Respect Yourself: Watching the Tour de France

July 11, 2011

Duncan Cooper spends a lot of time on the internet. Every other Monday, he pays tribute to the hours spent with original video and audio. This week he celebrates his favorite part of the summer, waking up to watch the Tour de France.

For three weeks every summer, with only a few days of rest, I endure one of the world's most demanding sports viewing experiences, the Tour de France. This year’s tour, running from July 2nd to 24th, features nearly 3500 grueling kilometers of bike racing, filmed in the Alps and on the Brittany roads where it's happening and piped overseas right into my Macbook. From 8:00 in the morning till 11:30 or so, with carefully timed breaks to fulfill the rough minimum for gainful employment, I’m glued to my $30 "all access" streaming subscription from NBC Sports, a package that freezes constantly and buffers irrationally, then burns up my laptop and melts the finish on my kitchen table. Even in this glitchy player (and maybe sometimes because of its visual errors) the Tour is visually without parallel. Camera crews in helicopters circle crumbling castles from the 14th century, swooping around just as a pack of riders emerges from a gap in the trees, filling the road like a diamond-scaled snake. Motorcycles follow alongside for closeups, racing by the cyclists to show just how they grit their teeth. For me it’s the ideal sport, with a crowning event long enough to create and contain its own side-stories and subplots. You can pick the Tour up on day one or day twelve and have a pretty good idea who you love, who you hate and why. That soap opera, played out between two dozen teams of nine riders, headbutting one another to win dirty sprints, evading drug doping tests with bizarre transactions and performance-enhancing blood transfusions, is the best and worst part.

The big drama this year, and without question one of the most shameful dramas allowed to unfold in the past few decades of the race, involves the Spanish rider Alberto Contador, a three time Tour de France winner and the man in the yellow jersey in the video above. Last year, after Contador defeated his rival and two-time Tour runner-up Andy Schleck (the man in the white jersey in the video), who lost to Contador’s 92-hour final time by only 39 seconds, the International Cycling Union announced that one of Contador’s urine samples had tested positive for trace amounts of Clenbuterol, a drug that increases the body’s aerobic capacity and flow of oxygen. A final hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport will determine whether Contador should be stripped of the title and Schleck declared the winner, but Contador has somehow managed to delay the ruling until after this year’s Tour, and since he hasn’t been officially declared guilty, he’s actually being allowed to race. If he wins this year, his new title will be taken away too. The whole situation is fucking crazy and has no logical parallel in anything that I can think of.

My best conspiracy theory to explain the Tour organizers’ decision to allow Alberto Contador to race this year assumes that a clean Contador, who must be under unimaginable stress waiting for the August hearing that could ruin his past, present and future career, would surely lose to an ever-improving, more motivated, endlessly more endearing eternal underdog Andy Schleck. In the event that Contador’s 2010 victory is stripped and given to Schleck, who would have never been granted the full emotional experience of winning, at least if Schleck beats him fair-and-square in person this year there’ll be some consolation. If Andy wins, we’ll all feel better. In the meantime, while Contador and Schleck battle once again in the mountains, viewership presumably goes up, given all the added intrigue. The institution of the Tour benefits from maximum media exposure, but any short-term-gained new fans will surely be heartbroken and at least a little bit outraged if Contador's found guilty and it’s all just a sham.

Media overexposure has already reared its head in more physically destructive ways in this year’s Tour, with at least two crashes due to photographers and one because of a spectator. During Stage 5, a cameraman’s motorcycle attempted to pass a pack of riders and snagged onto one of their bikes—belonging to a guy who supposedly told another cyclist earlier that day that he was getting too old for this—and whipped it out from under him. Then during Stage 9, far gruesomer and truly disturbing to watch, a French television car came alongside a group of five breakaway riders who had pulled ahead of the pack by five minutes. The car went halfway off the road to pass, but a tree came in front of them so they swerved into the riders, sending one flying into another like a high-speed domino, propelling the second rider through the air into a barbed wire fence. Unbelievably, both of those riders finished the stage, where they were jointly awarded the day’s prize for Most Aggressive Rider. One of them, who went on to require at least 33 stitches, wept on the podium.

So, I don’t know, this is turning into quite the anti-advertisement for the Tour de France. The race is absurdly demanding and grossly unfair, and an overwhelming number of its most successful participants turn out to be scumbags. Riders suffer from racing bicycles for three weeks, honest participants know they'll never win because they're not doping and fans' heroes constantly let them down. It seems like in the Tour everybody's punished. But maybe all the reasons the Tour is screwed up makes it a more honest form of sport, like a weird expression of uphill battles in real life. There are two weeks and 2000 kilometers left and right now Schleck's in fifth, a minute and a half up ahead of Contador. He seems so nice, I just really hope he wins.

From The Collection:

Respect Yourself
Respect Yourself: Watching the Tour de France