Why you should care
Because this race will grind your gears.
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WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? Cycling’s biggest and most famous race, the Tour de France, is back for a grueling three-week spin through the French countryside, which means that 20-bike pileups and unseen “innovations” to ride faster have returned to the sports spotlight. The 105th race was initially scheduled to begin June 30, but was pushed to July 7 so fans wouldn’t have to choose between the World Cup and the Tour. But the sport — and the race’s front-runner — is under a cloud, with industry-wide doping scandals at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Why does it matter? Four-time champion Chris Froome, representing cycling supergroup Team Sky, was implicated in a doping scandal last December when he tested positive for inflated levels of the asthma medication salbutamol. ASO, the organization behind the Tour de France, banned Froome from competing — until Sunday, when cycling’s governing body cleared him of all charges. Now he’s been OK’d to join the 3,351-kilometer trek, but for French fans, who haven’t had a winner of their own nationality since 1985, Froome may seem like the second coming of Lance Armstrong in more ways than one.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
No place like home. This year’s 21 stages of the race will take place almost completely within France, kicking off in the Vendée region on the country’s western coast. The flat terrain there will suit sprinters like British racer Mark Cavendish, but massive winds barreling in from the ocean could help thin the herd before the race turns inland. Dutch riders are particularly adept at racing through the wind, so look for 2017 Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin to take advantage. Ultrashort Stage 17 will make history, though, with a Tour first: Riders starting in a grid formation that favors those who are already ahead.
Pulling guard. More than 30,000 security agents have been hired to protect riders, following a call to action from Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) President David Lappartient. After the UCI OK’d Froome to participate, Lappartient tweeted that he’d heard calls to “violence” during the Tour. “I cannot accept that and I call on all spectators to protect all the athletes and to respect the judicial decision,” he said, maintaining that the Tour must be a safe place for all.
Playing favorites. With Froome back in the race, many expect the 33-year-old to sweep the contest again this year, after triumphs in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Yet out of 176 riders, there are a handful of racers — including Dumoulin, Romain Bardet of France, Colombian Nairo Quintana and Italian Vincenzo Nibali, aka “The Shark” — who stand a fighting chance. But most bookmakers are playing it safe, with Froome still the heavy favorite at 2-1.
Life after Lance. Armstrong hasn’t left the public eye after his fall from bicycling grace. Team sponsor the U.S. Postal Service and former teammate Floyd Landis sued Armstrong for $100 million in damages after he admitted to doping and was stripped of his seven Tour wins. In April, he reached a $5 million settlement with the federal government, on top of more than $20 million in damages paid so far in a series of lawsuits. Meanwhile, the UCI announced in March that it’ll use X-ray technology to detect motor doping (tiny motors that cyclists hide in their bikes to give them an extra boost).
WHAT TO READ
The Ridiculous Saga of Lance Armstrong, the Cheater Who Became an Enemy of the State, by Patrick Redford in Deadspin
“Armstrong’s history of cheating can best be understood as an extension of an entrenched doping culture, not as an outlier.”
How to Fall in Love With the Tour de France, by Chris Fontecchio in SB Nation
“Even the polemics at the Tour are unlike any other: From fist fights to wars of words over violations of the sport’s endless unwritten rules, people get their backs up in France beyond what you are likely to see anywhere else the rest of the year.”
WHAT TO WATCH
“Fernando Gaviria’s debut is possibly the most hotly anticipated of this year’s Tour de France.”
Watch on YouTube:
Travel the 2018 Tour de France Route
Watch on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Food is fuel. During the race, a typical rider’s diet consists of plenty of white rice and lean protein, totaling around 5,000 calories per day. When he’s not riding, Froome might even search the local waters for fish and octopus to toss into a curry. Favorites for other calorie-desperate riders include Halloween candy and almond butter.