Lance Armstrong Unleashed: A Brief Guide to the Tour de France

Tomorrow, Lance Armstrong begins cultural learnings of the Tour de France for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan.

The 7-time champion is making his return to the Tour as part of a rocky comeback that has included a broken collarbone, some flashes of brilliance, and steadily improving results. Despite the setbacks, Armstrong seems to have convinced the experts that he has a chance to place high in this race, or even win it.

However, predicting winners can be extremely difficult in a race that has so many oddities. Among them: that Armstrong, who formerly rode for all-American sponsors like the U.S. Postal Service and The Discovery Channel, is employed this year by a team sponsored by the Kazakh government. (The Team, Astana, was originally built around a Kazakh cyclist who turned out to be a big doper.)

This week, we learned that the Borats back in Kazakhstan want their team back, and plan to give Armstrong and director Johan Bruyneel the boot as soon as possible.

But for now, anyway, Lance rides for Central Asian, post-Soviet glory.

Sexy time!

As we predicted back in December, this may be the weirdest Tour de France in a long, long time.

For many Americans, the Tour de France is the one and only cycling event they actually watch -- and then only to see what Lance is up to. For these casual fans, the race can prove to be utterly incomprehensible. So here's a half-assed, tossed-together guide to help you understand what the hell is going on...

1. The riders leading the Tour aren't actually at the front of the race. This bedevils many Americans who tune in and see the announcers talking about "leaders" who seem to be way back in a giant pack of cyclists. And what is this about different colored jerseys, and time bonuses, and what do they mean when the guys in a breakaway, way out in front of everyone, are actually so far "behind" they aren't worth catching? Confusing, isn't it? But try to keep this in mind: the Tour de France is a three-week event, one of the most grueling sporting exploits in the world. The overall winner is the person who gets from the start (this year, in Monaco), to the finish in Paris in the least amount of time. Each day's race (called a "stage") has a winner of its own, but that result may have no effect on who's leading the overall Tour.

2. These guys are on their bikes for up to six hours; when do they pee? They urinate while riding. Occasionally, if you look closely, at about the mid-point of a day's stage, you'll see riders slow down, stand up on their pedals, twist to the side, and turn on the waterworks. Announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin have come up with the euphemism "nature break" to describe this when the French television feed happens to catch it happening.

3. Is Armstrong loved or hated in France? Both. Watch closely when Lance is on a tough climb in the high mountains and he's going slowly enough that fans can get in his face. You'll see plenty imploring him to win, and you'll also catch a few flipping him off or shaking their bare asses at him. Also, overhead shots will occasionally reveal a "Fuck Lance" painted on the roads.

4. An American football team would never celebrate winning the first quarter of a football game. So why do racers who have no chance of winning the overall Tour get so excited about winning a particular day's stage? This is not an American sporting event, and you have to throw out the American notion that "second place is first loser" to understand European cycling. The Tour is actually made up of many separate contests, each with winners of their own, and some riders spend the entire season targeting one of these intermediate goals. A classic example: Chris Boardman, a former English pro, would spend his entire year preparing for and trying to win the Tour's prologue - a dash at the beginning that might only last a few minutes.

5. Cycling fans talk about the Tour being "a chess match." But isn't that what people always say about dull sports in which nothing happens for long periods of time? For hardcore cycling fans, we can't get enough of live coverage of our favorite event, even if that means long periods of the peloton simply eating up kilometers over flat roads. But yes, for the casual fan, it can look like nothing's really going on. And even hardcore fans have to admit that some of the tactical nature of cycling has gone away with the advent of radios worn by cyclists -- now their team directors can tell them who's leading and what they should do, taking away some of the mental game for the cyclists themselves. There's still a fascinating, chess-like side to the Tour, but it's not like it once was, and won't be again until some rules are changed.

6. And finally: is Lance going to win? Yes.


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