Commentators combine Tour de France history boils and all and the pretty countryside to make a seductive package for those who love watching cycling

Bill Bryson

In his book Down Under, the American travel writer Bill Bryson writes of accidentally stumbling into the surreal and rewarding world of cricket on the radio. Driving alone along Australias Stuart Highway, our intrepid explorer chances upon the commentary of an unspecified cricket match which provides him with welcome companionship and he realises something Test Match Special listeners have long known: there is something incomparably soothing about cricket on the radio.

Bryson marvelled at its unhurried pace, comforting devotion to abstruse statistics and thoughtful historical rumination, exhilarating micro-moments of real action stretched across many hours and with a lushness of terminology and restful elegance. Reading his findings, one cant help but feel such an enlightened and naturally inquisitive man would be similarly seduced by cycling on the television.

Much like cricket on the radio, there is something incomparably soothing about cycling on the television, a state of affairs that might seem strangely at odds with the often punishing brutality of the sport involved. But then, there is no end of masochistic pleasure to be had from watching the suffering of others from the comfort of an armchair, as newcomers to the sport will be able to discover once this years Tour de France sets off from Brussels on Saturday before wending its way into more familiar, Gallic terrain. Comprising 21 stages and covering a distance of 3,460 kilometres over three weeks, the Grand Boucle is a grandiose sporting spectacle that is broadcast almost in its entirety on the fringes of mainstream television in the UK.

Like cricket on the radio, this coverage boasts no shortage of abstruse statistics, thoughtful historical rumination and all those other qualities Bryson found so endearing. While the days are long, and for long periods often uneventful, what sets cycling on the television apart is the ever-changing and often brutal and breathtaking canvas on which the action unfolds.

Unsurprisingly, considering stages can last up to six hours, there is often very little going on as the peloton meanders through the picturesque countryside from one town to the next, a whirring, shape-shifting swarm of arrestingly garish Lycra-clad human endeavour. To the untrained eye, it is just a bunch of blokes on bikes; 176 of them to begin with, until the inevitable accidents and illnesses begin to trim thexir ranks. Closer inspection, however, reveals this apparently random mob to be a self-sufficient society with a strictly defined hierarchy where every member has a designated role.

As eager to seduce new converts as they are to keep those already radicalised onside, the commentary teams on Eurosport and ITV walk a tightrope as they attempt to educate the former while making sure to avoid patronising the latter. It can be difficult, because at times the whole jamboree can resemble a school sports day, where it seems everybody gets a prize.

Movistar
Movistar riders during a training session. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

 

Theres the yellow jersey for overall leader and the green for best sprinter; the iconic polkadot shirt is worn by the King of the Mountains, while the best young rider wears pristine white. Stage winners are also rewarded on a daily basis, while there is even a prize for combativity, generally given to each days most heroic failure.

So much to win and yet so few contenders. While the horrific crash endured by Chris Froome during a reconnaissance mission at the Critrium du Dauphin means the handful of riders actually capable of outright victory has been reduced, every man jack of the near 200 riders who set off on Saturdays first stage will have a crucial role to play. This years Tour comprises 22 teams, each with its own leader, his lieutenants and the more limited lackeys known as domestiques. Behind them, orders are barked over radio by demanding generals from support cars, which are also occupied by support staff whose job is to keep the troops fed, watered and as comfortable as possible on the road.

Meanwhile in the commentary boxes, those tasked with providing even more colour intersperse their often nuanced and informative discourses on the battles we are watching, but sometimes cannot see unfold, with the kind of ruminations that really shouldnt work but do. A personal favourite remains the gruff, no-nonsense, former Irish professional Sean Kelly expounding at great length on his efforts to compete at the highest level while suffering the excruciating discomfort of a boil on the buttock and the apparently unspeakable horrors that entailed.

For the TV viewer, every stage of the Tour de France is a school day with an ever-changing syllabus incorporating subjects as diverse as race etiquette, the feeding habits of riders, the geography and geology of Mont Ventouxs famous lunar landscape and assorted chapters from the long, rich and often murky history of an event that is about to be held for the 106th time. Wide-ranging and illuminating, these unhurried, improvised tutorials will from time to time be interrupted by the comparative frenzy of an actual bike race, which seems only fair because ultimately thats why cycling on the television is there.

 

 

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