Despite being an eager cyclist, I’ve never really watched the Tour de France until this year. And unless something radically changes, I’m unlikely to ever do so again.
While there are many reasons for Canberrans and Australians to enjoy the Tour, here’s five reasons why I don’t.
Firstly, remnants of the feudalism upon which European medieval castles were built can be found in this race. There’s a hierarchy of athletes in every elite sport, but road cycling is peculiar in the complete servitude that riders are expected to show to their designated team leader.
The “domestiques” (servants) are not just there to provide a human shield or set the pace. In treacherous conditions they will survey the road ahead and ensure a safe line of travel for the leader, only to drop back once the finish line emerges. If a leader is low on food or drink, then his domestiques will give up theirs. Team leaders who don’t like being weighed down by clothes or provisions have several porters close at hand. And when a leader’s bike is faulty or broken, then his underlings will offer up a wheel or his entire bike if need be. Any domestique who exerts 1,000 calories and sacrifices 1,000 seconds so that his lordship can save 1, has fulfilled his duty.
Secondly, there are very few triumphant underdogs in road cycling. It’s impossible to pull off a Stephen Bradbury over a 21-day grand tour. But on flattish stages there’s always an exuberant breakaway that teases the naive cycling fan with the prospect of a bold and unexpected victory. I know now that the peloton almost always reels in the breakaway, often only just before the finish. Modern technology and sports science means that team managers are like engineers who know exactly how much fuel is left their riding machines and when to press “turbo”. An animal simile is also useful: the peloton is like a giant python that toys with its prey before invariably consuming it.
Thirdly, there are many customs and conventions in the Tour that are perplexing and frustrating, not only to the newcomer, but also to many experts. The array of jerseys, points systems and time bonuses means that it’s often not clear who’s racing whom for what.
Like most age-old institutions, the Tour is governed by vague conventions. There’s the unspoken rule that if the yellow jersey suffers misfortune or needs to answer the call of nature then all those who are nearby and in contention should stop and wait. This year during stage 12, Australia’s Simon Gerrans tragically fell and took out three Team Sky riders who were supporting Chris Froome, the race leader. Froome signaled to all that he needed to relieve himself, which allowed his teammates to collect themselves.
Later that day in what was the most famous and farcical incident of this year’s race, Froome’s bike was crushed by a motorcycle near the finish line. This time everyone rode on leaving the yellow jersey desperately running up the mountain. Eventually the commissars compensated Froome, which allowed him to maintain his lead. But make no mistake, it was utter chaos.
Fourthly, in many ways the outcome of stage 12 was exceptional in that a measure of justice was meted out. Most injustices and misfortunes are left unaddressed.
On the first stage, Aussie favourite Richie Porte suffered a flat tire that arguably cost him a place on the podium three weeks later. Crowd insanity or inadvertence, mechanical failure, road debris and a myriad of other examples of bad luck can change or even end the Tour for a cyclist and hand victory to someone less deserving. And then there’s an embedded injustice whereby the smallest mistake or ill-focused moment over 3,000km and 90 hours of riding can change everything. There’s no fair go in the Tour de France.
Finally, there’s something distinctively un-Australian about Le Tour. This is a dangerous term that is best confined to sport and explained in context. To this end, the Tour represents an old sport and old culture that does not sit well with Western frontier countries like Australia and the US.
Big new countries tend to esteem rugged, pragmatic, outcome-oriented individuals. Notwithstanding the incredible strength of heart and mind required to ride the Tour, many Aussies are simply opposed to lycra, which they regard as effete. Nor do they appreciate any cycling notion of “attacking” when compared more stark examples of scoring points on a court or crashing into opponents on a field.
Australians tend to be aspirational about sport, viewing it as a means to advance the human body, spirit and society. Sport should thus be fair and ordered, precisely because life is not. Older sports and cultures tend to accept sport-as-life, which means that along with all the good things that the Tour de France celebrates, it also incorporates boredom, bastardry and calamity.
What do you think of the Tour de France? Would you rather watch paint dry or is it worth staying up for? And what about blokes in lycra?
Kim Huynh teaches international relations at the Australian National University.
Pictured is the peloton pedaling on a plain road after the ascension to Col de Manse in The Alps during the stage 16 of 100th edition of Le Tour de France in July 2013. Photo: iStock