Lying in front of the first stage of the Tour De France in a semi-catatonic state on Saturday night I found myself wondering why I was watching this thing. I love Le Tour de France more every year, but why?

Having just come from watching Germany’s spectacular destruction of Argentina in the World Cup, it was clear I wasn’t watching these guys in lycra and creepy sperm shaped helmets like I had been watching the soccer. It was sport but didn’t feel like sport. In fact it wasn’t even called the first stage, like a book or an opera, Le Tour has a prologue. 

When Gabriel Gate appeared on the screen in his tour cooking segment with some Dutch dessert it dawned on me how this telecast was actually being consumed: it was in fact a really good lifestyle show.

The sensation of watching Le Tour on SBS is like cycling themed compound of cooking, history, travel, architecture and design. Watching the Tour coverage is comforting lifestyle tv in action - like going for a relaxing bike ride with Antique Roadshow.

Before I get hundreds of angry comments from cycling fans let me just say I realise that road racing, and especially the tour, isn’t for wimps. In fact it is very hardcore.

I know that pound for pound they’re the fittest athletes in the world and that they wake up in the middle of the night and have to do 5 kilometres on their exercise bikes so their hearts don’t stop beating (all the weird drugs they take probably don’t help this cause).

But here’s the thing: the cycling itself is pretty dull. It’s utterly mesmerising, but except for the odd sprint to the line it’s rarely exciting.

The way Le Tour is presented to us is means that cycling is not the point, and that’s the genius of the SBS coverage.

It’s about the crazy baron who built the Norman castle over the next hill, it’s about the cheese from this village that and is sold with maggots in it, it’s about the fact that in 1917 the Tour came through this valley was mistaken for a French cycling corps and wiped out by the retreating Germans (made that last one up). 

There is a cooking show in the middle of the coverage. Just to put this into context I’d like to see Channel Seven try and interrupt Geelong v St. Kilda for Dipper’s tips on how to prepare the ultimate stuffed eggplants.

At other points the programming will take us on a charming tour of the Medieval architecture of the local Cathedral which the race is going past today. I don’t recall ever having my telecast of Wests Tigers v Parramatta interrupted for an architectural retrospective of Campbelltown Stadium. 

For all the talk of how big the cycling is in Europe, I tend to think a lot of the fans that turn up to watch this thing have a similar attitude to the audience SBS appears to be catering to.

Have a look at these “fans”, the majority of which could only be defined as such very the loosely. They have turned up and are cheering, but seem decidedly more focused on their roadside piss-up. Yesterday somebody’s dog ran out and caused a pile-up and an old woman in a wheel chair was left on the road.

Before anyone points out that in Belgium these guys are treated like movie stars, I say to them: have you ever seen a Belgian movie? Firstly they do exist, and secondly, they’re crap (that’s saying a lot coming from an Australian). Given the other national past times of this part of Europe appear to be banning the burqa and expanding European governance, a genuine love of road cycling doesn’t surprise me.

No doubt the success of Australian Cadel Evans in recent years has helped grow the popularity of the actual leader board part of the tour in this country. Something for which I also blame for the proliferation of overweight middle aged men in lycra and stupid shoes clogging up roads and coffee shops on a Saturday morning.

But really the overall success of the Tour is its ability pull at you visually in a way that no other sport really can.

Watching the hypnotic snake of the peloton curve through a valley drenched in the light of a French summer, you can’t help but think from the late night of the Australian winter “it would be great to be there right now.” That may not be sport, but it’s worth watching.

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15 comments

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    • centurion48 says:

      09:18am | 06/07/10

      Leo, at least you got something in return for your insomnia. Those of us that actually know what those blokes on bikes are doing get even more out of it. It is a travelogue as well as a sporting event. It blatantly promotes France as a tourist destination and, while you are here have a look at some countries next door. That has never been a secret and is the reason that South Australia is cashing in with an international audience for the Tour Down Under and Melbourne will with the World Road Race Championship.
      Continue to watch it for the cooking and castles and you won’t be disappointed but you might just be tempted to get the old Malvern Star out of your dad’s garage and go round the block to see what people enjoy about cycling. Heck, even Hubert Opperman started out on a clunker.

    • Albie says:

      10:03am | 06/07/10

      An entertaining read, Leo, that sums up exactly why I watch cycling (that and my cycling-mad boyfriend watches it religiously and worships Cadel).

      Last year I went to France to watch part of the tour and it really is a road-side piss-up. They close the road where the cyclists are going to go by 10am so you have to drive to as close to where you want to go well before then (or be a bit tricky and know the side roads), and then you walk to a good, visible spot on a corner, set up your aussie flag, get out the chalk to write massive encouraging messages, and settle down with a nice bottle of bordeaux and some cheese.

      The really awesome part, that doesn’t get on the TV coverage at all, is the ‘caravan’ or parade of sponsors’ cars. These aren’t just cars with labels on them either - many are moving vehicles IN THE SHAPE OF THEIR PRODUCT!

      We saw a six pack of beer driving down the street (presumably a smart car was inside it), a giant tyre (affixed to a quad bike), a giant bike helmet (modified prius)... and the list goes on! For all of these cars the drivers are throwing out free samples or souvenirs to advertise their product - balloons, bottle-opener key rings, biscuits, lollies, water (always a massive pack of ppl for that one).

      Excellent!

    • Tom says:

      12:44pm | 06/07/10

      The crush those caravans cause are a joke. I saw a guy who would have been 6’4” and maybe 100kg basically smash his way through a group of 12 year olds so he could get a couple of 10 cent packets of Nescafe instant coffee.

    • Razor says:

      11:43am | 06/07/10

      Who does Cancellara think he is stopping the racing?

    • Malleeringneck says:

      11:57am | 06/07/10

      I agree, until I stated watching the tour i never wanted to visit France. Now I do. To me it is just one scenic travelogue with some bikes in it and for excitement they have an occasional crash.

    • Arnold Layne says:

      12:22pm | 06/07/10

      Great column Leo.  Le Tour is one of the few sporting events my wife enjoys watching as much as I do, and it’s for all the things you have mentioned as well as for the racing.  Gabriel Gate’s segment is always entertaining and the old married couple routine of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen is comfortably engaging.  The scenery, the mad crowds, including the dude in the devil suit, and then the racing itself all adds up to an addictive and highly entertaining viewing experience.

      As for Cancellara stopping the racing, he is Swiss after all, so it’s no surprise he was chief negotiator!  Seriously, I thought it seemed soft but I’ve read a report that suggested there was oil on the road, which makes them slowing down seem eminently reasonable.

    • Razor says:

      12:58pm | 06/07/10

      I understand the descent that caused the chaos was bad but apparently they knew that it was going to be bad.

      What happens in the future now if there is a crash that doesn’t invovle the Schleck boys?  Will SaxoBank slow doen then?

      Tonight on the cobbles will be possible worse than last night.  Will they slow down to allow the peleton to regroup?

    • stephen says:

      02:00pm | 06/07/10

      Yer gotta remember this when watching a bike race : the bloke behind the bloke in front saves 30% of his energy if he stays there. That fact explains the race tactics and all kinds of symmetries, and if yer remember it, you’ll stop dreamin about coffee, croissants and pretty girl(real hard I know), and wonder about one of the best sports goin.

    • Phil says:

      02:53pm | 06/07/10

      Leo

      The scenery is worth watching for alone. Having driven many of the roads around France extensively, even cycles a few (cept for the big mountains) it really is awesome. Last year in the Riviera one of my favourite places in the world was amazing. If they could just include Lake Como Italy I would travel and follow the race once again.

      Tonights stage will be great, possibly some big crashes, lets hope Cadel goes ok on it.

    • papachango says:

      02:53pm | 06/07/10

      Good points, but as a Francophile I have to correct a few things:

      The reason Australian sport isn’t interrupted to talk about cooking and architecture is because France has amazing cuisine and stunning architecture while Australia doesn’t. Plus here there’s this other thing called Masterchef. That said, I cannot freakin’ stand Gabriel Gaté - he’s about as French as le Plastique Bertrand (who was actually Belgian). His accent is completely put on for TV.

      Cyclists are also treated like movie stars in France (bit like our AFL/NRL/Cricket stars). You can’t use the same Belgian argument because French films are a thousand times more superior to the crap that currently passes for ‘Australian Cinema’. Most Hollywood movies that have a half decent plot originally pinched their story from a French film à la Roxanne/Cyrano de Bergerac.

      The frogs aren’t particularly into sport generally - they prefer to strike or run away, just look at their soccer team. However le Tour is the one big exception, and a huge national event they’re all very proud of. It’s said that a stage winner can dine for free anywhere in France, though apparently not if he is Lance Armstrong - the French really don’t like him for some reason!

    • Gregg says:

      04:54pm | 06/07/10

      The scenery trip is something awesome and what can make it even better is to download yourself the route map and then use google earth a bit to see if you can pick up different places.
      Last couple of nights have seen some awesome bingles to put a little more into the viewing.
      I was in Switzerland in 1997 when the tour came through a small village I was staying in and though it was a buzz with the cavalcade and all, those guys really move for when the peloton came by it was just like a matter of seconds and they were gone so far more interesting to watch it on tele and quite a few hours of that trip in Europe were spent in front of a screen.
      As fit and all as those guys are, there’s a certain pansie air to it for when they had their bingles yesterday, except for the French guy out front they all just did a group ride in [ or ones able to did ] and Froggie in really riding it out well now has the Yellow Jacket with a good three minute lead.

      Tonight could be difficult, watch the race and try and stay up all morning for the Soccer SF or ?

    • Timmo says:

      07:09am | 07/07/10

      I agree, what a great race it is!. We usually sit up late to watch it and also enjoy the views and the beautiful countryside. Of course most of the coverage is taken from helicopters or something similar and of course you won’t see such great views of the villages from a car.

      We look forward to the Tour each year and it makes a great change from having to have the TV full of other sporting events that we are not interested in. It’s good that they are making similar types of Bike Races here in Oz. A good move which can also help some of the younger contenders to develop their skills as well. I suppose that not all of our younger bike riders can afford to go to France each year to experience being near the Tour. Through the Magic of Television we are able to see much more than one would see sitting on the roadside, maybe that’s one of the valuable things about modern TV that we can sit at home and see the whole thing. A good coverage by SBS to be sure.

    • Le Tour Le Tough says:

      02:33pm | 07/07/10

      Having had a distinct lack of sleep over recent weeks with the World Cup, Wimbledon and a myriad other sporting events that have been occupying my TV channels - I need Le Tour like le hole in le head!

      But, I’m gripped! Gripped by the scenery, gripped by the sporting contest, gripped by the spectacular commentary of Liggett and Sherwin - who surely are the best commentary team in the world for explaining the intricacies of the sport?

      There are comparisons with watching Big Brother or an SBS movie - you are just waiting for a fight or someone to get nude - with Le Tour you’re waiting for a crash or a drunken fan to flash the camera while enjoying the scenery!

    • chris says:

      06:27pm | 07/07/10

      The problem with the Tour de France is that it wastes valuable TV time that could be used to broadcast more stuff about Ben Cousins.

    • Gary says:

      04:04pm | 14/07/10

      Amazing le Tour….just became a fan the last couple of years ....SBS coverage is stunning . Like you Im not a bike freak , but the scenic coverage is brilliant , like being here .....only better . Vive Le Tour.

 

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