Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Watching Live & Stage 3 Wanze – Arenberg-Porte du Hainaut


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).

Chest beating like the Norse God he is.

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?

The Guardian rounds up the day’s action

Next time:

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


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4 Responses to “Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Watching Live & Stage 3 Wanze – Arenberg-Porte du Hainaut”

  1. Tim Says:

    As with many sports, there is no substitute for the luxury of watching cycling live. It is the only way to truly appreciate the gently unfolding narrative of a stage, and the slow build-up of tension and tactical cut-and-thrust which is part and parcel of even a relatively dull stage. (And yesterday’s stage was anything but dull – I was so glad I was able to juggle work to watch the final couple of hours live.)

    Highlights are great – and, with working lives, very much a necessity! – but it is a bit like reading the comic book version of a film: enjoyable, but lacking in nuance.

    The nature of stage racing is such that Thomas is highly unlikely to catch Cancellara over the next three flat days, unless Fabian has some kind of problem. The peloton hunts as a pack on these sprinters’ stages – it’s by far the most efficient way to ride – and generally everyone records the same time. Unless there’s a breakaway which manages to stay ahead – like Sylvain Chavanel did on Monday – but as Thomas is so high up the order already, if he attempted to slip away in a break it would be chased down immediately (therefore he won’t bother).

    The standard format for a flat stage like today’s is for a small group to escape up the road, establish a big lead, and then for the peloton to reel them in just in time for the sprinters to charge for glory. The initial lead can be huge – often 10 minutes or more – and you will hear commentators apply a rule of thumb that says the peloton can catch a breakaway at the rate of 1 minute for every 10 km.

    Once the race hits the mountains this weekend, Cancellara will lose the yellow jersey – probably as early as Saturday – because his role will be to bury himself for Andy Schleck on the lower part of the climbs. Whether Thomas can take yellow is a big question mark – he is inexperienced on the climbs, but he is likely to be swallowed up by the big guns like Contador and Schleck.

    Hope this helps!

    (Thanks for the link, by the way!)

  2. ingramfrizer Says:

    This helps very much! The tactics are proving to be surprisingly difficult to get my head round, largely I think because of the physics of riding at such high speed and the need for the riders to get into packs to maintain those speeds. I keep forgetting this and wondering why people aren’t just going for the break all the time!

    And no problem with the link! I’ve been enjoying your blog!

  3. Beate Oera-Roderick Says:

    I think it’s only when you watch it live that you can truly appreciate how much of a team sport this is; the sprinters being dragged to the finished line by the domestiques, team mates battling to get the GC contenders as far up the mountains as possible. The best examples are Cavendish, who relies on the Columbia lead-out train, and the heroic efforts of Jens Voigt in aid of the Schleck brothers.

    It’s definitely been an exciting start to the Tour! As for local scenery, I rather liked the cows painted in the jersey colours. Animal abuse? But cute anyhow.

  4. Tim Says:

    Don’t worry, it took me ages to work it all out when I started watching, and there’s still loads of stuff I don’t know.

    I’m a bit of a geek like that – I love to know all the tactical and scientific stuff! I think the physics is that on a flat stage you expend 25-30% less energy in the middle of the peloton than you would do riding on your own (less air resistance) – it’s similar to the slipstream an F1 car gets when it is closely following another car. Hence Thomas will take it as easy as he can over the next few days, and conserve as much energy as he can for the mountains, which is where we will see the big time gains and losses.

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