This year the Tour de France is 114 years old.
Is it enough already? Should we call it quits for the world's most famous bike race?
From a media standpoint, certainly not. The Tour de France was created in 1903 as a publicity stunt to sell sports newspapers. It was a wild success in this regard. Today the Tour supplies an entire media ecosystem with everything from mainstream sporting content to gear porn to the precious memeable moments that sustain our social media. Remember #froomerunning? He was chasing a Pikachu! Hilarious.
But what about the Tour from a sporting standpoint? As one of the most famous athletic events on the planet, it's basically a byword for competitive cycling. Sure, you and I know the landscape of cycle sport is vast and encompasses everything from the grandest Grand Tours to the mangiest alleycat, but to the person in the cubicle next to you, bike racing is the Tour de France and that's that.
In this sense, the Tour de France is the Bike to Work Day of bike races.
This is a problem. Like Bike to Work Day, the Tour de France is our one chance a year to impress the squares, and invariably we fail to do so. What happens on Bike to Work Day? The person in the cubicle next to you dusts off their bike, gets buzzed by like 50 cars, shows up at work sweaty, and calls it good until next year, if not forever.
And what happens during the Tour de France? The person in the cubicle next to you tunes in or logs on to see this Peter Sagan character you're always talking about, only to find that he was disqualified on Stage 4 and will now be taking his insouciant facial hair elsewhere, and then flips back over to baseball.
It's like bringing someone to the burger joint you've been raving about only to be told all the meat has spoiled so they're only doing salads.
The Sagan incident is nothing in the context of the Tour de France when you consider how often we've followed the entire race only to see the winner stripped of his maillot jaune months or years later, which is like pigging out at the burger joint only to find out later that the meat was full of tapeworms.
Part of the reason the Tour de France is such a risky investment is that it's so damn long. A lot can happen in three weeks. Unfortunately, a lot of what happens is boring, and the stuff that isn't boring is often disastrous. (Crashes, scandals, expulsions, etc.) The actual drama tends to play out in a handful of sprint and mountaintop finishes, or else in subplots like the points and mountains classifications, which mostly run quietly in the background like antivirus software.
Indeed, over the years the sheer length of the Tour de France has served to undermine what made it so captivating in the first place. In the beginning, the race was about self-sufficiency. Pretty much anyone could enter (provided they were male), and organizer Henri Desgrange staunchly opposed the undue influence of teams, technology, and bicycle manufacturers. Today, teams with annual budgets in the tens of millions of dollars support and insulate the leaders, and the result is predictability and a race dominated by dynasties and winning machines. It's Wall Street on wheels, and if the favorite doesn't win these days it's usually a matter of dumb luck. Sure, success begets success and you can't expect riders and teams not to use all the resources at their disposal to win, but it's undeniable that the fans are ultimately the ones who pay the price.
(Come on, does anybody actually like Team Sky? Sure, I see people riding in the jerseys, but I always assume they think it refers to the vodka.)
Length isn't the Tour de France's only problem. It's also how the organizers use that time. Wimbledon has 26 years on the Tour and also takes up a decent chunk of July, but it features both men's and women's competitions in a variety of formats. Meanwhile, with the whole world watching, the Tour organizers only offer women "La Course by Le Tour de France," a one-day race which sounds more like a fragrance branding exercise than a counterpart to the most prestigious bike race in the world. Beyond that, the only way for a woman to get on the podium of the Tour de France is as a "Tour hostess."
Of course nobody would ever suggest that the Tour de France should pack up its inflatable flammes rouges and go home. Its history is far too rich, and its best stories have yet to be written. Even those of us who have gradually decoupled from the Tour over the years would miss it, for the race is as much a part of summer as the sound of crickets in the evening. (I live in New York City and use an electronic device that generates cricket sounds, but then again I also use one to follow the Tour, so the comparison still stands.)
At the same time, for all the fuss over modern stuff like electronic transmissions and disc brakes, the Tour de France is more of a procession than a bike race, and it's an ultra-orthodox one at that. We'll probably never see a woman Tour winner just as we'll never see a woman Pope, but in a way it doesn't matter.
Let the Tour be the quaint church bells in the distance but invest your time in the events that reflect who we are and how we're riding now: the cyclocross races, the gravel grinders, the fixie crits, or whatever else it is those wacky millennials are doing nowadays. The stage race was created to sell newspapers, but we live in the digital age, and one of these days some new race is going to come along and out-click it.
Or, better yet, just ride your bike. Sure, racing's fine, but you can't truly enjoy a ride without stopping.
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