Yesterday, at very long last, the Giro d’Italia “tipped up,” which in cycling parlance means the route started getting vertical. In practical terms, it means the race, two weeks long at this point, finally started getting interesting.
I got serious about watching bicycle racing about the same time as a lot of Americans, and for the same reason: Texan Lance Armstrong (who also has a house in Aspen) was dominating the Tour de France. For seven consecutive years he won this race that lasts most of July (21 days of racing with two “rest days” in between) — until his victories turned out to all have been tainted by a massive doping scheme and he was stripped of his titles. Now, for those seven years, there is no official winner of Le Tour, in part because as you go down the lists of finishers, many of them were also found guilty of or admitted to doping.
For a couple years there, it seemed like every victory was tainted by drugs, and it was easy to become disillusioned, although the cynic in me assumes that many professional athletes, no matter their sport, are chemically enhancing their bodies. So I’m not sure it matters whether I watch cycling or football.
Despite this, I’ve continued to watch the three men’s grand tours. I don’t invest much other time in watching cycling, even though it’s on the calendar 10 or 11 months of the year, because if you multiply 21 days times three tours times a minimum of three hours each day . . . well, that’s enough cycling for me.
For the record, the riders race four to six hours each day, but they are in Europe and I’m in the US, and starting my day at 6 a.m. is plenty early for me. Plus, there’s the weird part about cycling: most of them ride in one group, the peloton, for the bulk of the race, sometimes bringing it to a 500-meter sprint in the final minutes. Those are the days you — or at least me — wonder why they bother with the first five hours.
And, due to the course layout this year in Italy, that’s about all that happened for the first 12 days of the race. A bunch of guys rode their bikes in a big group, and within sight of the finish line they all sprinted. Until yesterday, when the road finally tipped up and the gradients splintered the peloton.
So it’s okay that I have missed most of the Giro this year. This is just too much else going on for me to spend three-plus hours every morning with at least one eye on men in Lycra riding around Europe. Which is a big attraction for me — no, not the Lycra, but the European scenery.
These men in their brightly-colored bicycle suits take the slow way (relatively speaking — they often ride, even at “slow” speeds — around 25 miles per hour, and can go upward of 40 mph coming down mountains) across Italy, France and Spain, plus portions of neighboring countries, and it’s like a travelogue every day. Some of us (okay, just me) may not like to travel, but it’s fun to watch others do it.
Here’s another sport I’m an armchair fan of: mountain climbing. In actual fact, absolutely nothing about “tipping up” a mountain on either a bike or foot sounds remotely appealing to me, but the contrarian in me thoroughly enjoys reading about other people’s ordeals and their challenges against the elements.
I have noticed a distinct theme, though, as I read books about mountain ascents: the climber being featured doesn’t always die on the attempt in question, but the footnote indicates he or she died later on some mountain somewhere. Mountaineering seems to be an extremely lethal sport, and if one mountain doesn’t get you, the next one does.
That happened to a man my age from Utah just the other day. Don Cash had a goal to climb the highest peak on each of the seven continents, and his final target was Everest (or Sagarmatha). He reached the top, started down and died — an apparent heart attack. Sherpas brought him down a little farther and attempted to revive him, without luck. And so he will remain on the mountain (his family seems at peace with that), along with a couple-three scores or more of other human remains, plus the leavings of climbing: tents, oxygen tanks, other accoutrements — Everest is a veritable landfill.
But here’s what got me regarding the story of Mr. Cash’s victory and defeat pretty much all rolled into one: Everest also appears to be a superhighway. This is a virtual End of the Earth, the highest point there is, and one of the least accessible, and almost 400 people are there this month.
Now, that’s the “climbers,” by which we don’t mean the people native to this area who climb it routinely. One man, in fact, Kami Rita Sherpa, has now been to the top a record-setting 24 times. But he doesn’t count as a climber. He’s part of the “support” system that is double the number of “climbers.” So now that’s 1,200 people at or near the summit, and all of them there in May, which is the only month in which the top is particularly accessible.
And of all these people, at least 10 have died this month. It feels like this might be more worth dying for if it didn’t seem like you were waiting in line to board the newest attraction at Disneyland. I mean, look at this:
Does that look like fun, or what?
I suppose it’s still something most of the 7 billion and counting people on the planet can’t say, that we’ve stood on the very top of the world; although maybe you don’t, but when I think of “remote” challenges, they don’t look this cluttered. It’s almost like a peloton without the wheels.
Speaking of “tipping up,” it’s well past time I tipped up out of my chair and went and did something, rather than just watching and reading about others doing things. I’m reasonably certain that “something” will not entail any more vertical gain than the stairs in this house or a ladder in the new house (there’s still painting, believe it or not), but I’m sure I will feel as though I achieved something spectacular nonetheless.