In the past, there was a certain commitment to following the Tour. You had to choose the morning or evening broadcast and protect yourself from hearing news of the actual results so that you could watch the Tour in innocent ignorance.
That meant you had to sit there for three hours while the cyclists made their way from Pour le Charles to Puie do Fuey, or whatever exotic route they were following on Stage Whatever. That put you thoroughly at the mercy of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, the Gods of Tour Announcing. You trusted their guidance through twists and turns, crashes and controversies. The Tour was a soap opera then.
These days, most of us cheat the process.
Yes, there has always been technology to cheat while watching the Tour. Going way back, it was the classic VCR that did the trick. But rewinding tapes was always a bit like riding a bike backwards. Challenging, but not much fun. Fast forward was never fast enough for my tastes. The whirr and blurr of the tape. Skitchy twitchy. Old Tyme TV. Sucked.
By contrast using the DVR is a so simple it’s like television on EPO. You can zap back and forth almost at will. If a stage lags you can bunny hop across the slow bits checking for crashes or other snippets of excitement. You can stop and rewind so easily…
And truth be told, this totally sucks in terms of being a true cycling fan. Think about it. Here are these guys literally putting their careers and lives on the line. And there you are, zapping through their pain and effort as if it were just another episode of Seinfeld.
The pace of sports
I’m sure soccer fans can relate to our fast forward habits. The recent women’s World Cup was also recorded on DVR in my household. While I love soccer, it can be admitted that the DVR came in quite handy during that series of matches. You can flip along through all the passing and defense and watch until the score changes up top. Then you zap back, watch what led to the goal, and move on.
That is a nasty way to watch soccer. And yes I feel guilt beyond reason. But there’s also a profound difference between watching soccer and watching the Tour de France live on TV. Soccer has no commercials during the game. None. Sometimes ads pop up on the scoreboard or with a shrunken screen, but there are no real interruptions. I like that, and still watch games in their entirety when time allows. I also like it when there are no American football lines on the field. Playing futbol on a football field is like having sex in a fishing net. A tangled mess.
Tour de Advertising
The Tour, however, is nothing but commercials. They all repeat every time they pause for a commercial break. This means that watching the Tour each year is like sharing time with a an extended family you don’t really like. The only exception to this rule over the years was the Bacardi Mojitos commercial from a few years back. Best commercial ever. That was a summer to remember.
Um, Colonel Sanders. No.
This year’s commercial stock is not so joyful or compelling. Let me go on record stating there is no reason on this earth to waste a moment of your summer watching those creepy Colonel Sanders commercials. Who thought bringing back a re-creation of a white cracker Southern Colonel was anything close to a good idea. Yes, the real Colonel Sanders was apparently a decent human being. But who honestly cares? Those commercials are the fare of nightmares. The dude playing Colonel Sanders is Darrell Hammond doing an SNL skit for commercial purposes.
It’s supposed to be a testimonial to the heritage of the KFC brand. It comes off like nothing of the sort. The Colonel Sanders dude gives off a pedophile vibe, or something like it. What secrets is that guy hiding besides the recipe for his chicken? Why doesn’t the Colonel just get it over with and wave the Confederate flag, or make a racist crack about black customers? That seems to be the hobby of choice below the Mason-Dixon line these days.
Whose line is it anyway?
I’m sorry, we were talking about the Tour de France, weren’t we? But that’s my point. The Tour telecasts are so rife with distractions it is easy to forget there is a bike race going on at all. Fortunately we have those “Inside the Peloton” camera views this year to show how frightening it can be to ride at 35 miles per hour with a bunch of other snarkily competitive guys trying to run you off the road. And that’s not an exaggeration. Even Tour favorite Vincenzo Nibali was seen having to hump his bike over a curb in Stage Four to keep from being run off the road margin. You take what you can get with all that bike traffic. The Tour is a constant argument over whose line is it anyway?
The near-crashes happen suddenly, and in infinite array. In the final sprint of Stage Four (I think it was) Andre Greipel had to ride like a cowboy to keep another sprinter from stealing his position in the draft line. It was shoulder to shoulder, and the view from the helicopter above showed how acute that competition for space can be. Greipel is built like The Incredible Hulk. He gave a shove and the other rider bounced off. Riding in the Tour de France is not a child’s game by any stretch of the imagination.
However, there are funny moments. The very next day in the intermediate sprints, Greipel and a slew of other sprinters wound up noodling their bikes after the sprint. They were 300 meters ahead of the field, and with nothing else to do for the moment, Peter Sagan gestured to Greipel that they should form a group of sprinters and make a breakaway. Griepel could be seen laughing the way one brother might laugh with another about the insane directions of an abusive father. Nothing of the sort would ever happen.
But perhaps Sagan has a yearning to say “screw it” to the face of Tinkoff Saxo owner Oleg Tinkoff, who has been making faces and spouting remarks toward Peter Sagan in the press, demanding more results out of the highly paid bike rider. Sagan answered with some wins before the Tour, but not in the Spring Classics. Tinkoff admitted later that he was a bit too excited about his bike racing team.
They seem to have come to a truce. But you know what? Even bike riders can hate their bosses.
Good and bad bosses
The ultimate “boss” of the Tour is the money it generates. That’s the explanation of course for all that advertising. Without it, NBC doesn’t give the Tour the time of day. Of course you might be better off watching the Tour on some Internet feed with European announcers (Eurosport?) that pee their pants every time a rider gets thirteen feet ahead. That’s a sport in its own sense. But here in America we watch the Tour in the same mode that we watch pro football or hockey or any of an assortment of advertising-driven sports. We consume our sports like a bowl of potato chips. Handful by handful.
Some of us even say screw that, and use the remote like a Playstation gamer, nailing that button until it hits four forward arrows >>>> so we can zoom zoom zoom through the commercials and get back the real commercial, which is all those bike riders wearing sponsored kits. Think about that.
Tits and kits
We go from those Bacardi girls shaking their tits to views of hard cycling asses in tight kits. It’s all one big titillation of sorts. So French, in its way.
And speaking of thick accents. Who can deny that the Geico Gecko simply asks to be run over like the scaley reptilian rat that he is. God I hate that gecko. I love nature but hate that accent-spewing Gecko. Splat. Gecko Road Kill.
See, the Gecko is symptomatic of the idea that we HAVE to sit and listen to commercials in which a cloying gecko pretends to be cute so that we’ll consider Geico a nice company that cares about our insurance needs. The gecko is a beggar. Geico only cares about getting your money. That’s it. End of story.
The same could be said of all those sponsors of the Tour. It’s an advertising medium and it always has been. The Tour was invented as a way to sell newspapers during the slow news summer months. But some of the early courses were so hard and dangerous the cyclists themselves branded the organizers a pack of murderers and scoundrels. Nothing has really changed. We view the carnage of those cycling crashes as if they were fast-moving snuff films. Because it sells.
Even the team sponsors know that. They want “results” because it puts their brand in front of millions, if not billions of viewers. And in this world, there is still no such thing as bad PR. How else do you explain the entire Republican Party platform and its efforts to gouge the economy by lowering minimum wages, turn Social Security over to the banksters, poison the environment with every kind of industrial waste known to humankind and discriminate against every type of human being on earth? Yet the GOP still has its 30% base in America, in part because Fox News is a great PR machine. They long ago realized that the news is nothing for than an advertisement for an ideology.
The Tour de France as an advertisement
Who can deny the Tour de France is an ad for French tourism? It’s a convincing and enjoyable show, with all those aerial views of French chateaus and farmers driving tractors in the shapes of bicycles. It’s wonderful summer fare. No criticism there.
And you really can’t argue with the commercial value of four riders dangling off the front for hours. Those are commercials too, of a sort. Yes, the breakaways sometimes succeed, but rarely. That’s why everyone loved Jens Voigt. His motto “Shut Up Legs” was an Everyman’s ticket to the insanity of solo breakaways. Jens made it work because he was not afraid to work.
Winning a stage
Of course winning a Tour stage makes the career of a cyclist complete, in some sense. It’s a pretty damned hard thing to do. And why does it matter so much?
Because when you’re sitting around the dinner table at the age of 89 years old, and conversation slows, you can lean forward over your chopped liver and spout the words that everyone hates to hear you say. “I won a Stage at the Tour de France!”
“Yes, Grandpa. We know that. Now eat your chopped liver.”
To which you can lean even farther forward, piss your diapers and let go with a loud and outrageous fart, and yell, “Natural Break!” Because that’s what Phil Liggett calls taking a piss in the Tour de France.
It’s a fine line indeed
See, the veneer by which we judge the Tour is just that. It’s a thin slice of reality we view, made even thinner by the fact that we hardly have the patience or concentration to wade through the presentation and get to the meat of the matter.
Which is this: Cycling is still (and always will be) one of the toughest sports in the world. Head out to compete at your local criterium if you think it isn’t hard. You’ll get your ass kicked by thirty-five people most likely.
And that’s at the lowest of the low rungs in the cycling world. Category 5 is for people with chain grease on their calves and dirty bar tape. But it’s real, and it’s hard to ride fast, and that’s what matters. You know where you stand in cycling, win or lose.
But on the day you finally finish in the middle of the bunch sprint, people will wonder out loud why the hell you are so excited. But ignore them, and save that memory of your accomplishment for the day when you are 92 years old and sitting at the dinner table with a dozen guests. Then you can lean forward, let go with a tremendous fart and yell, “I finished in the middle of the bunch sprint!”
People will have no idea what the fuck you are talking about. But you won’t care, because finishing in the middle of the bunch sprint is an accomplishment. Maybe only you will ever own that pride. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Just fart and smile with knowing pleasure if they insist you’re just old and crazy.
Because finishing in the bunch sprint gives you a sliver-sized glimpse of what it’s like to race in the Tour, where riders frequently tear along narrow roads at 30-35 mph, and that’s just to keep up. The crashes? Those are signs of how hard it is to do just that.
So respect that effort. And truly, when you zap through the commercials and tune back into the racing, try to appreciate the fact that these are some of the best athletes in the whole world. It’s the Tour de France, for God’s Sake. People have died in this thing.
It’s not a war, but it could be. Better to channel our conflict through vicarious battles than to point our religion and politics toward another country and blame them for blasting too many fascist commercials our way. That’s how wars start, and Crusades too. The Tour de France may be silly and frivolous in some respects, but it serves a valid, vital purpose in human existence. It shows that we’re all human and trying to occupy the same roads on the same planet. It may seem silly, but that’s the most important lesson of all.