The Well-Tempered Bicycle Commuter: How to watch the Tour de France

By Steve Chambers

Lance is back, and interest is up on this side of the ocean.
by Steve Chambers.
Each July the French put on a little bike ride called the Tour de France. They’ve done this every year since the start of the 20th century, except for a few times in the 1940s when the French were tenants of Germany.

On this side of the pond, the Tour is typically just something for sportswriters to write about between baseball’s All Star Game and preseason football. But this year will be different. Lance is back.

Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour, apparently decided that being engaged to rock star Sheryl Crow, running some high-visibility marathons and raising millions of dollars for cancer research wasn’t challenging enough, because last year he announced he was coming out of retirement.

The French hate Lance Armstrong. It’s a matter of pride. No Frenchman has won the Tour since Charlemagne was king. For the seven years that Lance was winning, not only was a Frenchman not, but no one from the Continent was, either. Instead, it was a damn Yank, and not just any Yank, but a frigging Texan. Mon dieu!

Since we’ll all be interested in Lance’s comeback (will he flop like Michael Jordan and Brett Favre?), here are some tips for watching the Tour.

First, no one watches the Tour de France. It’s the Tour. If you’re a bit of a snob (and what is more français than snobbery) it’s Le Tour.

Each team in Le Tour has a leader. This is the rider best able to endure the different types of torture found on Le Tour. The other types of team riders include sprinters, hulking beasts whose specialty is going fast and pulverizing lesser riders; climbers, whippets who flit up mountain roads to the tops of the Pyrenees and Alps without breaking a sweat; and domestiques, apprentice riders whose job is to take care of the rest of the team by shuttling water and food from the team car to the riders, giving up their bikes to a rider who has crashed, and generally being slaves to the rest of the team.

Le Tour is raced over 21 days, or stages. There are flat stages, mountain stages and time trials, various venues in which the different riders can strut their stuff. The overall race leader wears a yellow jersey. Each day, there is a stage winner, the rider who finished that stage fastest. It’s theoretically possible to win Le Tour without winning a single stage, and except for the second day, the prior day’s stage winner isn’t necessarily the Yellow Jersey. Note how the leader has been reduced to the color of his shirt. If you want to ask who the race leader is on a given day, you say, “who’s in yellow today?” Of course, if you’re a true aficionado, you don’t ask because you know.

Time trials are a special type of masochism. Riders leave the starting gate one at a time and ride a course, anywhere from 15 to 50 km. alone, in two minute intervals. They wear alien-like helmets and put their hands on aero-bars to slice through the wind. You pedal as fast as you can as long as you can and hope you reach the finish line before your heart explodes.

Mountain stages are, as one would expect, rides in the mountains. The route of Le Tour varies, but always includes several days in the Pyrenees and Alps. Fans love the mountain stages because the riders have slowed to about seven mph and spectators can run next to their favorite riders, exhorting them on to greatness. Or, sometimes, get run over. It’s not uncommon for a hapless fan to trip under the wheels of his equally hapless hero. Of course, what goes up must come down and on the downside fans can see spectacular crashes. To get an idea of what it’s like to crash on a bicycle coming out of the Alps, strip down to your underwear and jump out of a car going 45 mph on the freeway.

The only TV channel that carries Le Tour is Versus. For three weeks, you can listen to every move described by Paul Sherwin, Phil Ligget, Bob Roll and Al Trautwig, Versus’ team on the ground. Paul and Phil are Brits, and given to delicious understatement. For example, on a particularly nasty climb, a rider may be falling off the back of the peloton (pack of riders).  This is technically called being dropped, and it’s not a good thing. As this rider struggles up a gradient that would make a mountain goat puke, Paul or Phil is likely to note that “he’s in a spot of bother right now.”

Bob Roll is to cycling what John Madden is to the NFL. Bob is fond of calling Le Tour “the Tour DEE France,” all delivered in his Midwestern-sounding drawl. It’s not that Bob can’t speak French; he’s actually quite fluent. It’s that he doesn’t like the French so he intentionally mispronounces their pride and joy. Various stories exist about why he’s anti-French. Some say it’s because he can’t get a decent beer in France.

Al Trautwig is famous for his somber, almost funereal tone. After that rider on the road to the Col de Tourmalet or another mountain pass falls off the back of the peloton and collapses in a quivering mass of protoplasm, Al might describe the carnage wreaked on this poor fellow on the road to the Col de Tourmalet or one of the other mountain passes thusly: “The col has claimed another victim. Implacable it sits, waiting for the unprepared. Those who come to the col without the necessary steel in their legs and hearts will fall prey to the hard, black ribbon of road that climbs relentlessly upward, to the abode of the gods it seems.” Hyperbolic pathos is Al’s forte.

Following each stage is an award ceremony. The stage winner gets a bottle of champagne and kisses from two lovely French women. If you look closely, you’ll see their lips never get nearer than two inches from the guy’s cheeks. After all, he hasn’t shaved for a couple of days and he’s just finished a seven-hour bike ride. Ewww!

By tradition, the leader at the end of the penultimate day is the winner. But for the sprinters, the last day of Le Tour —eight laps around the Champs-Elysees—is madness. These gnarly dudes go berserk, pounding the cobblestones, cutting corners and occasionally losing it and sliding into the hay bales set up to protect the howling crowd.

Meanwhile, the Yellow Jersey and his mates cruise into Paris sipping champagne.

Why watch—and where?

Besides Lance Armstrong, here are a few reasons to watch the Tour:
Favorite son Dave Zabriskie. The Z-Man makes his home in Salt Lake City. While not an overall contender, Zabriskie could well come away with a stage win or two.
The Devil. At every Tour, at the top of one of the mountain stages, you can see him, a portly gentleman dressed up like Satan. Red suit, horns, pointed tail and trident in hand, he runs beside the riders shouting encouragement.
The Tour is a temporary lifestyle. Like the three weeks of the Olympics or March Madness, when it’s over you are left with an empty feeling, wondering what to do with your evenings.
Heat, rain, snow, wind—these guys ride in everything. They eat, drink and relieve themselves without breaking cadence. And you thought riding without hands was tricky.

If your cable or satellite provider doesn’t carry Versus, you can follow online at the official website, (French version) or (English version). VeloNews offers live reports, video, photos and email from Or sign up for delivery to your iPhone or Blackberry.

Steve Chambers promises not to check for Le Tour updates on his iPhone while commuting on his bicycle.

This article was originally published on June 29, 2009.