The Tour de France is more than just a bicycle ride around the country of it’s name. It’s even more than the pinnacle of bicycle racing. It’s a spectacle that reaches far beyond France—a three-week-long soap opera experienced around the world.
When Dutchman Bauke Mollema of the Trek-Segafredo team crashed over race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky, a Brit by way of Kenya) who had just plowed into challenger Richie Porte, of Australia and BMC, a fraction of a second after Porte crashed into a cameraman-mounted motorcycle in the final kilometers of the mountainous stage 12 of the 2016 Tour, the entire race was thrown into chaos, and people around the world jumped out of their seats—not to mention the tens of thousands of fans already standing on the roadside, further narrowing the already small road. It’s almost the point of the race that the crash was probably caused by the fans, agitated after waiting literally all day under a hot sun for the racers to come by when the race was at full boil, crowding the road, making it nearly impossible to drive a motorcycle carrying a cameraman, camera, and satellite telemetry gear, in a straight line at 12mph. The fans are an essential element of the race.
This sort of bizarre disaster is hated and loved and pops up at the least expected moments. When American Lance Armstrong, racing for the US Postal Service crashed on the final climb to Luz-Ardiden during the 15th stage of the 2003 Tour de France, similar gasp was heard around the world. Seconds could have been lost, and those seconds could have decided the outcome of the race. People refer to Bobby Thomson’s home run in the 1951 National League Baseball playoff game as “the shot heard ’round the world,” but his home run was barely a sneeze in the forest compared to the frenzy of the Tour.
The collective gasp when Froome crashed wasn’t just that of more than 2,000 journalists covering the race, nor the hundreds of thousands of fans lining the roads on this particular day of the Tour (it was Bastille Day, a French national holiday), nor the untold numbers who follow the Tour online, streaming the TV feed on their computers or following “play-by-play” coverage written and uploaded every few minutes to bike racing websites. There are also the millions who tune into the race on the radio and watch it on television and the internet on every continent and virtually every country on the planet. One-day races, or stages, within any Tour de France last between three and seven hours, and there are millions who follow every second of every stage. It is estimated that 20 million people attend the Tour every year. Some stages have crowds in the hundreds of thousands, often outnumbering the collective attendance for an entire seven-game World Series.
Cycling fanatics—tifosi in Italian—knew what Froome’s crash meant. It was everything; the spill could have cost Froome the lead. If he was seriously injured, easy to do when one is as lean as Froome and the rest of the contenders for overall victory (they are so lean their bodies eat bone matter for nourishment), his race could be over.
Even when it appears that a racer is dominating a three-week-long bicycle race, his lead can be both large and small at the same time. To be within 1 percent of the winner at the end of the Tour might seem impressive, but that often means being about fifty minutes—sometimes twenty-six places—behind the winner. In 2015, the winner completed the Tour in 84 hours. The last finisher was in 160th place, almost five hours down, but the second placed rider was only 72 seconds behind, a fraction of a percent off the winning place
These moments are both wonderful and terrible. That something totally unknown could happen during the Tour is a possibility every second. And it can turn the race upside down. Dogs running out on the course, a race official’s car hitting a racer. Someone spreading tacks on the course, causing many riders to get flat tires simultaneously. A wet road covered in oil from a passing car.
Mollema, seemingly on the form of his life, got up first, climbed back on his bike, and rode away. Froome got up but realized his frame was broken. Porte had to fix his bike before going. Fans moved further into the road to take a better look, further slowing progress and replacement parts. Rivals caught up to and passed Froome, who, after carrying his bike, dropped it and began running up the mountain. Froome got a spare bike from a neutral support vehicle, but it was slow, and he quickly dismounted and waited for his team to bring him another one. At the finish line, Mollema moved up on the overall, ostensibly taking the lead, while Froome and Porte lost critical seconds, knocking Froome out of yellow. Then the race jury decided the crash and damage weren’t the fault of Porte and Froome and awarded them the same finishing time as Mollema. It didn’t seem that anyone was seriously injured, but we’d only know for sure the next day.
The simple definition of the Tour is this: It’s a three-week bicycle race held annually in France. Comprised of 21 stages, it takes place over 23 days and covers a distance of around 2,100 miles, which leads to an average of around 100 miles a day. The racer with the lowest overall elapsed time is the winner. The race usually starts with 198 riders riding on 22 teams of 9 riders each. The most visible symbol of the Tour is the maillot jaune, the yellow jersey, which is worn by the race leader, the person with the lowest time. The Tour is supposed to provide a mix of difficulties (flat roads, hills, medium mountains, big mountains, winds, narrow roads, as well as solo and team races against the clock of varying terrain and distance), so that the winner is a “complete” rider who is smart, strong, fast, and most consistent.
For most outsiders, bike racing is as foreign as France: different names, different pronunciations, different customs. Kilometers instead of miles. Speaking about bike racing often entails using terms and idioms and jargon from several different languages. Compounding the problem is that many Americans see a bicycle as a toy, as something easy, and have a hard time seeing athletes of moderate builds as particularly fit specimens when compared to athletes in our big three sports—baseball, basketball, and football. Further confusing matters is the fact that cycling is a team sport, even though each team rides as nine individuals.
This book endeavors to close the understanding gap. It will explain the Tour for the unique sporting spectacle that it is. Far from being an esoteric pursuit, the Tour is the second-most popular sporting event in the world. Only World Cup soccer has a larger audience. There are people who travel around France, “Deadhead-style,” in a van and camp out beside the roads to watch the race pass every day. There are folks who follow the Tour via bicycle.
When Jonathan Boyer became the first American to race the Tour in 1981, few Americans knew or cared. Many people didn’t even realize he was an American—his nickname was often spelled Jacques and his name often appeared as the very French-seeming Jacques Boyer—though it’s more accurately written “Jock.” But U.S. coverage of the Tour got a boost in the mid-1980s, as Greg LeMond (another French-looking name) climbed to the top of the race and the CBS television network aired the event on television. The bruising battles between LeMond and French legend Bernard Hinault, his teammate, made for great television and history, with LeMond finishing third in 1984, second in 1985 and winning in 1986, 1989, and 1990.
American cable sports television signed on in the 1990s. Even though LeMond was fading and fewer Americans were riding in the Tour, there were enough interested viewers that a race between Spaniards, Belgians, Germans, Danes, Italians, Dutchmen, and Frenchmen was plenty interesting. Live coverage was unavailable, but half-hour to multi-hour evening recaps became regular fare. Fans also started to get regular coverage in newspapers.
Everything changed when Lance Armstrong rode to—and then published—his own miraculous Tour story in 1999. With the Internet now a major news source, one could now follow the race online as well as on television and print. There was live coverage of the Tour every day. Sometimes, a stage would be shown twice. Once live, and once in the evening.
The Armstrong Era ended in 2005. Cycling as a pastime and sport certainly gained during his era. That he decided to come back to racing in 2009 was the start of his downfall, and added a particularly bitter coda when the depth of his doping came out. Many who raced during his time, both as teammates and opponents, and had retired were outed as dopers, as well as some on the tail end of their careers. Certainly the resulting public knowledge put the sport in a bad light, but as detecting doping and measuring performance was getting better, there was hope. And the sport has continued to deliver exciting racing, with new racers and new fans, and an evolved sport.
Bike racing does deserve scrutiny. But then, all sports deserve scrutiny. I’ll address this in a later chapter.
The Tour has evolved over the intervening years. The design of the stages hardened into a rigid formula through the 1980’s and 1990’s, and by the mid-2000’s, it calcified. Thankfully, the promoters took inspiration from their fellow Grand Tours (three-week stage races), the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. The promoters of these races decided separately that to differentiate themselves from the Tour, the biggest of the races, they had to make their races more interesting. They went looking for unusual locales, harder climbs, more spectacular scenery, changing the race enough each year so neither racers nor spectators know what to expect.
The media landscape has also changed. While live broadcasts and rebroadcasts of that live feed are now possible, the web has allowed not only for live streaming, but for streaming whenever you want it, on whatever device you want. Highlights can be found on the web in video, image, and text formats. Live, written play-by-play is still available, for those who follow the race on their phone or don’t want the video distraction at work. And, of course, there are daily race reports in newspapers and on the web. And there’s no shortage of tweeting from racers, mechanics, soigneurs, directors, press officers, race officials, and everyone else.
As the Tour has evolved thanks to their competition, it’s harder to tell how the race is going to play out. The goal of the race director is now to keep the fans and racers in suspense for as long as possible, so that the outcome of the race is decided on the penultimate stage and no sooner. And the following year is almost certainly not going to be a repeat of the previous.
Welcome to le Tour de France.
Not enough? How about taking a look at the Table of Contents?
(btw, the image is of Fausto Coppi, Italy’s il Campionissimo, at the 1952 Tour, preparing an orange. It’s unclear if it’s to eat right away, tuck into his musette bag, or squeeze into bidon. He won that Tour, as well as winning the mountains competition, and five stages.)