The Tour is over for this year, but you can still watch it by subscribing to NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass. (Go to this link to subscribe; it lasts for the whole year so you can watch La Vuelta a Espana and other races, but only in the US.) I’m a little late to the party since I’m still watching it on a Roku donated to me by dear mum. (So don’t spoil it by commenting on the winner or anything past Stage 11, please! I however may spoil it if you are are on Stage 1.) I am way behind because of life getting in the way but still enjoying it. Like many Americans, I got into the Tour a few years after a certain famous Austin cyclist won it seven times in a row. After that was, um, cancelled, I stopped watching for a few years (also like many Americans). But I couldn’t stay away, so I’ve been watching it every year for a while now, and still think it’s worth it. Here’s why I think you should watch it, too.
Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen
These two Brits have been calling the race for years. Their knowledge of the sport is encyclopedic. Their voices and accents instantly recognizable to anyone who follows professional cycling. A few examples: “He’s in a spot of bothah now!” “Oooh! He’s dancing on the pedals in angah!” “The riders better look out for that road furniture because if you hit that, you’ll be done and dusted.” The manner in which they announce even the most mundane things can be entertaining. They will also tell you about about whatever church or monument the helicopter cameras pick up.
When NBC cut them from last year’s service and you had to pay a premium to get their version instead of capable but less exciting Aussies Robbie McEwen and Matthew Keenan, there was an uproar. So they’re back, but with commercials. And maybe Phil is losing a step after 42 tours, but I don’t care. I have to add characters and former racers Jens Vogt and Bob Roll, too, at least on the NBC Sports Network feed. They say some pretty hilarious things and are amusing as well. Some say they are past their prime, and maybe they are. You can listen to Matt and Robbie, but the point is: Watch!
2. Vive le France
I can’t afford to go on vacation to Paris, Texas, much less the real deal these days. So the Tour is always a postcard to the Texas-sized country. The Tour covers 2,100 miles and all kinds of terrain. From the seasides of Normandy, the cobblestones near the border with Belgium, to the vineyards of the central and south, and of course the Pyreenees and Alps, with quaint villages everywhere, there is always something to see. Watching the peloton cruise by the fields of sunflowers or lavender, the mountains, valleys, and more is just amazing. The next best thing to being there in person is the travelogue with bicylists going at breakneck speeds for three weeks. It keeps me up at night but Je t’aime le tour.
3. The Riders Are Friggin’ Awesome
Of course the 176 guys who start this insane race are fascinating. (To make it more interesting, the organizers reduced the number of team members from nine to eight.) Some will never win a stage or barely have their name called, but everyone in this race is at the highest level of the sport and there to support their team or leader. Being a mostly European sport, but with incursions by Colombians, South Africans, and Australians, it’s not as international as the World Cup, but it’s still a mixture of different cultures. I love the different names: Tsgabu Grmay (Ethiopian), Tanel Kangert (Estonian), Tiesj Benoot (Belgian), and Toms Skujiņš (Latvian).
It really is a team sport, so it’s really interesting to watch the evolving tactics and how some guys will work so hard for their leader or team with no hope or winning. Or go on the break, try to win stages, or simply finish the 2,082-mile course in three weeks. That’s 21 centuries, people! (And that doesn’t count the neutral zones, training on off days, or sometimes riding back down the mountains.) From superstar Slovakian green jersey winner Peter Sagan, overall race favorites like four-time champion Kenyan / British Chris Froome, or Americans like Taylor Phinney, there’s something for everyone.
There are the young riders going for the white jersey, mountain climbers, one-day classics racers, helpers and sprinters. There’s just a veritable soap opera of characters to follow as they ride, sometimes crash, have to quit, or keep going. Houston’s Lawson Craddock, whom I’ve blogged about, used his broken face and scapula on Stage 1 to fundraise an incredible $256,000 for the Alkek Velodrome damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Houston). You can still donate here.
4. The Evolving Story of the Race
It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen it, but I like to tell people it’s like chess on wheels with a lot of suffering and possible broken bones. A number of people crash out — some heavily and quite sadly — every year. Those who survive to ride the next day do it for 21 stages, up and down, for 100+ miles almost every day. They go at really high speeds, climb up trickly switchbacks, cover incredible elevations and risk dangerous descents (today Froomey was clocked at almost 60 miles per hour going downhill!). The team aspect is too complicated to get into in a top five list, but suffice it to say that it’s interesting if you like cycling.
It’s like an epic miniseries, really, with all kinds of drama. The incredible effort alone is enough. But someone may be having a bad day due to getting sick. Or there’s an inter-team rivalry. Breakaways. Strategy. Sprints. King of the Mountains. And just all the hundreds of things that go into what some call the toughest sporting event of the year and make for great television. And there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to it as well: the ineffable effect of watching the snaking form of the bunch as flows around curves, it’s like an organism in itself.
Yes, at times it’s not riveting, but they edit it down, and even when the pack is just rolling along not challenging the break, you can still learn stuff and can enjoy it. But to me, watching these guys ride is so inspirational. I’ll never be that fast or strong. Sometimes I admit to being out on my bike imagining being in the Tour myself, and there’s no feeling quite like it. If you want inspiration on how to overcome suffering, whether you’re a bike rider, or not, and you’re not watching the Tour, you are missing out for sure.
5. The Fans
There are millions of them over the course of the Tour, literally. They litter the roadsides, camping out for days, walking high up the mountains, or lining the streets of the villages. They dress in costume, have parties. Today there was a guy on a high wire. Yesterday, a guy jumped his mountain bike off a ramp that went over the heads of the racers as they went by. Farmers make incredible field art tributes just to get on TV when the helicopters fly over. The Devil, a Dutch guy named Didi Senft who dresses up and jumps madly up and down, pitchfork in had, evil grin on his face.
They write out their favorite riders’ names on the road. Help with a push when they break down or get back up from a fall. In some ways, they ARE the race. And yes, some can be annoying as hell, causing wrecks, running in front of the riders, sometimes with little clothing, releasing smoke. A few taunt and have been known to even spitting or throwing urine on a rider they don’t like because they think they’re cheating. But overall, they are well-behaved, supportive, smiling, and having a great time. All for a few seconds chance to see their stars. It’s summer vacation after all, and the Tour is a HUGE deal.
Maybe it’s time for you to become a fan yourself. If you subscribe to NBC Sports Gold the Cycling Pass, you can watch the entire Tour de France, as well as other races throughout the year.
Sure it’s not for everyone, and to watch 4 hours a day or more on the longer feed (even the TV edits the race), is a time commitment. You can watch just the highlights or the nightly even shorter show live if you have NBC Sports Network. Watch or not, that’s up to you. But for three weeks every July that I can, I’ll be tuning in to watch the greatest race. And that’s worth losing a little sleep over.
Vive le Tour de France!
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