On Saturday the Tour de France will kick off and I’d like to try to suggest/convince you that it’s worth watching. I’ve been watching it on and off for several years now and watching it more and more closely the past two or three years. There are a huge number of reasons why it’s a difficult event to watch and understand but I’m going to explain here how if you’ve got just a couple of hours to kill you can learn about a truly fascinating event that requires a physical and mental toughness from its competitors that rivals any other sporting event past or present.
First though, let me say that i’m not a huge fan of road racing, especially team-supported road racing (like the Tour de France) where the competitors have a crew that follows them along with spare parts/bikes, etc. To me, self-supported overland racing like the Tour Divide is a much better measure of a cyclist’s moxie. But anyway, that doesn’t diminish the fact that the TdF is still awesome to watch.
What makes the Tour de France (and other pro road cycling races) so difficult to comprehend is that it is an individual sport played by teams. You think you understand this.
For years I thought I understood what that statement meant. Then I watched Slaying the Badger. If you do one thing before watching any of the Tour de France stages, watch this movie. It’s about Greg LeMond’s nasty rivalry with his teammate, Bernard Hinault (aka the Badger).
LeMond is the only American to have won the Tour. His victory predates (just barely) the point at which cycling became a sport of drug-enhanced bullshit artists like Lance Armstrong. The movie is awesome, it’s on Netflix and in under two hours you will come to understand the meaning of the phrase “an individual sport played by teams” in all of its complexity. I implore you to watch this movie. Even if you’re not that into cycling. I bet you will enjoy it. You can’t make up a character as complex and slippery as Bernard Hinault. He’s fascinating to watch.
Which brings us to the whole performance enhancing drug thing which really destroyed road cycling’s image.
Where Slaying the Badger is a vivid picture of total dysfunction at the team level, a new movie that follows around a bunch of younger, (purportedly) drug-free cyclists called Clean Spirit is really a great look at how members of a cycling team can support one another while still pursuing individual victory.
The movie follows around the Argos-Shimano team and its star, Marcel Kittle in last year’s Tour de France. If you watched last year’s tour at all you may recall the moment when British cyclist Mark Cavendish gave Argos-Shimano rider Tom Veelers a shoulder bump and knocked him off his bike. The filmmakers do a really excellent job of capturing how the team responds to Cavendish. Marcel Kittle makes for a great hero in this story that tries to recast cyclists as athletes instead of drug addicts.
Both of these movies are on Netflix. Watch them. Even if you’re not into cycling they give you an awesome background into team and individual dynamics and you also come away with an understanding of just how grueling of an event – physically and mentally – the Tour is for these athletes.
It’s not just the cycling though. The scenery is awesome and NBC does a good job with zooming out to place you at each stage. Kelly and I really enjoyed the footage last year from Arles and Aix where we road bicycles several years ago.
We watch it with our kids and our oldest always has questions that lead to us looking up some town or city or region on Wikipedia.
And then of course, there’s the food. Each stage presents a new opportunity to try a regional wine/cheese/something delicious so that if you can’t ride like the cyclists in the tour, at least you can eat like them.
Oh. Also. To watch the tour, NBC has a mobile that has been getting better and better every year. In past years we’ve just used Airplay to send the live stream (or archived stage coverage) to our Apple TV. Hoping we will be able to do the same this year.