The Tour de France begins in Holland this Saturday and this year’s event promises to be a thrilling spectacle. This three week cycling stage race will from July 3 to July 25 and will cover more than 3,600KM as it makes its way around France. It will feature all manner of challenges, from long, hot stages across the arid south to time trials to arduous mountain stages across the fabled passes of the Alps and Pyrenees. Of course, the tour is more than what happens on the road. Doping allegations and rivalries add intrigue to the mix; this year, the big rivalry involves Lance Armstrong’s attempt to defeat his former teammate Alberto Contador in the final’s last Tour. Other contenders and hopeful dreamers lurk in bunch, ready to leap out for a scrap of glory when the opportunity presents itself. There is also the country and its people. Wherever the race goes, sponsors and organizers setup fan events and locals and visitors alike crowd the streets and mountain roads to urge the racers on take in the spectacle. When you add it all up, the Tour de France is one of the most unique and compelling events in the realm of professional sport.
Like so many sporting events these days, however, the Tour is also a media event. The competitive drama, intrigue, and the French ambiance have made it an ideal candidate for expanded media coverage. In North America, the post-cancer ascent of Lance Armstrong coincided well with the expansion of the cable realm to facilitate a boost in television coverage. Where ESPN had previously offered a slim highlights package on certain key days, the cable channel Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network) has expanded its coverage to include several hours on all race days (and as much as six hours of coverage on key mountain stages). The result is that avid cycling fans can now take in all of the action, provided that they have the right cable package.
Versus’ coverage developed a solid audience in large part due to Lance’s success, but the credit for its ability to hold much of that audience must be given to its leading personalities. While the video footage draws heavily on the standard race feed, the legendary commentary team of Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett add a particular flavor to the race experience. Former professional cyclists, these two enliven the race as they mix creative expressions, tender banter, and incisive observations about the race and its participants (you can see a collection of Liggett’s endearingly absurd characterizations of events here and hear some of his classic calls here). In fact, a number of these ‘Liggettisms’ were re-fashioned into poems and published in 2005 to some acclaim. They deliver knowledge and passion in an endearing manner that effectively allows the North American audience to engage with professional cycling.
The footage to which Sherwin and Liggett lend their voices is also unique in professional sports; with the cyclists typically either bunched together in a fast moving pack (the ‘peloton’) or strung out along the course, the video feed is generally comprised of a mix of motorcycle-cam shots and helicopter-cam shots. The former offer close-ups of cyclists – be they grimacing, feuding, or placidly rolling along – while the latter bring France’s diverse range of landscapes into the mix and provide a crucial degree of perspective. The reliance on motorcycle cams makes for great theater in the mountains as the cameras moves through the course, discovering riders who’ve been dropped and catching those who are breaking away. This makes for exciting moments of discovery as one attempts to sort out which of the suffering warriors are ascending to greatness and which are going backwards. The cameras consistently cut from one spot to another in order to follow attacks, collapses, and crashes as they occur in real-time on the course.
This year’s race is a bit of a throwback in tribute to the 1910 edition. There are plenty of traditional flat stages, few mid-mountain stages, and, for the first time since 2004, there will be cobblestone stretches in the route, which are invariably dangerous and unpredictable. There are few mountaintop finishes, but Stage 8’s (July 11) Categorie 1 climb up to Morzine-Avoriaz in the Alps could produce early fireworks. Once the race hits the Pyrenees, Stage 14 (July 19) will see the riders climb the massive ‘Hors Categorie’ Port de Pailheres ascent before they finish at the top of the Categorie 1 Axe-3 Domaines. On Stage 17 (July 22), the riders will mount two Categorie 1 climbs before finishing with the legendary Col du Tourmalet, which could be decisive given that this will be one of the last opportunities for the favorites to sort themselves out. The sprints and time trials also offer their pleasures, but I think that there is nothing quite like the spectacle of suffering involved in a grueling race up one of France’s massive mountain peaks. Stage 10 (July 14) could also prove to be interesting as it features two significant climbs and the French are sure to attack like mad in search of Bastille Day glory.
The Tour is not for everyone, but those who enjoy it can now follow it in myriad ways. Versus provides ample coverage, websites like cyclingnews.com and dailypeloton.com offer up tons of commentary and discussion, and there are numerous rider Twitter pages that offer a rare insight in the life of the professional cyclist (see @lancearmstrong for an example of this). I should also add that classic moments and excerpts can be viewed on YouTube, for those who are interested in the race’s storied history (for example, check out this classic attack). Still, nothing compares to watching the action live with Phil and Paul. When the peloton hits the high mountains, you can be sure that I’ll be bounding out of bed before the rooster crows in order to catch all the action. Watching the Tour with the day’s first cup of coffee is one of my most cherished summer media rituals.