A global audience will tune in to the Tour de France
Saturday 1st July 2017, a date stamped in the mind of anyone associated with cycling. It marks the Grand Départ of the 104th edition of the Tour de France. Düsseldforf, Germany has this year’s privilege of setting the riders on their way through 21 stages across Germany, Belgium and then on to the tour’s historical home of France. The Tour de France or le tour is the most famous of three Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia takes place in May and the Vuelta Espanã in September).
The tour in numbers
It is estimated that 10-12 million people line the route each year (cyclingnews, 2016) and a total of 3.5 billion will tune in across 188 countries to see cycling’s elite tackle approximately 3,500Km of tarmac (letour.yorkshire, 2016). The numbers are mind-blowing. The 101st edition of le tour started in Yorkshire, it is reported that up to 4 million lined the route for stages one and two. The Police further reported that 60,000 stood at Holme Moss to witness the peloton (BBC, 2016).
What’s all the fuss about
There are arguably three angles to the Tour de France, that of the media, the fans and the teams/riders, emotions run very high during the three-week tour, all for a variety of reasons.
My first experience of the tour came in 2014 stood on the Col du Jenkin Road, Sheffield with my friend Gary Matthews (@gmcyclerepairs). We arrived at 10 am, some six hours before the arrival of the peloton. That sounds crazy, but fans gather on Alpe d’Huez two weeks before the stage takes place, such is the commitment of the ardent cycling fan. Arrive any later and you’re unlikely to find a spot to pitch your tent. Stood on the side of Jenkin Road gave me an insight into just how far people were willing to travel for a brief glimpse of their cycling heroes. One gentleman had made the trip from Carlisle, one family said that they had left Liverpool at 4 am to claim a good vantage point. “Six hours just stood around!” I hear you say. Those six hours seemed to disappear quickly – fans passing messages up and down the line on how the race was unfolding. Stories were shared on Previous tour experiences by the veterans and of course, the tune of Ilkley Moor bar t’at was played more than once. We might not have been at the heart of the tour but there is no doubt that the people of Britain had embraced the Grand Départ, just as they did in 2007.
Fans take the cycling experience to a whole new level on the continent. Riders must endure smoke flares, the smell of barbecues, the smell of alcohol in ad hoc campsites and half-naked men trying to outrun them on a 12% climb. Policing such and event is a nightmare and it’s not uncommon for riders and spectators to come to blows. It has got to the point where the tour organisers have launched the RESPECT THE RACE campaign, it’s message is to give the riders right of way.
Just like the Ashes, Wimbledon or the FA Cup Final, le tour is steeped in history, some of it controversial, we’ll talk about that later. For the riders taking part, it is their chance to test themselves against their fierce rivals during the most important race of the season. Being selected for the tour is an achievement in itself, a team consists of nine riders, selected from an overall squad of 28 in Team Sky’s case. Only a handful of riders will have any chance of taking the overall yellow jersey. The target for every rider will be to avoid injury and reach the finish in Paris unscathed.
In years gone by riders would opt to race in all three grand tours. So much is at stake in the modern era of cycling and such is the importance of the race that teams will pick and choose when to enter their riders. This year’s favourite and three-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome didn’t enter the 2017 edition of the Giro d’Italia.
If the spectators and media are emotionally charged what about the riders? Spanish rider and two-time winner Alberto Contador speaks of a sense of relief upon the tour’s conclusion. He further goes on to say that it is only when the tour has finished that the mental pressures and strains are truly off (TDF official guide, 2017). The physical and emotional stress of racing in a Grand Tour can be unbearable. Anyone that has ridden a 160KM sportive with their club mates will hit a low point during that event. Magnify that by the challenges of multiple six-hour stages at pro level and one can start to imagine what it is like to race on the edge. I have lots of empathy for those riders, having cycled 1,001 miles from London to Nice over a nine-day period in May/June of 2013. The appalling weather of that Summer was enough to affect our mental state of mind, but that experience doesn’t come anywhere near to what the pros will endure throughout July.
We didn’t expect that, or did we?
The unexpected, it’s going to happen, that is guaranteed. You could write a book on everything that has unexpectedly happened during previous editions of the Tour de France. Stray dogs walking out into the path of the peloton, policemen getting flattened by a bunch sprint, Geraint Thomas crashing into a telegraph pole and falling down a grass bank, the list goes on. The crashes are often horrendous, sometimes career ending and life threatening. The drama that unfolds in the media is a whole soap opera in itself. The Festina affair, Lance Armstrong et al, tell a negative story about this race but they capture the imagination as do the positive stories.
Following this year’s race
Every kilometre of this year’s race is being broadcast. That’s great news for the most passionate cycling fans. For those of you that aren’t so sure about cycling can tune in for the last 20 kilometres or so. There will be plenty to talk about whatever your viewing choices are. So if you are still left wondering what all the fuss is, tune into your local TV station on 1 July and find out. Don’t let anyone tell you that the 104th edition is going to be dull, it’s going to be a blast.
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Featured image property of In The Stand Sport and courtesy of @gmcyclerepairs