Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Confessions of a Tour de France Junkie

There are few things in this world more peaceful, exhilarating and quintessentially human than a group of cyclists gliding easily along a winding road.  Even as a kid on my first 10-speed, I loved when 2 or 3 real-deal bikers would come whizzing past us with their funny shoes that made them clunk around with their toes in the air when they weren't on their bikes, their tiny pedals and those shirts with the nifty pockets in the back.  I never really understood how their shoes and pedals hooked together, or why their handlebars were so complicated when mine were so simple, but I admired them because of how fast they could go, and how effortless it seemed on those frighteningly skinny tires.  As I grew up and we traveled more, we'd encounter groups of cyclists out on the road and there was something awe-inspiring about their ability to move together as one, nearly floating over the road, in unison with their bikes and their fellow riders at or above the posted speed limit. 

I was recovering from my ACL surgery during the 2012 London Olympics, so I had ample time to watch and got really into the bike races.  For the past three summers, I have become consumed with the Tour de France for the month of July.  I languish away inside, glued to the TV, watching these men gut it out.  They are truly amazing!  So many of them crash and get back on their bike, or call for a new one and keep on going as they ride next to the team car while someone dresses their cuts and checks them out as they continue to pedal.  Sometimes they finish a stage (one day of racing) and have to withdrawal because they broke a collarbone, wrist or vertebrae, or they sit in back, nursing their wounds and bruises, hanging on until they’re back in racing condition again a few days later.  It is truly amazing what the human body and spirit is capable of when it’s all on the line. 

Although the ultimate goal is individual victory, it truly is a team sport.  So many team members sacrifice their own personal goals for their teammates who actually have a chance of winning.  There are members called “domestiques” who literally shuttle water bottles from the team car up to the other riders and drop back only to refill their jerseys and fight their way back up again.  Then, there’s the lead-out guys who give it their all on the way to the sprint line or finish line so that their best sprinter can have an easier time getting to the finish line.  The lead-out will then peel off to the side when they’re exhausted and their sprinter will just explode.  You see these lead-out guys finish in the back of the pack because they’ve used up everything they had in the lead-out.  Sometimes the other riders will give a better rider their own bike if they crash or have a “mechanical” (normally a flat tire or shifting issue) and the team car is too far away and the finish line too close to wait.  Without all those guys on the team, the best riders would be nothing.  

Its not every day you get to see the good riders do their thing though, because they’re so well-protected by their team mates.  Their team drafts for them, keeps them protected from wrecks in the peleton (the big group of riders), from the wind, and helps control the pace of the race.  It is really exciting when a stage allows for the best riders to shine, when they leave their lesser team mates behind and gut it out amongst themselves, they seem super-human—capable of unimaginable feats and it is then that you see why their team works so hard to get them across the finish line.  

The other thing that I love about watching the Tour is getting to see all the neat old cities in France and all the crazy fans along the course.  It's like taking a helicopter tour through France every morning and the commentators (with their excellent British accents) are great at giving lots of info about the various churches, castles, towns and historical sites along the route.  

In the words of my favorite cyclist of all time, Jens Voit: "Shut up, legs!"  

Friday, July 3, 2015

Proud to be an American

I am a lot of things: Catholic, female, a teacher, an historian, from Cincinnati, etc.  All of those things influence who I am and how I see and act in the world, but none of them impacts me more than the fact that I am an American. 

America is still the land of freedom and equality, of opportunity and possibility.  Our nation was built of the hopes and dreams of millions of immigrants.  It still holds that promise for so many today, which is why we have the ongoing immigration debate currently.

Our freedom and prosperity has given way to some fantastic inventions that can help humanity just as well as they can destroy it.  We have so much disposable income and disposable time that entire segments of our economy have been built around our consumption of movies, music, clothing, sporting events, etc.  We our a country where the "mom and pop" shop still exists next door to chains.  We gave birth to the big box store, to the supermarket, the shopping mall and to internet shopping.  We also have a very strong sense of local traditions and shopping local. 

We have the oldest constitution in the world.  The US Constitution was written by men who could never have seen what the future would hold, but they knew that they had to create a government that could develop along with technology, commerce, population, war, peace, and domestic strife.  They gave the states power to run themselves, to educate their citizens, to build their own roads, collect their own taxes, etc.  It's amazing that after all the changes this nation has seen, our Constitution still stands as a testament to all those who risked their lives to be free to live, write, speak and worship as they wished. 

We have spread a love of denim, various types of music, fast food, and movies worldwide.  We have also entangled ourselves in various conflicts and international debates.  We have made unilateral decisions that affected people in other countries.  We have suffered our own civil war and reunited our nation.  We've suffered a terrible terrorist attack that has changed the way people travel all over the world.  We've relocated two entire populations of people and denied them the benefits of their citizenship because we were scared of them.  We've killed nearly all the buffalo in our nation, and today devote lots of time and money to saving endangered species all around the world, including our very own symbol of freedom: the Bald Eagle. 

We are a people given to wanton waste and have one of the greatest national park systems in the world.  We have the richest poor people in the world, but their lives are not enriched like those in many other nations.  We have people like Bill Gates who has a hard time giving away the interest that he makes on his wealth.  We can go the grocery and buy the same fresh produce year-round, but we talk about carbon footprints. 

We are a country of paradoxes, but we have to own them all.  Because in that too, we are American.  All of these things are what we are, and to deny those things is to deny our American-ness and that is a real shame.  We are a country that has created it's own culture over the past 200 years, and that is really something!  This country is vast and great and full of so many different people, religions, beliefs, thoughts, hopes, and dreams.  So this weekend we will celebrate it by setting off fireworks, drinking a few beers and eating lots of hot dogs, burgers and dips, because what's more American than that?