Did you enjoy the Tour this year, dear reader? There was Chris Froome’s scintillating victory on Mont Ventoux, intense team rivalries and machinations, a riveting competition among the sprinters, and a truly ‘epic’ stage where Alpe d’Huez was ascended twice. There were enthusiastic crowds, truly breathtaking scenery, and a plethora of information sources – tv, blogs, tweets, podcasts, – to allow total immersion in the complete Tour experience. There really is nothing else like it. Dramatic. Sweeping. Breathtaking.
Or did you find it a bit pedestrian? A Tour where one team (Sky) mostly dominated and one rider (Froome) looked untouchable in the mountains and on the flats. There were some great sprint and mountain-top finishes, to be sure, and a few new riders that lit up the proceedings (Quintana, for example) but it was mostly a lot of long, hot days of riding with not much happening of particular interest except for the highlights captured in a post-stage package or ‘how the race was won’ montage.
The Tour, dubbed chess on wheels, can often be as exciting as the board game – not very. Thrilling shouts punctuated by long silences that can only be filled by endless helicopter shots of sunflowers, rivers, chateaux, and fan constructed tributes (postcard snapshots of a France that exists more in the minds of tourists than in reality). Cycling is one of those sports where the action can be intense, but this is not always a given. Unlike football/soccer, say, or basketball or other fast-paced games, the action does not always speak for itself (until the final few kilometres). It might be more akin to baseball, or cricket, or even boxing. Which is perhaps why cycling and the Tour is such rich fodder for writers (a bit like baseball, cricket and boxing) because there are gaps that can be filled by the skilled prose stylist that add background, colour and meaning – the personalities, the hidden tactics, the small details and the larger machinations. Meanings are not explicit and we crave more from those with keen insights and flourishing pens.
With cycling, we sense that there is something larger going on, some deeper layers that are not always evident from the action on the road. We know that it’s brutally hard – even if it doesn’t always look that way on tv – and we know that there is more going on at different levels of the race than is immediately apparent. And we understand that it is historically rooted in a European context and we crave that background and culture and exoticism.
This is why there has been such a rich mythology that has grown up around the Tour (and pro cycling). There is much less mythology these days, as we have all become jaded and skeptical and cautious with our enthusiasm. We are not sure whether to re-embrace pro cycling or to push it away. As we search for meaning, we can again count on those skilled prose stylists to help us find our way. This post proposes, therefore, that the following excerpt, shamelessly copied from ‘The Cycling Anthology: Tour de France Special Edition’, which you can read more about here, might just be the best three paragraphs written on the Tour de France. Thank you, Mr. Jeremy Whittle.
The Tour is complex, grandiose, overblown. It is wayward, beautiful, sordid and sometimes demented. It is an anachronism, struggling to come to terms with corporate commitments, lurching uncertainly to meet new ethical expectations. In truth, perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much of an event that has more in common with the ritual cruelty of the Coliseum than chess on wheels.
The riders come and go, the scandals come and go, the sponsors come and go. The race remains, the landscape unchanged and timeless, the seasons weathering rural roads that are baked in the summer, frozen and cracked through the winter.
In the end, though, it’s just a bike race. At the moment, the British are doing well, like the French, Italians, Belgians and Spaniards before them. It will pass and, soon enough, other champions will be along to replace them. Try and keep hold of that thought, when, as they inevitably will, all the intoxications of the Tour, the sound and the fury, once again get too much.