I never thought I’d find myself watching ITV4. Hell, I try to avoid normal ITV as much as I can. Just the other day we were sat in the pub and I said to Kunlun, “You know, even though ITV4 is having that really excellent looking Clint Eastwood season soon, I’ll never watch it.”
“But Ingram,” outraged, “Le Tour is being shown exclusively on ITV4.”
“Le Tour?” I’m always a sucker for a come-on in French, even if it is from my hulking partner in crime.
“Le tour de france. It’s what all the cool kids are watching. To the French, it eclipses le foot like a dragon swallowing a primordial sun god. And it’s on ITV4 for the next three weeks.”
“All the kool kids,” I exclaimed, inserting the K myself, “I’d better start getting interested in it then. It always seemed like a slower, and therefore more boring version of motor racing to me. Does it have a witch house soundtrack?”
“I’m not sure. But if you’re lucky you might manage to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in between all that cycling action.”
And here I am. One day of hard watching and hooked already. I’ve spent the last 24 hours getting my bearings in the weird and wonderful world of cycling. And it certainly is weird. Here are some ways in which it is weird:
-You don’t seem to win by winning.
-There seems to be several ways of winning.
-Most of the competitors don’t have any intention of trying to win.
-All the competitors seem to have vaguely psychotic tendencies.
And most fascinatingly of all, in a world where sport is big business but people remain obsessed with ‘keeping it real’.
-Nobody pretends it’s about anything other than money.
This I find particularly fascinating. I’ve read various ‘guides for beginners’ for us Tour de France virgins, and all of them are quite, quite clear that a common tactic is for a cyclist who has no chance of making a real impact on the outcome of the race, to go on some crazy sprint or something, just to get camera time for his sponsors. I feel like this should disgust me, but it is a key part of what has got me hooked so quickly. After all, the World Cup is the biggest business event on the planet, and yet FIFA pretends it’s exists for no other reason than to bring joy and long-term prosperity to the whole African continent, a fiction which ranges between deluded and sinister depending on how generous you’re feeling.
Le Tour de France on the other hand seems to be nothing but an unabashed money making exercise with a little bit of glory for one or two elite cyclists, who wouldn’t be able to compete without big business anyway. Of course, it’s not that I’m a fan of big corporations, but there is something slightly charming and quintessentially Gallic about a bunch of telecommunication firms and tyre companies trying to get exposure through an expensive sport that hardly anybody outside of France watches. If anybody can explain to me why I think of tyres and telecommunications as being particularly appealing to the French, by the way, please get in touch.
As well as learning a little on the economics of the sport, I also learned some useful terms to help me make sense of what’s going on. Apologies for the lists, there will be fewer of them in coming weeks.
-The peloton is the pack of cyclists. They arrange themselves in various charming formations depending on headwinds, number of testosterone and anabolic steroid injections making them feel all alpha male, whose sponsor is giving them most grief etc.
-Les domestiques are the members of the team who ain’t trying to win. They ferry tasty snacks and drinks to the lead riders, and are probably their bitches on and off the course.
-Classement generale is the standings in the main competition. Who is doing best in the race as a whole.
-Maillot a pois/maillot vert/maillot jaune are the (polka dot, green and yellow) jerseys given to the leaders in the king of the mountains, time trial and classement generale competitions respectively. Le maillot vert looks the best, whilst a pois is faintly ridiculous and jaune is a horrible colour.
Armed with this useful knowledge I settled down to watch the highlights. Today’s stage was from Rotterdam and Brussels, which seemed a pretty long way but it didn’t seem to faze any of these guys too much. I hope to expand on cyclists cracked mental states later in the week so look out for that one!
I was expecting to become hooked because of the crashes, and these certainly didn’t disappoint. There was a dog on the track! There was someone dragging someone else’s bike along! There was a dam-like pile up made by velo-beavers somewhere near the end which meant that everybody’s time was the same as the winner because they were all prevented from finishing near the finish properly. Which begs the question – why doesn’t some sore loser deliberately crash near the end everyday?
But crashes weren’t all there was to it! A feeling of electricity, or at least a vague sense of smug recognition oozed through me as a I identified some of the tactics I’d seen on the Guardian’s little animated guide. I still can’t tell the teams apart and I have no idea who is going to win, but I felt the pleasing sense of superiority possessed by somebody who thinks that they understand a sport.
And as for the landscapes! Giant atoms, giant dykes, giant roads. I could watch it all just for the landscapes. And the dogs on the tracks. And the feeling cool. Kunlun was right, this sport is awesome.
Do are you watching le tour?
Do you understand cycling?
Who is going to win?
Is there any aspect of cycling I should be writing about?
-An attempt at a Stage 2 (Brussels – Spa) report, though I will link to a proper report each day and mostly keep all this for discussion on getting your head around the awesome sport of cycling.
-How to recognise different cyclists, and who are the competitors?