The Art of the Tour de France
It is always a bittersweet Sunday and a gentle letdown in this small household when the Tour de France comes to an end. I won't be right again for a few days. Because for three weeks every July, the Tour is the epic, 24/7 teevee centerpiece around here, an electric widescreen oil painting in high-definition, an endless animated landscape across which moves every color and shade and shape found in nature and human nature.
Over mountains and rivers, through forests and fields of lavender, hundreds of men expend themselves for thousands of miles in an act of perfect futility. They travel nowhere and for no purpose, carry no message, no medicine, bring no material relief or practical ease. All at such great cost. Like simile or metaphor, like poetry or music or dance, they are of no absolute use to anyone. The race is an expression of the unnecessary, as is art itself.
And like any great work of art, the Tour de France is both the world as it is and the world as we imagine it to be.
So there's always something mythic and beautiful and cruel in the Tour, something of grace and squalor, of bravery and cowardice, of profit and loss, of rising to the summit only to be pushed back down. It is forever a story of the universal balance. Of the return to order, however cold and indifferent. What few feet you might gain on the Fates you are never allowed to keep.
Knowing this as Andy Schleck made that suicide move last Thursday, made his last-gasp climb into the clouds, it was easy enough to sense Cadel Evans on the road behind him, inexorable, persistent as a muffled drumbeat. There's a reason the rockfall of the Col du Galibier looks like a scattering of headstones. Schleck waited too long and then spent himself in two days of blinding incandescence. Evans burned on like July itself, as implacable as taxes.
By the time trial on Saturday, Evans was a man right where he wanted to be, in command of himself and maybe his outcomes. In this, he exceeded his expectations and ours, and in his success will rightly be thought of as a great champion of the sport for years to come. The rest is just statistics. A rising blur in red and black, Cadel Evans made very great art indeed.
(And for the critics and schoolmarms and killjoys who fret the intrusion of self-medication or pain management or performance enhancement into all this sporting art, I ask this: Do we begrudge van Gogh his absinthe? Do we deny Coleridge or Keats or Berlioz the doping pipe? We do not.)
But what lessons can be made from it all I'm never sure. There's no clear lesson in any art. Truth is beauty? Got it. Beauty truth? Right back atcha. The universe bends toward justice? Okeydoke, but it may not do so in time to help you win this race/his heart/her mind. France is beautiful, bien sur, and to see it pass beneath the wheels of a carnival as loud and gaudy as this might make it doubly so? All this seems right to me.
But to make such terrible human effort to no purpose at all? To sacrifice so much in service of so little?
Maybe that's what art is. And maybe that's what sports are -- an act of defiance in the face of the faceless. An answer against silence. Maybe that's why we're here.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.
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