Two weeks ago a house guest asked that I change the channel from a baseball game, and I watched my first ever Tour de France stage, the eighth, in which Chris Froome the eventual winner first got the yellow jersey, and that did it for me. I was hooked. Yesterday I watched the 21st stage. I now look forward to next year’s tour as I look forward to the World Cup and March Madness, an orgy of competition/entertainment.
Because sports and culture and group-psychology are so fascinating to me, a few thoughts on why the Tour de France is so great, and also its limitations.
–The scenery. It’s an excuse, but a great excuse. You are seeing the terrain of world historical events, from the Alps to Versailles to Paris, and the commentators have to be tour guides. Yesterday’s lesson was that a great civilization is drenched in blood. 100,000 killed in the Place de la Concorde, they said, during the revolution (an exaggeration, per the histories). And the Arc de Triomphe, the scene of a wonderful light show at race’s end, was Napoleon’s monument to Austerlitz– where thousands died. The French country towns are beautiful, the scenery is out of Flaubert. Including the guys wearing Borat bathing suits, and the country boys mooning the riders.
–Intensity. The intensity of this race rivals anything in sport, and is sustained for three weeks. I told myself I would at least glue three cracked plates while I watched. I never got to them. The competition is wrenching and nonstop. There is always something happening, someone daring, someone failing, someone taking a great chance, someone behaving in a sportsmanlike manner, someone else doing something unfair, or a scene from Montblanc. Exhausting to watch, it is like mountain climbing because it is mountain climbing. It defies the limits of human endurance. And though it is inspiring to watch people expend so much competitive energy and still have enough left over to stage late attacks, it is demoralizing to watch because it leaves you feeling inadequate, and makes baseball look like pick-up sticks.
–The stakes rival mountain climbing’s. Many people were shattered in this race, and the sport selects for masochism. A French rider broke his clavicle once before the race, raced anyway, and broke it again. Fractured pelvis? Concussion? Play on. Tour history, which I began to look into, is filled with deaths. Guys struck by cars, guys who went off the road on bad turns. Tom Simpson the British champ who lost it on Mont Ventoux and said Put me back on the bike and then wobbled off the road and collapsed is celebrated more than mourned. Which brings me to–
–Extreme characters. A big downside. Let’s be clear: the Tour is an extreme sport. It’s human freaks performing beyond any other mainstream competition. If bicycling expends one-third the energy as running over the same distance, then the tour is equivalent to running 700 miles. Impossible to imagine. Which explains all the doping. This is an impossible sport to do well. They say in the US the hardest thing to do is hit a baseball. This is harder. They will never make it clean, though Chris Froome was surely persuasive.
–Social lessons. The relationship between team and individual reminds you that all achievement is collaborative. The winner depends utterly on the craft and strategy and power of his teammates. The teamwork is staggering to watch– as in the trains to the last sprint yesterday. These are people behaving like an ant colony. Last year Froome pulled Wiggins up the mountains, this year Richie Porte fought for Froome, and next year someone else will fight for Porte.
–Another cruel social lesson: the tall poppy. You’re not allowed to aspire individually really. If you go out in front of the pack, they destroy you. They reel you in, they attack you. The man who dares must be hammered down by others. Ask Teejay Van Garderen, Jens Voigt, David Millar. Road kill.
–Downside. The lack of suspense. From the eighth stage on it was pretty clear that Froome was going to win. He had a strong team, and the teams work to protect their leader.
–The wealth of nations. The Tour de France feels good the way Hemingway feels good, as a throwback to a different era. It’s white. A lot of wealth has been invested in the riders, and almost all are from prosperous nations. The exception was Nairo Quintana, the “magical little climber” from Colombia, who was routinely patronized by the announcer with that diminutive. Tall Chris Froome is from Africa (Kenya and South Africa) but he bespeaks white privilege. The sport feels like a form of apartheid. The acceptable corporate version.
–And yet, a good guy won. The statement by Richie Porte yesterday that Chris Froome is a great guy and his teammates work hard for him because he is generous was borne out often by Froome’s softspoken and amiable comments during the race and his gracious presence. Lance Armstrong seems to be the opposite type. Tyrannical. And where is Lance now?