest stumble can be the difference between victory and last place. And Lemaitre – the new European champion whose personal best of 9.98 shows he still has a way to go before he’s competing on the level of Bolt, Powell and Gay – could perhaps be the next man to break out on the international scene by the time the next Olympiad rolls around in London come 2010…   

    

TOOLING AROUND THE NET…    

Overhead view of London 3012 Olympic site

London prepares for the 2012 Olympics with a massive rejuvenation project in the Lea River Valley on the east side of the city, hoping to eliminate the albatrosses of future uselessness with their landscape engineering plan...

 With the phone out of commission, I’ve found myself reading fewer things on the internet and more things in recent magazines that were lying around work. I’ve still found myself sitting early in the mornings, soaking in everything I can on the internet with my morning coffee before catching a bus to work, but my technology’s demise has inevitably left me without the means to read anywhere but at home. Still I’ve found a couple things worth sharing; some are the online links to magazine articles, others were posted directly online, but it’s all definitely worth reading:  

  

  • Why the World Cup Sucks (Matt Taibbi/Men’s Journal/10 June 2010) After finding this one first in the June/July 2010 issue of the magazine at work, I came home and searched for the article online. It was almost more worth it reading the wealth of comments both intelligent and asinine… the article inevitably drew some massive ire (as you might guess from the title). Personally, I’ve always enjoyed Matt Taibbi’s writing, especially his work at the National Affairs desk of Rolling Stone. But he certainly wasn’t about to persuade me that the World Cup isn’t worth watching. Unlike most of the people of which he speaks, I’ve followed it for more than just the past few… and honestly all his logic stemmed from things outside the run of play itself, aside from the diving — something most soccer fans themselves can attest is an annoyance with which we grudgingly deal but hardly accept…
  • Two years out: An early 2012 guide (Bonnie D. Ford/ESPN.com/27 July 2010) There is no time too early to get to thinking about big events on the distant horizon. And in an article for ESPN, Ford has taken a preliminary look at the preparations ongoing in London ahead of the 2012 Olympics. With the various arenas popping up in the Lea River Valley on the east side of the city, the opportunity is on for the city to provide the blueprint for future Olympiads to regenerate downtrodden areas of future host cities and revitalize their usefulness for city populations. Having watched over the past year as Matthew Knight Arena has taken form hovering over the building in which I work on the University of Oregon campus, it is hard to fathom the sheer scale of construction underway in London. Ford provides an eyewitness view on the ground around the sites…
  • How the golden boy can get even better (Tom Fordyce/BBC Sport/28 July 2010) With Christophe Lemaitre’s victory at the European Athletics Championships in the 100m race, the track world has a new potential superstar to look forward to rooting for at the Olympic Stadium in London you can view at the prior link in two years’ time. But as Fordyce shows us in this BBC article, there are a few finite aerodynamics-assisting moves within the Frenchman’s race which still have plenty of time to be fine-tuned in advance of his maiden voyage on Olympic ground. With improvements to his biomechanics, Lemaitre might just be the man — instead of Powell and Gay — to give Usain Bolt a run for his money…
  • “Disabled” former FDNY fireman cheating the system? (R.K. Menn/Sports Nickel/28 July 2010) Having never been a firefighter myself, but having seen my father do it in a volunteer capacity for 16 years, a few differences between MMA and John Giuffrida’s former profession as an FDNY firefighter popped to mind as I read this article by fellow Sports Nickel writer R.K. Menn. First, I’ve never trained for MMA. If anything, I was raised more on the “sweet science” of boxing in the sport’s last golden era for heavyweights and never did get into mixed martial arts enough as they ascended right past boxing to prominence in the fight game. But the variance between the bursts of energy required for MMA versus the sustained endurance effort that is firefighting quickly came to mind as I read this. While his lungs may be able to adequately handle the heavy exertion in measured doses that is diving into the octagon, they may not be able to work at maximum capacity — not to mention tolerate the inevitable smoke inhalation that is residual and inevitable even when wearing a breathing apparatus — for as long a period as firefighting requires. Second, this sounds like the board which reviews these cases is as much at fault, if this is indeed an instance of cheating the system. In many cases medical boards (for insurance purposes) will call for an early retirement on a seemingly healthy individual due to the long-term risks inherent in the call of duty. What Giuffrida is doing, in my personal opinion, is laudable — instead of allowing himself to perpetuate risk factors by lettimg himself go, he is instead proactively looking to increase his years of health available despite prior afflictions. But then, like I said, I’m no expert…

     

ON THE DOCKET…  

What falls on your must-watch list this coming week? Tennis has been staging its fractious sideshows in such far-flung outposts as Croatia, DC, Gstaad and Los Angeles (for the men) and Istanbul, San Diego, Copenhagen and Stanford (for the women). Formula 1 graces us with back-to-back weekends of racing, following up last weekend’s contentious German Grand Prix with more action. Cyclists get back on their bicycles after a tough Tour de France to race a one-day classic in Spain and start another (shorter) stage race in Poland. And there’s more track action to be had in advance of next Friday’s Diamond League meet in Stockholm. Here are my can’t-miss events of the weekend and beyond:    

  • European Athletics Championships (through Sunday/01 August 2010) – After the thrilling performance by Lemaitre, it’s hard to believe… but there is far more action to come all throughout the weekend from Barcelona as Europe crowns its continental track and field champions. Back in 1992, the Catalan city issued a massive awakening as to how the Olympic ideal could revitalize a city beyond mere transitory renovations. The fruits of that labor include winning the right to host events like these European championships. You can become the beneficiary of these fruits by following the link to one of my favorite websites
  • Classica San Sebastian (Saturday/31 July 2010) – Spain, after an already-dominant summer which has seen their brightest athletic stars take victories in the showcase events of tennis, cycling and soccer, has been enjoying a run of playing host to big events. This UCI ProTour one-day classic through the capital of Basque Spain is a prelude for the Vuelta a España running later this month. Run annually since 1981, the thirtieth edition of the classic will have fierce competition. Five of the past six years a Spaniard has taken the crown; will the summer of successes continue for the Iberians?
  • Hungarian Grand Prix (Sunday/01 August 2010) – Last year this race set off a chain of events that sent Formula 1 in a drastically unexpected direction. Brazilian driver Felipe Massa, denied the win at Hockenheim by his Ferrari team, returns to the scene where he was hit by flying shrapnel in a practice run and rushed to the hospital. At the time we feared he might never race again. Michael Schumacher made an aborted attempt to return out of retirement and drive Massa’s car for his old team. But Massa is back, and showing he’s on good form right now. If he’s got a chance to win this race, the longtime Italian-based F1 dynamo would be wise to let the Brazilian take the spoils, points race be damned…
  • Tour de Pologne (starts Monday/02 August 2010) – Afraid the coming week was going to let you down with no action to watch? Getting the jitters for some bicycle racing after becoming acclimatized during the Tour de France? The UCI has just the cure, with the start of the Tour de Pologne falling Monday right when you think the doldrums are setting in after the weekend. The race continues all week long through August 8, and offers a chance to see some fresh-legged talent and some up-and-coming riders who didn’t get the call up to their teams’ French rosters.

   

After all, it’s never been easier to keep up with a sport that only a decade ago would have been so niche as to hardly render much online access (unless you’re ready to bone up on your Romance-language reading comprehension). Finding access to video is elementary; these days everyone has the instant potential to be a photojournalist and chronicler of history. But even when that technology breaks down before your very eyes, all hope is not lost. For there are so many damn ways to get to the crux of a story these days that one would be hard-pressed not to find out the score of something. 

It makes for a dearth of suspense oftentimes… if you’re the type of person who wants to experience the whole drama of an event you couldn’t watch in real time and decided to record on your DVR. But it also allows for the catharsis to set in sooner. And that, in the end, is what sports are all about. A crisp radio broadcast or even a well-written recap can tell you just as much as the eyes can about the action of the contest on any given night. Even if you can’t witness something live, in person at the stadium or on television, there are myriad ways to drink in the experience nonetheless. And if you can know you have reason to cheer or boo later, it also allows the subsequent joy or suffering to be tempered with more sober thoughts of things to come. 

That’s why we root, after all — to cheer on something far bigger than us. Sometimes the connection is something we’ve been born into, a familial passage of tradition borne of geographic relevance. Sometimes it is a tie to a place of matriculation, either one’s own or a sibling or friend. Sometimes we go so far as to end up choosing, on blind faith or the presence of a favorite player or a friend from the past who was fanatical himself or even an appreciative understanding of a given philosophy, an overseas team for which to root. But no matter where we direct our fan’s energy, it is all about the spectrum of emotions involved. Where else, after all, can you go from zero to giddy in the time it takes to blink one’s eyelids?

 

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