Professional cycling is pretty damn boring as a televised spectacle. The bike guys ride for like six hours; they go up and down hills; they occasionally crash; the only highlights are one bike guy going faster than the other bike guys. There are no dunks, no tackles—just different groups of the same dudes riding their bikes around until someone wins. Sometimes they fight, but cycling fights are the saddest thing. It’s no wonder that the most exciting race on the calendar, Paris-Roubaix, barely pulled in more viewers than a horse jumping broadcast this spring. Nobody watches cycling. That is, until the Tour de France.
The Tour accounts for over 80 percent of TV exposure for the teams involved, and American viewership numbers have rebounded since the Lance Armstrong witch hunt kicked off half a decade ago. Sure, many people (including a Deadspin staffer) only watch it for the scenery and dope overhead shots of castles, but the cycling world relies on the ubiquity of the Tour almost exclusively for publicity from which to sell expensive bicycles to the viewing public.
The three-week counterclockwise jaunt around France starts Saturday, and odds are, most people who tune in will not be cycling fans. That’s fine! Cycling fandom is illogical given how unexciting the sport is, especially on the West Coast, when every race starts at goddamn 4:00 a.m. and you’re lucky to get anything better than a grainy, bootleg stream in Flemish. The Tour is far more accessible, even for the initiate. Here is a guide.
There are 21 stages, 19 mass starts, and two individual time trials covering a total of 3,519 kilometers, or 2,186 miles. Every team has nine riders, whose duties range from “mountain climber” to “water bottle fetcher” to “sprint specialist” and a whole lot more. You win the whole grand boucle by having the lowest time over all 21 stages, which is a lot more complicated than, say, trying to win every stage or anything like that. The mountains are backloaded this year, so the overall contenders will spend the first week and change tucked in behind sacrificial teammates, content to survive and save their bullets.
That doesn’t mean that every single stage won’t be hotly contested, or that nothing meaningful can happen on flat stages. Prominent riders crash out every year, and with the course heading straight into all the crosswinds northern France has to offer, the peloton will most likely hit the mountains with some time gaps. The old cliche about how you can lose the Tour de France in the first week but you can’t win it is cliché, but it’s true.
Every team comes into the race with different ambitions, which is part of the tactical intrigue of the whole affair. Because there is just so much racing, some teams will be happy with a single stage win, while some will be disappointed with anything less than multiple stage wins and the yellow jersey. The layers of ambition make every stage different. Also, someone is going to try a stupid bike change on the first time trial and it’s going to cost them a minute and it’ll be hilarious.
Chris Froome, probably. The daddy longlegs-looking British defending champ has a lot going for him. He does this eery thing on climbs where he stares at his power meter, and rocks his head back and forth without breaking his (very high) cadence while his rivals flail and melt behind him. You’d think, looking at him, that his angular praying mantis style would be a detriment, but he’s incredibly consistent at riding down attacks and picking his spots. He’s not much of a punchy aggressor like Alberto Contador, he’s just incredibly strong. He won this year’s Criterium Du Dauphine, considered the most meaningful Tour measuring stick, with relative ease.
Furthermore, his team is full of killers, many of whom could be leaders on other teams. Sergio Henao (drug concerns aside) is an underappreciated climber, Geraint Thomas almost made the podium last year, Mikel Landa got third at the 2015 Giro d’Italia, and I have never seen Vasil Kiryienka crack. Hell, they left two riders home who would be the leaders on a few of this year’s teams, as well as Michal Kwiatkowsi, a 25-year-old former world champion. Team Sky is going to have every chance to choke the life out of the race by being too big, too fast, and too strong for anyone to beat.
As for the his challengers, last year’s second place finisher Nairo Quintana is still the next most-likely to win the Tour. He’s a teeny tiny Colombian who might actually be a better climber than Froome. After scuffling in the early stages of last year’s Tour, he ended up taking two minutes off Froome over the last three stages, and he beat him at the Tour of Romandie this year. Quintana’s Movistar team isn’t as strong as Sky, and they’ve had serious problems staying organized and deciding who to work for in the past. The course suits him, as Froome is one of the best flatland time trialists in the world, and there’s only 50 kilometers against the clock in this year’s Tour and half of them are uphill.
If he wins, he’ll be the third non-European ever to win the Tour. Quintana’s backstory hews so closely to the saccharine underdog sports hero origin that it seems apocryphal: he grew up on a small farm 10,000 feet above sea level and had to start driving taxis at age 10 to pay for school fees. At his first Tour de France, in 2013, he came out of nowhere to finish second and win the queen stage on Colombia’s independence day.
Quintana isn’t the unknown, mysterious South American he was cast as last year. He’s 26 now, and he’s finished four Grand Tours as the team leader. Quintana isn’t sneaking up on anyone anymore, and the pressure for him to deliver Colombia the Tour de France title they’ve been craving for thirty years is only going to get worse.
Aging Spaniard Alberto Contador is the most accomplished rider in this year’s race, and for all he’s accomplished, he’s still only 33. Contador finished fifth at the Dauphine, but he’s been on fire this year, finishing no lower than third in any stage race he’s completed and winning the Tour of the Basque Country (the hardest week-long stage race). His form is a mystery, but nobody can match Contador’s tactical acumen and violent attacking ability. Dude raced the Giro d’Italia before the Tour last year and still finished fifth, and he’s built his entire 2016 season around going for the Tour. Contador isn’t like his calm, actuarial rivals. He is as exciting as any overall contender on the bike, and he shouldn’t be underestimated, especially since Sky and Movistar will probably spend most of the race staring each other down.
Those three are the most likely winners, and none of the second-tier contenders appear to have the firepower to bring down Quintana, Froome, and Contador. Italian duo Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali of Astana are intriguing, but Nibali just got done winning an exhausting Giro, and Aru was uneven at the Dauphine, winning a stage but finishing 40 minutes behind Froome. Aru has shown the talent to win Grand Tours and he has consistently improved over the last week of three-week races (which Astana, uh, mysteriously always manage to do). If he and Nibali can find a way to work together, Aru could win. Astana are too much of a black box to get a good read on before big races (not to mention, a pharmacological uncertainty). Also, he looks like a Muppet.
BMC are in the same boat, as both Richie Porte and Tejay Van Garderen are capable of top-five finishes. Porte’s never earned a chance to take a crack at the Tour, and he’s been busy ferrying Froome up the mountains for a few years. Van Garderen is talented and he lost his podium spot in brutal fashion last year, but both he and Porte are team-leading caliber riders, and either they have to decide who to work for early, or BMC is going to have problems.
The next most-likely winners are Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, and as much as French cycling has improved over the past five years, laughing at French futility is one of July’s best traditions. Bardet and Pinot are legit, but also, they got dusted in such comical fashion by Steve Cummings last year.
Sort of? Van Garderen will probably be the top finisher, but he has a history of weenie-ing out at the Tour (he is on better form this year). The route isn’t particularly suited for him this time around. There are only five Americans in the race, and most of them are supporting riders. However, Alex Howes wears cool sunglasses and he is a good Twitter user, so yeah, I guess he qualifies.
Riders from the European powerhouses make up most of the field, as you’d expect, but there are two Eritreans, two Argentineans, a Japanese rider, and an Ethiopian participating in this year’s race. Last year, Daniel Teklehaimanot wore the King of the Mountains jersey for a few days and Steve Cummings won the first stage ever for an African-registered team.
Yeah, the leaders all get to wear cool jerseys, like yellow for the race leader, white for best baby rider, and polka dot for best climber. Also, the fans are mostly frenzied Europeans who spend full days drinking on top of mountain passes so that they can properly yell at and flash riders as they come through for half a second.
What About Motorized Doping, The Only Deadspin Cycling Blog You Scammed Me Into Clicking On? All These Guys Cheat Right?
For the first time, cycling’s biggest race is taking steps to curb cycling’s dumbest boogeyman. There appears to be some level of motorized cheating happening, although it’s unclear how many (if any!) professionals are using them or how many of them would be dumb enough to try that shit at the Tour. If someone gets caught on the world’s biggest stage, the entire sport will lose it en masse, and it will go down as my favorite utterly moronic cycling cheating method since cyclists in the 20's used strychnine, cocaine, and chloroform.
That said, the stakes are never higher and a motor would help! I think the microscope that the Tour puts on its riders is still too fine for anyone to risk it, but read one particular way, the history of cycling is the history of different drugs being used to stretch the body’s natural limits. The advantages of doping are so plainly obvious that someone will always try it, even if they risk getting caught by secret thermal cameras from a French nuclear facility.
Peter Sagan, the groovy, swaggering world champion and winner of the past (approximately) 23 green jerseys for best sprinter. Sagan didn’t win a stage at last year’s Tour, but he was one of the most impressive riders, getting second five times over five very different stages. He’s been on one this year and he’ll be gunning for his first ever yellow jersey on Stage 1. Sagan can win on any terrain, and his teammate Contador has plenty of helpers so that Sagan can go freelance.
John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff are two lesser Sagans who can win all kinds of sprints. Legendary Swissman Fabian Cancellara is going to ride his last Tour ever, and he’ll at least try something, even if he doesn’t have a great shot at extending his record for days in yellow without winning the overall.
Jarlinson Pantano, Warren Barguil, Julian Alaphilipe, and Louis Meintjes are all young and intriguing climbers or various regards. One of them will have a breakout race. Also, Thomas Voeckler will almost certainly huff and puff his way into a break and the peloton will let him cook out in front of them to punish him for hot dogging.
NBCSN will broadcast each stage, and if you don’t have the channel, you can buy a streaming package for the duration of the Tour for $30.
(Also, uh, Steephill.tv is a good website)
Who knows! This blog is over.