The blogging software in its default settings encourages a primary category to be set for every post. (There's a way to associate multiple categories but I haven't gotten around to figuring that part out yet.) I'm setting this post's category to "law school*" even though I'll mostly be talking about the Tour de France because yesterday it tied into the process of getting myself to law school.
I've been following the Tour since 1998, the year that Marco Pantani blew away Jan Ullrich in the mountains to take the win in Paris. This was the year before Lance Armstrong came back and took up the task of blowing everyone away, becoming a household name among people who had never followed cycling before. I mention this to establish that while I'm not the hugest cycling fan ever (many are much more into it than I), I'm more familiar with the dynamics of the sport than the many people who think it's just about people like Armstrong simply riding bikes really fast. There's strategy and teamwork and subtlety and drama. And this year's Tour has exemplified all of that in spades.
What people less familiar with professional cycling might not realize is that there are now several Americans racing the Tour, including Tyler Hamilton. By following Armstrong's exploits over the past few years I learned of Hamilton because he used to be Armstrong's teammate. He was Armstrong's domestique, which meant that his presence in the Tour was devoted to getting Armstrong into Paris at the end of the Tour at the top of the General Classification. Still, evidence of his own talent would shine through whenever the occasion allowed. Eventually he left the service of Armstrong to pursue becoming a GC contender in his own right.
As Armstrong's fame has soared, I've found it a bit more enjoyable to root for someone less well-known. Not that I don't want Armstrong to win the Tour, but once everyone knew how talented Armstrong was, I didn't feel that my awareness of it was special anymore. Rooting for Hamilton, being lesser known, was more akin to rooting for the underdog, someone whose accomplishments would take more people by surprise, and therefore it felt more rewarding when he did well.
Last year Hamilton started doing well under some of the most awful condiditions. Early in the Tour of Italy he broke his shoulder. He refused to have it x-rayed though because he thought knowing its condition might keep him from finishing the Tour. He stayed in the race and at its conclusion days later finished with distinction, in 2nd place.
This year Hamilton came to the Tour de France in excellent shape with high hopes of being a tough competitor for the overall General Classification. On paper he looked like he stood a chance: like Armstrong and Ullrich, Hamilton is both an excellent climber in the Alps and Pyrenees and an excellent time trialist (where one races by himself against the clock, with no teammates to protect him from the wind or provide any other support).
But then, at the very beginning of the 3-week marathon of individual stages (each day's race), Hamilton suffered a crash, and in this crash he broke his collarbone. This was devastating: all of his training and preparation for the Tour would be flushed down the drain because how could he continue with a broken collarbone? How indeed. But he did. Taking it "day by day," as he said, he supported his team through a respectable performance in a team time trial, and then lo and behold, managed to hang on in the Alps. By the time the Tour got to the Pyrenees he was in the top 10 (out of 150+ riders, not including the dozens who had already dropped out since the start). But still, as he wrote on his website, he was starting to feel disappointed, plagued by the what-ifs: if he could have this kind of performance injured, imagine what he could have done healthy?
And then yesterday happened. In a weird stage that was deceptively hilly, he started out nearly getting dropped from the peloton (a bad place to be - he would be on his own against the wind and his nearest GC competitors, benefitting from the shared labor and pacing of the peloton, would beat him to the finish line). His team went back and helped him catch up with the peloton. And then he kept going: up past the peloton, and then up past the people who had already gotten ahead of the peloton. He passed them all and then was all alone on the road, with around 100km to still ride in the stage.
When I reluctantly woke up yesterday I had a long, hard day in front of me. Yesterday was Moving Day, at least as far as most of my furniture was concerned. I needed to rent a truck, get most of my things out of my apartment and onto the truck, then take the truck to a semi trailer and load *it* up so that it could drive my things across the country. A stressful and laborious chore.
Since the Tour started earlier this month I've been setting the alarm on my TV turn on with Tour coverage at 6am when that day's stage would be underway and broadcast live. The first thing I heard yesterday morning as I became conscious was, "...Tyler Hamilton is on his own..." up ahead of the peloton. I eagerly finished awakening and hardly tore myself away from the TV for the remainder of the race.
Maybe you have to be familiar with professional cycling, or perhaps you need to have tried it yourself, to understand why NO ONE in the Tour does what Hamilton did: to take the chance to go out on his own with so many miles left to ride solo. The distances are incredible (and in this case there were significant hills) and most riders, even the toughest like Armstrong, want the protection of their teammates and the peloton to save their energy. But the only way to advance in the GC is to "pick up time" on your GC neighbors. [The winner of the Tour de France is the person who has ridden all the stages with the lowest cumulative time. The GC ranks riders according to their cumulative time. So if Hamilton managed to finish the stage in less time than the other riders he stood a chance of moving up the GC by having a relatively lower cumulative time than the other riders who took longer to finish the stage.] So the then 7th place Tyler Hamilton, feeling strong, took the chance to go out and make the Tour more of what he wanted it to be.
The Tour de France offers riders other distinctions in addition to honoring the final GC victor upon arrival in Paris. Each day's stage is a full race unto itself. With 150+ riders competing over 100-200km in any particular stage, winning it is no small feat.
And there was Hamilton, broken collarbone and all, leaving the peloton and his competing GC neighbors in his dust. Remember, the peloton has the speed advantage because the riders can work together to take turns doing the hard work blocking the wind. Usually the peloton can let someone get ahead for a while because its efficiency allows it to catch up when the solo rider inevitably tires. But yesterday the peloton didn't; it couldn't. Hamilton stayed ahead, even though he was doing all the work himself.
As he neared the finish line I was yelling at the TV, "Go Tyler! Go Tyler!" and when he finished, winning the whole stage, I was as happy for a complete stranger as I think I ever could be. I knew what a tremendous feat he had accomplished, and I felt appropriately smug for having known about his potential long before he demonstrated it in this definitive way.
All day as friends and neighbors helped me load my stuff I regaled them with Tyler's feat. When my back and limbs started complaining from the stress and strain I replayed in my mind Hamilton crossing the finish line and in much worse physical condition than I was in! It was hugely motivating and got me through the day shleping my stuff from apartment to truck to semi.
Once on the semi I needed to pack strategically so that I filled a space nine feet high, eight feet wide, and three feet long. Odd dimensions, and it involved being very strategic about how everything was going to be packed in. This prompted the friend helping me to comment that it was like playing Furniture Tetris. Fun with spacial relations.
But that was a big part of my Move to Law School and I'm glad to have it out of the way. Next I need to have a moving sale which is slated for this coming weekend. It's the best time to have it with respect to the overall moving schedule, but I am distressed that it means I will miss the live coverage of those final stages when the Tour de France will be decided and concluded. Have I mentioned it before? Moving sucks.... But I guess when the going gets tough I'll channel Tyler Hamilton and then it might not seem so bad.
* It's now "law school - the process" after some category tweaking. - 11/11/03