Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 20

Bravo et Merci!

That's the message Claire Pedrono wrote on her chalkboard on this final day of the Tour de France.

For nearly a month Pedrono rode on the back of a bright yellow motorbike, writing the time gaps between the breakaways and the peloton on her board, displaying them to the riders. But today was different. On the first half of Stage 20 there were no breakaways, no chases, and no battles to be fought. Instead of the high mountains and deep forests that were the backdrops for the greatest dramas of the Tour, we saw apartment houses, stores, and parks.

It was, quite simply, a friendly neighborhood bike ride. A time to celebrate and say thanks.

So as the riders patted each other on the back and sipped champagne, our friend Claire Pedrono captured the moment perfectly. "Bravo et merci!" she wrote, and seeing her chalkboard on t.v. I thought to myself: yes, I couldn't agree more.

But if all those good feelings were what defined the first half of Stage 20, the second half was on a different plane entirely. Quietly, as if entering the room through a side door, the riders arrived in Paris, and everything changed.

I say "quietly" because this wasn't a little Pyrenean village they were riding into, with the peloton barreling through narrow streets, larger than life. Here, the great city simply unfolded for its guests -- gracefully, one panel at a time.

The riders passed by the beautiful bridges of the Seine. We television viewers marveled at the pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Way off in the distance we could make out the Louvre and Notre Dame. As the helicopter cameras panned out across the metropolis, each new kilometer revealed so many familiar sights and wonders. And the best part was ... it all came into view at the smooth and fluid pace of a bike ride.

It's the same magical pace that took us through the modern streets of Rotterdam, across the cobbles of Belgium and northeastern France, up the treeless peaks of the Alps, past the sunflower fields of Revel, and over the mightiest passes of the Pyrenees. What a wonderful way to experience this magnificent corner of the world.

And now, as the Tour carried us down the banks of the Seine, deeper and deeper into the most beautiful city in Europe, this smooth cycling motion felt as graceful and stylish as the city itself. Not only had the Tour de France riders earned the right to be here in Paris, they belonged.

With a sweeping turn onto the Place de la Concorde, the final battle began -- this time on the greatest stage of all: the Champs Elysees. Eight laps up and back, all under the proud view of the Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by cheering fans ... the subject of my final Tour de France 2010 painting...

What a thrilling battle it was! There on that long flat avenue, we could see the architecture of the Tour play itself out one last time. The rebellious little breakaway, the Empire that is the peloton, the lead out trains, the breathless announcers, and the breakneck sprint to the finish ... it was as if it was all being etched into our memories, this time for good. And then when Mark Cavendish crossed the finish line, that was it! The Tour de France 2010 -- one of the most exciting Tours in memory -- had come to an end.

So now here I sit a few days later in a Boston coffee shop, writing the end of this post, and I find myself at a loss for words. Twenty stages and countless stories have passed since the Tour began -- what can I possibly write to sum it all up? All I can think of are images: foggy mountain passes, dusty cobbles, exuberant fans, huge windmills, cozy villages, horrific crashes, colorful jerseys, and green forests.

But then I stop trying so hard. I look out the coffee shop window for a moment, reflect back on this extraordinary month-long event ... and slowly a few words drift into my mind.

I realize they're perfect.

So to everyone at the Versus channel who brought us those beautiful pictures...

To Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, Bob Roll, and Chris Hummer who told us the Tour's stories with such eloquence and humor...

To all the wonderful riders who created those stories on the road...

To the thousands of people lining the streets of France, Belgium, and Holland...

And to all the folks like Claire Pedrono, who worked so hard behind-the-scenes to make the magic of the Tour come alive...

Bravo et Merci!

It was a wonderful ride.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 19

As I sat down to begin my Tour de France painting of the day, I had a problem. I knew I wanted to show a rider racing through the green vineyards of Bordeaux -- but which rider? Contador, Schleck, or Armstrong?

Following the tradition of the Tour de France where great stories constantly overlap, I chose all three. In the following painting, you'll see traces of Alberto Contador's yellow jersey, Andy Schleck's white jersey, and the red Radio Shack jersey of Lance Armstrong:

Contador and Schleck both gave the time-trials of their lives -- a thrilling ending to one of the greatest GC battles in Tour de France history. And Lance Armstrong? It was as if he constantly found new things in this Tour de France to motivate him, no matter how small. He fought through one crash after another in the early days of the Tour; but when it became clear there was no possibility of victory, he didn't give up. He supported his team, gave a stage win a shot, and when all else failed, simply rode his bike -- kilometer after kilometer, always finishing. What a wonderful ride.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 18

The sprinters are back! Cavendish, Hushovd, Petacchi, and Dean ... it was like seeing old friends from college again. So guys, what have you been up to? "Oh, don't ask," they reply, shaking their heads. "Everything was going great, until we hit these mountains...."

Well, there was no need to worry on this stage. The switchbacks, fog, and Pyrenean sheep herds were all behind us. With nothing but flat roads all the way to Bordeaux, we were once again treated to the magnificent colors of a full-out sprint to the finish, the subject of my painting for the night...

Tour de France: Stage 17

It was as if we'd stepped into a dream. The white jersey of Andy Schleck and the yellow jersey of Alberto Contador, emerging from the murky mists of the Tourmalet, climbing higher and higher -- into the clouds. After three weeks of racing it had come down to this.

Side by side, they climbed ... Schleck in front, Contador just behind. Equal competitors, their attacks were barely noticeable on the road. It was in their faces that the story of Stage 17 was written. Surrounded by wild fans, fog, and flags waving in their faces, Schleck and Contador's eyes were focused solely on each other -- testing, daring, concentrating, and wondering.

It was in those great cyclists' eyes that you saw they got it. They got that here on this most historic of Tour de France climbs they were creating something extraordinary. When they patted each other on the back at the finish line, I think for a moment they had stepped outside of themselves, realizing what an incredible mountaintop adventure story they had written together. They were each simply saying: well done, my friend.

It's Schleck, Contador, the fans, and the mists of the Tourmalet that are the subject for my Stage 17 painting:

What an incredible stage it was.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 16

The miles of campers parked alongside the road, the insane fans, the restaurant at the top of the pass, and the treeless landscape ... it can only be one place: the Tourmalet! Along with Alpe D'Huez, the Tourmalet is one of the greatest climbs of the tour to watch. And the best thing about it this year is that we get to see it twice. After the rest day tomorrow, the riders head back up the opposite side. Can't wait.

With all the amazing climbs in Stage 16 though, what I ended up remembering the most were those long, treacherous, and thrilling descents. Everything must seem like a blur to the riders as they barrel down the mountains at 60+ mph, the subject of my abstract painting for the evening...

As for the race itself -- yet again we saw some dramatic stories etched into Tour history, both on the road and off.

On the road ... What a thrill it was to see Lance Armstrong in the breakaway! That fast-pedaling cadence of his brought back many memories. Even though the day didn't end as he had hoped, seeing Lance battle it out one last time was a real treat to watch.

And off the road ... I just read the translation of Alberto Contador's YouTube apology/explanation, which I thought was very nice. I'm sure it won't change things on the course. Schleck will still be out for revenge, as he should -- that's what makes a great bike race! But Contador's video was a very human moment, and it really showed the difficult split-second decision he had to make. Nicely done.

Tour de France: Stage 15

Stage 15 was really only about one climb ... the majestic Port de Bales. Near-perfect it is, in the unique geometry of a Tour de France climb. It begins modestly in a small Pyrenean village with a little uptick in the road. Then it winds its way through a dark tunnel of trees ... higher and higher, steeper and steeper ... until finally the road bursts above the treeline, fanning out in a multi-colored ribbon of wild fans over an endless ripple of ridges -- the subject of my painting for the night:

It was here on this great mountain pass that the Tour de France 2010 handed us our moral question of the race: Should Contador have attacked when Schleck was having mechanical problems, eventually taking the yellow jersey?

In a perfect world, sure -- it's very easy for me to say yes, I would have preferred it had Contador waited for Schleck to fix his chain. Contador could have thought: who cares if Menchov and Sanchez keep racing to the end! This is a battle between me and my great rival Andy Schleck. I'm going to wait for him to fix that rotten chain of his ... and then I'll attack him!

That's all well and good, but there are two things that keep me from simply saying Contador was wrong:

1. That's a lot to think about in the heat of the moment. He's still young.

...and more importantly...

2. A Tour rider should only wait for a contender with a mechanical problem if he truly believes it's the right thing to do -- not because it's simply the custom.

Lance Armstrong and arch-rival Jan Ulrich both waited for each other after falls in the 2001 and 2003 Tours de France. They waited because you could see in their faces that they considered the situation and made thoughtful choices. Those were wonderful moments.

But if every rider waited each time a contender had a crash simply because they were following some unwritten code of conduct, that would make for one very boring bike race. Remember, no one waited for Lance Armstrong when he crashed on the cobbles of this year's Stage 3.

So O.K., Contador didn't wait. That was his choice. It was a heated moment, and there's no rule saying he can't. But now Andy Schleck will be out for revenge tomorrow, and everyone loves to root for the guy who falls behind in life through no fault of his own. If anything, Cantodor may have given Schleck the greatest gift of all ... there will be millions of people cheering for Andy on Stage 16.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 14

The Pyrenees! These are the stages we've all been waiting for. Four amazing days in the high mountains, with the #1 podium spot still in hot contention. What could be better than that?

Today's stage first took us through the dark gorges of the Pyrenean foothills -- the subject of my Tour painting for the evening...

...and then we moved onto the day's two massive climbs: the above-the-tree-line Port de Pailheres, and the final climb up the Ax Trois Domaines. In a way, Stage 14 was all about twos: there were two mountains to climb, two Yellow Jersey contenders battling it out, and two dramatic stories created on those high roads.

Story #1: The Strange Dual Between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador

Contador looked to be in good form on the steep slopes of today's mountains, which normally means he's virtually unbeatable. Bad news for Andy Schleck. So what did Schleck do? He just rattled Contador's nerves. Rather than attacking, Schleck kept his eyes glued on Contador and mirrored his every move. When Contador attacked, vroom! -- there was Andy Schleck instantly on his rear wheel, every single time ... following, never attacking.

But I think Contador wanted Schleck to attack; he wanted this battle to begin. So Contador literally dared Schleck to pull ahead of him, riding slower, slower, and even slower, to the point of a near standstill. Schleck just seemed to say fine, if you want to go slow, just watch how slow I can go too. And so we were treated to the rare sight of two of the top riders in the Tour de France nearly falling off their bicycles, trying as hard as they could not to attack!

Had Schleck attacked though, Contador could have latched onto Schleck's rear wheel, waited for him to wear out, and then pulled away. So it was brilliant riding by Andy Schleck. He can't afford to do this again -- Schleck still desperately needs to add minutes to his lead. But for today, the strategy worked beautifully.

Story #2: The Magnificent Ride of Christophe Riblon

French rider Christophe Riblon had no time for the mind games of Schleck and Contaodor. He had a stage to win! And wow, win it he did, leading the race for an astounding 160 kilometers.

There were no gifts helping Riblon along to victory. This was earned. Team Astana drove the peloton forward at a blistering pace. No matter, Riblon stayed away. 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre launched an attack, trying to bridge the gap to the lead. Again, Riblon stayed away. Even Dennis Menchov and Samuel Sanchez pulled up close to the lone leader toward the end ... but it had no effect on the determined Riblon. He made it all the way to the finish line, punching his hand into the air in celebration during the final kilometer.

So congratulations, Christophe! You did it! All of us were cheering right along with you.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 13

Beautiful, beautiful Stage 13. The riders sped past great fields of sunflowers, weaved their way through picturesque medieval villages, and traveled mile after mile of tree-lined roads. Those trees are so neatly spaced that they're like giant frames for the symphonies of color all around them. I bought a new watercolor pad this afternoon, so I enjoyed inaugurating it with a painting of the Tour racing through that incredible countryside...

Tomorrow begins the part of the Tour we've all been waiting for ... the Pyrenean stages. But I'll miss the quieter roads of southern France. As I climb on my bike for my own morning rides, I'll be thinking of those brilliant fields of yellow, the mysterious old forests, and the gently rolling hills of that magnificent corner of the world.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 12

Wonderful stage today! I've always loved the intermediate stages between the Alps and the Pyrenees. One would think those roads would be pretty flat, but they aren't. There's an old, soulful mountain range right in the middle of southern France called the Massif Central that keeps them rolling.

I've never been to the Massif's mountains, but it looks to me that they're not unlike our equally soulful Appalachians here on the East Coast. I love the dark beauty of those quiet mountains and forests. One of the most graceful moments of today's stage was when the peloton crossed over a Roman aqueduct-style bridge, the subject of my quick Tour painting for this evening:

As for the strategy of Stage 12, I think Alberto Contador attacked on the Mende climb simply to stamp a little fear into his rivals before the Pyrenees. It was as if Contador was saying: "Watch out! You never know when I'm going to strike." I thought it was a brilliant and stylish move.

The cool and calm Andy Schleck never panicked though. He may not have had it in his legs to follow Contador at that moment, but he kept riding hard enough to minimize the lose of time. So tonight he still wears yellow (it's just 10 seconds less bright...).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 11

Stage 11 began as one of the happiest days on the tour. The roads of the Drome Valley were wide and flat, and fields of sunflowers smiled on relaxed riders. Lance Armstrong was seen chatting with Mark Cavendish. Alberto Contador rode alongside arch-rival Andy Schleck, talking away. Fabian Cancellara waved at the camera. What a happy bunch.

I thought to myself: what a nice painting I'll create later tonight, with the colors of bright sunflowers, big hayfields, and clear blue skies...

Then wham! ... we entered the sprint phase and it all blew apart. Saxo Bank began by hammering out a blistering pace, keeping Andy Schleck in the front, but spinning exhausted rider after exhausted rider off the back. Then the lead-out trains started to form like giant dragons rearing up, ready to strike. HTC-Columbia, Team Sky, Lampre, and an abbreviated Garmin-Transitions all jockeyed for position on the road. They passed under the one-kilometer-to-go banner, gracefully made two sharp turns without incident...

And then things got ugly.

It began when Mark Renshaw headbutted Julian Dean. Did Dean encroach on Renshaw's line? I replayed my recording again and again, and it's tough to tell. Then Mark Renshaw made a second foul when he moved to the left and blocked Tyler Farrar, who was in a good position to contend the final sprint.

Now we all know that bad things sometimes just happen on the final 500 meters of a sprint. Renshaw does have a reputation for being a safe and fair rider, and it's a rough neighborhood in those final moments. But the organizers couldn't let a headbutt and a block go. That was too much. And so they threw Renshaw out of the Tour. Wow.

This has quite simply been the most bizarre Tour de France ever. Even a stage that began so peacefully just had to end with everyone mad at each other. What new mayhem will tomorrow's stage bring? We'll see...

Tour de France: Stage 10

After all the action of Stage 9, today's Bastille Day stage was a quiet one -- quite a relief from the drama, triumph, and heartache of the past week. Stages like this allow us to sit back and enjoy the scenery.

For me, the most beautiful moment of Stage 10 was the descent of the Col du Noyer, with its incredible series of switchbacks. When the riders enter the switchbacks, it's as if the Tour narrative changes from prose to poetry. So graceful, they are. They're the subject for my quick midnight painting/pastel...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 9

What an amazing dynamic between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador in today's stage. At first, we saw Schleck testing Contador ... attacking, then pulling back, then attacking again. Contador kept up with it all, quietly matching each acceleration. But when they began to approach the lead group of riders, they started working together! It's that ever-shifting strategy of the Tour de France that makes it so much fun to watch. I did a quick painting/pastel of Schleck and Contador on the road...

There were other great strategic moments in today's mountain stage too. Like when Vinokourov launched off the contender group, clearing a path for teammate Contador. Or when Jens Voigt stayed in the lead pack, helping to pace Schleck when he arrived. And then there was Sandy Cesar, who knew just where to be on that final corner before the finish line. He'd done his homework.

The other story of this stage was a sadder one though, and that was Cadel Evans falling out of the lead. Seeing him so upset at the end was really heartbreaking. But we've now just learned that he's been riding with a fractured elbow, caused in a crash during Sunday's stage. It's incredible that he's still in the race. So hats off to ol' Cadel. He's got a lot of heart.

Tour de France: Stage 8

Many people like to say that there's a time to bring every good thing to an end. "Leave while you're on top," they say. Well, I don't agree. There's something a little too perfect in that phrase, as if it's an attempt to mold one's own legacy. I like it when people push the boundaries of their interests and passions.

Lance Armstrong could have retired permanently after his seven Tour de France victories. He could have put them in a little bottle and moved on. But he didn't ... he reached further into this sport he loves, fearless of the effect it might have on his seven-victory legacy. I love that.

So now here we are at the end of Stage 8 of the 2010 Tour de France, and the final chapter of Lance Armstrong's career is about to be written. His string of bad luck has probably made an eighth overall victory impossible. But he will adjust. He can ride for teammate Levi Leipheimer. He can go for some spectacular stage wins. He can help drive the Radio Shack team to victory. He will keep fighting.

Armstrong's seven Tour de France wins will always be a monumental presence in those beautiful French mountains, the subject of my painting for today...

...but a painting for Lance's final Tour de France may be a quieter one. Rather than forging an unbreakable legacy, Lance is weaving a more human story this time, and that's great too. I can't wait to see how it unfolds.

Tour de France: Stage 7

What a Stage! First of all, hats-off to Jerome Pineau for adding points to his King of the Mountains Jersey in such heroic fashion. He earned every spot on that polka-dotted shirt and bike. But equally special was the story of Pinaeau's Quick Step teammate, Sylvain Chavanel. After all the flat tires, bike changes, and terrible luck of Stage 3 that cost him the Yellow Jersey, Chavanel didn't give up. He saw something special in those beautiful green hills of Stage 7. But it wasn't green that was urging him on -- it was yellow...

...the awesome glow of the Yellow Jersey.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tour de France: Stages 5 and 6

I originally intended to write separate posts for each stage ... but these two need to stay together. Stage 5 and 6 were like two bookends of a great comeback story. First we saw Mark Cavendish's tearful and emotional win in Stage 5, after so many had written him off; and then the next day we watched his jubilant stamp-of-approval win in Stage 6. The incredible Mark Cavendish joined those two days together in a thrilling tale of hard-won victory. That's the magic of the early days of the Tour de France.

The most dramatic moments of Stages 5 and 6 took place in the final kilometers of each day's race, as the lead-out trains sped toward the finish. It's those long lines of riders jockeying for the perfect position to launch their sprinters that is the subject of my abstract painting for today...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 4

Serene, good-natured, even contemplative -- that's what Stage 4 felt like after yesterday's thrilling, torturous cobbles. It was wonderful, really. When you watch the Tour every day, you learn to enjoy its unique ebbs and flows.

Today saw the peloton racing through the treeless fields of northern France ... the subject of my quiet Stage 4 painting:

Tour de France: Stage 3

Cobblestones! Seven sections of cobbled mayhem, to be exact. They were the stars of today's stage. It was as if the Tour de France gods put all the riders in a salt shaker, gave them a good toss, and let the contenders spill out wherever they happened to land.

Poor Frank Schleck, out with a broken collarbone. So sad seeing him go down. It's going to be strange watching his brother Andy race without him. But there were many wonderful rides today too. Contador looked cool and composed throughout. Armstrong rode with such amazing determination and grit, trying to recover from a terribly-timed flat tire. The entire Saxo Bank team dominated the stage, pushing everyone to their limits. And I was delighted to see Thor Hushovd pull out the winning sprint.

There was nothing graceful or elegant about this stage. It was rough, dirty ... and so colorful and thrilling. As always, the fans were amazing. And so it's the cloud of dirt, flags, cobbles, and color that's the subject of my quick impressionistic painting for tonight:

Monday, July 5, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 2

When a crash occurs in a bike race, you see something you don't see in any other sport ... total and complete confusion. One moment all's well -- and then wham! There's a crash and no one knows what's going on, including the t.v. commentators.

Who crashed and who made it through unscathed? Who's in the newly formed mini-groups? Where are the favorites? Which riders have slowed and are waiting for their teammates to catch up? Sometimes the team leaders simply have no clue where their colleagues are on the road.

That's what happened today on the decent of the Stockeau. You can read a great summary of it on the Velonews website here.

Chaos like this actually produces a very human moment in cycling. Everyone is focused on one thing ... reestablishing some sense of order in a frenzied situation.

So I understand why Fabian Cancellara neutralized the stage by convincing his fellow riders to slow down the peloton. Bike racing is not like football where what happens on the field simply happens. Riders can make choices; they can agree to impose a sense of fairness when too much bad luck affects too many riders. It's part of the sport, when used sensibly. In this case, a motorbike crashed trying to avoid Francesco Gavazzi's fallen bicycle, spilling oil on the road. That's an extreme situation, which led to an uncontrollable chain reaction of crashing bikes.

But too many "gentleman's agreements" means it's no longer a bike race. Team Cervelo was unhappy with the neutralization, and they have every right to be. Thor Hushovd could have pulled off a good sprint for second place, earning valuable Green Jersey points. So no one was right here, and no one was wrong. It's the beauty of bike racing ... there are grey areas, just like life.

But one thing was clear ... Sylvain Chavanel earned every thread of that yellow jersey! He attacked and attacked for 187K, never giving up. He got ahead of all the chaos that would later strike the peloton, and he rode brilliantly. So congrats, Sylvain! My painting for today pays tribute to the forested roads of Stage 2, the rainy skies that caused so much havoc, and the lone breakaway:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Tour de France: Stage 1

Pan flat. That's how Versus television commentator Phil Liggett described today's stage. But don't let the lack of hills fool you. The flat stages are often the most fun to watch.

Today's race from Rotterdam to Brussels was no exception. Oh my, all those fans! Can there be any two countries more in love with their bicycles than Holland and Belgium? What was most inspiring were all those bike lanes and paths running alongside the road. I've decided that someday I have to take a trip to Holland and Belgium, just to see what a country looks like when almost everyone rides a bike.

The race itself was thrilling (and at the end downright chaotic!) ... and as always, the scenery was amazing. In Holland it was all about big sky, red-roofed villages, expansive marshes, windmills, and ... off in the distance ... the great North Sea. But soon after crossing the border into Belgium, the race switched to an urban steetscape -- first in Antwerp, then in Brussels. That's the subject of my Stage 1 painting for today:

Happy July 4th!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tour de France 2010: Prologue

What an incredible prologue time-trial in Rotterdam! I loved watching each rider approach the Erasmus Bridge, speeding through all those incredible fans. A great subject for a quick painting...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ten Reasons to Watch the Tour de France

1. The Scenery

Imagine you're in France. You stop by the village brasserie to buy some bread and cheese for breakfast, and the old man behind the counter notices the France 2010 guidebook under your arm. Shaking his head disapprovingly, he pulls a crinkly old map and a red felt-tipped pen out of a drawer, motions you to come closer, and says in a low voice:

"If you really want to see France, forget those books and just follow this."

The man removes the cap from the pen, begins outlining some twisty little roads on the map, and hands it to you.

"There, my friend, is where you'll find the real France."

Such is the Tour de France. Most everyone has seen photos of the riders racing down the Champs Elysees with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. But the Tour's heart and soul lies in the little country lanes of the Auvergne, the narrow roads high up in the Pyrenees, and the wind-swept streets along the Brittany coast. The Tour draws its own imaginary red lines on those beautiful routes, highlighting them for all the world to see.

Local races may have highlighted extraordinary roads in your own hometown too. Here's a photo I took on a street near my apartment, with remnants of an old race still visible on the pavement...

...and in Boston, the finish line of the Boston Marathon is always there, recalling memories of it's annual day in the spotlight:

2. You Have a Need for Speed

Speed is graceful. Speed is fluid. Speed is lean, simple, and uncomplicated. For the cyclist, speed means that all the elements of the road, air, and machine have fallen together in a near-perfect unison. Watching cyclists careen through a town's curving streets, you forget how hard they're working -- how impossibly difficult a Tour de France stage is to win. All you sense is the beauty of the road and the quiet whoosh of riders racing by their cheering fans.

What's that you say? You can't make it to France this summer to experience the phenomenon for yourself? No worries ... get a feel for it by attending a local bike race! I took the two above photos at the Mayor's Cup Criterium Race here in Boston last fall.

3. Phil and Paul

The Tour de France just wouldn't be the Tour de France without legendary television commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. Maybe someday I'll travel to France and see the race in person -- but even then, I'm sure I'll still hear Phil and Paul describing every moment in poetic detail in my mind!

Just as the Tour de France moves with an ever-changing rhythm -- from steep mountains to rolling hills, windswept shore roads to hot Provencal paths -- so does Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen's commentary ebb and flow with the contour of the race. Is has to. You simply can't listen to excited voices all the time in a month-long event. Rather, Phil and Paul describe the Tour as if they're sitting there in your living room, telling a story.

Simply put, they're wonderful.

4. It's On Every Night!

If you love the Tour de France, then the Tour is your July. You'll never wake up on a Saturday morning this month and think, "hmm, what shall I do today?" You'll be watching the Tour de France, of course!

5. Collateral

The Tour de France is a storyteller's dream. The wild fans, legendary climbs, small towns, eccentric riders, team cars, cool bikes, frustrating controversies, and colorful maps ... there's so much to write about! And where do you find these stories? In magazines, websites, and books! One of my pre-race rituals is to buy all the Tour de France magazines I can find and read them cover to cover. Here are two that have been accompanying me on my subway commute this past week:

6. The Strategy

A multi-stage bike race is like a chess match on wheels. You can study the strategy beforehand by reading books and websites (check out my 2009 Beginners Guide to the Tour de France post) ... or you can do what I did and simply let your understanding evolve as you watch the race on T.V.

Beneath all the intricate strategy, though, is one fascinating fact: nobody's place on a cycling team is defined by a set "position" on a field, like a first-baseman or a linebacker. In essence, everyone is equal on the road. It's the choices each rider makes that define the contour of the team. On good Tour de France teams, every riders is comfortable in his appointed role, even if it means sacrificing his own ambitions for the team leader. But watch out! Team leader status is never 100% secure. Falter too much, and nothing can stop one of your teammates from staging a rebellion and sticking it to the boss.

7. The Gear

Oh my, those bikes are a thing of beauty...

(Again, I snapped the above photo at the Mayor's Cup Race here in Boston. Local Tour de France equivalents are rarely far away!) One of the most marvelous things about the Tour de France is that all of the bike frames and components used by the pros are the same as those that come right off each company's high-end production line. No custom, one-time builds allowed. As long as you have the money (a lot of money, that is), Lance's Trek Madone can be yours.

8. Cheering for the Underdog

Sure, most of us here in the U.S. are rooting for Lance Armstrong to win. But the beauty of a 20-stage race is that Lance only needs to have the best time at the very end. There are plenty of chances for little known riders to have their moments in the sun too.

For example, Lance Armstrong knows that he's at his best in the mountains, where he'll most likely pull away from over 90% of his fellow riders. So there's no need for Lance to waste energy trying to win a flat stage. That presents a great opportunity for a little-known rider to get into a breakaway and ... if all the stars line up correctly ... pull off a big win that afternoon! It's one of the most thrilling moments all of cycling.

Here's a painting I created illustrating the magic of the lone breakaway (for the full-color version, and the accompanying story I wrote with it, click here for my earlier post)...

9. The Fans

In no other sport can fans get as close to the action than in professional cycling ... and Tour de France fans take every opportunity to get as close as possible, sometimes disturbingly so! Crazy fans wave flags and snap photos directly in rider's path, moving away at the very last moment. How the riders keep their concentration is beyond me ... but it's all part of the culture of the race.

10. The Mountains

Think for a moment what a typical photo of a mountain looks like. It usually has a grand, sweeping vista, with a big sky and awesome snow-capped peaks jutting up through the clear blue horizon. About right?

Well this is not the image you'll come away with when you watch the Tour de France. As the riders follow narrow mountain roads up and up, higher and higher, you'll see every contour of the switchbacks ... feel the rhythm of each inclined slope. You'll sense the inner character of the mountain as it's reflected in the faces of the suffering riders. And as the cyclists make their way above the treeline, the simple shades of the sky, rocks, and grass are punctuated with a kaleidoscope of color created by thousands of wild fans.

Yes, the Tour de France pays respect to the magnificence of the mountains. But more importantly, it makes them wonderfully, thrillingly human.

Now that you've finished reading this post, you may be wondering -- why did I put all my photos and paintings in black & white? Well, the race hasn't happened yet! All the colors of the Tour de France will reveal themselves as this magical month progresses. Stay tuned, and enjoy the start of Le Tour!