A Useful Review – Tour de France Unchained

Netflix has pioneered a new category of entertainment, the sports docuseries. The first one I watched was Sunderland Til I Die. Football (as opposed to handegg) is my other favorite sport, and STID told the perfect story of a down on a luck town with a down on its luck football club, while simultaneously exposing all of the problems with a sport that is the world’s most popular.

Then I watched Formula 1: Drive to Survive. I don’t even like motorsports. In fact, I think they’re a carbon nightmare, pox on humanity, but a good character drama will overcome misgivings like that. Now I know things about Formula 1, or more specifically about the characters inside the sport, and that tells you a lot about the quality of the storytelling.

Which brings us to Tour de France: Unchained, an inside look at the 2022 Tour.

Blue Shimano neutral service cars have replaced the yellow Mavic cars of yesteryear. They have non-speaking role in this series.

I followed the Tour last year, and I know what happened, so it says something positive about this series that I still found it compulsive viewing. One of the things these series depend on is unfettered access to the characters, and the directors and editors do a good job of appearing to do that. Of course, because I know a bit more about the sport than many casual viewers, I know that we’re not getting the real strategy sessions for each stage. We get the obvious and platitudinous bits at the beginning or end.

For those who are already familiar with road racing strategy, we’re not really learning much we couldn’t have guessed, but these vignettes do give some insight into the personalities and relationships inside the teams, and I liked that a lot. In my view all sports are just character driven dramedies, and anything that develops our feelings about the characters will suck us further into the story.

Though TdF: Unchained does spend time with many of the big teams, it’s Jumbo-Visma who gets the most interesting screen time. There are reasons for this which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. It’s also worth adding that J-V rider Wout van Aert was critical of the series after its release, saying it was an inaccurate portrayal of their team dynamic and contending it was selectively edited. But of course it was. The producers were bound to amplify the drama, if only to make the outcomes more satisfying for viewers who are none the wiser.

Curiously absent are Bahrain Victorious, UAE Emirates and some others. I could guess they didn’t want the distraction of Netflix cameras on the team buses and in the hotels, and probably they didn’t need the money. If you weren’t aware of those teams, you might think you’d gotten a comprehensive view of the event, but that is not the case.

That’s ok. It’s an enormous circus of a bike race. As such, Netflix wasn’t able to tell all the stories. TdF: Unchained focuses on the GC race and the daily battle for stages. The whole thing is reduced to 8 episodes of roughly 45 minutes each. They could easily have done 21 episodes, and I would have watched, but I suppose people like me (and maybe you) aren’t the target market here.

I would still recommend you watch. It’s a good re-immersion in the men’s side of pro racing if your interest has waned, and even if you’ve been following along, you’ll like to see how the riders interact with each other and with their team directors in various settings. It has me excited for this year’s Tour, and given how disinterested I’ve been over last decade, this is no small feat.

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  1. bart says

    I followed the 2022 tour last year as well and watched this series a few weeks ago. Robot did a very good job in this review/summary of outlining how this series fits in for a knowledgable cycling fan. I would +1 the recommendation to watch it if you enjoy these sorts of big circus bike races.

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