If you’ve read my most recent posts, are privy to my Facebook status or tune into my Twitter account, you’ll know I’m a bit of a Tour de France fan. I’m no cycling junkie and not even the biggest Tour tragic in my family, but I eagerly follow along for those three weeks in July through the time trials, the mountains and that final ride into Paris.
Sports fans will attest le Tour is one of the greatest sporting events. (Although most sports fans will cheer on – and then analyse the result of – a trolley race down the supermarket aisle so we can’t take their word for it.) But what about those people who pay little attention to sport, let alone cycling, for the remaining 49 weeks in the year, but come le Tour are well-versed in phrases such as peloton, breakaway and GC-contender? What is it about le Tour de France that wins so many hearts and late-night viewers (for those in the Southern Hemisphere)?
A Gentleman’s Game
Example: Stage 14 2012. British rider Bradley Wiggins is the overall leader in the yellow jersey. His main rival and pre-event favourite Cadel Evans is about three minutes behind in the standings. Everybody is riding along happily until Evans gets a flat tyre because some idiot (I’m being restrained) has thrown carpet tacks on the road. A little way along he gets another one, putting him well behind his main competitors. Wiggins, riding ahead in a group of riders, slows down and effectively halts the race. They coast along until Evans catches back up. By the time they crossed the finish line, Evans and Wiggins were riding side-by-side (a bit cute really). Now why would Wiggins wait? Why not take the opportunity to increase his lead? “I thought it was the honourable thing to do,” he said post-race. “Nobody wants to benefit from someone else’s misfortune.” Keep in mind that at the time he slowed, Wiggins didn’t know about the tacks.
This behaviour isn’t unique to Wiggins. In 2003 Jan Ullrich waited for eventual winner Lance Armstrong when Armstrong’s handlebar got caught in strap of a spectator’s bag on a mountain climb.
In what other sport would this happen?
This really is a Gentleman’s Game – perhaps except for when they line the edge of the road for a pee break.
The Tour de France is one of the most-watched sporting events. My TDF broadcast experience comes thanks to SBS in Australia and ITV in Scotland. It’s largely the same broadcast team. I feel safe in saying that no broadcast team, in any sport, does the job like this crew. The scenery is stunning, thanks to the roving army of helicopters following the race, and the commentators, lead by Phil Liggett, make the event accessible to anyone. They explain terms, tactics, history, local knowledge…the lot. If you’re watching in Australia you get a bonus in Gabriel Gate’s food snippets. This broadcast, with its aerial shots of medieval castles, chateaus and great mountains, would be responsible for inspiring countless trips to France.
Le Tour Live
Just as you don’t need to be a sports or cycling fan to enjoy the broadcast, neither is a requirement to enjoy it in action. In fact, the only prerequisite might be patience. Having stood road-side for a few stages now, I’m don’t think half the people around me are mad sports fans. Same as half the crowd at the Melbourne Cup wouldn’t know which way to face on a horse. Town stages have a carnival atmosphere, with music, roaming dress-up characters and freebies. Along the course it’s a friendly community of dedicated fans in motor homes and drive-by tourists who thought they might as well see what the fuss is about. Over a few hours everybody makes nice with their neighbours, enjoys the publicity caravan and relaxes in the countryside. Eventually the bikes come and a few minutes later people go home.
I could go on. There are so many reasons to love le Tour: Lance Armstrong’s inspiring post-cancer wins, Cadel’s victory as the first Australian winner, seeing Tasmanian riders compete in the ultimate cycling race, George Hincapie riding on with a broken collarbone to finish…
In a few days it will be over for another year and I can go back to paying no attention to professional cycling. But before that I’m going to
scream like a maniac cheer as the riders travel down the Champs Elysees in Paris….
*Update July 2014 – as you can tell, this was written before Lance Armstrong got busted for doping. During those years he was racing it was inspiring, just not so much now.