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What the Tour de France doesn’t teach you about life

on 21 Comments

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?

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21 Responses

  1. just
    July 22, 2013, 4:50 pm

    Bravo! Beautifully written and oh, so true.

  2. Scott
    July 22, 2013, 5:49 pm

    Well, you’d really have to go a long way to convince me –I pay it no more attention than NASCAR–but you planted a seed. Terrific writing. Can you do the same for golf?

    • Citizen
      July 23, 2013, 10:10 am

      @ Scott, LOL. I immediately thought the same thing. But NASCAR & Golf do not offer us the Flaubert view of quaint French towns…In fact neither has any literary or aesthetic allure at all. Maybe horse racing?

    • AlGhorear
      July 23, 2013, 1:12 pm

      You must not be a golfer, Scott :) The British Open this last week/weekend was spellbinding. As for the Tour de France and Nascar, I’d rather watch paint dry.

  3. Rosebud
    July 22, 2013, 6:41 pm

    Nice observations! While I did not expect to read about the Tour on this site, I’m glad that I did.

  4. gingershot
    July 22, 2013, 7:23 pm

    Chris Froome’s training apparently was pretty local and rustic – Al Jazeera’s got a short film on him.

    ‘Tour de France winner Chris Froome was born in Kenya and first trained in a small village.
    He was discovered by a well-known local cyclist who has devoted his life to coaching young boys from very poor backgrounds. ‘

  5. tokyobk
    July 22, 2013, 8:26 pm

    You are a tolerant host. I guess here too.

  6. bilal a
    bilal a
    July 22, 2013, 9:22 pm

    Race has become the main sport on tv recently, and strangely, fox oreilly just blamed the decline of american black culture on hollywood and the entertainment media “greedheads”.

    Is this a veiled anti-semeetic attack ?

  7. RoHa
    July 22, 2013, 9:37 pm

    It’s a stupid bicycle race. Nothing to do with real life.

    • Citizen
      July 23, 2013, 10:21 am

      What was that about the preppy English sports field, and how it anchored England’s fight against Hitler?

      • MHughes976
        July 23, 2013, 12:09 pm

        A French author writing about English politics in 1856, Charles Montalambert, claimed that the Duke of Wellington, victor over Napoleon at Waterloo, had said, during a visit to Eton College playing fields ‘c’est ici qu’a ete gagne la bataille de Waterloo’. His biographer Elizabeth Longford thinks this is very unlikely: he never showed much affection for his old school, there were few organised sports there around 1780 and he never, as I understand, elsewhere likened military conflict to sport. But the remark was taken up by Eton’s backers and boosters. The College remains our premier school. Prince William and David Cameron are both its veterans.
        George Orwell from his centre-left perspective claimed (I haven’t checked this) that we lost the first round of every war because of the stuffy influence of establishment schools. So he blamed Dunkirk on Eton, probably unfairly. He probably wouldn’t have thought too highly of the Tour de France either. There! I’ve said something vaguely related to the subject.

      • RoHa
        July 23, 2013, 8:10 pm

        Are you thinking of “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton”, attributed (inaccurately) to Wellington? What Wellington actually said was, allegedly, “There grows the stuff that won Waterloo.”

        Nonsense, of course. The vast majority of the British soldiers were from the lower class, and knew all about real life from the tough streets, not from playing fields.

        And Wellington was watching a cricket match, not a bicycle race.

  8. thankgodimatheist
    July 22, 2013, 9:40 pm

    I grew up and lived 30 years in France but I’m still immune to this incomprehensible (to me) fever. Watching dudes, though incredibly fit and enduring, pedaling like crazy still puts me to sleep faster than car racing or (men’s) beach volley. I wouldn’t know what to watch for.

  9. Byzantium
    July 23, 2013, 3:48 am

    I can never watch the Tour de France without noticing that it remains an all male event – if there is a female equivalent it receives exactly zero coverage, at least where I live. Hard to believe in this day and age.

  10. Citizen
    July 23, 2013, 4:14 am

    I rather watch girls volleyball. Plenty of travel shows if you want to see European terrain.

  11. jon s
    jon s
    July 23, 2013, 6:10 am

    I’m a sports fan, but I confess that I’ve never watched even a minute of the Tour de France. With Phil’s recommendation, maybe I will, next time.
    Here’s a sports story which does connect to the usual themes of this forum: Jewish-American identity, Zionism and Israel. On David Blatt:

  12. Taxi
    July 23, 2013, 11:12 am

    Charming article.

    Tommy Simpson’s famous last words were: “Put me back on my f*cking bike!”. At least that’s how my cycling-pro friend always put it. He also reckons that the Tour’s administrators deleted the expletive from the record for the sake of their image and to spare any awkwardness for future Tour historians. If you know keen cyclists, you’ll know they cuss on the track even worse than football players in action.

    Yes, big cycling fan, me. Was in Paris in 1999 during the Tour and went to the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees to wait on the street for the winner at the finish line. First win for Lance Armstrong that year. Yap, I stood there in the sardine crush waving my little American flag in a crowd excited and sweaty under the sun, right next to a rabble of inebriated American male students who’d brought an inflatable doll into the moshpit with them, handling the doll in goofy suggestive ways and chanting: USA! USA! USA! Clearly pissing off some toffee-nosed Parisians and a few protective parents with children. Man were these American sophomores sauced and oblivious! It was humorous but embarrassing and for a moment I even wondered whether I should put away my flag and disown my nationhood, but like millions of people at the time, I so wanted to see Armstrong win so I just kept waving my flag and avoiding eye contact with loud Americans.

    Phil, I can’t even describe to you the giant electrifying wave that came upon us spectators standing right there by the finish line when Armstrong, like a god on silent wheels, glided sorta effortlessly by – with the other riders huffing and puffing way way way behind him. Unforgettable! The jumping-roaring-screaming crowd: deafening and spine-shockingly invigorating. What an epic rush! Not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.

    Great Tour this year too, but unfortunately I missed watching most of it live, including the finale.

    Congratulations Chris Froome! Great athlete. Great undoped guy.

  13. Bumblebye
    July 23, 2013, 4:34 pm

    Next year, the Tour de France takes place here in England – and, by gum, I’ll be able to peer out of my kitchen window and watch one of the stages pass right by! But I’ll get a better view if I toddle along to the end of the road.

  14. libra
    July 23, 2013, 6:44 pm

    Weiss: It’s white.

    Oh dear, another guilty pleasure for Phil. I bet he can hardly wait till winter and the Nordic Skiing.

  15. jameswhitney
    July 25, 2013, 10:15 am

    Having trained for and completed 20 marathons, I can say that cycling an average of 170 km per day at a pace of 35 km/hr over 6 consecutive days is impossible for a human without a little technical assistance (drugs). It is generally recognized that drug testing is several years behind the development of new drugs for athletes.

    Froome did the Tour at a pace of 413 watts, more than Armstrong in 1999, the first year he won the Tour. I watch the Tour every year because it is a great show and you see the wonderful countryside, but ask any sports physician what 413 watts means.

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