Tour de France 2017: That’s all she wrote

Well, Chris Froome did it again. He is now a four-time winner of the Tour de France.

Exactly how he went about winning this year was the main talking point, though. Notably, Froome did not win a single stage, nor did he look as imperiously dominant at climbing as he was before. Many times it looked like he was at his most fragile, cracking at the Stage 12 Port de Bales climb. His margin of victory was a relatively scant 54 seconds ahead of Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac. Finally, there were times when it seemed like his Team Sky teammate, Spaniard Mikel Landa, was keen on taking the yellow jersey himself. Landa eventually finished fourth in the general classification, 2:21 in arrears and one second behind Romain Bardet.

The result may have seemed inevitable, but the actual victory was anything but. After all the dust has settled, Froome won the race in the two individual time trials of Stages 1 and 20.

Some will say that Froome is not a “deserving” winner as he did not win a single stage. Others detest his lack of flair and robot-like efficiency, his gaze permanently fixed on his stem as he rides and climbs to a set power output. The man sure has his share of haters, like when he was splashed with a cup full of urine by French fans while competing in the 2015 Tour de France.

At the end of the day, though, he played by the rules of the general classification and won where it mattered: against the cumulative clock. Congratulations, Mr. Froome.

Anime review: “Long Riders!”

The title card for “Long Riders!”

Okay, I see what you’re thinking. Why is a cycling blog reviewing an anime series? Well, I basically grew up with anime, having developed a discerning taste for it, as it frequently delves into more mature themes Western animation is hesitant to explore. If it can combine with my love of bicycle riding, then why the hell not?

A QUICK HISTORY OF CYCLING IN ANIME

Cycling as a subject matter for anime is actually very under-represented. The earliest I remember is a 1998 original video animation (OVA) called “Nasu: Summer in Andalusia.” This one-shot OVA detailed a professional multi-day stage race where Spanish rider Pepe Benengeli tries to win the current stage he is riding, despite the harsh realities of being a professional cyclist and his own personal issues. Since then, there haven’t been a lot of titles…but it’s also seen something of a surging boom beginning in 2013, when Wataru Watanabe’s anime “Yowamushi Pedal” blew the world sideways with its take on high school bicycle racing.

A review of that 500-pound gorilla will have to wait for another time.

SO WHAT IS “LONG RIDERS!” ABOUT?

Refreshingly for viewers like me, who are sick and tired of the current anime fixation on high school, this series follows college freshman Ami Kurata. Clumsy and not very athletic, one day she is smitten by a passing 16″-wheeled folding bike, and decides to buy one to join her friend Aoi Niigaki, who is already a moderately experienced cyclist.

(L-R) Aoi Niigaki, Ami Kurata, Hinako Saijou, Saki Takamiya, and Yayoi Ichinose of Team Fortuna.

Along her growing appreciation of the sport, Ami meets more people, makes cycling friends, and broadens her horizons. Eventually, she forms Team Fortuna with Aoi and her riding buddies Hinako, Yayoi, and Saki. As de facto leader, Hinako sets ever higher goals for Ami to scale, while worrying that she may get frustrated and give up cycling altogether, as there are very few female cyclists their age around. Even when she is faced with failures such as mid-ride bonking and cramping, her optimism and love for the sport prevails, making Ami a good example to follow for new riders — especially new female riders.

Ami discovers just how light Saki’s road bike is – even in bikepacking guise.

It’s an organic kind of growth, and as my friend Arvin mentioned, it parallels my real-life experience of starting from a folding bike and making my way up to a road/cyclocross bike as I became a stronger rider.

NO RACING, JUST RIDING

Another refreshing thing about “Long Riders!” is that unlike “Nasu: Summer in Andalusia” and “Yowamushi Pedal,” nowhere in its twelve-episode run does bicycle racing even get mentioned. True to its hiragana-spelled English title, this anime concentrates on the simple joys of riding longer and longer distances…all for the sake of it. This anime has a randonneuring heart firmly beating inside it.

It so happens that Ami’s cycling adventures all occur around Japan, whose culture is innately, notoriously friendly towards bicycle traffic…despite not having bicycle lanes and cycle paths everywhere. How this series promotes the longer distances and bigger challenges Ami encounters is by providing incentives along the way, and those come in either delicious regional foods and delicacies, or majestic tourist sights, such as the beach of Miura, the climb to Mount Oyama via the Yabitsu Pass, and the famous Shimanami Kaido seaside cycling road. In a sense, “Long Riders!” doubles as a tourist and foodie brochure for Japan.

Hinako and Yayoi enjoying some Hassaku daifuku at a rest stop in Innoshima.

Hinako teaching Ami the pleasures of a post-ride gelato.

Be warned: this anime can make you hungry

FUN, FRIENDSHIP, FITNESS, AND FOOD

I like how this series pokes fun at the less-than-savory aspects of our sport. Good bicycles are seldom cheap, illustrated to hilarity by Ami’s repeated visits to the fictional Alpaca Cycle bike shop, and how everybody works part-time jobs for better equipment. Not only does the expense stop at the bike, but things such as lights and apparel come into it as well. The sickening sweetness of energy gels isn’t spared its ridicule either, as Ami has to take one to recover from a bad mid-ride bonk.

Yes, Hinako, the struggle is real.

Ami’s reaction to her first energy gel. Priceless

 

Visually, this anime looks nice enough. The 3D computer-rendered animated riding sequences and bicycle models are okay, but can be a bit jarring when put next to the 2D characters. Then again, with the more laid-back vibe of the show, the visuals are perfectly serviceable as is. Much of the show is focused on Ami, but the other characters are all given a decent time to develop within the short twelve-episode run. If I were to make parallels to other anime series, I’d say “Long Riders!” is closest to “K-On!” but with bikes instead of a rock band.

“Yowamushi Pedal” and its hot-blooded bike racing action may hog all the headlines, but I think “Long Riders!” is a more inclusive show, and much more relevant to the road cycling beginner.

Tour de France 2017, week 2: The closest fight yet

For cycling enthusiasts, the month of July usually equates to one thing: the Tour de France. It’s the one cycling race almost everybody has heard of…even those who don’t have an ounce of road cycling enthusiasm in their souls. Over twenty-one race days, two rest days, and 3,300+ total kilometers, this most prestigious of the three annual Grand Tours has people talking.

Now, I haven’t had cable TV since 2013, nor do I have the patience to look for and/or watch streams of the Eurosport broadcast, so I rarely watch cycling races live. Most of the updates I get are from the official Le Tour de France YouTube channel, or from the excellent Australia-based site CyclingTips. Yet, even without following the Tour de France by the minute, as the stages have progressed and the second rest day has passed, I have the distinct feeling that this year’s edition is the closest fought yet.

Britain’s Team Sky have dominated previous runnings of the Tour, with Bradley Wiggins and later Chris Froome taking wins in monolithic fashion. They have also ended the main General Classification (GC) competition — the fight for the yellow jersey — very early, establishing a dominant lead from Stage 8 or so and never looking back. These hyper-efficient wins year on year have made me bored of the Tour, opting to watch drama instead on the other Grand Tour races, the Giro d’Italia in May and the Vuelta a Espana in September.

Now though, 15 stages in, only 29 seconds separates Chris Froome in the lead from fourth-placed Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac. That has not happened in any time in recent memory; previous runnings of the Tour have had chasms measured in minutes for the same two positions. We are also seeing a combative team threat in AG2R-La Mondiale, and a solo rival in Sicilian Fabio Aru of Team Astana. While Froome is still holding on to yellow, with a week of racing left to go, it’s clear to see that this is a wide-open Tour to win…and that Froome is not as unbreakable as he was before.

Climber Chris Froome shaking hands with sprinter/puncheur Peter Sagan at the start of Stage 20 of the 2015 Tour de France. Froome is in yellow; Sagan is in green. Photo credit: Zimbio/Getty Images

The green jersey points challenge has me with mixed feelings though. Everybody’s favorite Slovak, Peter Sagan, got thrown out of the race after the infamous elbow incident and crash with fiery Manxman Mark Cavendish at the Stage 4 finish line sprint. That basically started the slow hemorrhage of other participating sprinters, leaving Marcel Kittel of Germany unchallenged with five stage wins and a stranglehold on the green jersey. I like Kittel, and I rate his sprinting very highly, but seeing him win like this feels a little hollow.

At least he has the distinction of winning the first ever Tour de France stage on a disc-braked road bike. That is a pretty big deal. Traditionalists and retro-grouches can bite me.