J.R.R. Tolkien was a fan of the Tour de France. How do I know? The parallels between the epic saga of cycling's biggest race and that of Frodo Baggins and his journey to Mordor are uncanny. In particular, the team of LeoPard Trek is pretty much based on the Fellowship of the Ring.
Think about it, there were 9 members of the Fellowship. There are 9 members of a TdF cycling squad. Both have embarked on a terrifying journey through beautiful landscapes, treacherous mountains and uncharted territories, toward one goal. In the Lord of the Rings, the adventurers are trying to destroy the one thing that all others covet, to the point that almost destroys them. The one ring causes a weight so heavy they almost buckle under the pressure. It's a similar ideal in the Tour, only the riders seek a maillot jaune as their goal, and use their Fellowship to help them get it. Along the way they encounter obstacles that may set them back, and, omnipresent evil in the form of rivals who will do anything in their power to prevent them from achieving their goal.
But if that's not enough proof for you, let's take a deeper look into the cast of characters:
Andy Schleck as Frodo Baggins. Frodo was the main dude, the get shit done guy. He says this is my burden to bear, don't worry boys, I'll take it to the end. There are times that he looks vulnerable and falters a bit, but always has his posse to look out for him and fill in the gaps. That's Andy in a nutshell. He wants the jersey, he craves it. Sometimes, like on descents, he looks vulnerable, but then he's got his boys to help bridge the gap and take him to the top.
Frank Schleck as Sam Gamgee. Sam was Frodo's right hand man, #2, the faithful lieutenant. So devoted to Frodo was Sam that he never left his side. In fact, it's Sam at the end who really helps get the job done. Sam could have done it himself but realized that it was Frodo's mission. Frank could win the Tour himself, but is devoted to seeing his brother do it, and would sacrifice his own chance in order to make it happen.
Jens Voigt as Gandalf. Sure, Gandalf was old as shit, much like Jens Voigt, but that didn't stop him from being a BAMF. Like the magical wizard, Jens Voigt always had a trick up his sleeve, and, also like Gandalf, who disappears in Fellowship, presumed to be dead, Jens will be off the back and presumed dead and then POOF magically resurfaces again, at the front, to set some inhumane tempo. He is also always good for a sound byte, just like Gandalf. "Fly, you fools."
Stuart O'Grady as Aragorn. Aragorn was the captain, much like Stuey. He leads the group in a quiet but boss-like way, which is what Stuart has always tried to do. Stuey's been a pro for a long time, and has even led the TdF himself back in the day (a long breakaway with a 35 minute gap allowed by Lance in 2001). It's as if he's gotten better with age, as he leads the pack into the mountains now (when he was formerly a scratch sprinter, in it for stage wins and the green jersey). And, just like Aragorn told Frodo "I would have gone with you to the end," you get the feeling that, if he could, he would have gone with Andy to the end.
Fabian Cancellara as Legolas. Legolas had crazy skills, one of which was the ability to cover great distances at breakneck speeds, much like Monsieur Cancellara. Renowned as a great man against the clock, he is the reigning World Champion at the Individual Time Trial discipline, and is always a threat to win any TT he's in. He's won prologues of the Tour and worn yellow. He can attack a rushing peloton from over a kilometer out and hold them off. He is one of the best spring Classics riders in the world and doesn't seem to have many flaws. Legolas would have been a great time trial rider and just seemed to enjoy the endless pursuit.
Joost Posthuma as Gimli. True, Gimli may have been a short, stout dwarf, but you can't let that cloud your judgment. What Gimli lacked in physical stature he more than made up for with grit, and was quite well-rounded. Gimli claimed to be a sprinter, was strong and able to do a multitude of functions to serve his team. Joost is considered a rouleur, or a super domestique. They do what it takes for their leader to win, and are considered fair all-rounders.
Jakob Fuglsang as Boromir. Boromir was human, and was somewhat of a dissenter amongst the Fellowship. He felt that the Ring could be used for their purposes, to rule - but that idea was shot down, mostly by Aragorn, citing they needed to rid the world of the Ring for good by destroying it. Boromir didn't really like that idea, and on a few occasions tried to take it himself. But, he realized the error of his ways, and at the end of Fellowship he came up big, ultimately giving his life to take on a legion of evil to try and help protect the Hobbits and the Ring. Alright, so, this one was a bit of a stretch. I wouldn't exactly call Jakob Fuglsang "Boromir", but he is a very good rider, having finished in the top 10 of last year's Tour. No doubt that he is a rider for the future, but, for now, at least, he seems content with just sacrificing his own chances to help Andy.
Maxime Monfort as Pippin. The Hobbit support system is set up so that they always have each other's backs, even if they aren't with each other. As we watched Stage 18 of this year, we saw Maxime in the day's early break, just waiting for Andy to bridge up to him, you realized he had done his job separately but it was ultimately going to help the cause. Hobbits were really proficient at a couple of things: jumping and throwing rocks. They also loved to drink, smoke weed and, appropriately eat. I can't comment on Monfort's propensity for any of these things, but I'm sure he at least eats a lot.
Linus Gerdemann as Merry. Linus Gerdemann is another long term prospect, having won a stage of the Tour before and coming from a Milram team where he was clearly headed for its leadership role. Coming across to LeoPard Trek, his opportunity for being a Tour leader decreased, but he hasn't seemed to mind, as he again plays faithful Hobbit friend to Andy. His contribution will seem small in the end, but when you look deeper, you'll see just how much of a role he played, fetching water bottles, sharing food, blocking wind. All for the greater good.
I would go even further and make comparisons between the team director and Elron, who put the Fellowship together, and had gotten down and dirty himself back in the day, and some of the evil forces as they relate to some of the competitors. But that might be overkill.
So yeah, I'm a dork for taking the time to make this connection, but whatever. I love LOTR and the Tour. And, because I don't know how to read, I have never actually read the books.
Stage 18 to the Galibier was a great example of a champion going for the win. I felt that the only play for Schleck was to have a guy or two in the break, so that if he were able to launch an attack and bridge up to them, they could do some work before letting him fly. I can't recall if I've ever seen it so far out, from a potential Tour winner, but it was amazing and perfectly executed. The only other time in the TdF I've seen someone do anything like that was in 2006 when eventually-declared-cheater Floyd Landis had lost 17 minutes on one really bad day, and went on a solo attack from the gun, picking up something like 15 minutes at the end. And then he won the Tour. And then it was taken from him. I also seem to recall in the Vuelta one year Floyd being in the break and waiting for Roberto Heras (another cheater) to bridge the gap on a climb, and then Floyd did a 40km TT with Heras in tow as it catapulted Heras closer to the lead. Then they had an individual TT on some absurd climb, possibly the Angliru, where Heras took insane time out of the leader and went on to win. And then get banned from the sport.
But to see Schleck go out, 60km from the finish, by himself, then bridge to Monfort, who then did a Herculean effort as he pulled a small group along the valley leading up to the Galibier, it was awesome. In the end he gained just 2 minutes, and for that much work it left many wondering if it was worth it. Whether it was worth it or not, that will be determined this weekend, but it was the ride of a champion.
Stage 19 to my favorite place to sleep, Alpe d'Huez, is underway and it's already gotten hot, but I'll leave my remarks until after the stage so I don't blow up anybody's spot!