No, I don’t even own a bicycle. But, yes, I love the Tour de France—professional cycling’s grand and historic month-long ride across France. The race is winding up on Sunday, and I’ll be bereft without any more mornings balanced between getting work done and running in to the room with the TV in time for the sprint finish. I could go on—endlessly—but for now, I’ll offer a few thoughts on why following the Tour is like reading a great novel:
1. Great setting. The scenery—the countryside of France, vast mountains in France, Spain, Italy, charming villages, oddball lunatic fans, abandoned castles, farm fields. No sport is as picturesque.
2. Great narrative voice. Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett are the Voices of the Tour on the Versus Network, offering excellent, smart, passionate commentary in fabulous British accents. They’ve got great chemistry together, and it’s literally impossible to imagine one existing without the other. I have a massive crush on their voices (and if you watch the Tour, you’ll see that I carefully chose the word “massive” as it’s one of Paul’s favorites).
3. What do the characters want? It’s clear: they want to get to Paris. They want to survive 3430.5 kilometers and 21 days of racing.
4. Lots of subplots. 198 riders started this year (in 22 teams), and not every rider is in a position to win the entire race; in fact, probably only about thirty (if that) start with a semi-legitimate shot at getting on the podium (top three). So there are various ways to succeed: You can win the stage on a given day. The overall race leader wears the yellow jersey, but there are other jersey competitions: the green jersey for best sprinter, the polka dot jersey for King of the Mountains (best climber), the white jersey for best young rider. There’s the best team. There’s the daily most aggressive rider. All these competitions shift and change throughout, with many not decided until the last days of the Tour.
5. Flat and round characters. Heroes, villains. The team leader and the guy whose role is a domestique, fetching water from the team car to bring to the rest of the team. The glamorous sprinter and the lead-out guy who helps position the sprinter. The guy who’s good at the time trial and the guy who takes the heat and sets the pace on the mountain to grind down the other teams. And, alas, the dopers who break your heart. You can cheer for a man, a team, or a country.
6. Surprising yet inevitable endings. You can be a favorite, assumed by all that you’ll end up in the Top 10 in Paris, and then you crash in the rain and break your collarbone and you’re out of the race. Anything can happen at any moment. A breakaway usually gets caught by the group by the end…except when every now and then it doesn’t.
7. Conflict. There cannot be a more punishing sport. There cannot be more intense, tougher athletes than professional cyclists. Even though I’m always telling students to be “mean to your characters,” I might suggest that these “characters” are being treated too meanly: finishing out a ride with a concussion? Falling headfirst into a fence of barbed wire and finishing the day with blood pouring down your legs? These guys are usually in the 5’11”/145 pounds range…they look misleadingly fragile, and they’re anything but. Yet, in the midst of all this conflict and pressure, there’s a beautiful sense of tradition and etiquette infusing the race.
8. Use of language. Such beautiful, specialized word: peleton. Breakaway. Domestique. Chase group. Attack. Catch. Col. Maillot jaune. Hors catergorie. And the team names…Astana, SaxoBank, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Team Sky. And the lovely names of the cyclists: Thor Hushovd. Ivan Basso. Cadel Evans.
9. Climax & falling action. The race alternates between “easy” flat stages and grueling mountain stages, a classic Fichtean curve of a plot with the climax building to, well, right now: two unbelievable mountain stages followed by the individual time trial (the cyclist against the clock, alone), and then the Tour is won…and there’s the falling off action of the ride into Paris. Yes, there’s excitement at the end—who will win the stage in Paris?—but the last day is essentially a day to relax and enjoy, to, as they say, “live happily ever after.” (If you’ve survived, that is.
Have I piqued your interest? You can learn more about the Tour with this excellent beginner’s guide: http://www.tdfblog.com/2009/07/beginners-guide-to-the-tour-de-france-for-2009.html. Or, it’s very easy to pick up on your own: tune in on the Versus Network. Allez, allez!
Must go…will Andy Schleck’s bold and early attack hold up? Contador is heating up....