A Summer Romance With the Tour de France
Just a few days and you'll be back in your school
I'll be sitting around by the swimming pool
You'll be studying history and you'll be down the gym
And I'll be down the pub, probably playing pool and drinking
It's over now, it's a summer romance and it's through
It's over now, it's a summer romance and it's through
By the time the Tour de France again rolls onto the romantic cobbles of the Champs de Elysees for a final sprint at the end of another July, many of us in the television viewing audience will be in the throes of withdrawal and sadness from the European bike race that is at once flirtatious and petulant, serious and passionate, strange and humorous, intense and flowery. Every year, when the Tour de France is over, you realize it was a summer romance when it’s through.
In 2011 there were violent crashes in the first 2 weeks of the Tour that flung cyclists clear off the road onto barbed wire fences and over cliff edges. Some cyclists emerged with half their behinds hanging out of their kit, while others did not get up at all. Instead they rode the ambulance cart to the hospital where they were treated for a variety of broken body parts, from shattered collarbones to a fractured pelvis, the result for one of the toughest of all bike racers, Alexander Vinokourav. He's back this year because he wants to close out his career with a Tour de France finish.
Many of the racers did get back on their bikes after the crashes, bleeding from the face and dizzy from the concussive force of hitting the pavement at 30-40 miles per hour. Chris Horner of the Radio Shack team rode the last part of a stage with a concussion so severe he had to ask if he finished. They told him yes, then carted him off in the ambulance and home to recover his senses. He was back racing a few weeks later.
The legendary toughness of bike racers is contrasted by the sweet tourism of the event itself. Pretty podium girls kiss the cheeks of winners, and the carnival atmosphere near the finish line looks more like a small town fair than a major bike race. Millions of French citizens and people from around the world take their holiday to attend the race, lining the mountain passes to cheer every cyclist able to make the climb. It is a race of attrition, after all, more than 2 thousand miles of cycling at an average pace of more than 27 miles per hour. 99.9% of the world’s population cannot pedal their bike anywhere near that fast, even downhill, much less sustain that average tempo over thousands of miles of racing and over mountains so high the trees don’t even survive near the top.
For those of us who cannot travel to France to view the race in person, the summer romance of the Tour de France is delivered through the able presence of announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, whose visage and voices have become synonymous with the traveling circus that runs 20 days in July. Their expertise in bike racing is impressive enough, yet it is their ability to weave fascinating facts about the French, Italian, English and Belgian countryside into their commentary that makes the Tour de France a romantic, involving flight around one of the world’s most scenic nations. Helicopter footage of French villas and ground level video of bike racers tearing past fields of blue and yellow flowers is compelling enough. Throw in fascinating historical facts and vignettes about the food, history and people of France and you’ve got a show as rich in imagery as any PBS fare.
Then there are the stories of the bike racers themselves, a real soap opera unfolding before your eyes. A few years back when Frenchman Thomas Voeckler rode his way into the yellow jersey and clung to the lead for 10 full days all the world was rooting for the grimacing rider who poured himself into a vessel of French pride. In 2011 American rider Tyler Farrar (as fast as his name sounds) won a major stage on the 4th of July, then dedicated it to a close friend who died earlier that year in a professional bike race.
Among the many heroes of the peloton are riders known for their absolute grit, such as German Jens Voigt, a rider for Radio Shack who is known for his ability to hurt the whole peloton with his punishing pace-setting. Voigt has stated that he literally likes to make people hurt. This is no sport for sissies, after all. The fact that cyclists shave their legs is more like an invisible tattoo than, and their tan lines are decidely uncool. But the massive power of their thighs and big engines of heart and lungs are beyond mere surface measures. Bike racing is about the guts inside the lycra package.
When the race head into the Alps or the Pyrenees, the climbers emerge to lead and the race can break up into miserable little bunches of riders trying desperately just to hang on the wheel of the man in front of him. Then come the frightening descents at nearly 70 mph. These can make it difficult even for the motorbike camera crews to keep ahead of the hurtling cyclists on 1” wheels.
In other words, you don’t need to ride a bike to fall in love with the Tour de France. In fact, the summer romance is just as real for those who simply like the pageantry and musical hum of an event that pours into your living room like a dash of summer itself. Even the commercials become part of the Tour de France experience. A liquor ad for a Mojitos mix a few years ago with its beautiful people, catchy tune and wry humor made every break in the race a piece of video candy.
NBC is televising the Tour this year, but if your cable carrier reason doesn’t offer the right channels, you can get it all online through a variety of feeds. Just type in 'TOUR DE FRANCE COVERAGE' and look for live feeds. Sometimes watching the Tour with European commentators and an alternate video feed is the method of choice for serious cyclists.
Watching the Tour is a little sinful and self-absorbed. It demands hours of your time in July to truly keep abreast of the race. In fact it almost seems like the Tour is July to those of us who follow it. Worse than a TV mini-series or docudrama in its addictive qualities, the Tour throws beauty and drama around like an insensitive but secretly jealous lover who cares not if the relationship lasts another day, much less to the end of July or beyond.
The timeless spin of this summer romance makes it all the more feverish. The heat outside your own door makes it worse. Better to come back inside and sit in the air conditioning and watch 200, then 180, then 155 and finally about 140 riders make it back to Paris where the leader sips champagne on the ride into town and then chaos erupts as the fastest riders try to grab victory in front of a worldwide audience.
No wonder the victors cry. They have been ravished and used up by the summer romance of the Tour de France. Some of us who watch have been known to be moved to tears as well. After all, it’s a summer romance and its through. What’s not to cry about?