Up All Night with the Tour de France
BY JOEY SWEENEY
I’ve been watching the Tour de France on television every summer for the better part of a decade now, and if I’m honest, I still have not very much of an idea what’s going on. But I’m at peace with this. Unlike immersion in a foreign language in a new place, there’s no consequence whatsoever if I take my own sweet time grasping the exact nature of the race. There’s no pressure. Nevertheless, the race is like a language in the sense that it is massive, steeped in histories both personal and shared, and filled with the vagaries of life itself — especially as pertains to geopolitics, as it’s essentially NATO on wheels.
Much of what I do know, at least, I like. The race was started 115 years ago as an ingenious way to sell newspapers during the summer in a country that is quite famous for unplugging for much of the season, and even more famous for only giving a little bit more of a shit for the rest of the year. The race’s history is also a history of people trying to find ways to cheat in the race, and that appeals to me perhaps most of all — it’s essentially a month-long heist film. It’s even longer than Le Cercle Rouge.
Even more so than the World Cup, Americans cannot get anywhere near really caring about the Tour de France, and that too is a major selling point, especially during these last few summers: A body needs a break from caring about the things Americans care about. What if I told you that there’s a thing that can colonize your TV nearly around the clock for a month, show you man’s struggle and nature’s beauty, occasionally offer a brilliant crackling crash of flesh and steel, and also slow time itself? With the only politics being this bit of liberation that’s greater than you know: There’s literally no reason or pressure to root for Americans or Brits in the Tour de France, as they’re essentially the Yankees/Patriots of the whole thing — superteams populated by boring, well-adjusted, white family men who you just know are doped to the gills. The way they do it, it’s not even interesting.
This last bit seems to be lost on the shaggy-dog team that takes over NBC Sports Network every July, and they dote on these guys in hushed tones throughout. But it’s not even annoying; it’s like the low talking on TV golf. And together with the glacial pace of these broadcasts in 3- and 4-hours chunks around the clock, that quietude makes for a truly calming television experience. If sports television could meditate, it’d be this.
In meditation, before the mind settles, it wanders restlessly, and so does the camera for all but the last moments of each stage of the race. And here is where my love for and dedication to watching it each summer has solidified. As the race winds its way for a month through small town France, you’re seeing not just the nature and architecture of each little place, you’re also seeing family rituals, camping trips, a fun day on the high street, and inevitably some half-naked goofball who wants to run along with the race for just a little bit. Even here, politics can creep back in from time to time — is the goofball a Marine le Pen supporter, or is he an Edouard Louis who hasn’t found his way out yet? — but the nature of taking in the race is so very soft that even a thought like that still winds up depositing you on a plush cushion of your own speculative fiction.
Because you don’t know. You can’t know. And so I watch, year in and year out. Sometimes in the morning, sometimes late at night, eating breakfast or falling asleep, looking at my phone or writing as I am right now. Ask me what happened at the race today: I’ll probably have no idea. I can’t say enough to recommend it.
The 2019 Tour de France is currently underway. You can find out how to watch it here.