For many years now, since OLN began broadcasting TV coverage of the event, we have faithfully watched the Tour de France, the annual professional bicycle race which lasts for 23 days in the month of July and roughly circumnavigates France, covering around 3500 kms. This makes it one of the most gruelling sporting events in the world.
I don't think there are many, even non followers of the sport or indeed sport in general, who have not heard of Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist whose career was interrupted at age 25 by treatment for testicular cancer, which had spread to his brain, abdomen and lungs. He was sidelined for two years but returned to cycling in 1998 and in 1999 he won his first Le Tour.
Yes, his first. This young man, who overcame this terrible disease, went on to win an unprecedented 7 Tours in a row and then in 2004 he retired at his peak.
We continued to watch the race every July, all 23 days of it, as it was the turn of other riders to take the coveted prize. As usual, drug scandals have continued to plague the professional cycling world. One hero after another has been toppled from his platform into periods of suspension. Somehow, while being incredibly disappointed as each rider I have followed succumbed, I am still enthusiastic about Le Tour and it has lost none of its magic for me. But Lance Armstrong, despite the many allegations against him, has never been convicted of doping and he is certainly tested often enough.
During his retirement Lance concentrated on his Lance Armstrong Foundation which raises money for the fight against cancer. He continued to cycle in charitable events and even took up marathon running, competing twice in the New York Marathon and once in the Boston Marathon. But it seems he missed cycling too much and in October 2008 he announced his return to professional cycling, with an eye to competing once again in the Tour de France. A broken collarbone, suffered early in 2009 during a race in Spain, seemed to be a small setback on his journey to compete in Le Tour and after one week of the race he is sitting in third place out of the 180 cyclists who started the race.
For the first few days of the race, you have to sort out the confusion and try to remember who rides for which team and the colour of the team uniform. Riders change teams constantly and those who were rivals last year may well be team mates this year.
But above all, cycling is a team sport. For the years of his victories, Lance rode firstly for the US Postal Team which morphed into the Discovery Team, when its sponsor changed. This year he rides for the Astana team, sponsored by a coalition of state-owned companies from Kazakhstan and named after its capital city Astana, a new squad put together several years ago by Johan Bruyneel, the manager of Lance's old team. Many consider this the cycling "Dream Team" and it certainly is a very powerful squad. Nine members of twenty teams ride in Le Tour and Astana's 9 riders are some of the best in the world, including Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Andreas Klöden and fellow American, Levi Leipheimer. Contador, at 26 and winner of the 2007 Tour, along with the 2008 Giro d'Italia and the 2008 Vuelta a España, is considered the number one rider for the team, but Lance at 37, is wearing the number 2 jersey for the team.
They have already won the Team Time Trial and at this point, one week into the race, they have four riders in the top six places. I think Armstrong's presence in this year's race has added enormous interest for many people. I don't know if he has a serious chance to win it for the eighth time. Despite his success so far, it is still early days, but I think there are many people, including myself, who would be delighted to see him pull it off. What a coup it would be!
So for the next two weeks we will be glued to the television coverage, catching the end of the race early in the morning and watching the full coverage rebroadcast each evening.
Now when a certain young person comes to visit us in July, she is also quite enthused by Le Tour. "Let's watch the bicycle guys, Grandpa." A photo from last year.
Grandpa is busily either muting or unmuting the ads - heaven preserve us if we have to listen to them - while Miss S is obviously concerned that her favourite rider will not be wearing the coveted yellow jersey or maillot jaune (worn each day by the leader at that point in the race) at the end of the day.
Would you believe that I have actually become a follower of the tweets of Lance Armstrong on Twitter? Of course you would. After all he has 1,386,336 folllowers and you too might be one of them.
Go Lance, go!