The cobbles

It is July, and with it comes a morning ritual for me, watching the Tour de France on Versus. This year, for the first time, I can watch in HD, which makes up for having to get up at 5 to 6am here on the West Coast to catch the action.

Today the Tour covered several sections of the famed Paris-Roubaix course. Its famously brutal pavé, or cobblestone paths, throw a thousand jackhammer jabs at cyclists flying past, beating road bikes used to smooth surfaces into submission.

Among the GC contenders, Lance Armstrong was the most notable big loser today, suffering a front tire pinch flat soon after being stranded behind Frank Schleck's race-ending crash. The combined misfortune cost Armstrong not insignificant time to his two top contenders, Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, and the truth is that we could've seen Lance's chances at winning come to an end already, here in just stage 3.

I love the gritty aesthetic of Paris-Roubaix, and I can't deny the somewhat sadistic appeal of sending professional athletes through the gladiatorial test of the cobbles on such a grand stage. It adds a twist to the already cruel Tour gauntlet. I'm reminded of U.S. Open golf officials letting the rough grow wild and trimming the greens down to glass-like consistency.

At the same time, it doesn't interest me if alterations to playing conditions merely increase randomness of results. A flat tire determining the winner of the Tour de France doesn't interest me as a narrative. I may be exaggerating the impact of Lance's flat, but if the course or challenge is no longer an accurate arbiter of who the best actually are, then we might as well throw darts. If the U.S. Open course, for example, was groomed in a way that it consistently scattered golfers randomly all over the leaderboard rather than filtering the cream of the crop like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods to contention, I wouldn't judge it to be a good test of golf.

Saxo Bank came out with a great strategy today so I'm not arguing Andy Schleck didn't earn a lot of his advantage today. But if the Tour was decided today, I'd probably find myself agreeing with Jens Voigt who said after the stage that Tour organizers should issue an apology to the riders.