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La Grande Boucle, The Tour de France Rolls On

Every July,  the Tour de France comes around so we get to see some tidbits of it happening in the news.  Back in the heyday of Lance Armstrong, it was broadcasted and Americans took notice.  Even Armstrong’s exploits took years to develop before there was a viewing audience.  Over in Europe, the Tour de France riders are treated like celebrities and fans are heavily engaged.

Most sport fans, like myself know of the Tour de France and think of it as an endurance race through the countryside of France.  What we see on television is masses of riders,  all riding  together with a few strays leading the pack.  After a little research, you will find out that this is a race that is very involved and has a long storied past.  I don’t want to bore you with the chronological history of this race, but what I will tell you is that it started in 1903.  I don’t know of any other race that has been going on this long.

Can you imagine what kind of bikes they were riding back then?  They probably weighed twice of what they do now.  What you will find out that it was originally a race for Frenchmen and now is an international race for the best of the best the world has to offer.  It is also not just an individual pursuit but also a team sport with nine member per.

The race has one overall winner but that same rider might not be the one finishing first on the last race of the tour.  The race takes three weeks to complete covering approximately 2200 miles and each day is a new race.  The race is broken into stages with portions dedicated to time trials and hill climbing.    One thing you will hear on every broadcast on your local sports station is who is wearing the yellow jersey.  This is the overall leader with the lowest overall time. The tour also awards those with the best hill climbing times, the best youngest rider under 26, and time trials for sprinters and teams.  There is a lot for fans to cheer for, not just the guy on the news broadcast.

The more I delved into this event, the more fascinating I found the history more than the race itself.  As most every person knows of Lance Armstrong, he certainly is not the only controversial rider ever to get on the saddle.  The history is long and storied with a cast of characters that Hollywood could never dream up.  In fact, there could be a great movie waiting to make involving just one year at the Tour.

This year,  the winner was Chris Froome from Great Britain, who defended his title successfully.  Froome’s family immigrated from England to Kenya where he was born.  He since migrated back to England and rides for team, UCI Pro Team Team Sky.  Froome began racing when he was a young teen and has reached the pinnacle of his career with  two Tour victories and slew of other prestigious races as well.

If you like history, especially sporting history, this race is a good one to look up.  Like the sport of baseball in the USA, cycling in France is and was engrained in the culture.   The only time the race hasn’t taken place was because of the two World Wars.   What was once an event that was started to promote newspaper sales has become a celebration in France and a worldwide showcase for the best of the sport.  Le Tour de France est la meilleure course sur deux roues, Salut.

Photo by Andrzcj Gucwa

 

Hurling and Lacrosse; What’s That?

lacrosseaction1Hurling 7strikerrr-hurling

These are two great sports that are many centuries old but get little recognition.  Many more sport fans in the USA have heard of Lacrosse than Hurling, on the contrary, both sports are getting more popular and especially Lacrosse.  Increasingly, high schools are looking to adopt Lacrosse into their sports programs as an alternative to football.  Football is not about to be replaced but Lacrosse offers a less physical toll on the young athlete’s body.  Hurling which is rooted in Irish culture is gaining some popularity in America with even some colleges offering the chance to play.

A quick summary of each sport:   Lacrosse, a team sport played on grass with a ten player squad which includes one goal keeper.  Players use a netted stick called a Crosse to catch and pass a rubber ball.  Players run and pass to move the ball forward to be able to score a goal in a netted cage assembly.  Hurling, a team sport played on grass with a fifteen player squad which includes one goal keeper.  Players use a Hurley (a wooden stick with a paddle like top) to advance the ball along with swatted hand passes to advance the ball forward as well as running to get a shot on goal. Of course, there are rules that are applied to both games that regulate the way the ball is advanced.  One player cannot just run down the field with the ball and take a shot on goal.  There are limitations how long you can run with ball without passing.

Lacrosse has various versions and dimensions that are played throughout the world.  The most common is Field Lacrosse played outside on grass or synthetic turf field with dimensions of 110 yards long by 60 yards wide.  Lacrosse has a version called Box Lacrosse which is typically an indoor game with only six players per side and the field of play is smaller. In Field Lacrosse, the goal sits in a circular crease of 18 feet diameter.

Hurling field is not always consistent in size but they can range from 140 to 160 yards long to 90 to 100 yards wide.  Each end has H shaped goals with the posts standing at 20 to 23 feet high with the crossbar standing at around 8 feet.  A net extending behind is attached to the crossbar and lower goal posts.

By now you are probably thinking that these are basically games with players running around with sticks and balls trying to score by either swatting or flinging a ball at a goal.  Okay you are right, except you shouldn’t think an opposing player is just going to let you pass and run with a stick as you darn well please.  These are contact sports and collisions happen.  There are  defenders in both games that are going to trying to change your course and that is where the skill lies.  As a ball handler, players can use their athleticism and stick skills to move forward.

The protective equipment for each sport is a significant difference.  This difference in equipment affects the game play and rules of each sport becoming essential part of the sport as a whole.  The Hurling equipment is fairly basic with the Hurley stick, a helmet, some cleats and a ball called a Sliothar.  Like in baseball with a bat, the Hurley can range in size best fitted for the player and their style.  Lacrosse equipment consists of the Crosse, helmet, cleats, ball and protective pads which include shoulder, arm and rib pads and gloves.  As you can see, the equipment affects the type of contact that takes place on the field.

When I first saw a Hurling match at least twenty years ago and was intrigued by this sport.  Here in the United States, we don’t hear much about it, and most sport fans have not a clue what it is. Go ask somebody if they know what Hurling is and the responses you will get will be comical.  Unless you have some kind of satellite feed from Ireland, Americans will not know.  Some say Hurling is one of the oldest sports that it still being played which makes sense.  Early players just needed a stick, a rock, a tree and few buddies and the game was on.

My first recollection of Lacrosse was seeing it on ESPN being played by college guys. The game was played at a higher speed than any other sport I seen.  It was like trying to watch hockey on television, very hard to follow the tiny ball.   Now I have seen it being played by men and women, boys and girls in all levels of schools and clubs..

As a sports fan, you really have to check out these sports and give them a chance to grow on you.  For years I couldn’t take interest in soccer but over time I am starting to understand and appreciate aspects of the game. If I ever make over to Ireland, I want to see a Hurling match just because they love it just like American love football.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

McFarlane USA -Movie Review

 

Trying to find a good sports movie is about as difficult as trying to find a good comedy.  The majority of sports movies follow the same formulaic plot of the hero that emerges from the depths of despair to being lifted on the shoulders of teammates.  Now that I think about this, is there any other formula? There are few plot turns here and there, but eventually the crowd will go crazy, people will weep, life lessons will be learned and there will only be a few seconds left in the game.

I can accept all of these line items as long as there is some truth to the story. As we all know by now, Hollywood can take a true story and take the parts they like and build a movie from it.  They will develop plots and characters that exist and add them to the story but still keep the main characters name and their dilemma.  This is called “based on a true story”.

On a Saturday, the wife and I wanted to relax and watch a movie on our big screen.  Myself, tired of car chases, bombs and super heroes convinced my wife to watch a sports movie.  She said, “don’t you get a enough sports?”  We agreed on McFarlane USA, thinking that Kevin Costner had something to with it.

For this movie, I have forgiven the filmmakers for the stretching of the truth and the embellishments.  I like the idea of the film was actually shot in McFarlane, a small farming town in the Central Valley of California.  McFarlane is a populated by Latino families where the most of their employment is derived from picking nuts, fruits and vegetables.

The film is based on the life of Jim White, a teacher and coach who moves to McFarlane in 1987 when he is out of options.  White has had some troubles in his past with both authority and mouthy kids which keeps him and his family on the move.  It is an immediate culture shock to the family, when they find out there are no hamburgers at the local taqueria.

White becomes the football coach, PE teacher and a life science teacher as his first assignments.  He soon finds out that a 15 man football team and unmotivated students is too much for him to handle.  He wants out, his family wants out but the job offers don’t seem to rolling in at this time.  In a glimmer of inspiration, he sees a teenage boy running like no other kid he has seen in this community.

White approaches the principal with his plan to start a cross country team, whom agrees but with his doubts.  White has never coached cross country and he doesn’t have a team.  White finds the way to shed his cynicism and destitute and convince a group of boys to join the team.  With very little resources and backing, White slowly builds repore with his athletes.

The beauty of this story is how this down on his luck man and these boys start bonding into a force.  These kids are built tough unlike any other kids that they compete against. These are children of migrants farmworkers that still have to work in the fields with their families while going to school and training.  The community begins to rally the around the team and except White and family as one of their own.

The story further evolves into the finale with the McFarland making it into the state finals.  It is first year that a state finals has ever been held and of course, the inception of the McFarland cross country team.

Au Revoir! Pile-Up at the Tour de France!

There was a lot of road rash and pain today in the huge crash at the Tour de France. Watch it here.

 

 

Photo by en.wikipedia.org

 

 

Post Season Ironmen

We fans sitting in our recliners, watching our big  screens, snacking it up, can hurt ourselves getting up too fast. A strained back from the quick movement of lifting your dead weight while holding your chip bowl is a common injury to many of fans. Having to explain the back injury to your buddies and coworkers is sometimes a slippery slope to tread.  To lie or not to lie, I say embellish.  Watching both the NBA and NHL playoffs is tiring as well.

I live in the Pacific Time Zone and I get the benefit of early start times and get to bed before 11pm. Poor East coasteners are well into the wee hours watching their teams, God forbidding overtime . I can’t imagine eating hot wings and sliders at 10pm whereas the three hour time difference allows us to digest bar food before hitting the sack.  That’s enough whining about playoff sports when you should feel so lucky if your team is still playing.

Watching the last survivors of both playoffs series amazes me every year. The NBA is now using a best of seven series for all of the rounds, whereas the NHL has for a long time. The physicality is getting fiercer, and the amount of reportable concussions is increasing and the collisions are at faster speeds. What’s worse? I have no idea since I am in my recliner. I would normally say the NHL is more physically demanding, but after watching LeBron James and the Cavaliers force their will on the Warriors by using size, I am not going to side either way.
The seasons are long already and when the playoffs start up the energy meter gets cranked up to frenzy .  The body can be trained for peak performance but no thing can help an athlete with freak collisions, loss of footing or being at the wrong place at the wrong time. So when you are watching your playoffs on the couch, be careful, these series can go on for weeks. The amount of injuries of fans celebrating is embarrassingly high, the emergency room on game night is a testament.

Ronda Rousey – Super Bad Girl Power

If you don’t know who Rhonda Rousey is by now, then you haven’t been reading enough sports rags or seen anything related to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Of course, not only is she the most popular face in her sport, but she is also a product endorser, an action movie actress and model.

Why would I bother writing an article about her when she already gets plenty of publicity? What angle could I take about this talented athlete? I remember one thing she said in an interview, that I believe is the driving force behind many of athlete with a highly competitive psyche. She talked about the intense need to not just compete but the overriding fear of failure. She is driven to be the best and there is no satisfaction in just giving a good effort.

You can spot these types of athletes in any sport. They overcome psychical shortcomings, upbringing, team sport limitations and they rise to the top because they hate failing more than anything in their life. They outwork their competition and never rely on their coaches to motivate them. It is like a hidden superpower that comes out when the competition needs to rise to the next level. They are going to fight and scrape until they have conquered.

Ms. Rousey had an illustrious career in judo which peaked at the 2008 Olympic Games. With that bronze medal victory, she became the first American to win an Olympic medal in women’s judo since its inception as Olympic sport in 1992. She reinvented herself as a MMA fighter champion over the past five years. It is safe to say she started the women cage fighter movement by being both unbeatable but also an empowering role model for women. I just like the attitude of bravado mixed with good sense of awareness. She appears to be grounded with humility and respect for her sport. Of course, that humility is left behind once she engages herself into a UFC match up.

Rousey, as a fighter mixes technique, power and speed as witnessed in her last fight that lasted 14 seconds. In fact, the last three fights have lasted a whopping total of 96 seconds. Is there any woman out there who stands a chance to beat her? If there is, she has to be someone with the similar drive and fear of failure.

 

Photo courtesy of www.homeschannel.net photo gallery, submitted by ZDislav

Kelly Slater

Alex Zanardi: Cannot Be Stopped

No Limitations

The Alex Zanardi story is one that most people do not know about. I didn’t either until I saw him on a late night television talk show in November of 2014. He walked out and sat down and proceeded to tell his story.

Alex Zanardi was born in Bologna, Italy in 1966. He had an early inspiration for racing when he built his own racing karts from a dustbin of pipes from his father’s workplace. From that humble beginning, he became involved in European road racing in its various formats.

He moved onto Formula One Racing for a few years with mixed results while enduring crashes and injuries. From Formula one he moved to CHAMP Car racing and became one of its most popular drivers through his daring style and victories.

Alex zanardi 1In the 2000 season, Zanardi was not signed for a team so he moved back to Formula I racing. In his most competitive race of the 2001, he suffered a violent accident at the Euro Speedway Lausitz on September 15th while trying to merge back onto the track. His car was impacted from the side at high speed, severing the nose of the car. Zanardi lost both legs (one at and one above the knee) and nearly three quarters of his blood volume. His life was saved due to some rapid medical interaction.

You would think the story ends there. Zanardi was fitted with two prosthetic limbs and began an ambitious rehabilitation program.   Zanardi was not happy with the limbs and so he designed and built his own custom legs. He wanted them made to be able to withstand the rigors of race car driving. By 2002, he was back on the track in a specially designed car to take test laps and in 2003 he was back competing. Zanardi has been racing ever since in various formats and cars.

In 2006, Zanardi took up hand cycling as part of an exercise program. With only four weeks of training, in 2007, he achieved 4th place in the New York City Marathon in the Handcycling Division. He took up the sport in earnest to compete in major handcycling events. He won the Venice Marathon in 2009, the Rome City Marathon in 2010 and the New York City Marathon in 2011.   His crowning achievement in this sport was the Gold Medals he won in the 2012 Paralympics in London.

As with Zanardi, there are no limitations. Zanardi completed the 2014 Ironman World Championship with a time of 9:47 ranking 272 overall and 19th out of 247 in the 45-49 year category. He used a hand bike for the cycling section and an Olympic wheelchair for the running section.Alex Zanardi 3

Zanardi has lived his life with the greatest of passion. Zanardi is the rarest of humans that cannot be stopped to achieve his goals with grace and humility.

Tough As Leather

Adrenaline Surge

What drives a person to get on top of an enormous wild animal and tries to stay atop while the beast does everything to send you into orbit? What makes anybody do an extreme sport? Adrenaline is one thing to consider but there is a level of thrill seeking that defies explanation. The rider must stay atop the bucking bull for eight seconds. The rider has his hand fastened to a braided rope as the only method of attachment while the other hand remains free. It is a dangerous sport, and considered the most dangerous eight seconds in all sports.

Bull Riding 3Of course, the bull riders are doing this for the million dollar paychecks….not! Even though professional circuit bull riders can earn a six figure income, the majority are doing it for less. The main reason that bull riders do it is because of the long tradition and history.   This is very generational going back centuries, while originating in Mexico and spreading into America. Now it is worldwide down to South America, and as far as New Zealand.

Bull riding is no different than other youthful endeavor, kids usually start out competing in high school and other youth organizations.   They hone their craft and train like any other athlete to gain advantage. There are countless rodeos and organizations that sponsor the sport with top competitions being in the Professional Bull Riders, Championship Bull Riding and the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association circuits.

Safety Precautions

The equipment the rider appears minimal but there are many components to keep the rider safe.   The main piece is the bull rope, which has a handle braided into it.   One side of the rope is tied into an adjustable knot for different size bulls and other side is flat braided with an attached bell.   In addition to the sound the bell produces, it also gives the rope weight allowing it to fall off once the rider has dismounted.

The most recognizable protective clothing item is the chaps made of leather, they protect the rider’s legs and thighs. The riders are required to wear a protective vest made of high impact foam.   The riders also wear gloves, boots and mostly cowboy hats. There is no requirement to wear a protective helmet yet in the professional ranks, but slowly times are changing and more are wearing them.

The way a rider wins a competition is through judging and a point system.   Judges award points based on several aspects of the ride.   Judges are looking for constant control and rhythm in the rider in matching his movements with the bull. Points are deducted if the rider is constantly off balance and no points if the eight seconds atop are not achieved.   The bulls also receive points for not allowing the riders make the eight seconds.   There are standings for the bulls and there is such a thing as “Bull of the Year”

Bull-Riding 2Bull riding requires balance, flexibility, coordination, and courage. Facing down a two-thousand pound bull takes as much mental preparation as it does physical ability. There is an amazing amount of training a rider must put into his sport. They have so much at stake while atop the animal. All of riders build their core strength to withstand the whiplash effects of the ride. Their upper body strength must be able hold the rope against the thrust of the bull gyrations.

Even though, the sport has its share of issues, there is still a large audience for the spectacle. There will be changes to constantly improve the matters that critics bellow about but bull riding doesn’t appear to going away anytime soon.   The key to its longevity is safety not for lack of excitement.   Yippee Ki Ay!!

 

Images courtesy of Chuck Szmurlo, Konaboy, Mike Sega/Reuters

Alaskan Ironmen, Ironwomen, and Dogs

Iditarod-map-Credit-BLMAlaska hosted its two marquee events of the year and both of them were dog sled races.   The first one being known as the “Toughest” race on earth, the Yukon Quest. It’s a 1000 trek along the Klondike Gold Rush mail and transportation trail established in the 1800’s. It takes place in harshest of winter conditions along a difficult trial. The other showcase is the Iditarod, billed as the ”Last Great Race on Earth”, the most popular sporting event in Alaska which starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome, also a 1000 miler.

Who are the real ironmen and women who do this?

The majority of the competitors are Alaskans but these events do attract an international field. A lot of the competitors belong to families who have competed throughout the generations. Both men and women have competed in these events. The Iditarod received a lot attention outside of Alaska when a woman won the event. In 1985 Libby Riddles, a long shot won and since Susan Butcher won it three times.

Yukon-Quest Of course let’s not forget the super dogs who can handle the endeavor. Your pooch at home is not ready for anything like this. Can you even imagine driving a sled of dogs in the dead of winter for a thousand miles?   Last time I checked the Iron Man Competition was a Triathlon that ends in one day. These races go on for over a week. This sport also has no real down time; if you are not training, you are tending and developing a team of dogs. This sport is evolves so much time just to get to the starting line.

Most people would think that the sled dogs would be big furry Husky type dogs. Through the years of cross breeding, the modern racing dogs are mixed and bred for speed, tough feet, endurance, good attitude and most importantly, the desire to run. Each team is composed of twelve to sixteen dogs and no more can be added during the race. There is a minimum of six dogs that must cross the finish line. The dogs are well looked over and are examined at every checkpoint.

Both races do have checkpoints about every two hundred miles where some provisions are supplied and the dogs get checked by veterinarians.  The musher and his team are sledding on the routes along frozen rives, mountain ranges, through isolated villages. Temperatures commonly drop as -60 F and winds can reach 50 miles an hour or more at higher elevations.   Aside from the weather conditions and wellbeing of the dogs, the mushers have to break through mental and body fatigue.   I have heard from mushers about the mental aspect of the race. Maintaining focus and without drifting off into a sleep deprivation state can be dangerous to say the least.

Iditerod Winner Dallas SeaveyThis year, the Yukon Quest was won by Allen Moore who crossed the finish line at Takhina Hot Springs in the early morning hours. His time was 8 days, 14 hours and 21 minutes which made it a consecutive victory for him. When you talk to Moore, he gives a lot of credit to his lead dog Quito.   She was the recipient of the Golden Harness Award along with a custom made golden harness and some fresh steaks.   Moore was quoted as saying, “But mainly we have good dogs right now, and they’re hard to come by, just like any basketball or football team. Once you get that, they have a pretty good team for a few years and it’s really hard to bring in more that is that caliber after that.”

This year’s Iditarod champ is Dallas Seavy with his time of 8 days, 13 hours and 6 minutes.   It was a tough year for the Iditarod because dangerous conditions and the resulting injuries to mushers and dogs.   The lack of snowfall and icy conditions made it for difficult maneuvering.

The race began on March 2nd with 69 teams and 53 finished.   As the finishers were crossing the line in Nome, temperatures were below zero degrees. The Iditarod winner received $50,000 and a new truck. After that, the 29 finishers receive prizes decreasing in size.

The history of these events is storied and interesting to read about as well. Most people have only heard slight references to these races and culture that surrounds them. Take time to read up and you will find yourself intrigued and curious to see the events every winter in Alaska.

 

Photos courtesy of Laurent Dick/Wild Alaska Travel, Jeff Shultz, BLM and Emily Schwing/KUAC