Caleb D. Spencer

Wasting July

An encomium to the Tour de France.

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Ever bike? Now that's something that makes life worth living! … Oh, to just grip your handlebars and lay down to it, and go ripping and tearing through streets and road, over railroad tracks and bridges, threading crowds, avoiding collisions, at twenty miles or more an hour, and wondering all the time when you're going to smash up. Well, now, that's something! And then go home again after three hours of it … and then to think that tomorrow I can do it all over again!
—Jack London

As London delightedly suggests, bicycling has a long association with human flourishing, but what may be less well known by many Books & Culture readers is the delight that can be had simply watching others get down to it. Road bike racing, like cricket, golf, and tennis, is often confusing and even at times downright bizarre to the uninitiated. And to complicate matters, just as International Test matches, the Masters, and Wimbledon have even stranger customs then their sporting equivalents, so also the Tour de France, the pinnacle of cycle racing, has its share of oddities, intensifying a new viewer's sense of disorientation. Still, having spent large segments of the last decade of Julys watching le Tour, I'd suggest there is not only hope, but delight for those who can persevere in their viewing.

It is unfortunate the Tour is too little watched and even less enjoyed in the U.S. (though viewership and interest appear to be growing, despite the Armstrong doping debacles of the last few year). I think the value of cycling races is more than aesthetic, even if the sustained and indisputable beauty of a race that courses past some of the most glorious scenery and monuments to human ingenuity is profound. But it's also a lesson in character formation. To be sure, the Tour is beautiful: like a serpentine colorful river coursing across France, the Tour is a carnival, part spectacle, part sport, with upwards of 200 riders, 22 teams, hundreds of vehicles, before, after and around the riders, and literally millions of spectators lining the roads throughout France over the three weeks of the race. Helicopters follow and record every moment, as do a flotilla of motorcycle cameramen—indeed, at times they are just inches from the riders, even occasionally colliding with them. The race provides a spectacular visual tour of rural France and some lovely glimpses of Paris and its environs on the last stage, ending as it traditionally has on a route that passes the Palace of Versailles, along the Seine near Notre Dame, to the Louvre, Jardin des Tuileries, onto the Place de Concorde up to the Arc de Triomphe before finishing on the cobbles facing again the Arc.

And yet even with the clear visual power of the race, I've found many friends and family somewhat baffled by it. I can't say I blame them: I spent quite a few hours with the broadcast before it became clear to me just what was going on. One difficulty is that this is both a team sport (9 to a side) and an individual competition for the coveted "Yellow Jersey" worn by the overall leader each day (the "Maillot jaune" in French or the "Golden Fleece" in the slang of NBC Sports' British commentators). The overall winner is the rider with the lowest time at the conclusion of the final stage in Paris (although traditionally the Yellow Jersey is not contested on the last day, and the first half of the stage is a semi-parade complete with champagne toasts and innumerable photo ops along the race route before it reaches Parisian streets and the final circuits speed things up).

Covering 2200 miles in the quickest time requires not only a strong rider but also an equally strong team, thanks both to the laws of physics and the dynamics of the race. Crudely a bicycle's speed is determined by the power input matched against the wind and rolling resistance it meets. Of the two, wind resistance is by far the biggest obstacle for a cyclist, and so aerodynamics is important to the race. Here is where a Yellow Jersey contender's team becomes essential: a contender's team works to shield him from the wind throughout as much of the race as they can (this is why the teams are often together, especially at key moments of the race such as during climbs or near the finale each day). Teams aid a Yellow Jersey defense by shielding the leaders from the wind while unprotected riders do the work of the peloton (the term for the large group of riders in the race) and they also chase back the nearly daily small group of riders (the "break away") who roll off the front each stage. Thus while the Yellow Jersey winner is always a very strong rider, no individual rider could ever win the Tour de France without an impressively strong team.

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