back to the Black Table
                   
  PEDAL PUSHERS INVADE FRANCE!  
   
   
 

There's no need to repent. Highlights of bicycle racing on SportsCenter are not a sign that the apocalypse is finally upon us. It just means the Tour de France is in full effect.

Unless you're the weird guy in your circle of Friendsters who shaves his legs and scoffs at such silly things as the Super Bowl, chances are you might not know much about the Tour de France, which began in 1903 as a one big advertisement for the L'Auto newspaper, now known as L'Equipe. It has been run every year since, going on hiatus only for the occasional World War.

The modern Tour de France is broken into 20 stages (plus a small prologue) and takes riders and the massive entourage that follows on one big lap of France. It's like 21 consecutive Super Bowls strung together with a dash of Mardi Gras without the flopping boobs. The 91st Tour, which starts Saturday, stretches for nearly 2,200 miles, through blazing heat, over snow covered mountains -- and there's no chance of a stage being rained out. In the states, the Outdoor Life Network is preempting bull riding with over 350 hours of Tour coverage planned for July.

There are three types of stages in the Tour de France. The flat stages are usually the most uneventful save for the last couple hundred meters when everyone decides they want to be the first one across the finish line. Eventually the flat stages give way to the mountains as the men separate themselves from the girly men. The mountains are where the battles happen as the climbing specialists try to force each other to crack.

The final type of stage is called the time trial, or race of truth. In a time trial racers go one at a time competing only against the clock going out alone with no teammates to help.

Those are the basics. Here's more you should know.

 

There's no "I" in team -- but there's a "me."

While it might look like every man for himself out there, cycling is actually a team sport, sort of. 21 teams, each with NASCAR like sponsorship, of nine riders each compete in the tour. The strategies employed by the directur sportifs , or coaches, play out like a chess

 
 

match, knowing when to make or not make a move is key.

Of the nine riders, there's the team leader, or quarterback if you like. The primary responsibility of the other riders is to make everything as easy as possible for the leader. Eight men suffer for the glory of one blocking the wind and setting the pace in the mountains. The lesser capable riders on a team are known as

     
  domestiques they're basically the team's personal assistants, shuttling food and water from the team car back peloton, or main group. Most teams will also carry a sprinter for the flatter stages. On these days the goal is to deliver the fast guy to the finish in a good position so that he can hit the jets in the last 200 meters and make out with the podium girls.

 

Ride really fast, get a free shirt.

In Le Tour, there are three main jerseys up for grabs. The maillot jaune or yellow jersey is the one everyone dreams of wearing. The yellow jersey is awarded to the race leader, the one with the lowest

 
 

accumulated time, making it possible for someone to wear the Golden Fleece without actually winning any of the individual stages, not to mention making it easy to flip on the TV and see who's leading the race.

The two other jerseys up for grabs are the polka dotted King of the Mountains jersey and the green

     
 

points leader jersey. These are awarded to the most consistent rider in the mountains, obviously, and to the rider who can fire off the most sprint wins during the flatter stages.

 

The Italians talka the most smacka.

Ok, so Italians probably don't call what they say smacka but at the very least they need a lot hot wax and have a knack for being more than a little outspoken. The two guys to watch are Gilberto Simoni

 
 

and Mario Cipollini.

In last year's Tour, Simoni must have still been feeling the euphoria of winning the Giro d'Italia, when cribbed a speech from WWE's Raw and proclaimed that he was going to own Lance Armstrong once the race headed into the mountains. Well, when the final results were tallied, Simoni finished the Tour trailing Armstrong by 45 minutes. This year he should be especially bitter as his chance of repeating his Giro victory went to his young buck teammate Damiano Cunego who decided he was tired of doing all the work without the glory.

As for Cipollini, this Tour will probably be the swan song for the ladies' man known as the "Lion King." This flamboyant sprinter has been shut out of the Tour since 1999, when he rattled off four consecutive stage wins. He's also the longest shot to actually finish the Tour. Like Shaq's inability to make a free throw, Cipo' can't pedal up and over mountain.

Almost exciting as the way Cipollini can sprint to

     
  victory is his choice of racing attire. He makes Liberace look like a GAP shopper. The last time he was at the Tour, he celebrated Julius Ceasar's 2,099th birthday by wearing a toga and was carried via throne to the start line by half a dozen women. Lately he's toned it down a bit, choosing to dress like a zebra. But expect Cipollini will be return to his biggest stage in grand fashion. Rumor has it he's been working on a outfit inspired by TRON, lights and all.

Seriously.

 

Even if he wins six, Lance still isn't the baddest dude.

He might get the record for most ever Tour wins but handle of best ever belongs to Eddy Merckx, without question. Not only was "The Cannibal" a five times Tour and Giro champion, he won just about

 
 

every race he entered. He's said that had he easily could have won the Tour at least seven times had he made it the only race he focused on like Armstrong.

And even if Lance wins a seventh Tour, Eddy will still be the only one to ever have led a Tour from start to finish winning the yellow, polka dot, and green jerseys in the process back in 1969. He said he did it because he was mad at all the doping accusations.

Oh, and to answer that question looming in the back of your mind, if the guys in the Tour ride for hundreds of miles and hours at a time, what happens when they have to go to the bathroom?

     
 

 

They either stop by the road during moments of truce or if time is of the essence, a domestique will hold onto the seat while their teammate does his business on the go. This technique though doesn't work for the pee shy.

 

Lance Armstrong will probably lose.

Thanks to his recent cameo in Dodgeball, even the patently stupid know the story of Lance Armstrong. He's rebounded nicely from nearly having his life cut short by a bout of testicular, lung and brain

 
  cancer to win the Tour de France for the last five years becoming only the fifth member of the five win fraternity.

The problem for Lance this year is that everyone who's gone for a sixth win has failed. Some more miserably than others. Working against Lance this year is his age and the chance that he might have caught a nasty case of Rocky III Syndrome. If you recall, at the start of his third installment, Rocky had gone soft, appearing on the Muppet Show and wrestling Hulk
     
 

Hogan before Mr. T handed him a beat down.

Along with a new acting career, Lance has spent the off-season starring in some rather spectacular commercials and being a frequent subject of the gossip pages with his girlfriend Sheryl Crow, especially when she admitted to getting him started on the Krispey Kreme diet.

Working in Lance's favor is that despite his rather hot distraction, he's maintained his Ivan Drago like training regimen. A whole new batch of doping charges will only motivate him even more. Plus, Alexander Vinokourov and Joseba Beloki, two main rivals, are injured and won't be starting, and Mr. T. don't ride a bike.

Eye of the tiger, baby. This race is Lance's to lose.

 

The 91st Tour de France runs from July 3rd-25th.

 

Todd Munson was recently cast as Chunky Cyclist in the upcoming Adam Sandler film Spanglish.