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Tour of Le Tour with Armstrong

Terri Schlichenmeyer

History was made last weekend.

Did you see it?

Maybe not, because it’s almost impossible to watch, minute-by-minute, all 23 days of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victory. Instead, you’ll have to be satisfied with taped highlights on TV.

Or you could learn about the race, the athletes, and the edge-of-the-seat excitement that comes with witnessing one of Europe’s most popular sporting events by reading “23 Days in July” by John Wilcockson, photos by Graham Watson.

Riding a race on three-quarter-inch tires isn’t like jumping on a bike and riding through the neighborhood. In fact, when Lance Armstrong won the Tour for the sixth time in 2004, he did it by riding more than 2100 miles through the French countryside, pedaling around hairpin turns and over rough roads, and narrowly missing a disaster that nearly stopped him in his bike tracks.

Every year, the course of the Tour de France changes; some years, there are higher mountains and more snow. Other years, there is blistering heat and pouring rain. This is a race that is determined by hundredths of seconds; a course run by teams of men who protect their leader and get little or no press for doing so; a race where one bad decision on tire type can mean the difference between winning and falling so far behind that there is no chance of winning. There are serpentine curves on this race; steep hills, and cobblestones that can cause crashes.

And those crashes: Wilcockson writes of bruising spills, broken bones, split bike helmets, and a previous race in which a man lost his life.

In Armstrong’s chase for last year’s win, Wilcockson followed Armstrong and his rivals from the opening day time trials, to the last triumphant yards of the course, to the podium in Paris. Wilcockson also examines the history of the Tour and the countryside through which it runs, as well as the science behind the specialized racing uniforms, the ultra-lightweight bikes (minimum 15 pounds), and the uncomfortable-looking crouch over the handlebars.

“23 Days in July” is a timely book, and most helpful for its appendix and glossary, and the explanations that Wilcockson offers for the casual, inexperienced Tour de France watcher. There’s an interesting story about why the winner’s jerseys are yellow and how cyclists still pay homage to the man who decided to use that color. Theoretically speaking, a man can lose all stages of the race and still be the winner, and Wilcockson makes sense of that confusing rule. He also explains why there are no women riding the Tour de France. Best of all, Wilcockson, himself a “cycling addict”, offers a fan’s eye view of the Tour de France and the athletes that attempt it.

Lance Armstrong claims that the race this year was his last. He now has seven yellow jerseys to hang on his wall, and history has been made.

If you missed it, pick up a copy of “23 Days in July.” Newly released in paperback, it will make you wish you’s seen the race.


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