Robot’s Useless Reviews – The Tour de France

Some objects in space are so gravitationally massive that light bends as it passes by them. The Tour de France is like that too, in that it has changed the trajectory of bike racing, distorting, to some degree, the casual fan’s view of what the whole thing is about. For many, pro racing IS the Tour de France, which is like thinking the Apprentice represents how successful businesses operate or the Batchelorette is a reasonable path to marriage.

The TdF was cooked up by Henri Desgranges as a promotion for his newspaper L’Auto in the earliest part of the 20th century, and the periodical remained the race’s promoter until the advent of World War II. Unfortunately, L’Auto identified itself politically with the German occupation, rather than the resistance, and so it was banned by the French government, eventually becoming L’Equipe in 1946. L’Equipe is France’s leading sports daily, even today, owned by the Amaury Group, which also owns the Tour de France, among a host of other iconic races. It’s what you’d call a monopoly with multiple conflicts of interest, but in the cycling world, fairly garden variety in its sketchiness.

Neutral parade support courtesy of our good friends at Shimano.

I really like that the sport’s biggest event was a newspaper promo, like when a bunch of people stand around with their hands on a pickup truck, and the one who can stand there the longest wins the truck. It’s kinda the same, really.

OK. What really happens is that there’s a parade every day, cars throwing junk into crowds, people in face paint and costumes lining the roadside, and in the middle of it a bike race. The race has a daily winner, and sometimes many winners, depending on which trick they did. Maybe they attacked the most. Maybe they sprinted best. Maybe they climbed up hills better than anyone else. And then someone wins for being best at the parade overall. It’s like the old Oprah talk show. “You get a prize! And you get a prize! And you get a prize!”

Then they do drug tests and spray champagne everywhere, like that one friend of yours who thinks he’s funny, but no one actually likes.

It’s such a sprawling mess of a thing that I’m only able to approach it properly via metaphor and simile. To whit, the Tour de France is to cycling what the Superbowl is to American throw ball. People who don’t watch the sport all season suddenly become interested. Most don’t understand what they’re watching. Many will forget who won the last one.

It was Vingegaard.

Another challenge in explaining the Tour is that it has changed so much from its original version. In olden times, team work was not allowed. Then teams were allowed. Then only national teams were allowed. This obviously changed the fundamental character of the thing. The version we see now is a relatively modern incarnation, which lines up with the powers within the sport recognizing the need to attract outside investment and to integrate the Tour with the other races they own on the calendar.

What started out as an expression of French nationalist pride has evolved into a very global kind of escapade. Repressive governments sponsor teams as exercises in sports washing. We all participate in collective amnesia/denail over the comical excesses of the blood-doping era, a period which none of us is really sure ever ended. The wealth inequality unleashed by globalization is expressed in clear terms by the wealth inequality of the teams who always win and the teams who make up the numbers. Union labor is swept out of the roadway when it dares express discontent with the state of affairs.

Once upon a time the Tour de France was a uniquely French thing. Now the Tour is us, and we, whether we like it or not, are the Tour.

Join the conversation
  1. khal spencer says

    So are we out of the doping era? What do the times look like if people are actually racing on talent again rather than racing “stock, modified production” while on the 101 octane joy juice?

    1. erikthebald says


      I am afraid that we will never know what racing looks like without the performance enhancement element. There has never been an era of racing solely on talent, and as long as money and prestige are involved, there never will be.

Leave A Reply

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More