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American Tejay Van Garderen, who was a support rider for BMC leader Cadel Evans of Australia last year, will be among the rising stars to watch in the Tour de France starting Saturday.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
When the 100th Tour de France gets underway Saturday, we'll hear plenty - at least at first - about a disgraced cyclist who once dominated the event.
It would be impossible to discuss the tour without getting into Lance Armstrong, who for so many years ruled the podium and ruled a pel oton full of fellow dopers.
Armstrong's spectacular fall from grace wasn't a big surprise for the most diehard of bike racing fans.
Those who have followed the sport feverishly for years knew well the culture of doping, and knew that there was little chance that Armstrong could be riding clean and still beating talented riders who were doping (and getting caught before Armstrong finally did).
The scandal was probably a bigger blow to casual fans, those who were drawn to the sport because of Armstrong, who dominated like no other American rider ever had, and who did it after his miraculous recovery from cancer.
As the race continues, the hard-core fans will still be there, just as baseball diehards stuck with the American Pastime in the immediate wake of the steroid era.
Casual fans are another story.
With Armstrong and his charisma and talent and touching backstory gone, why should they care anymore?
They should care because professional cycling, despite the scandals, can be an amazing, beautiful sport. And the Tour de France is the pinnacle of that sport.
Here are just a few reasons to pay attention to the Tour de France this year:
Tejay van Garderen
The best of an exciting crop of young American riders, Tejay van Garderen comes into the tour fresh off his biggest career win, a dominating performance at the Amgen Tour of California.
Van Garderen has the goods to contend in stage races, possessing great climbing skills and also the ability to ride strong individual time trials. Those skills got him fifth in last year's Tour de France, when he was the race's best young rider even though when the race started he wasn't even the designated leader of his BMC Racing team.
It would take a miracle for van Garderen to win the Tour de France this summer, but he's got a shot at a podium finish and should always be in the mix during the exciting mountain stages and time trials.
Phil and Paul
As the lead commentators for live Tour de France TV coverage, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen keep viewers engaged, educated and entertained.
Both former elite racers themselves, Liggett and Sherwen have an intimate understanding of the nuances of the sport, know its history and know its current riders and teams.
To top it off, they work flawlessly together as they deliver their flowing, clever and sometimes hilarious commentary that even has inspired a Facebook page dedicated to their quotes.
Stages that feature mountaintop finishes are often the most exciting of the tour, in part because it is during those stages that winners often separate themselves.
While top contenders often mark each other on those climbs, riders who are further down in the overall standings can escape for individual glory, as American Andy Hampsten did winning on the famed Alpe d'Huez in 1992.
This year's route features some incredible mountaintop stages, including one atop Mount Ventoux, and another that ends atop Alpe d'Huez after riders have crested the mountain already once earlier in the day.
Flatter stages almost always finish in a group sprint, and some of those sprints can get ugly because bad things can happen when bikes and riders start bumping into each other at 45 miles per hour.
Finish line pileups are like wrecks at Talledega. No one wants to see competitors get hurt, but the crashes do make for good TV.
In the old days we used to get an hour recap of the Tour on the weekend. Now we get every stage live, and then repeated throughout the day.
The repeats are better than nothing, but the best option for those who can't watch the live morning telecasts is to record that first showing on the NBC Sports Network.
Not only will that ensure commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, but it can provide for the kind of interesting moments you'd expect when you put 500,000 cycling fans - many of whom have been drinking heavily while waiting for the race - on a mountain road where they can run alongside their heroes.
Serious fans will eat up the coverage over the next three weeks, like they always do.
Casual fans who tune in for a few days just might find that things are as interesting, maybe even more so, than the race was when that guy from Texas was getting all the positive attention.
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