Warszawski: 21 reasons to watch the Tour de France

The Fresno BeeJuly 5, 2014 

It's not just about the overall leader's yellow jersey at the Tour de France. Germany's Jens Voigt already has some respect of his own, celebrating while wearing the best climber's dotted shirt after the first stage of the Tour de France cycling race on July 5, 2014.

CHRISTOPHE ENA — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Has World Cup viewing widened the horizon? With acceptance of non-American sports spectacles at an all-time high, allow me to nudge you toward another.

The 2014 Tour de France runs 2,272 miles divided into 21 stages before finishing in Paris on July 27. Here are 21 reasons I'll be watching:

Reason No. 1: Roads as stadiums

Unlike just about every other sport, cycling isn't held in a stadium or arena. The Tour takes place on actual roads: country lanes, city boulevards, mountain passes. Roads anyone can ride on. This has always struck me as cool. Also, spectators don't have to buy tickets.

No. 2: Unique tactics

Cycling is an individual sport because one guy wins. But it's also a team sport because one guy can't win without teammates who sacrifice their own chances. This is especially true over three weeks where expending the least possible energy is critical. So race tactics become complex.

No. 3: Froome, like vroom

After dominating last year's Tour, defending champion Chris Froome has been slowed by illness and a crash at a June tuneup race. At 6-foot-1 and 157 pounds, the Kenyan-born Brit doesn't look like a cyclist but sure gets those gangly legs spinning.

No. 4: Return of Contador

Froome's main rival is Alberto Contador, the two-time Tour champion who had a third title stripped. The Spaniard seems to have found both his old form and renewed focus after finishing fourth last season. Enough that Froome isn't the overwhelming favorite.

No. 5: More transparency

"Drugs" is the first thing many people think about when the Tour crosses their minds, and for this cycling has only itself to blame. I would never try to tell you the sport is totally clean - not with riders still getting busted - but strides have been made. And if football and baseball players were tested as rigorously, certain myths would be shattered.

No. 6: Spectacular scenery

The Tour travels into four countries (France, Great Britain, Belgium, Spain) and through incredibly diverse terrain. We get helicopter shots of mountain ranges, coastlines and fields covered with sunflowers. Great for high-definition TVs.

No. 7: Special jerseys

The yellow jersey, worn by the leader of the General Classification, is an iconic sports image. But it's not the only one. There's a green jersey for the sprint points leader, a red polka-dot jersey for the King of the Mountains and a white jersey for the best young rider.

No. 8: Mountain-top finishes

Five stages this year finish on the summits of mountains. These always provide some of the best action because each contender can use up all his energy reserves without having to "save" anything.

No. 9: Young Americans

Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen are both 25, and both have outside shots at the final podium. Talansky is coming off his biggest career win, besting Contador and Froome at the Criterium du Dauphine. Van Garderen, fourth in 2012, suffered a hairline hip fracture a couple of months ago. There are questions if he has fully recovered.

No. 10: Old Americans

No pro cyclist is easier to root for than 42-year-old Chris Horner, who in September became the oldest Grand Tour champion in history by winning the Vuelta a Espana. An April training crash nearly ended his career, so it's fortunate Papi Horner is racing at all.

No. 11: Cobblestones

Which stage will be the most chaotic? Certainly Stage 5 and its nine sections of cobblestones, old roads across northern France and Belgium that are unpaved in the modern sense. One can imagine what ensues when 150-pound climbers hit these bumps at 35 mph. Which leads me to No. 12 ...

No. 12: Crashes

A fact of life at the Tour, especially in the frenetic first week. It takes only a moment of inattention, or following the wrong wheel, for months of training to wind up in a ditch. Cyclists get up from some nasty wrecks. When they don't, something is usually broken.

No. 13: Bunch sprints

German sensation Marcel Kittel (he looks like Ivan Drago's little brother) won Saturday's opening stage, while his main rival, Great Britain's Mark Cavendish, separated his shoulder in a crash. No one can match Kittel's speed in the final 200 meters, and he has the team to deliver him there safely.

No. 14: Nicknames

Cycling has colorful nicknames. Belgian legend Eddy Merckx was "The Cannibal." Contador is called "El Pistolero" for his finish-line salute. Swiss strongman Fabian Cancellara is "Spartacus." Talansky, known for doggedness, is the "Pit Bull."

No. 15: Caloric consumption

Tour cyclists must consume 6,000 to 8,000 calories per day without stopping for lunch. Each stage includes a "feed zone" at which riders will grab a musette bag of energy bars and gels, as well as sandwiches and drinks, from support staff standing along the road.

No. 16: Breakaways

During each stage, a small group invariably forms ahead of the peloton. These escapees often build a lead of several minutes, only to get pulled back in the closing kilometers. But not always. Once in a while, the breakaway makes it to the finish.

No. 17: Nutty spectators

An estimated 12 million people will line the Tour route, with 11,999,999 of them looking to have as good a time as possible.

No. 18: Spine-tingling descents

Just like certain cyclists are faster uphill, others become terrors when the road tilts down. Two-time green jersey winner Peter Sagan is one of those. So is Vincenzo Nibali, the biggest threat to Froome and Contador.

No. 19: Domestiques

From a French term for "servant," these are teammates who work for the benefit of their leader. Some block wind on the flats, others pace up mountains and those lowest on the totem pole fetch water bottles from the team car.

No. 20: Race of truth

The second-to-last stage is a 54-kilometer individual time trial. No drafting, no teammates, just each rider on his own against the clock. The drama will be sky high.

No. 21: No more Lance

Made it all the way to the end without mentioning Lance Armstrong. Hope he's enjoying life in Pariahville. Don't send a postcard.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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