The Tour de France is a parade of dreams

If I were to conduct a survey of cycling fans asking them to describe the Tour de France in a single sentence, the consensus would be something like “it’s the world’s toughest race,” or some other implication the Tour de France is our way of determining the sport’s best athlete.

And that’s true, but hope for an exciting yellow jersey competition lately has led to a lot of disappointment. After briefly being banned from the race, it appears the man who has had a vice-like grip on the Tour four of the last five years, Chris Froome, will be at the start in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île for Stage 1.

I’m here to tell you, if just following the guy in yellow can feel like an empty exercise after a while, the 2018 Tour has a few answers for you. Not just the obvious chance to yell about Froome’s legal case — I mean the chance to find real meaning, real beauty, the true soul of cycling, somewhere other than in the General Classification of the Tour de France. Even if the yellow jersey competition gets put away early by any of the contenders, make no mistake: You can still love the Tour de France at least another half-dozen ways.

For me, while I wouldn’t dispute the Tour’s signature hard-man, three-week awesomeness, I would prefer to describe the Tour de France as the time of year when the cycling world cares most about a race, and about the entirety of the sport. The result is that over the three weeks of stages across France (and if you don’t blink, Andorra), just about every aspect of the sport will be on display. And that will mostly be a good thing.

Here’s the basic structure of cycling: Fans pay the sport’s bills by watching cycling. Fans watching races creates advertising opportunities — I think I saw 45 different ads on one Belgian continental team jersey — and that sponsorship is where the teams get their operating funds. Bike companies deck them out in gear, which itself is an ad, while multinational corporations from all sorts of industries hand over the really big bucks for a chance to put their name on the jerseys and have it repeated over and over on broadcasts.

No race gets watched more than the Tour de France, not even close. Last year’s Tour was seen by as many as four billion people over the course of three weeks. Even if you parse through the numbers, it whittles down to a top end of 3.2 billion. By contrast, the Giro d’Italia’s self-serving, and likely exaggerated audience estimates top out at one billion.

Bottom line, once the organizers are done lying about the actual audience size, the Tour is still three times as large as the Giro. The 2014 World Cup viewership was the same, 3.2 billion viewers. [These numbers are getting very suspicious, but whatever.] The Super Bowl was down to around 107 million this past year.

Broadcasts of the Tour are aired in 190 countries. Right now there are 195 countries in the world. [Free SB Nation login to whoever can name the other five countries!] Riders themselves come from about 30 or so different nations, even without discussing whether Froome should count for Kenya. The effect is that there’s not only a great deal of money in sponsorship, but in broadcast rights. The Tour makes big bucks for its owner, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO), which in 2016 generated €220 million in revenue and €44 million in profits.

From that money, ASO … keeps a lot of it. But it also does some important things to benefit cycling. It pays the considerable costs of all the teams and riders in attendance at the Tour, and offers another €2.3 million in prize money. ASO also owns some of the sport’s most important races besides the Tour, including the third grand tour, the Vuelta a España; and the Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Flèche Wallonne classics.

All of this is to say the Tour de France is everyone’s golden ticket. Its automatic invitation is the main reason 18 teams vie for World Tour status. And for the four wild card teams that cross over from Pro Continental events to the big time, it’s a chance to pay all their bills and remain competitive in their smaller arena. The fact that it happens in July means the Tour is where business for the next year is conducted. It’s where all the cycling brands — bicycles, components, clothing, accessories — go to show off their wares and start talking about sponsorship for the next season. It’s where riders and their agents whose contracts are expiring secure their next deal.

Everyone is at the Tour de France — sponsors, potential sponsors, riders, managers, agents, fans, journalists, and more. No other race can say this.

The Giro d’Italia, universally hailed as the sport’s second-biggest event, simply can’t match the Tour’s prestige. Sure, in terms of competition and physical demands, Froome’s last Tour de France win might not have been a whole lot more taxing than his recent victory in the Giro d’Italia, which tends to boast more meters of climbing than a typical Tour. But the impact of Froome’s Tour win is incomparable, in sponsorship and public perception.

The Tour, then, becomes the biggest stage, and everything you do on it matters more than everywhere else.

Winning at the Tour de France comes in all shapes and sizes, from bunch sprints to heroic escapes to the brutal tactics honed in cycling’s major one-day races. Sprinters do inhuman things to beat each other out in the bunch gallops on the flatter stages, skirting past metal barriers and other forms of disaster at close to 50 miles per hour. Climbers set out to cross mountain passes first, and just maybe pull on the polka-dot jersey as the King of the Mountains. Even the domestiques who make up a sizable portion of the peloton can occasionally set off on an early-stage escape which, however doomed it may be in the end, still results in hours of TV exposure unlike any other day of the year. And if the break succeeds and a stage victory comes, well, you’ve just bought yourself another year or more of job security.

I love this element of the Tour, how every day is the biggest day of the year for someone. I love, for example, how this year’s ninth stage of the Tour travels up to Roubaix, the gritty suburb of glamorless Lille in France’s industrial, half-Flemish Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. Here the stage will go over to the cobblestone warriors of the spring classics, guys who look more like draft horses next to the tiny mountain goats who dominate the Tour’s headlines, and whose pure strength powers them across roads that look like they did 100 years ago. Riders of this size have nothing else to do at the Tour besides assist their team leader in the interminable hours of racing between the final sprints and soaring climbs. But on this one day they are the stars, and they will race like it.

I love how the Tour becomes a celebration of all of cycling’s year-round greats. The holder of the World Champion’s title — Peter Sagan of Bora-Hansgrohe for three years running — will galavant around France in the iconic rainbow-striped jersey, easy to spot in the bunch, and even easier when Sagan is around, contesting the final meters of sprint stages. World champions aren’t usually Tour contenders, but they are towering figures in their own right. And the time trial world champions often dominate the Tour stages against the watch. The five bands of the Rainbow Jersey are just more colors on top of the rest.

Oh, and the kids. The White Jersey competition signifies the best rider under the age of 26 in the general classification, and the winners tend to grow up to become real contenders for yellow. But things get extra exciting when someone who the hardcore fans have tipped as a future hope goes on and does something special. Last year all of France celebrated two stage wins by Warren Barguil, a talented climber who brought home the iconic King of the Mountains jersey in the process. This year young hopefuls will be all over the course, led by ultra-precocious Colombian climber Egan Bernal, and other curiosities like Frenchmen Pierre Latour and David Gaudu.

Yet another Colombian, Quick Step’s Fernando Gaviria, is poised to hunt for stage victories, underlining yet another of the Tour’s endless subplots: The sport’s expanding horizons. Colombia is one of cycling’s most intriguing sources of talent, a distant and comparatively exotic nation (by European standards) seemingly stocked from one soaring peak to the next with great cyclists.

Colombians first made their mark on the Tour back in the 80s, fielding a full team and winning some stages with trailblazing climbers Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra. More recently, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran have taken second overall in three of the last five Tours, blocked only by Froome from that inevitable first Colombian victory.

Colombian fans have been seen in growing numbers along the roads of the Tour and back home. When Quintana burst on the scene in 2013 to take second and the climbers’ jersey, most of Bogota was waiting for him upon his return, jamming the streets of the capital as he rode to the Presidential Palace for a true hero’s welcome. Imagine what would happen if he won.

Even the polemics at the Tour are unlike any other: From fist fights to wars of words over violations of the sport’s endless unwritten rules, people get their backs up in France beyond what you are likely to see anywhere else the rest of the year. Not that I am rooting for riders to hit each other with water bottles or wheels or head-butts or anything else. Nope, that would be wrong. [cough]

The point is, at its best, the Tour is a parade of dreams — those of managers, sponsors, fans, consumers, sprinters, climbers, and anonymous teammates alike. And short of that, the Tour is never dull, never inconsequential, and should never be ignored, even when the yellow jersey gets pulled on to the shoulders of the same guy over and over.

There is something for someone in every rider, every kilometer, and every second of the Tour de France, from Noirmoutier to the final champagne ride around the Champs-Élysées.

Article Source: SB NATION

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