July 19, 2004 11:00 pm
Pierre LaBossiere ().
Pierre LaBossiere ().

If you're bored or disgusted with the Mariners — like I am — and are looking for a real sporting event to watch during the summer sports drought, check out the Outdoor Life Network, at least for the rest of this week.

This time of year, OLN becomes the "All Lance, All the Time" Network, and all day long, they show repeats of that day's Tour de France action.

The Tour de France is an amazing athletic event. In a marathon, competitors run 26 miles. In a triathlon, competitors bike, swim and run over 100 miles. In the Tour de France, these guys in goofy uniforms ride about 2,000 kilometers over the course of three weeks.

Hey, even for you NASCAR fans, there's crashes — lots of 'em. The best one was a great wreck early in the tour of a guy hitting a concrete traffic barrier at 30 m.p.h. and going airborne head over heels into the pack.

I got into the Tour de France about 15 years ago when Greg LeMond was a big deal. I had a co-worker who was a cyclist and we'd take 90-minute lunches and go watch the Tour down at a local sandwich shop every day. Having this guy explain the mystifying strategy of the Tour to me reminded me of once trying to explain American football to a

New Zealand girlfriend. ("You mean, everyone on the team has to stand perfectly still until that fat man gives the quarterback the ball between his legs? That's nutters!")

The Tour riders are strong men. Elite athletes. Some of the best athletes in the entire world in any sport. You want drama, pain and triumph? Watch these strong, elite athletes

literally have their will and their spirit taken to the limit and beyond in the mountains. On Saturday, these athletes fought a sadistically steep, 10-mile horror in the Pyrenees called the Plateau de Beille. Some of them broke Saturday like dry twigs. Others somehow found a way to persevere.

There's three more of these mountain stages left this week in the Alps tonight, tomorrow and Thursday, including a twisted nightmare called the L'Alpe d'Huez (Wednesday's time trial stage) that will make the Plateau de Beille look like a day trip between Eugene and Junction City.

The Tour de France is kind of like a Frank Herbert

novel — plots within plots within plots within plots.

There's the plot of the cottage industry known as Lance Armstrong. After a near-Biblical struggle last year (two crashes, a bad bike, a divorce and the stomach flu), Lance barely won. He looks to be back in form this year, but he does have people breathing down his pedals. He's looking to simultaneously break the record for most Tour titles — six — and Tiger Woods' record for endorsement dollars.

There's Jan Ullrich, a former champion who's finished second to Lance five straight years. Lance all but put Ullrich away on the Plateau de Beille. You could actually see the big German's will break on the side of the mountain.

There's Tyler Hamilton, a former teammate of Lance who finished fourth in the Tour last year, riding with a busted collarbone. Hamilton was supposed to challenge Lance this year, but had to drop out — yes, on the Plateau — with a back injury.

My two favorite subplots belong to a little French guy named Thomas Voeckler and a big Italian named Ivan Basso.

Voeckler's a 23-year-old kid who looks like he's actually 13. He's actually been winning the tour for most of two weeks, though he isn't the mountain goat that Lance is. Voeckler weaved drunkenly all over the road up the Plateau well behind Lance, looking like he was ready to either throw up or keel over dead at any moment. But, in the end, he gutted it out and held on to his overall lead, at least for another couple of days, and he'll be a folk hero in France for a generation because of it.

Then, there's Basso. Everyone knows Lance dominates in the mountains, but over the two Pyrenees stages, he obliterated, crushed, blew apart and subjugated the will of everyone else in the field. Except he just ... couldn't ... quite ... shake this one 25-year-old fairly anonymous Italian holding his own with Lance pedal-for-pedal high in the mountains with thousands of crazed (and probably drunken) Europeans standing in the middle of the road screaming both of them on.

With Lance giving Basso a look of "you cannot be doing this!" Basso beat Lance in the first Pyrenees stage. Then in the second day in the mountains, Lance, after pulling up alongside Basso on the road up to the Plateau and talking in his ear

(I imagine it was something to the effect of "Hey, how 'bout I buy you a cappuccino at the top? I'll have it ready for you when you show up. Would you like whipped cream with it?"), Lance came back and beat Basso in the second Pyrenees stage.

I'm hoping Basso and Lance keep dueling in the Alps. The little French dude will lose the yellow jersey today, and the subplots will be down to one superhuman American and one superhuman Italian. I recommend you check it out if you haven't already.