Embracing the Tour de France, the World Cup’s Endearingly Weird Little Brother

by Molly Fitzpatrick


Are you growing tired of watching impossibly attractive men tear off their shirts in the name of God, country, and football? Well, do I have excellent news for you: the Tour de France is upon us. I love the Tour de France (go ahead, pronounce “France” like it rhymes with “taunts,” I know you want to), the world’s most famous bike race, and firmly believe that it’s completely underrated — especially in years when it’s pitted against the World Cup, as it is now. If the World Cup is the disaffected, hard-bodied teen who’s too cool for the moon landing, the Tour de France is the nerdy, telescope-toting little brother who Sally Draper kisses at the end of the night.

Last Saturday, the 101st Tour kicked off in Yorkshire, England. Over the next three weeks, 198 cyclists will travel more than 2,000 miles through the UK, Belgium, Spain, and (duh) France. Unlike the World Cup, the Tour de France doesn’t lend itself to rowdy viewing parties in sports bars, considering that live TV coverage airs from about eight in the morning to noon on the East Coast. Though taped highlights will resurface later for primetime viewers, this is fundamentally a sport for morning people (hi, hello, reporting for duty), best watched over coffee and in pajamas. For those of us who generally prefer lonely pajama coffee to rowdy sports bars anyway (again, hi, hello), it’s an appealing proposition.

On Monday, the riders started their day in Cambridge and, a few hours of idyllic countryside later, ended it in London, casually speeding past Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Parliament. The views were stunning, but the best are yet to come. The Tour coverage, with its endless supply of aerial shots of farmland and castles and winding mountain roads, is hardcore Europe porn. Just search Google Images for “beautiful tour de france,” then do your best to keep your drool from shorting out your keyboard.

The Tour consist of 21 stages, which can last up to five and a half hours and span nearly 150 miles, with only two rest days among them. It’s difficult to believe that people willingly subject their bodies to this, and perhaps less difficult to believe that many have resorted to performance-enhancing drugs to do it better. Here is a phrase you don’t see too often in the course of normal sports spectatorship: “71-mile sprint,” which, lololol forever. But that’s the Tour de France for you.

I don’t watch any other cycling events, and I am one of exactly 17 New Yorkers under the age of 30 who doesn’t own a bike of my own. But I am a (laughably slow) runner. I watch multiple hours of the New York City Marathon on TV every year, then plod aspirationally into the grey November afternoon with thousands of other joggers who had exactly the same idea. I’m simultaneously fascinated and horrified by any sport that asks of its competitors, “Okay, that incredibly physically strenuous thing you’re doing? Right — keep doing it, incredibly well, for an incredibly long period of time.”

Beyond the feats of endurance it entails, it’s objectively bizarre that this race still stubbornly exists, in largely the same form that it did when it was first staged in 1903 (the World Cup, for the record, has only been around since 1930). The Tour de France is something that should be happening on a reasonably maintained and regulated track, or at least a six-lane highway — not around hairpin turns in the Alps, along ravines, down claustrophobic country roads no wider than an Escalade. It’s like playing a video game on an absurdly high difficulty setting, or hosting a competitive tennis match in a busy shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. Even the most mundane aspects of the Tour have a surreal, circus feel to them: support staff roar up in cars alongside the riders to administer medical care and distribute food and drink. I am wildly relieved every single time they don’t bump into anyone, which is usually.

This is not to say that the Tour hasn’t forsworn modern times altogether. The official, charmingly bilingual Tour de France Twitter, @letour (I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a Twitter handle to be precious, but I want to squeeze @letour in the way you sometimes feel the urge to smush a kitten) is a must-follow.

Like any international sporting event worth its weight in vuvuzelas, the Tour inspires a great deal of patriotism, skewing heavily towards Western Europe. Thirty-two countries compete in the World Cup, but given our central theme of stubborn eccentricity, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Tour’s 22 sponsored teams aren’t nearly as straightforward in their organization. For example, Bryan Coquard and Romain Feillu are both French, but the former rides for Team Europcar and the latter for Bretagne-Séché Environnement. Garmin-Sharp, a nominally American team, counts Colombian, Dutch, Lithuanian, Belgian, and New Zealand riders among its nine members.

When the race reaches its dramatic conclusion on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on July 27, the winner stands to take home €450,000 (more than $600,000 USD). Until then, the rider with the best time after each stage wears the coveted yellow jersey, or maillot jaune. A green jersey is awarded to the best sprinter, and a white jersey to the best rider under 26. My very favorite title is the King of the Mountains (is that the greatest thing you’ve ever heard or is that the greatest thing you’ve ever heard? THE KING OF MOUNTAINS!), he who proudly dons a jersey covered in polka dots to denote his superior performance in the climbing stages. What more could you want from a uniform?

In the post-Lance “Sheryl, We Can’t Tell You How Happy We Are That This Stage of Your Life Is Over” Armstrong period, it’s difficult to think of a contemporary cyclist who qualifies as a household name in the United States. In a way, that makes heretofore unfamiliar figures like Jens Voigt — a celebrated German rider who, at 42, is the oldest to compete in this year’s Tour de France — all the more exciting to root for, their personal narratives, hard-fought individual victories, and awkward podium antics all the more compelling. But also deeply lovable are the domestiques, the secondary team members who work to make the race as easy as possible for their leaders. They perform a mostly selfless function in the peloton, breaking the wind for their teammates, fetching them food and supplies, and doing their best to aid them in case of a collision.

Whatever its color, the riders’ futuristic polyester is designed with aerodynamics, not safety, in mind. As far as I’m concerned, these people should be encased in thick body-formed leather, with a healthy layer of bubble wrap nested underneath, and possibly preemptively prescribed massive doses of painkillers. Don’t forget what it is that you’re watching: dozens of men clustered inches away from one another, hurtling downhill at 60 miles an hour with only 15 pounds of carbon fiber between them and the pavement (or worse, between them and the cobblestones).

This, probably, should not be allowed. But it’s a hell of a thing to watch.

Reigning champion Chris Froome suffered what was — in the grand scheme of things — a relatively minor crash on Tuesday morning that resulted in a wrist injury and a nasty butt scrape. But on Wednesday, he crashed twice more in the rain and ultimately decided to withdraw from the Tour. In the very first stage of this year’s competition, local favorite Mark Cavendish — who, at 29, has already won a 25 individual Tour de France stages — crashed in his mother’s hometown of Harrogate, dislocating his shoulder. His injuries will require surgery, followed by a six-week recovery period. Again: that’s the Tour de France for you.

And it gets a lot more gruesome than that. Four cyclists have died on the Tour — although, technically, one of those men drowned in Nice on a rest day.

Along the route, fan selfies, mugging for the TV cameras, and rider interference actually constitute a legitimate safety hazard. Le Tour is sadly compelled to repeatedly remind us all not to be jerks. But, jerkishness aside, the roadside spectators are one of my very favorite things about watching the Tour. Whether they’re decked out in ridiculous costumes (like the infamous Red Devil) and body paint or dad jeans and bucket hats, their obvious, unrestrained joy is wildly infectious. You cannot watch someone have this much fun without having at least a little bit of fun yourself.

With the imminent departure of the World Cup just days ahead, let the Tour de France be your methadone. You won’t be disappointed.

Molly Fitzpatrick is a writer and editor. She likes New Jersey, cheeseburgers, and lonely pajama coffee.