[Sure, it's an off week, but does that mean we can't see top-flight racing? Of course not. But we have to sacrifice a couple wheels to do it. Guest contributor Michael Steger brings us this breakdown of the Tour de France, that little bike race across the pond that has more to do with NASCAR than we might expect. -JB]
With the Cup series taking a week off, my desire to find some competitive racing on television has led to an unusual find.
As many NASCAR fans know, nothing compares to the excitement and drama of a good race filled with strategy, stiff competition, scandal, villians, and countless storylines.
While the 3,540 NASCAR-related talk shows try to fill some of that void, you can only watch so much of these formulaic shows where a bunch of flaks in a television studio ask the same softball questions to anyone they can line up for an interview.
While flipping channels for a race to fill the void, I stumbled upon some captivating racing coverage with many parallels to the NASCAR world. I found it on Versus and it wasn't Indy racing (or whatever they official call it these days). Versus seems to have parked Indy in the garage as they devote a massive amount of programming to the Tour de France.
I started off knowing little about the race or cycling. Yet as the stages progressed and the races drew me in, I couldn't help but see many similarities to NASCAR. On the surface, the two seem worlds apart. But closer examination reveals some amazing coincidences:
• The fans. Keep an eye on the side of the road and you'll see these people lining every inch of the route. Is this Europe's version of NASCAR tailgaters? These people take off work to camp out, party and cheer on the riders as they zip past in a blur of a few seconds. Then the fans pack up and move to the next day's route, pick a spot, and do it all over again. One stage had a mountain road filled with shirtless drunk guys chanting and trying to run alongside the racers. The only difference between this and a Sunday cup race at MIS was a few of the guys were wearing thongs (it must be a European fad).
• Drafting. When biking 100+ miles a day, they draft off the guy in front provides a huge advantage over time and some amazingly close finishes. Two riders working together are faster in the long run than one. Sound familiar? Every stage also has a big pack of riders called the peloton (French for "5-wide and the Big One is coming"). The peloton reaches some amazing speeds as more than 100 riders are all inches apart. The only thing missing is a restrictor plate.
• Sponsorship. Like NASCAR, the teams and organizers slap a logo on everything. Nothing is immune. The only difference is the prime sponsorship spots aren't on the baseball caps, but instead on the riders' bottoms. Relatedly, as you look at the fans you realize there is a plethora of "They Make It Cause We Buy It" items on the market and you must wonder if this is the next career stop for licensing attorneys after Motorsports Authentics.
• Team Strategy. I'm still trying to figure that out, but it is similar to how the NASCAR teams come together to support their driver in the chase and use the other drivers to help. Each team starts with nine riders, but only one is a contender and the rest do their part to get him the win. This is much like teammates who don't make the Chase and are relegated to becoming on-track guinea pigs for the team (i.e. Jamie Mac and JPM in the next few races).
• The Daytona/Homestead Effect. NASCAR starts the season with the biggest race and often ends with a fait accompli at Homestead. TDF is no different as the final race into Paris is much like a Homestead race where the points leader simply needs a top 40 finish to win.
• The Big One. The risk of accidents adds an element of suspense and anxiety. A few days ago the peloton of 50+ riders was going 60 mph down a winding mountain road. It had the makings of a green-white-checker at Talladega. A horrific crash ensued with riders being thrown down a valley into the woods and bikes piling up in the turn. Many of the top riders were taken out with serious injuries and broken bones. Several minutes later, another accident was even more gruesome with one rider being rolled and impaled on a barbed-wire fence. Interestingly enough, NBC and Versus have used this footage and have started running a 30-second promo for the final stages. The spot is nothing more than a compilation of all the big wrecks and is similar to spots we've seen in years past for Bristol or Talladega.
Friday is a key stage in the tour as they continue to race through the Alps. If you need to satisfy your craving for racing, give it a look and make your own comparisons in the comments below. I don't know enough about the individual competitors or teams, but I am confident there are some personality matches to be made between the cyclists and NASCAR drivers.
[Thanks, Michael! Image via the "Superheroes on Bicycles" blog. Yes, that's the mutant offspring of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.]
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