Love suspense thrillers? Then watch the Tour de France!

First off, I’m not a biker.  My tender ass doesn’t mesh well with the cushion-less saddles and my aging physique swathed in multi-colored LYCRA would only lead to much chuckling.  No, I write suspense thrillers.  And that’s exactly why the Tour de France is
some of the best television I’ll ever experience.

J’adore Le Tour de France.  And so will you.  Here’s why:

The Storytellers

Their names are Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, Bob Roll, and Liam McHugh.  They’re the commentators for the NBC Sports/Versus television broadcasts, and they are in a word – brilliant.  Phil’s been covering the Tour for 39 years, Paul and Bob raced in the event, and Liam’s the new guy.  The best part of every stage is the combined and mellifluously accented voices of Phil and Paul (just you wait, you’ll start calling them by their first names, too) guiding you through what’s happening on the screen.  They know everything about everything, and they explain it all so it makes sense to us non-bikers.

Listening to Phil Liggett call the stretch run to the finish is like listening to Al Michaels or John Madden call a ball game.  Only better.

The Plot

Every great story begins with a captivating plot.  Imagine combining Survivor with The Amazing Race with Man vs. Wild and throw in the best excerpts from your favorite Olympic Games and you might come close to capturing the attention-absorbing story that is Le Tour.  The race begins with 22 teams of nine heading out for three weeks of brilliant misery and bliss culminating at a finish line 3,430 kilometers away on the Champs-Élysées of Paris.  That’s like pedaling from my hometown Seattle to the campus of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.  That’s an average of 100 miles and 4 hours astride a bicycle every day.

Frantic finish: Cavendish leads the sprinters across the line at the finaleAnd who will win that sprint today?  Parallel leadout trains of five or six team members rocket around corners and rain-slick straightaways, elbow-to-elbow with an enemy on either side, sequentially peeling off each exhausted lead rider until all that remains is the thick-thighed sprint master pumping his pistons to the finish.

Then come the mountains, such as the twelfth stage 211 kilometer route from Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden, a stage which includes this year’s first of two ascents of the wickedly infamous Col de Tourmalet.  Imagine the steepest street in your town – yeah, the one that makes your heart pound just to walk up it – and now stretch that out for another dozen miles.  Then make it even steeper.  With switchback corners.  And rabid-screaming Tour fans pinched tight in a human gauntlet for the final two miles.  Oh, and before even getting to the base of the mountain you’ve already raced 110 miles and climbed another peak nearly equal in height.

Every day writes a new and different tale, each as good as or better than the last.

The Characters

Well, first you need a hero, and when it comes to the Tour de France, you have almost 200 from which to choose.  With 30 different countries represented in 2011, maybe you’ll root for the champion of your national heritage.  Norway’s  Thor Hushovd, Brad Wiggins representing the British , Philippe Gilbert from Belgium, or dozens more.  Take your pick.  And with twenty-one separate race stages, each day begins with a new opportunity.  Or maybe you’re more intrigued by the rivalries: Andy Schleck avenging his controversial loss in 2010 to ultimate victor Alberto Contador, or the shot-from-a-cannon sprint battles between Mark Cavendish and American Tyler Farrar.  And how could you not be pulling for Tour rookie Johnny Hoogerland, catapulted from his bike by a swerving television vehicle and thrown upside down at 25 miles-per-hour into a barbed wire fence?  Bandaged and bloody, he limped to the finish, and then returned to the start line the next day, his legs and back wounds stitched tight with 37 sutures.  Watching him on the award stand, receiving the red polka dot Best in the Mountains jersey, his lips quivered and his eyes pooled with tears.  My wife wanted to bring him home and feed him chicken noodle soup.

And if it’s a villain you desire, you won’t have far to look.  First, there’s the bastard idiot driving that French TV car that cartwheeled  Mijnheer Hoogerland.  Then there’s the weather – a constant concern – be it the heat-exhausting sun, fierce side winds sweeping the peloton from the road surface, or the recent days of relentless rain, soaking riders to the skin and making turns treacherous.  There’s also the occasional oblivious spectator who encroaches a bit too close, forcing cyclists to swerve, often resulting in pile-ups large and small.  A half dozen riders have abandoned this year’s Tour due to injuries suffered in crowd-caused accidents.

Alberto ContadorAnd of course there’s villain numero uno, Alberto Contador.  Choosing to participate in this year’s Tour despite an ongoing investigation into possible doping resulted in a two-thirds “Alberto, go home” vote in France a few weeks ago.  And many are still critical of his “unsportsmanlike” conduct last year when he broke away from Andy Schleck after the rider from Luxembourg slipped achain.

Good vs. evil, Yanks vs. Frogs, Team HTC vs. Team Garmin-Cervelo – all the players are here.  Take your choice.

The Setting

Thanks to NBC Sports/Versus’ expansive high-definition coverage, no sports event has ever looked as spectacular as the Tour de France, and that includes the network’s award-winning Olympics broadcasts.  Using a half dozen helicopters and five times that many stationary and motorcycle-mounted cameras, the race is consistently shown in all its glory.  The fleet of whirlybirds contributes sweeping shots of majestic 14th-century castles, frequent aerials of clever township salutations crafted from local hay bales or farm equipment, and dramatic top-down views of every sprint to the finish.

Not to mention, France is flat-out breathtakingly gorgeous.  One day I’m slack-jawed as a camera circles the island commune of Mont Saint-Michel and the next I’m watching the peloton wheel past a vast field of golden sunflowers.  And then they hit the mountain stages.  If 2011 imitates years past, the coverage from the Alps and Pyrenees will be stunning.

The Conflict

I remember reading a while ago that conflict can be categorized into five basic types: protagonist vs. himself, protagonist vs. antagonist, protagonist vs. society (or a group of antagonists), protagonist vs. nature or a supernatural force, and protagonist vs. machines or technology.  Need I say more?  Every single stage of the Tour de France demonstrates numerous poignant examples of each of these conflict types, often within a span of mere moments.  (Well, maybe the man vs. society thing is a bit of a stretch, but if you close your eyes and squint, it actually looks pretty good.)

The Climax

And what would a great story be without the effective rise and fall of action, crowned by a moment of climax that takes your breath away.  Well, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Tour de France is a 3-week sequence of daily plots, each complete with new and recurrent characters, ever-changing subplots and storylines, colorful shifts in setting and atmosphere, and enough passion and drama to both intensely satisfy you for the moment being, but also drag you eagerly back into the fray for another dose.  Again and again and again.  It’s like the best rollercoaster in the theme park, but with a new and better track configuration every 24 hours.

I’m a flag-waving fan of the Tour de France.  Give it a look. I’ll bet you join the party.

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