This time every year while the baseball season is grinding toward the July 31 trade deadline and a lot of sports fans start getting impatient for NFL training camps to open, an international sporting event is going on in France (and Spain and Italy). That event, of course, is the Tour de France. I'd venture to say most casual sports fans know Lance Armstrong has come out of retirement and is in search of his eigth Tour de France title. But, beyond that, I think very few Americans know very much about the Tour or anything or anyone having to do with it.
Believe me, I'm no expert and there are a lot of things about team bike racing I have no clue about. But, a couple of things have caught my attention while dropping in on the Tour replay shows each night on Versus. The first is that this sports is pretty damn dangerous. There have been a few multi-rider pile ups in this year's Tour that have led to some riders leaving the Tour with injuries. Maybe the most notable was Armstrong's teammate, Levi Leipheimer, leaving with a broken wrist he suffered during a crash in stage 13. But, the most horrifying crash this year was a single rider crash in yesterday's 16th stage. Jens Voight apparently hit a bump while descending down a mountain at a speed somewhere between 40 and 50 MPH. Obviously, Voight was hospitalized after the crash.
Another item I found interesting is that the team that is considered the best, Team Astana, has been teetering on bankruptcy all through 2009. At one point earlier this year, the team's riders hadn't been paid in two months and cycling's governing body threatened to strip the team of its comptetive license unless the riders' pay was brought up to date. (And you thought the mothers of Elijah Dukes' children had a rough time of it collecting child support!) What makes this surprising is that Lance Armstrong is a member of Team Astana. Armstrong agreed to not take a salary when he joined the team, but that is not the case for the team's other riders, which include the aforementioned Leipheimer and current Tour leader Alberto Contador.
About this time, you're probably starting to wonder how a cycling "super" team can be in trouble financially. The answer is Team Astana's primary sponsor is the Astana Group, a collection of state owned businesses located in Kazakhstan. Yes Kazakhstan, native land of Sacha Baron Cohen's fictional character Borat. Although Borat may have made millions for Cohen, the real citizens of Kazakhstan and the country's businesses are stuck in a financial funk. And the funk is filtering down to Team Astana. The financial feasibility of the team is in question past the conclusion of this year's Tour de France, despite the fact Contador is all but a lock to win the Tour.
Earlier today Armstrong announced he has arranged sponsorship for the 2010 cycling season which will allow him to ride in next year's Tour, but no details were given. Maybe if we're lucky he'll ride for Team Borat...or maybe Team Bruno.