A literary Tour de France

Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 11:24 AM

The 198.5 km stage began at 12:10 pm. There were 181 riders at the sign on. The sun shone on the Tour de France at the start of the day, the temperature was a warm 26 degrees Celsius.
That's the scene set by the Amaury Sport Organisation at this year's Tour de France. I've been religously following reports like this one ever since I got a road bike for my birthday last year. Almost overnight, road cycling became an integral part of my life. Reading about the Tour de France, I'm transported, imagining the giants of cycling competing in the world's best-known race. Each day I ponder who will be king of the mountains, who'll get the most sprint points and receive a green jersey, and which cyclist will beat the odds to win the stage.

I try to bike as much as I can here in the Bay Area, whether it's the 25-minute commute to work or a 50-mile ride to the Lighthouse at Point Reyes on a weekend. There are so many places to bike that it makes 52 weekends a year seem scant. One of my favorite rides, though, is Skyline Boulevard, a narrow, scenic highway in the heart of the Santa Cruz mountains. With its gentle climbs and fast descents, it makes me feel like I'm part of cycling culture -- almost part of the Tour de France itself.

So you can imagine my excitement when the winner of the 2006 Tour de France, Floyd Landis, recently came to give a talk at Google. Landis told us all about his book, Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, his training methods, modern cycling technology, his injury, and, of course, the Tour. I even managed to get his signature on my biking helmet:

Landis's visit inspired me to dig up more books on cycling. There are dozens of books on Lance Armstrong, the winner of seven consecutive Tour de France races. Of course, names like Armstrong, Landis, and Merckx are on the tip of the tongue for many cycling fans. But what about all the extraordinary racers who came in second, or third -- or even those who raced 20, 50, or even 100 years ago? The history of the Tour de France is about more than just glamorous finishes, it's about cycling culture as a whole, with the bright sides, like the development of ultralight racing technology, and the darker ones, like doping scandals.

After five "hors category" climbs, two time trials, and who knows how many crashes, one astounding athlete will win this year's Tour. Who will it be -- Michael Rasmussen, an incredible Danish climber, Tom Boonen, an inspiring sprinter from Belgium, or one of the great cyclists from the Kazakhstan-based team Astana? We'll know for sure on Sunday, when the race finishes in Paris. In the meantime, feel free to take a tour of Google Book Search to learn more about the inside story.


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