Every July, NBC Sports dedicates three weeks of programing to an exhilarating sporting event called the Tour De France. Yet notoriously sports-enthused Americans don’t seem to care about this wall-to-wall cycling coverage. Why? Well, the Tour is decidedly international with few Americans to root for, doping controversies have turned it into a punchline (we’ll get to those), and—most damningly—there’s a sense that it’s just really boring. What’s so interesting about watching guys ride bikes for three weeks?
But those who’ve shunned the Tour don’t know what they’re missing. It’s easily one of the most engaging, beautifully shot, and misunderstood sports out there. Here are 10 reasons it’s worth tuning in to the 102nd Tour De France, which airs July 4 through 27:
Most sporting events only feature one winner, but the Tour De France is a veritable smorgasbord of competition. On any given day there are more than five separate contests going on.
The most basic of these is the Stage Winner. That’s the dude who crosses the finish line first at the end of each day. The Tour is made up of 21 races, called stages, which take place over the course of 23 days. An average stage is around 100 miles long, which means by the end of the Tour the riders will have covered upward of 2,000 miles in total.
The rest of the competitions span the entire race, with the leaders being acknowledged at the end of each stage. The most famous of these is the Yellow Jersey (a.k.a. the “maillot jaune”). This is awarded to the rider with the fastest overall time. Since riders can have a great ride one day and a crappy one the next, the Yellow Jersey doesn’t just stay with the person who wins the stage. In fact, it’s possible (although not that common) for someone to claim the overall Yellow Jersey competition without ever winning an individual stage.
But that isn’t the only contest to watch: The Best Climber competition (a.k.a. The Red Polka Dot Jersey a.k.a. “The King of the Mountains”) and the Best Sprinter competition (a.k.a. The Green Jersey) operate on a points system. Riders earn points by being the first to summit a hard climb or the first to cross a sprint finish. Meanwhile, the Best Young Rider competition (a.k.a. The White Jersey) operates like the Yellow Jersey competition, but only riders under 25 years old are eligible. And yes, insanely talented riders can win more than one jersey.
Confusingly, the Tour is a team sport that has an individual winner. So unlike an Olympic sprint where everyone is aiming for Gold, the vast majority of riders have no intention of trying to win the Yellow Jersey.
This year’s Tour includes 22 teams of nine riders. Most of them are there to support a larger team goal, whether it’s winning a stage or winning a jersey. The teams aren’t organized by countries like at the Olympics, but operate under corporate sponsorship. So while the BMC Racing Team, Trek Factory Racing, and Garmin-Sharp teams are sponsored by American companies, they have international riders as well.
This year there are four big Yellow Jersey hopefuls: Defending champ Vincenzo Nibali, previous winners Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, and 2013’s runner-up Nairo Quintana. Their respective teams (Astana, Tinkoff-Saxo, Sky, and Movistar) will do everything in their power to make sure their leader takes home Yellow. They’ll ride in front of him to block wind resistance, grab food for him at the on-the-go food stops, and even give up their bike if his is broken in a crash. They’re like a football team backing up a star quarterback.
Watching how each team works together—or occasionally how they don’t—is yet another fascinating facet of the Tour.
Because the race is so long and grueling, it doesn’t just come down to who pedals fastest. A lot of strategy goes into navigating the course. Yellow Jersey contenders and their teams have to keep a close eye on the leaders board, because the Tour is often won by a tiny margin. Back in 2007, Contador beat Cadel Evans by a mere 23 seconds of overall time.
Plenty of teams don’t have a real general contender and they might instead be aiming for one of their riders to win the Green or Polka Dot Jerseys. For instance, Team Etixx-QuickStep is going to build a lot of their strategy around ensuring their top rider—sprinting superstar Mark Cavendish—takes home the Green Jersey and wins a few stages.
But despite these team divisions, the majority of riders generally stay together in a big group known as the “peloton,” which has advantages that are both aerodynamic and psychological. Riders who move out in front of the peloton are referred to as a “breakaway,” and that’s where things really get interesting. Not only are teams and individuals deciding when and where to try for a breakaway, the teams left in the peloton have to decide when and where to pick up the pace to try to catch them.
Think of a stage like a moving chess board: Each team is trying to arrange the board to their advantage (i.e., putting their Yellow Jersey contender ahead of his rival or placing their sprinter in prime position) before they hit the finish line—all while biking at speeds averaging 30 miles per hour.
Not only are there 22 teams, close to 200 riders, and dozens of individual prizes up for grabs: The landscape itself is yet one more variable in the Tour De France.
This year’s Tour includes nine flat stages, three hilly stages, seven mountain stages, and two time trials. The Tour doesn’t feel repetitive because riders are tackling different terrain each day, not to mention whatever kind of weather Mother Nature might throw at them. All those variables lead to a lot of great sports drama, including frequent crashes and unlikely partnerships between riders on a breakaway. The flat stages generally end in exhilarating sprint finishes, while the mountain stages are a test of endurance for climbers. The time trials remove the communal element as riders face the course as individuals and later as individual teams.
That ever-changing landscape also jazzes up the viewing experience. The Tour De France is a literal tour of France, from the lavender fields of Provence to the Champs-Élysées in Paris. And the Tour frequently crosses borders as well; this year’s race kicks off in the Netherlands and will spend some time in Belgium. The broadcast is as interested in showing off the gorgeous European countryside as it is the riders themselves.
But there’s also real attention paid to how the race is filmed. By cutting between shots from helicopters, cars, and motorcycles, the camerawork captures both the overall picture of the race and the very human perspective of the riders. Between all those angles and the constant motion, professional cycling is easily the most cinematic sport out there.
Those roving cameras also find time to celebrate the Tour’s enthusiastic fans. The event attracts thousands of European spectators every year, including the kind of wackos who want to wear Borat thongs and run alongside the riders (which happens weirdly frequently). Nothing spices up a sporting event like an oddly costumed fan, and the Tour has them in spades.
And if all of this sounds slightly overwhelming, never fear, because the Tour employs two of the most entertaining and informative commentators in the business. Amateur-cyclist-turned-journalist Phil Liggett and former pro Paul Sherwen have been lending a delightfully British sense of humor to the race for 28 years—making them the longest running duo in sports television.
They’re well aware that most viewers aren’t familiar with professional cycling and they go out of their way to keep everyone up to speed about what’s going on. A football commentator is not going to stop to explain the concept of a third-down, but Liggett and Sherwen will be sure to mention what a peloton is every so often.
Not only do they provide commentary on the sport itself, they’ll also give some history of the local landmarks, laugh about weird fans, and get really excited when there’s a breakaway. Their lighthearted commentary has a Mystery Science Theater-vibe that enlivens even the most boring stretches of racing.
As with any professional sport, the Tour is full of athletes with big personalities. Since the teams aren’t divided geographically and there aren’t many Americans to support, the best way to decide who to root for is to just pick a personality you like.
Take, for instance, Peter Sagan, who races with a picture of Wolverine on his bike and regularly pops wheelies on the finish line. He’ll be racing for the Green Jersey this year, which he’s won for the past three Tours.
And for those who really like to root for the home team, the American to watch is Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing, who took fifth place last year.
Most sporting events air only once, but NBC Sports replays the Tour throughout the day. The live broadcast happens early in the morning (thanks to the time difference between the U.S. and France); an edited version with interviews and special segments airs during primetime. Plus the channel usually shows each stage at least once more between those two broadcasts as well. Don’t have anything to watch? Check for the Tour, it’s probably on.
There’s no denying that cycling has been marred by doping scandals throughout its history. Since 1998, more than a third of the top finishers of the Tour De France have been linked to doping or admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs during their careers.
On the other hand, until someone actually invents the pill from Limitless, there’s no drug that will make a 2,000-mile bike race easy. The pure athleticism on display is still massively impressive no matter what the riders are taking, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that it’s time to legalize steroids in professional sports.
The bottom line is that despite the tarnish of doping, there are still plenty of heartwarming sports stories to emerge from the Tour. Last year 25-year-old American hopefully Andrew Talansky (who will be back again this year) crashed so badly he sat on the side of the road with his managers for several minutes discussing whether it was even worth finishing the stage. Then—injured and racing against a time disqualification—he rode over 30 miles alone (an almost unthinkable feat) just to finish the stage and honor his teammates. Fans stuck around long after the main race ended to cheer him on.
Paradoxically for a sport so associated with cheating, there’s a great tradition of gentlemanly honor in the Tour De France. Riders generally won’t go on the “attack” (i.e., lead an aggressive breakaway) after a crash because no one wants to win by taking advantage of an accident. Last year, main Yellow Jersey contenders Contador and Froome both crashed out of the race entirely, leaving eventual winner Nibali without any real competition. Instead of taking it easy, he kept riding as if his competitors were still in the race. He eventually won by seven minutes, the biggest winning margin since 1997.
Whether Nibali will be able to win again with Froome, Contador, and Quintana in the race remains to be seen. But it’s definitely worth tuning in to find out.