Tour de France, which is one of those things that I really miss when I have no television in the summer, starts again today. This may strike some people as odd (that it is my favourite television event, not that it starts today), as I am widely known for shunning all forms of sport-endeavours. The truth is more complex, you see. I like some sports. Rugby is entertaining; chess is nice; curling is amusing; and cycling, when in the shape and form of le Tour de France, is very relaxing.
And it all starts today. In Monaco. "Monaco", you say, looking at me quizzically and murmuring under your breath "this Camilla person may be nuts, best call the people in white coats with the nice medicine", "but Monaco isn't in France". And you are quite right (possibly on both counts): Monaco is its own principality, but Tour de France doesn't care about that sort of thing. Last year they started in England, and this year they are covering all of six countries in all (Monaco, Spain, Andorra, Italy and Switzerland, in addition to France itself).
Why am I willing to temper my abhorrence of all things sport-like with this seemingly random acceptance of a sport known mostly for its dope use? It is certainly not because it is quickly over and done with. I like it because it has a touch of the gentlemanly. I seem to remember the first year I watched it, one of the leading men (was it Lance Armstrong? Or possibly Jan Ullrich?) stopped to wait when his main competitor for the yellow shirt had been caught up in a massive fall. I may be remembering this wrong, though. According to wikipedia the custom is the following:It is unsporting to attack a leading rider delayed by misfortune. Attacking in the feed zone is not seen as sporting. Not sticking to customs can lead to animosity. Unless the gap between the top two is close, riders generally do not attack on the final stage, leaving the leader to his glory. Rider number 13 is allowed to wear one of his numbers upside down.
Generally, I like sports where people use terms like "unsporting" about unsporting behaviour.
I also like sports where the rules baffle me. Yes, football rules baffle me, but not by their complexity. They are simple, I just could never be bothered to learn them. Rugby, on the other hand: a game where you can never throw the ball forwards. Brilliant!
Cycling is no exception. I cannot quite get my head around how it works. Which means the incentive to keep watching is never gone. I have worked out how there are different jerseys that people can compete for.
There is the yellow jersey
, which is the one Lance Armstrong always won. You get it by having the best time all over. This may sound simple, but it is of course complicated by a number of bonuses which you can earn underway by simply beating others to the finish line or the top of a mountain.
Then, there is the green jersey
, which you earn by taking points (there are several places along the line where the person to first reach it will be awarded points). It is generally a sprinters' competition. I think the yellow jersey trumps this one, though (ie, if you have both, you only wear the yellow).
The polka dot jersey
is the climbers' jersey, awarded to the winners and various runners up of mountain stretches according to how highly that particular one is graded: the more difficult, the higher the number of both points and numbers of people awarded points.
And the white jersey
is the youth jersey, equivalent to the yellow, but only for those younger than 26.
Another thing that makes this year's Tour de France interesting is that Lance Armstrong is back. For those who have been living under a rock for the last few years, he won the yellow jersey for seven years straight. He is now on the same team as Alberto Contador, who won the yellow jersey last year, but Contador is their leading man.
Which brings us to the final thing that I find fascinating with the competition (apart from the pretty pictures of the castles they cycle past and the odd information on competitions past when there was no helicopters filming everything and people jumped on a train to catch up with the rest further on): the importance of the supporting riders. These are brilliant cyclists who in their own right are world-class, but they are cycling for their team captain, except when someone has decided for them that they should try for another jersey (like the climbing one) on particular stretches.