If you live in the United States, you can’t exactly drop into your local bar and strike up a conversation about your favorite pro-cycling team. Even though this is the historic 100th running of the Tour de France, you’d still do better with baseball, Dexter, even the Whitey Bulger trial; it’s summertime and there are other things to talk about. At a time when all of Europe is in the grips of Tour de France fury, over here, were like, meh.
I get it. You flipped on NBC Sports, saw a bunch of guys biking in a pack and thought, This? For five hours?
What I’m saying is: Yes.
Even for those who wouldn’t be caught dead in pair of padded shorts, the Tour is a three-week saga complete with heroes, failures, carnage, and triumph. And with two weeks left of racing and the Alps still to come, it’s not too late to tune in. Here's why you should.
1. You Get the Whole Story
22 teams, each with 9 riders to start, are competing in this year’s Tour for a grand total of 198 cyclists. The Tour is a race that lays itself bare for 21 stages in 23 days, unfolding in one big beautiful mess of blood and sweat. Like the Olympics, you’re able to form intense—even personal—connections with athletes in a short span of time, but unlike the Olympics, when you’re inevitably ignoring rhythmic gymnastics to watch the 500m dash, you don’t have to miss a single summit. Unless it’s a time trail, these guys hit the pavement as one big group. There is never a game on some other channel, or two games at the same time. With the Tour, it’s possible to see every pedal stroke, every attack, every finish line salute, and to follow it from start to finish, year after year.
2. The Plot Twists Like the Road
France is a smorgasbord of iconic climbs and punishing locales from which race director Christian Prudhomme must chose. We can predict which days are likely to be the decisive ones for the overall standings (hint: the ones with mountains), but where the true climax will come is anyone’s guess. Over 2,162 miles, there’s time enough develop a proper narrative, to establish characters, and when the time is right, to loose them upon each other. In the first mountain stage of this year’s Tour, overall favorite Chris Froome and his Sky team appeared unstoppable. Overnight, many felt like they could see how it would play out all the way to Paris. But the next day, Stage 9, veered sharply left: Froome’s team was blown to bits, unable to stay with their leader through the four Category 1 climbs of the Pyrenees. All the contenders who had dropped off the day before—Cadel Evans (BMC racing), Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff)—were right back on his wheel.
And so, the plot thickens. Though Froome solidified his lead during yesterday's Stage 11 individual Time Trial, Mont Ventoux (Stage 15, Sunday, July 14) and Alpe d'Huez squared (Stage 18, Thursday, July 18) are yet to come. Throughout the three-week race there is structure, raw emotion, and even side plots in the fight for the Points, King of the Mountain, and Young Rider Jerseys. Perhaps the highest compliment given in the golden age of television to shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men is that a serial drama is “novelistic”—praise that could also be given to the Tour de France.
3. Egos Are Extinguished …
Other sports have role players, but pro cycling is the only competition where professional athletes are outright called servants. A domestique rides in service of his team leader, blocking his wind, pulling him up the hills, fetching his water bottles from the team car. At 41, lifelong domestique Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard) is the oldest rider in the peloton, and the most respected. The idea of servitude in this context is almost outrageous—so rarely mirrored in our own professional lives—that it’s a joy to watch it on television.
Sunday’s Stage 9 was a powerful reminder of the importance of domestiques. Surrounded entirely by foes, Froome would have been helpless if he had, say, a puncture and a bad wheel change—it could have been his jersey for want of a friendly face. Perhaps the most touching view of the day was Richie Porte, Froome’s first mate, trying and failing to drag himself back to his captain to offer support. Watching him struggle, I kept thinking about how badly he must have felt not to be there, and how frustrated he must have been to find his body unresponsive to the demands of his own loyalty.
4. … Except Those Stoked By Rivalries
When there are two people on the same team who are capable of winning the race, things get ugly. A cyclist has trained all year—all his life, really—and when the time comes, the last thing he wants to do is sit up and wait. Like almost everything in the tour, there’s precedent: In 1985 American Greg Lemond begrudgingly rode in service of his La Vie Claire teammate, Frenchman Bernard Hinault, on the promise that Hinault would return the favor is ’86. But when the time came, Lemond got no help.
More recently, in 2009, team Astana “co-captains” Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong battled it out in the mountains, attacking each other like a couple wild dogs. While evidence of their rivalry was all over the road, things were even more awkward in their downtime. “On this tour,” Contador candidly admitted, “the days in the hotel room were harder than those on the road.”
This year, all the talk leading up to the Tour was speculation of infighting between Sky’s reigning champion Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, who last year showed himself to be stronger than Wiggins on several occasions. With Wiggins out with a knee injury, us gossips can get a head start on talking about Movistar's Nairo Quintana surpassing Alejandro Valverde in 2014.
5. Glory at the Finish Line
Breakaways often follow a particular formula: Someone breaks away from the pack early and gets caught down the home stretch. But goddamn-it, no matter how many breakaways have failed, I just can’t shake that feeling that maybe this one will succeed. Every once in a while, it does. Or there’s a sprint finish, or the peloton is whittled down to the best of the rest. Whatever happens when someone makes a dash, it’s great. Because when you watched a man bury himself in pain for five hours, facing headwinds, churning the pedals and high speeds, climbing mountains, and then after all that he crosses the finish line first, throws his arms in the air, and cries, it’s f-ing emotional.
6. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin
The Madden and Summerall of professional cycling, these guys have been announcing the Tour since I was in diapers. Over the years they’ve created a wonderful lexicon for the sport. Not least among their expressions: “Dancing on the pedals,” “putting the hammer down,” “a real job of work,” “wearing a mask of pain,” and, one for the fans—“the tunnel of noise.” Over his long career, Liggett especially has distinguished himself as a poet. A particularly thrilling piece of announcing by Liggett occurred during the 1987 Tour climb up La Plagne, when Stephen Roche collapsed and was given oxygen after crossing the finish line (following the finish by Laurent Fignon):
A list of “Liggettisms” compiled at liggettfan.com—which unfortunately hasn’t been updated in roughly a decade—include these personal favorites, any of which I would gladly use as an epigraph for my as-yet-unwritten novel:
“The mountains again have produced the truth.”
"The race is no respecter of reputation, you’re only as good as now."
And, one that feels particularly American:
“The endless road evokes thoughts of hope."
7. Those Scenic Routes
You’ve seen Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and the like—nature shows with sweeping shots of earth and sea. The cinematography of the Tour holds up well in comparison. With a helicopter overhead and camera-equipped motorbikes on the road, spectators of the Tour get close-ups of road rash, point-of-view descents, as well as unparalleled views of the French countryside. We’re talking fields of sunflowers, the cerulean blue of the Mediterranean Sea, crumbling chateaus, and the craggy, snow-speckled slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Of course there’s also a bike race going on, which means these views are just the backdrop to the frantic happenings on the road, announced by the inimitable Liggett and Sherwin. The result: Imagine if David Attenborough started yelling every time a polar bear made a move on a sea lion, or if he worked himself up into a verbal lather as the time-lapse snow melted and the flowers bloomed. Nature porn plus unmitigated excitement is a strange, wonderful combination.
8. Crazy S***
The most memorable TV episodes are the ones that remind you how futile it is to guess what's coming next: The penultimate episode of The Wire season three, "Middle Ground;" the season four finale of Breaking Bad, “Face Off;” and more recently, the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones, which was so shocking it inspired a reaction shot montage. Whether it’s gore, a violent plot twist, or the poisonous powers of Lily of the Valley, the lesson is the same: Strong narratives consistently re-imagine the road ahead. The Tour may not have a writers room, but there's no shortage of surprises.
The opening stage of this year’s race, which featured the Orica-GreenEdge team bus stuck under the finishing banner as 198 riders barreled down upon it at 50km/hour, reminded everyone, as if you could forget, that there’s never a dull moment. A touch of wheels and the peloton drops like Brewers celebrating a home run. A dog is in the road (and again, and again); a fan is in the road; a thousand fans are in the road. Alberto Contador punches a fan in the face. A press car hits Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha, catapulting Hoogerland into a barbed wire fence:
Michael Rassmusen has two bike changes, two wheel changes, and two crashes, one of them into a ditch, all during one time trial. Lance Armstrong off-roads, and later in the same Tour, a feed bag held by a fan brings him to the pavement. Tacks are strewn on the road. Carlos Berrado undoes his quick-release after the finish and uses it to hit Rui Costa. (Or as some reports tell it, “he brandished a wheel.”)
The list goes on and on. Just yesterday, a vengeful spectator threw piss on Marc Cavendish. But these “holy s***” moments are more than rubber-necking. They are a reminder of the profound and unpredictable vulnerability of each rider, who also happen to be, mentally and physically, some of the strongest men in the world.
9. There's Suffering, but with a Soul
We've seen enough to know that suffering sells on TV. Survivor is in its 26th season. Uncomfortably bad auditions in American Idol, all the nut-shots in America’s Funniest Home Videos—there’s even a new reality show called Naked and Afraid, I tell you!
One way to describe the Tour is as a showcase of suffering. These guys are in the saddle for 5+ hours a day, climbing as many as four Category 1 climbs in a single stage—as they did in Stage 9—or climbing the most famous summit in Tour de France history—Alp d’Huez—twice in one day. But this is no Fear Factor-grade suffering. This is the dignified stuff. I present you with the argument of one longtime fan, as excerpted from the stellar documentary Hell on Wheels (available on Netflix):
“For me suffering has two meanings. Suffering can be negative. If you try to suffer for it’s own sake, that’s bad. It’s unhealthy. There is something wrong in your head. But when you talk about suffering that you must get through and that you can survive through enormous effort, that is something else. That is positive, good, and beautiful. Beautiful because you think of courage, of stamina, loyalty, the willingness to make sacrifices, modesty, and love. From this perspective, the suffering during training, during sporting competitions, while doing one’s job, which all require great effort, is the same as religious suffering. It is love. It is beautiful. I like that.”
Try finding someone who will describe Wipeout that way.