I am not really a person who likes “sports.” When I end up in situations where I need to watch them, I have to constantly, repeatedly remind myself which team I am rooting for and in which direction that team is going. So I am as surprised as anyone that the true joy of my past two weeks—maybe the true joy of this whole cursed year—has been watching a sporting event, the Tour de France. Who knew! It is an unbelievable, inspiring race that you should start watching immediately, and not only because you’ve run out of other things to do.
Remember the roll call at the Democratic National Convention, where they did a whirlwind tour of the country and it felt a little like all that traveling you can’t do right now? The Tour is like that, except for days and days, and in France, a country you currently cannot visit. Do you know about France? France is amazing. It borders the Mediterranean. It has the Pyrenees. It has the Alps. It has random little islands that they bicycle onto and back off again. And that’s just the natural features! France also has incredible human-made stuff. People have been living in France for a long time—a très long time, from the looks of it!—and most of that time, they have been building chateaux and literal castles and many, many churches. And in the Tour, they bike through it all, and you get to watch, from the living room you do not leave.
One wonderful, hilarious thing about the Tour de France is that the announcers have a lot of time to fill, since, after all, the athletes are just biking for kilometers and kilometers. On NBC, the main players are Bob Roll and Phil Liggett (there are also three guys in the studio, and then Adam Blythe, who is riding IN the race on the back of a motorcycle, which is very fun). When it comes to the historical stuff, Bob seems to have some sort of packet that was compiled by the French bureau of tourism, so every time we are staring at some sort of landmark, Phil will casually say, “Bob, do you know anything about this église?” And then Bob will take it away, clearly reading from his dossier of notable Tour scenery. It’s fantastic. Sometimes the castles were originally surrounded by two moats!
Not only are there incredible landmarks along the route, there are incredibly fun people there too. You may have heard there is a pandemic happening at the moment, which is affecting basically every aspect of life, including sports and particularly the spectating of them. But the Tour de France is outside! People can still go see it! I’m not saying everything is normal: There are way fewer people watching the Tour from the sidelines compared with other years, and they are all wearing masks. But they are there, and they are cheering, and I cannot deny that I have cried multiple times just watching it and remembering the joy that can occur when people are in the same space together, interacting. Particularly when the cheerers have ascended a mountain to encourage the bicyclists once they finish an enormous climb, which can be very emotional. Even when they’re not roadside, the observers put in a demonstrable amount of effort to welcome the riders (and the world) to their small little towns. More than once, there have been bicycles crafted out of hay bales, around which villagers drive tractors to simulate wheels, all visible from the sky. Once, instead of tractors, the villagers were just jogging in a steady circle (for who knows how long!). There’s a man who dresses as a devil who has come to every single stage of the Tour to cheer, and has been doing so since 1993. There are spotted jerseys and cowbells galore, along with occasional horses and cows and all kinds of stone walls and adorable hamlets. (Watch, and you’ll wish you could quarantine in such an adorable hamlet.)
All of that is to say nothing about the riders themselves. Or the sport! As much as I don’t normally get sports, I am not watching the Tour for all those charming cowbells; I am here for drama. Riding the Tour de France is one of the most ambitious athletic endeavors anyone can attempt. It’s basically like running a marathon a day, every day, for 23 days (OK, there are two rest days). Except it’s more exciting than watching people run a marathon, because there is way more to watch for than who wins. There are sprint points and bonus points. There’s the maillot jaune, sure, but there’s also the polka-dot jersey (for the king of the mountain), the green jersey (best sprinter), the white jersey (best young rider). There’s a stage winner every day, and then an overall winner. There are team tactics to pay attention to. All of this means that you don’t have to just root for one person. You get to fall in love with many riders, for different reasons, and root for a bunch of people for all kinds of stuff. They are all attention-worthy in their own ways. Some of them are hate-worthy in their own ways! It’s competitive. Sometimes there is shoving, and penalties (looking at you, Peter Sagan).
The real reason I became addicted to the Tour de France this year has to do with one specific rider, Julian Alaphilippe, a French cyclist and beautiful man with a great name. He wore the yellow jersey for 14 stages last Tour, and the French people love him. He is known as an “aggressive” rider—he was originally described to me as a “swashbuckler”—which mostly means he does fun things and tries to win stages. An announcer recently referred to the way he rides his bike as being “frisky”—when was the last time any aspect of life in a pandemic could be frisky? He won a stage, and the yellow jersey, early on this year, but then was penalized for taking a drink bottle too close to the finish line, which was tragic. But the loss, while very sad, also allowed me to branch out in whom else I could root for in the Tour. I am still rooting for Alaphilippe in my heart, obviously, but I have made room for Egan Bernal, who won the Tour last year and is a patient, quiet type; Neilson Powless, an American riding his first Tour; and Wout van Aert, who has a very good name and is having a very good Tour.
But at the same time, you can kind of root for everyone, because what they are doing looks so incredibly hard and painful. Early on in the Tour, when Thibaut Pinot (the names!) was having a tough time, I said to my boyfriend, “I don’t know, I don’t really like him, he kind of just looks like the least athletic kid in gym class.” My boyfriend told me that was one of the most ridiculous things I had ever said, because Thibaut Pinot is riding the Tour de France. Beyond the sheer athleticism demonstrated by any rider’s mere presence there, the day-to-day is also completely wild. They are riding bikes at ridiculous speeds, and they could, and do, crash at any time. This is particularly dramatic when it happens in the peloton, and one guy’s wheel catching the wind wrong downs 20 some riders. It is gruesome and makes me feel a little sad—but then the announcers talk about how the peloton will wait for the leaders to catch back up, as long as they were not the cause of the crash, and the politeness of this ruthless sport brings me back.
There is more I could praise—how pleasing it is to hear the commenters say things like “the boys in pink,” the frequent references to “nature breaks” (yes, they pee off the sides of their bikes!), the kits, how heartwarming it has been to see multiple men cry in joy after they’ve won a stage. But the last thing I will say is that another reason the Tour de France is perfect is because it expands to fill however much time you have. You can spend five hours watching a stage, or you can get the gist in about 15 minutes. You can watch recap videos on YouTube. You could probably catch up on everything that’s happened so far in a single day this weekend! Start now—come on, you’ve got the time—and meet us in Paris.