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Why We Can’t Quit The Tour de France

Credit: luckyshot70 (Flickr)

Cycling fans aren’t naive. Not after seeing the mysterious deaths of several cyclists at the height of the EPO craze. Not after seeing hero after hero tarnished.

Tyler Hamilton, who broke away to win a stage of the 2003 Tour with a broken collarbone? Confessed to a career riddled with doping violations. Floyd Landis, who stormed back to leave everyone in his dust in a 2006 Tour breakaway ranked among the top feats in the sport’s history? Nailed in the drug test, mounted a massive defense with fans’ help but finally gave it up.

Worst of all, the man whose legs built a cycling and cancer advocacy empire, Lance Armstrong, is squaring off against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in the biggest heavyweight clash since Brock Lesnar avenged his loss to Frank Mir.

And yet, every summer, we tune in. The TV numbers now might not be Armstrong numbers, but they’re not bad at all.

As Armstrong has given way to Tejay van Garderen and Outdoor Life Network has given way to NBC Sports Network (with a few years as “Versus”), a few things continue to capture the hearts of U.S. viewers:

1. The soap operas. Cycling is considerably easier when you’re riding behind someone, and so cyclists build alliances from the formal (teams, sharing giant sponsorships and resources) to the informal (“Hey, if we take turns for a while, we just might break away!”).

All of these relationships are fragile. A cyclist who breaches Tour etiquette, as Pierre Rolland did in speeding away while other riders waited for then-contending Cadel Evans to get a bike without tacks in the tires, faces ostracism that might wreck his chances of finding cooperative folks down the road.

Even within a team, riders can argue over which guy is the “leader” for whom everyone else works. This year, Chris Froome is saying all the right things in public as he repeatedly slows down to drag teammate Bradley Wiggins over the mountains. Today, Froome gave up a good chance of winning the stage, looking back over his shoulder several times at the fading Wiggins and returning to pace the Tour leader.

The best place to watch the drama turn into comedy is NYVelocity, which offers up the reliably witty Tour day schmalz and a Twitter hangout full of zingers.

And they were part of the drama as the Wiggins-Froome situation spilled out into a minor WAGfight.

2. Scenery/telemetry. The HD era has only improved the Tour telecasts. France looks lovelier every year as helicopter- and motorcycle-based cameras sweep across the landscape.

Superimposed on the scenery are tons of graphics telling you where the important people happen to be at the moment. The cameras catch just about everything.

3. Liggett-isms. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen have the sort of soothing English accents that lend a bit of dignity to proceedings. And Liggett combines the relaxed tones, deep research and dry wit of an English commentator (think of the poor guy dealing with Fred Willard in Best in Show) with the quote-making zeal of Yogi Berra. Little wonder “Liggett-isms” are collected online.

That includes one of the greatest moments in sports broadcasting, and I’m not one to exaggerate. Lance Armstrong, seemingly vulnerable against rival Jan Ullrich, launches the cycling equivalent of an emphatic slam dunk, and Liggett puts it proper perspective:

Maybe one day we’ll look back and think the whole episode was tainted. But that broadcast never will be.

Cycling keeps up its efforts to clean up, with the ultrastrict testers snaring Frank Schleck this year in the “guilty until proven innocent” court of anti-doping opinion.

And so we suspend our disbelief, marvel at the landscape, laugh at the drama and picture Phil Liggett encouraging us in our day-to-day struggles: “He’s wearing the mask of pain but dancing on the keyboard as he finishes writing his book! The mountains have again produced the truth!”




  • JB

    The doping presence is unfortunate but, sadly., part of the deal in pro cycling. Very few top riders haven’t been suspended at some point, including numerous Tour winners. That being said, and however the most recent Armstrong investigation plays out, everything in this article is spot on. It’s been a great tour with tons of drama, excellent coverage, likeable faces in the peloton, and promising youngsters. Above all, the tv coverage has been one extended travel advertisement for France. I’m a cyclist but everyone I talk to, whether they even own a bike or not, agrees that riding through that countryside would be fantastic. Anticipatory congrats to the Brits/Team Sky and thanks for a great article!

  • Sal Ruibal

    Some interesting observations from Beau. I’ll reserve any deep comments about the top riders because we often don’t sort out the final winner until all of the doping tests have been processed. Sometimes that takes years, as in the case of Lance, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador, etc., etc. I love the Tour because I love France and I love riding bicycles. The only things I trust during the Tour is that the bread will be delicious, the women beautiful and the scenery magnificent.