In recent years, I've wanted to give up on watching the Tour de France. What has dominated the headlines of the sport are allegations of doping, or reports of yet another rider testing positive and having his past wins thrown out. If Contador and Armstrong were to be found guilty of using banned substances, you might have to go back to the early 90's to the days of Miguel Indurain to find a Tour de France winner that hadn't been caught in one doping scandal or another in their career.
I've never been that interested in watching the flat stages of the race. Most consist of long stretches where nothing visually interesting happens. The peloton chases some breakaway group consisting of some riders with no chance of winning the Tour, riders hoping to win some TV coverage mindshare for their sponsor or to gain some points for one of the competitions within the competition (the Tour gives out jerseys beyond the yellow jersey for the Tour leader; there's a green, white, and polka-dot jersey, too). Most breakaways are caught, leading to a furious sprint finish in the final minute or two of the race. Even during these brief peak moments of the stage, it's hard to see what's going on. Shot head-on, it's hard to discern who's ahead of who until they show the replay from overhead or the side. Without names on jerseys, and with most teammates decked out in the same sponsor gear, it's often hard to see who's who unless someone's clearly wearing the green jersey.
This year the early stages were more eventful than others, but only because of a multitude of crashes, including one spectacular but unfortunate confrontation between rider and car. In that, the laws of physics held: size matters (this image of the aftermath is not for those who are squeamish at the sight of what happens when human flesh in motion meets barbed wire). The crashes were most interesting consumed in hindsight in highlight form, like hockey fights or soccer goals breaking up long stretches of jockeying for position best appreciated by those with a deep knowledge of the subtleties of the sport.
But despite all that, the mountain stages of the Tour always draw me back in. In part it's because I've ridden many of the Alps and Pyrenees myself, but for the most part it's the pure competition of it all. When the road kicks up, the riders slow up, to the perfect speed: just slow enough that you can see each attack, but not so slow that you lose interest. When TV coverage goes commercial-free for the last half-hour of Tour de France mountain stages, the results is one of longest stretches of uninterrupted but dense drama in sports. The ascent of the final climb usually takes 30 to 45 minutes, and even the moments in between attacks are fraught with questions and possibility. Who will be the first to attack? When? Who will respond first? Who just got dropped?