What is it that makes the Tour de France so great?
Is it the fact that commentators give play-by-play pedal-by-pedal calls while riding o the back of a motorcycle? Is it the inexplicably charming French cows that effortlessly catch the viewers' eyes as the peloton rolls past their farm?
Or is it the long-standing tradition of a weeks-long athletic competition that could only be truly experienced, enjoyed and appreciated in a country like France, with ridiculously generous time off policies?
Actually, it's because the Tour de France combines elite athletic competition with a setting unlike any other: the French countryside. And I, as a redneck casual cyclist (that's a pretty generous self-description, considering I haven't cycled much since my second child was born *cough* a year ago) can appreciate that, all the way over here in Fly Over Country, USA.
I don't follow cycling especially closely, but I always look forward to the sport's most famous event. These are a few reasons why I love the Tour de France.
I have no way of proving this, but I just know that French cows are more sophisticated than American cows. When they appear in the background of the Tour coverage, they just look so classy.
I've never technically heard a French cow moo, but if they did, I'm sure it would be an elegant, smooth "le moo", while our cattle in the US are so redneck they almost sound like donkeys.
This one's a bit touchy, as Paul Sherwen, a longtime, highly-beloved commentator for the Tour, passed away last December. Sherwen had an easy, engaging manner and a golden voice that synced perfectly with the Tour's visuals. It'll be a tough adjustment for his predecessor, Bob Roll (isn't "Roll" the perfect name for a cycling commentator?) who will join the late Sherwen's partner, cycling media fixture Phil Liggett in the booth.
But despite the hole left by Sherwen, there's something else to love about commentators at the Tour de France, the fact that many of them offer analysis while on the back of a "motorbike", as those whimsical Brits like to say.
Maybe other sports would benefit from this. Think of how Nascar's coverage could improve. And wouldn't you like to see Jim Nantz rolling a few yards away from Tiger Woods in a golf cart, whispering his every move to the viewer?
In years past, as I've watched the tour, I've stared at the TV slack-jawed at the stunning scenery. It's all got a fairy tale look to it, like a Disney movie come to life. (I know this is making me sound like a nine-year old girl, but I'm comfortable enough with my manhood to proceed).
You could host a race anywhere in the US and, while we may have fruited plains and purple mountain's majesty, we don't have any place that combines scenery and history like the French countryside. It's an ideal backdrop for a long, slow-developing competition like the Tour de France.
The Physical Demands
If you're a "rational" sports fan that doesn't think cows moo with accents, or a "manly" fan that doesn't daydream about a handsome prince hosting you at his idyllic French castle, then maybe this will get you to pay attention to "Le Tour": the sheer physical demand.
If you've never cycled before, it's hard to wrap your head around just how far the Tour pushes the limits of the human body.
Nowadays, endurance athletes are more common, even in amateur sports. But the thought of pedaling so far, every day, for weeks, is just astounding.
A lot of out-of-shape Americans (I know I'm picking on my own people a lot here, but it's only because I'm writing about a foreign event, and since I'm not familiar with Europeans, that would be total conjecture, though that's never stopped me before) would brag about riding a motorcycle for 2,200 miles in less than a month - think of the "Iron Butt" club - let alone cycling that distance.
That is, as the young kids say today, "cray-cray".
If you're someone who's always dismissed the Tour de France, I hope this will convince you to at least tune in once or twice for these next few weeks. Perhaps it'll give you a stronger sense of what it takes to compete as a pro cyclist.
If nothing else, at least you'll have a deeper appreciation for classy French cows.