Tour de France Withdrawal Begins Today

Tracy YoungContributor IJuly 27, 2009

PARIS - JULY 26:  Race winner Alberto Contador of Spain and Astana stands on the podium with second place Alex Schleck (L) of Luxembourg and Saxo Bank and third place Lance Armstrong (R) of USA and Astana after Stage Twenty One of the Tour de France on July 26, 2009 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

I’ve dreaded this day for weeks, and here it is at last. It’s the day after the 2009 Tour de France ended.

For three weeks, nearly every day has either begun or ended with watching the Tour coverage on Versus—this year in HD, as Phil Liggett reminded us regularly.

Phil, with his velvety voice, opulent vowels,  and perfect syntax.

In the race commentary, he paired with one-time pro cyclist Paul Sherwen, who can complete Phil’s thoughts and sentences in similarly plummy tones.

Bob Roll redefines the term “color commentary,” with his toothy grin, wild gesticulations, and unabashed allegiance to Lance Armstrong.

(He also sows hope in the darkest corners, finally learning to pronounce Tour de France properly, instead of Tour “day” France, showing anything is possible.)

And boyish anchor Craig Hummer was less grating this year, showing his general knowledge of the sport and enthusiasm. Although the “tour predictions” segment wore out its welcome a few days in, particularly with perpetually last Phil Liggett.

The poetry of the riders’ and team names still dances, as Phil would say, in my head. Fabian Cancellara. Thor Hushovd. Mikel Astarloza. Christophe Lemevel. Euskatel Euskadi. AG2R, said in French.

And the Americans, each evoking a surprising swell of nationalistic pride—Christian Vande Velde. Tyler Farrar. George Hincapie. Levi Leipheimer. And of course, the definitive, near-fictional cowboy name, Lance Armstrong.

The Tour is perhaps the greatest annual sporting event, in terms of testing human strength and endurance.

And Armstrong is the greatest in the sport, with seven past wins and a third place this year. His edges seemed to have been filed down in his four years away from the race.

I’ll miss the daily interviews of Lance, master of public relations. He was less defensive then in past years, but still wore a veneer of skepticism with reporter Frankie Andreu, whose wife Betsy testified that Armstrong doped, though it hasn't been proven.

In the justifiably paranoid world of cycling, pretty much anyone who wins elicits suspicion—this year’s winner Alberto Contador included, with his turbo-charged climbs.

In the interviews, you can practically hear the gears grinding in Lance’s brain as he processed the most astute sound blurb.

The news that he’s forming a new team for next season with Radio Shack dominated the Tour’s final week, as did the flashy Damien Hirst butterfly bike he rode.  It will be auctioned off to benefit his Livestrong foundation.

With three days left in the Tour, the epic 2009 Team Astana already felt like a relic.

I’ll miss the real and imagined animosity between the phenomenal, aloof Contador and his team, primarily Armstrong. At least Lance had the maturity to recognize that Contador had no peer this year.

But it’s a safe bet Contador will not be Armstrong’s teammate next season, and that manager and confidant Johan Bruyneel will.

I’ll miss the near-win sprints of Garmin-Slipstream’s Tyler Farrar, whose hide was tanned repeatedly by Mark Cavendish of Columbia HTC, but who knows he can beat Cavendish because he has.

Cavendish, like Contador, seemed to be able to accelerate at will without regard to the limits of human physiology.

I’ll miss his Columbia teammate Hincapie, who continued to redefine “team player,” leading out Cavendish on the final day’s sprint despite a possible fractured clavicle.

He chose to not seek medical advice with four days to go in the Tour in case it was indeed fractured, and he would be forced to retire. Not for his own glory, but for his team’s and teammates'.

I’ll miss the race’s varying day-to-day texture, going from sprint, to time trial, to climb. 

I’ll miss the castles and pastures of France that each and every day made me want to grab my passport and hop on the next plane to Paris.

I’ll miss the unspoken protocol that grounds this event as truly sportsmanlike—the peloton waiting for a leading rider with a flat. The chatty, Champagne-fueled conviviality en route to Paris, before the sprinters got to work.

(Although this was shattered, if inadvertently, when Garmin-Slipstream basically cut down Hincapie’s lead enough to prevent him from gaining the yellow jersey in stage 14. A little payback for Cavendish’s dominance, perhaps.)

I’ll miss seeing how the best always find a way to win—that hard work, strategy, and talent pay off, particularly over this marathon event.

On the bright side, there are only about 340 days til the 2010 Tour.