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Tour De France Kicks Off

Jul 7, 2018
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The Tour de France began this morning with stage one - a 201-kilometer ride with a long stretch along the western coast of France. Over the next several weeks, cyclists will climb the Alps, swoop through marshlands, even cross a bit of the Basque Country of Spain. Idyllic as that all sounds, Wall Street Journal sports columnist Jason Gay, a self-professed cycling fanatic, is a little uneasy. His piece, "Ugh: Another Queasy Tour De France," appeared in the paper this week. He joins me now. Welcome to our program.

JASON GAY: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So let's just get straight to the big cloud hanging over this year's Tour. Four-time champ Christopher Froome - he isn't exactly a pure fan favorite. He and his team, Team Sky, were actually booed at a pre-race event this week. What is the story?

GAY: We're kind of accustomed to a little bit of queasiness at Tour de France time. You don't have to go back terribly far to find scandalized champions of years past, the most memorable, of course, being Lance Armstrong, the seven-time winner who lost all those yellow jerseys. Froome's case is a little bit different. Earlier this winter, results leaked from a test for an asthma drug that he took at a race in Spain. The drug itself is not considered actually even a banned drug at, you know, permissible levels. But he received this thing called an adverse analytical finding, and so he had to explain why he had this high level of this asthma drug in his system.

And just days ago, the UCI, which is the governing body of pro cycling, exonerated him. This was happening in the context of the Tour de France actually discussing banning Christopher Froome from the race. So it is a very strange, queasy situation for the Tour. But candidly, we've had situations and queasiness in the Tour before, so for cycling fans, this might feel somewhat like old hat.

WERTHEIMER: Team Sky has another thing in common with the Postal Service Team, Lance Armstrong's team. They use similar tactics when they ride.

GAY: They are built to win big races like the Tour de France. They have a stacked team of supporting riders who are extremely well-paid whose job it is basically to protect and ride for Chris Froome in those mountain stages and make life easier for them, which makes them very, very hard to beat and is very reminiscent of some of the top teams of the past like U.S. Postal.

WERTHEIMER: Do people not like that kind of riding? Do you think that that somehow is obnoxious to the fans?

GAY: It's a little bit boring. I mean, I think cycling as a professional sport has become increasingly data driven, increasingly analytic. Cycling used to have these kind of romantic notions of, you know, putting caution to the wind and trying to make your opponent suffer. And now it's almost taken on a coldly, sort of clinical quality to it. And, you know, in France, they love a champion who rides with, quote, unquote, "panache." And some of these races have not been terribly panache-filled over the last bunch of years.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Froome is expected to win, of course. Who is his biggest competitor?

GAY: Well, I'd say his biggest competitor is a guy who did not finish last year's Tour. It's an Australian rider, a 33-year-old guy named Richie Porte. And then my sort of dark horse pick for this race is a guy named Rigoberto Uran, who is a Colombian rider. He rides for an American-based team called EF Education First. Uran placed second at last year's Tour. I think he could be the upset guy. To really get wonky here for a second, there's a very interesting stage where they ride a cobblestone section of France. Things could get very hairy out there. And EF is making sure that they have a team that's prepared for that stage. That happens Sunday the 15.

WERTHEIMER: You are a great lover of cycling, and I guess you'll be hanging on that one, and we will, too.

GAY: I'm a hopeless romantic about it. I can't help it.

WERTHEIMER: Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal, thank you very much.

GAY: Thank you guys very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.