The Grand Inevitable

It’s Tour de France time again, and cycling web site regulations indicate that I should be flooding this site with facts, figures, opinions, trivia, and speculation about the upcoming circus. If my research is correct, I should probably also be searching desperately for a distinctive term to refer to the race that makes me appear to be in the know, like “the show,” “the Grand Boucle,” or at least “le Tour.” But nah, I’ll just go with “the Tour” and risk sounding average.

I have to admit, I usually ignore most of the Tour talk until somewhere around the time the 63rd guy heads down the prologue start ramp, but since there’s no prologue this year, I’ve decided to turn over a new leaf and start paying attention today. New leaf or no, though, it always takes me a long time to warm up to the idea of the Tour, and this year is no different.

Each year, I look forward to the spring classics, and when they’re over, I usually feel like the cycling season has peaked, and it’s all downhill until the Giro di Lombardia gives that nice little finishing kick to the season. So mid-April is kind of depressing. But then the Giro d’ Italia comes along, with all its Italian idiosyncrasies and infighting and dramatic hand gestures. After a few weeks in the post-classics doldrums, the Giro always manages to soften the blow and remind me that there are riders worth watching in summer, too.

The Giro also serves to reawaken me to the fact that grand tours don’t necessarily have to be mind-numbingly boring; the Tour just makes it seem that way sometimes. That said, the Giro and the Tour are different animals. The Giro remains endearing somehow, still more of a local-boy-made-good than international superstar. The Tour used to be like that, too, until the mid-1990s or so. The Tour got big then, on the strength of business globalization, the Internet, and the backs of a few dominating repeat winners who, through clockwork consistency, made the event easier for new fans to grasp and follow. Along with the popularity boost, the Tour got slicker, more organized, and more profitable, and while all of that may be good for cycling in a lot of ways, you lose some of the old flavor in the transaction. It became like following a corporation instead of a bike race, and it lost a little something for me.

So I’m not one of those people who gets all jazzed for the Tour for months on end, scanning the results of the Mallorca Challenge in February to try to predict a winner in July and nervously muttering “but he’s only there for training…” under my breath while reading the results of week-long Spanish stage races in May. I just don’t or can’t see all racing as being connected to the Tour, no matter how badly ASO wants me to. Not that there’s anything wrong with being enthusiastic about the sport’s 800-pound gorilla, and plenty of people are, including the media. And who can blame them? The Tour is the three week period when the bicycle industry blows out its advertising budget, and when other industries grudgingly agree to hand over a portion of theirs, and the media has to put some content next to all those ads, don’t they? Not cashing in on that opportunity would be business suicide, so it’s in everyone’s best interests to buy into the hype. Cynicism aside, though, I do eventually come around, and now, several days before the start of the 2008 Tour, I’m finally looking forward to it.

But what can the Service Course add to the annual Tour de France media roar? Not a lot, to be honest. There were previews of previews starting with the release of the route last October, followed by the previews, and the revised previews as team selections were made and riders’ current form became more relevant. In the coming weeks, there will be rider diaries, tech features, video clips, expert opinions from retired professionals, stage reports, rest day recaps, and interviews with everyone from GC leaders to gendarmes to bus drivers.

That’s tough to compete with, so I’ll just stick to the usual snarky commentary and this last personal view. It’s a minor one, but it’s the one that allows me to get excited about the Tour despite the over-the-top hype: the Tour is a little bit like a pufferfish. It can look very large (especially when threatened), but underneath all the posturing, it’s a pretty small thing, and when you look at it from that level, it can become endearing again. Take away the buzz, the dope show, the podium girls, the media, the team cars, the publicity caravan, the product releases, and the rest of the sideshow, and at its roots, the Tour is really about a scant 180 guys racing bicycles around France, seeing who can cover the total distance the fastest or grab some glory on a single day. Just like it’s always been. There’s a certain simple beauty and engaging storyline in that which doesn’t need all of the ancillary bullshit and manufactured drama to make it compelling. That simplicity can be difficult to make out in the frantic run-in to the start on Saturday, hidden as it is in all the “big show” noise, but once the wheels start turning, the actual race on the road can still be a beautiful thing.

Besides, the Tour de France is coming whether I want it to or not, and it’s the one grand tour that’s easily viewable (meaning “on my television” and not "through a janky online interface") every day here in the United States, so I might as well have some affordable table wine and enjoy it. (Frequent readers will know that I aim for beverage authenticity in my cycling viewing.) And despite all the gripes that will likely appear on this and other sites over the next three weeks, I hope you enjoy it as well.