Sinner that I am, I expected live cycling to be boring, like motor racing only slower. Sure, the highlights would be good, capturing those moments of drama that derive from the human failings of mind and muscle, rather than the dull mechanical tinkering for the prize of split seconds that Formula 1 consists of. But live? Endless pedaling, gritted teeth, inclines so interminable it feels more like trying to bike to the next village in the Yorkshire Dales than watching the pros glide effortlessly uphill like the world’s been turned on its head. Of course I was wrong.
You still need a good book, or a magazine, or a laptop to fiddle with. There are boring bits, endless advertisement breaks, dodgy shots of nothing in particular (just how do men on the back of motorbikes manage to wield cameras so effectively?). But watching live allows you to experience more directly everything that is weird, but somehow strangely obvious, about an endurance event like Le Tour, and often these flashes of the surreal are the sort of things that get edited out of the highlights in favour of the high excitement of a sprint finish or a huge pile-up. The race doctor leaning out of a car window cleaning up the face of a bleeding cyclist, the inexplicable absurdity of the motorcade weaving in and out of the race, the shifting of the peloton as tactics change. No doubt this is all run of the mill to the seasoned viewer but to the newcomer it is charming.
And more: the French graphics on screen, proudly imposing francophone pictures onto the rest of the world in one of the few chances France has to insist on its cultural superiority on the global stage. The French words used being simple enough to provide no real problems, but still amusing in its insistence of calling the lead rider ‘Tete de la cours” rather than providing his name, giving the trailing time of the “groupe poursuivant”, seeming to conduct any press business in French and leaving the English commentators to provide rudimentary translations.
Watching live allows the extra fascination of seeing what goes on outside the race too. Odd glimpses of little villages, aerial views into peoples back gardens, tracksides lined with whole settlements and tourists who would never have thought of visiting except for le Tour and now immersed in some backwater, sharing what exactly with who? Just cycling?
Best of all, the shots of chateaux and little villages, churches and 19th century boulevards, canal locks and lazy rivers, their names in French on the bottom of the screen, the commentators giving facts about them which they awkwardly try to link to the action: “Fine Louis XV woodwork – not exactly what Lance Armstrong needs right now”, “The hometown of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot but the field is not nearly as complex as one of her mysteries”, or even (I imagine though le Tour does not hit Normandie this year), “I’m not sure Schleck camembert it any longer”. I said that the francophone pictures are all about France asserting its cultural superiority, but the whole nature of le Tour is not simply about cycling; it’s about being shown a carnival and pageant of French life which is impossibly more picturesque and fascinating that anything else on summer television, and all as a backdrop to the truly glamorous sport of cycling (which will itself be the subject of a later column).
It is the cycling that remains to be spoken of, however, and Stage Three certainly didn’t disappoint. From Wanze to Arenberg-Porte du Hainault, the chief attraction was, of course, the cobbles. The rain didn’t materialise but they still looked truly fearsome to ride over. Often the view was entirely obscured by dust and most riders finished the day looking like they’d been working down a mine. On top of this, the roads were often barely five feet wide, surrounded by baying crowds, and with huge gaps down the middle, waiting to swallow a front wheel like a hungry road monster.
Frank Schleck became the first major casualty of the race, flying off the cobbles into a ditch before being surrounded by fussy Belgians. I wouldn’t like to speculate what part of his ordeal was the worst. My sympathy lay mostly though with Chavanel who, despite his significant lead, lost le maillot jaune as he entered his home country after a series of punctures. He just didn’t seem to have it in him after yesterday’s effort to catch up with the pursuing group, unlike Armstong’s frankly superhuman effort to catch back up with the field.
Thor Husovd’s chest beating provided one of the best TV moments of the day, pulling a face like the god from which he takes his name. But the real drama came not on the cobbles themselves, but in the run-up to the cobbles, where the sense of panic amongst the peloton is truly palpable. The jockeying for positions seemed nothing short of terrified, such is the fear that the cobblestones seem to instil in even hardened professional cyclists. I couldn’t understand why this fear manifested itself in needing to be at the front of the field. Surely, thought I, if you’re likely to fall off, you want to be nearer the back where everybody hurtling along behind you won’t squash you. No doubt I would have continued to be confused if I’d only watched the highlights, but I realised that going along the cobbles means no overtaking, and it’s so slow and unpredictable that the peloton breaks up into a string. If you’re at the back, you just end up further and further back. And then it all clicked why the cobbles might decide le Tour. Still, Geraint Thomas might even catch Cancellara’s lead of 23 seconds today if he gets going along what should be a short and very fast stage.
What is your favourite pun involving an aspect of cycling and French culture?
Have you ever seen something you shouldn’t in an aerial view of a Belgian’s back garden?
Can Geraint Thomas wear le maillot jaune before the mountain stages?
Have you ever cycled over cobbles?
An interested layman psychoanalyses professional cyclists and Stage Four, the first stage run exclusively in REAL FRANCE, Cambrai – Reims.
And a quick recommendation of The armchair sports fan who is providing far more articulate and informed opinion on le Tour than me, as well as offering some interesting comments on these very pages.
I can be followed on Twitter @Svejky