I love watching the Tour de France. For 3 weeks out of the year work in this office grinds to a halt between 2-4pm or so as the cyclists converge around monitors and occasionally coffee room iPads to watch the final 60 odd kms of each stage. We gleefully cheer on breakaways, bemoan our poor choices in our fantasy league (I was last again this year – knew I should’ve backed Froome rather than Quintana and Contador), and wince at mechanicals and punctures. And every year, we have the same conversations about two main topics: doping and touring – and I wonder about how we could make the Tour even more exciting to watch.
First, the inevitable spectre of doping. Every year at the Tour it raises it’s ugly head. Typically in the lead up we hear from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Tony Blair of cycling, chief-scumbag himself as he desperately tries to get the media spotlight on him once again. This is rapidly followed by someone, usually either a past-offender or the latest Astana team member testing positive for something stupid. Then, finally, through the race itself someone inevitably has a good day of cycling and the unfounded speculation begins.
It’s boring. I’m tired of hearing about it. Everyone (including me) assumes that they’re all on drugs, nobody is particularly surprised when anyone is busted. Nobody is surprised when someone is busted AGAIN, after receiving a trivial off-season ban (or, in the rare cases of a ban with teeth, they then start commentating!). Nobody views therapeutic use exemptions with anything other than weary scepticism.
So why don’t we just give up? If it’s really this hard to stop it, if it’s really so hard to prevent these guys from micro-dosing EPO in their hotel rooms, why don’t we just say go for it?
Imagine this: a 3-week anything goes race across France. A peloton travelling uphill at 60kph with track-marked riders snorting cocaine off their handlebars and guzzling blood bags like nosferatu. Pharmaceutically enhanced Übermensch competing against bionically enhanced cycle samurai fresh from the fevered dreams of William Gibson.
Imagine seeing riders exceeding the limits of human abilities on a daily basis. Superhuman feats of speed and endurance shattering records daily. I’d watch it!
Hell, it might even do leaps and bounds for medical science. Then again, there might be some ethical concerns after the first few self induced health crises…
Maybe this idea will need to go back to the drawing board. Let’s try something else.
At this point, why even call it the Tour de France*? The Tour de France bears about as much resemblance to bicycle touring as an olympic javelin event bears to spear hunting gazelles on the African savannah. So while the EPO-junkies as described above have their “Tour” sprinting up hills and outpacing the team cars (which they’d otherwise linger against, lovingly stroking the outstretched hand of their team manager for just a little too long) we can run a real Tour de France!
Here are my new rules:
- No team cars
- No motorhomes
- No team doctors, chefs, masseuses, mechanics, coaches, etc.
- No hotels
- No drugs **
- Riders must camp and carry everything on their bikes
- Riders followed only by referee cars and camera crews
- Stages aren’t rigidly defined – there’s a start and a finish overall, with maybe some checkpoints on the way
- All supplies and repairs along the way have to be bought from existing businesses or carried from the start
- We make the riders actually do a real three week bike tour across France
Now this maybe doesn’t sound as exciting as the current form that the tour takes. It will certainly be slower, there’s not going to be lots of attacking up climbs the morning after the whole field has slept on a gravelly French alpine camp site. There might even not be true Pelotons, as teams do their own route finding. But imagine the potential for stories!
Suddenly there’s fresh drama during the stages, fresh tactical decisions to make, and minor events like punctures take on new significance. Legends will be made about bodged self-repairs, camp site shenanigans, risky shortcuts up dirt tracks, tragic losses of maps to adverse weather, and comical misunderstandings by British riders in boulangeries. The age of social media brings immediacy to these stories, we’d get to follow the live outrage as Team Sky buys every energy gel in the Carrefour. Indeed, with live GPS tracking of riders we could see thrilling maps as teams take different routes and commentators discuss the merits of different mountain passes. Even the bikes get more interesting: do you go full carbon, pack light and bivvy uncomfortably? Or do you opt for something more reliable and pack heavier in the hopes that better rest helps you out in the later stages? Domestiques begin to be favoured not just for their riding abilities, but also for their camp cooking skills, sports massage and map reading abilities. Miles from a bike shop there are tense stand-offs as BMC negotiates with Tinkoff-Saxo to swap spokes for inner tubes.
We can even keep some of the modern innovations in the tour, this adds even more tactics to the route finding. Do you go out of the way for those sprint and KOM points? Or do you keep your team together to protect your GC contender? A lot more tactics will start being displayed in the racing.
This would inject fresh drama into a sport which otherwise can often see a peloton riding almost as if the race was neutralised until the last 30km climbs to a mountaintop finish. I’d be glued to the screen for three weeks.
*I’m being facetious and pedantic here, I know perfectly well the history of the Tour – but bear with me.
**Or at least our best efforts. Let’s be honest, nobody believes this’ll be achievable.
A later addendum:
Oh yes, and both of those races should have equivalent women’s races. It’s a travesty the lack of attention women’s cycling gets – it’s just as good. A full women’s Tour de France is long overdue.