I don’t know quite why I love the Tour de France so much. These days I never get on a bike, and when I used to do it, I chose mountain-biking, not road-cycling. That was, until a move to the city put paid to my weekend forays into the countryside.
As the TDF once more hoves into view, starting this Saturday in Utrecht, I prepare myself mentally for the ITV coverage, with the highlight show on each night over the twenty-one stage route, with its bewitching Kraftwerk-a-like theme tune and the glorious sound of Actual Liverpudlian Accents providing the commentary.
I do think my love of TDF is something to do with the easy camaraderie from commentators Phil Liggett, Chris Boardman, Gary Imlach and Ned Boulting. Imlach’s beautifully crafted summarising is nothing short of genius. Every year I get a crush on this man who is invisible to the world until these precious three weeks come round, when, with perfectly coiffed hair blowing gently in the Alpine winds, Gary provides us with the all-important summary to the day’s proceedings.
Then there are the cyclists themselves. Nearly all of them are on Twitter, a practice established by Lance Armstrong who called out tweets to his manager in the car alongside as he was going. We now get to follow their commentary as they put themselves through what must surely be one of the most gruelling tests of human endurance on the planet. I do follow them during the rest of the year, but during the TDF, it’s something special. A heightened state of tweeting.
It’s also something to do with their bizarre names. I don’t think there’s any other sport where you get a smorgasbord of names like Thor Hushovd, Tejay Van Garderen, Edvard Boasson Hagen and Ryder Hesjedal listed continuously by a range of Scouse accents. And don’t get me started on the weird and wonderful team names, with Cofidis fighting it out with Etixx-Quick Step, Movistar, Katusha, and Orica Green-Edge. I love the music of all of this, as the battle makes its way towards the final stage at the Champs Elysées.
Then there’s the unexpected detail en route, with the overhead cameras suddenly alighting on an interchangeable European hilltop monastery, followed by a quick soundfact from The Liggett. And the crowds surging in towards the riders as they climb the vertiginous Mont Ventoux or Alpe D’Huez, when I find myself shouting at the TV at some dolt in a polka-dot onesie attempting to get a selfie with Andy Schleck.
Talking of polka dots… Which sport chooses to put its heroic top mountain-climber in a polka-dot jersey? Cycling. Somehow it doesn’t quite go with the scale of the achievement, but at least you get two beautiful French women kissing your cheeks while you’re wearing it at the end of the stage (not my favourite bit of the TDF, I might add).
Those climbing sequences are my favourite. The never-ending twists and turns of the Alps, the expressions on the faces of the riders as they initiate a breakaway from the main group or ‘peloton’ to take the lead, or stay doggedly behind the leader (Maillot Jaune), riding in his slipstream. How they unzip their tops to reveal scrawny bird-like chests on the way up, and zip-up on the way down, grabbing protein bars and water as they go from the cars beside them while negotiating the crowds.
Then come the moments when the sprinters burst through on the flat sections, their bikes lurching like pistons from side to side as they try and secure the Green Jersey. I love how the teams support their sprinters, or their hill-climbers, to make sure their guys win a particular stage that is designed for their personal skillset. Froome’s support of Wiggins in 2012 was nothing short of legendary.
It’s the one sport where I don’t particularly care about nationality. Yes, I loved it when Bradley Wiggins won, but when I attended the Grand Départ in Yorkshire last year, I loved seeing Vincenzo ‘Nibbles’ Nibali winning the Sheffield stage. What was exciting was seeing the power, skill and determination in a group of athletes, while being part of a bit of France on tour – they even imported the gendarme to police the race in Yorkshire.
So, really, I *do* know why I love the Tour de France and I can’t wait for TDF15 to begin. It’s the Eurovision of sport, and event TV is its genre. Oh, and did I mention that some of the guys are really good-looking?