Each July the French put on a little bike ride called the Tour de France. They’ve done this every year since the start of the Twentieth Century, except for a few times in the 1940s when the French were tenants of Germany.
On this side of the pond, the Tour is just there for sportswriters to have something to write about between baseball’s All Star Game and preseason football. In Europe, especially in France and the UK, sports fans are going nuts this week with Wimbledon, both France and England in the semi-finals of World Cup play and this little bike race. Things are so crazy in England that on Saturday last, Wimbledon was pushed off the prime BBC channel in favor of England’s World Cup match. That’s the equivalent of the New England Patriots or the Golden State Warriors games being shown on The Shopping Network.
For those of you unfamiliar with The Tour de France, here, as a PSA, is a primer. First, no one watches The Tour de France. It’s “The Tour.” If you’re a bit of a snob (and what is more français than snobbery) it’s Le Tour.
Teams in Le Tour are made up of different types of riders. Just as baseball, football and basketball have position players, cycling teams have position riders. There’s a team leader. This is the rider best able to endure the different types of torture found on Le Tour. Along with him are other overall riders. This group makes up the GC, or “General Classification” of riders. The GC is where the eventual winner will come from. Also on a team are sprinters, hulking beasts (relatively speaking) whose specialty is going fast and pulverizing lesser riders; climbers, whippets who flit up mountain roads to the tops of the Pyrenees and Alps without breaking a sweat; and domestiques, apprentice riders whose job is to take care of the rest of the team by shuttling water and food from the team car to the riders, giving up their bikes to a rider who has crashed if necessary and generally being slaves to the rest of the team. If a GC rider falls and rips his shorts, a domestique will give him his.
Le Tour is raced over 21 days, or stages. There are flat stages, mountain stages and time trials, different venues where the different riders can strut their stuff. The overall race leader wears a yellow jersey. Each day, there is a stage winner, the rider who finished that stage fastest. It’s theoretically possible to win Le Tour without winning a single stage, and except for the second day, the prior day’s stage winner isn’t necessarily the yellow jersey. Note how the leader has been reduced to the color of his shirt. If you want to ask who the race leader is on a given day, you say, “who’s in yellow today?” Of course, if you’re a true aficionado, you don’t ask because you know.
Time trials are a special type of masochism. In the Individual Time Trial (ITT) riders leave the starting gate one at a time and ride a course, anywhere from 15 to 50 km. alone, in two-minute intervals. They wear alien-like helmets and put their hands on aero-bars to slip through the wind. You pedal as fast as you can, as long as you can and hope you reach the finish line before your heart explodes. There’s also a team time trial, or TTT, where five riders race the course together and four have to cross the finish line. The team’s time is that of the fourth rider to finish.
Mountain stages are, as one would expect, rides in the mountains. The route of Le Tour varies, but always, always includes several days in the Pyrenees and Alps. Fans love the mountain stages because the riders have slowed to about seven mph and spectators can run next to their favorite riders, exhorting them on to greatness. Or, sometimes, get run over. The summit of a mountain climb is a favorite place for the loonies to come out, as the accompanying picture shows. Of course, what goes up must come down and on the downside fans can see spectacular crashes. To get an idea of what it’s like to crash on a bicycle coming out of the Alps, strip down to your underwear and jump out of a car going 45 mph on the freeway.
If you’re watching on TV, you can find Le Tour on NBC Sports. For three weeks, you can listen to every move described by Paul Sherwin, Phil Ligget, Bob Roll, Christian Vandevelde, Jens Voight and other lesser lights. All are former Tour riders. Paul and Phil are Brits and given to delicious understatement. For example, on a particularly nasty climb, a rider may be falling off the back of the peloton (peloton is French for “big group of crazy riders”). This is technically called being dropped, and it’s not a good thing. As this rider struggles up a gradient that would make a mountain goat puke, Paul or Phil is likely to note that “he’s in a spot of bother right now.”
Bob Roll is fond of calling Le Tour “the Tour DEE France.” It’s not that Bob can’t speak French; he’s actually quite fluent. It’s that he doesn’t like the French so he intentionally mispronounces their pride and joy. Various stories exist about why he’s anti-French. Some say it’s because he can’t get a decent beer in France.
At the end of each stage, there is an award ceremony. The stage winner is presented, gets a bottle of champagne and kisses from two lovely French women. If you look closely, you’ll see that their lips never get nearer than two inches to the guy’s cheeks. I mean, he hasn’t shaved for a couple of days and he’s just finished a five-hour bike ride. Ewww!
The final day of Le Tour is madness. There’s no race for the Yellow Jersey. By tradition, the leader at the end of the penultimate day is the winner. But the race finishes with eight laps around the Champs-Elysees and the sprinters go berserk, pounding the cobblestones, cutting corners, occasionally losing it and sliding into the hay bales set up to stop careening riders from plowing into the howling crowd. Meanwhile the yellow jersey and his mates cruise into Paris sipping glasses of champagne.