Ten years ago, television coverage of the Tour de France was practically nonexistent, perhaps a few highlights late at night. But beginning on Saturday, when Lance Armstrong goes for his seventh victory in a row, the Outdoor Life Network launches what it calls "The Cyclysm." As it has for the past few years, OLN will cover the race live each morning; prime time brings "enhanced" coverage of the day's stage. It's a cycling fan's dream come true: serious coverage of our fringe sport, at long last. But the intense scrutiny also reveals a painful truth—the Tour de France is boring.
It's not because bike racing itself is dull. One-day "classics" like Paris-Roubaix, contested over muddy cobblestone roads, are some of the most thrilling events in sports. May's Tour of Italy, a three-week stage race like the Tour de France, was a cliffhanger right to the end.
The Tour de France is boring for one big reason: the French. Each year, the organizers—an outfit called the Amaury Sport Organisation—try to devise a race that Armstrong can't win. But, being French, they are too wrapped up in tradition to alter the template. The Tour is spectacle over substance, a sporting son et lumière.
Most of Armstrong's six Tour victories have followed the same pattern. He keeps his head down during the long, flat first week, trying only to avoid the inevitable crashes. Then comes the first time trial, which he generally wins. And on the first day in the mountains, he accelerates on the final climb, ditching his challengers for good. Last year, he didn't even bother attacking—his rivals simply couldn't match his U.S. Postal Service team's brutal pace.
For sheer uneventfulness, last year's Tour rivaled the stupefying reign of Miguel Indurain, who won every Tour de France from 1991 to 1995 without ever attacking. While his opponents raced up the mountains (the fools!), Indurain simply kept them within sight and then slaughtered them in the time trials.
In a futile attempt to keep Armstrong from going on an Indurain-like spree, the lords of the Tour have tried to make the race more difficult. Last year's route contained one stage—a steep 15.5 km time trial up Alpe d'Huez—clearly designed for a single rider, flea-size Spanish climber Roberto Heras. (Armstrong destroyed Heras and everyone else.)
This year, the Tour organizers took a different tack: They made the race easier. The theory is that with just one individual time trial and relatively few selective mountain stages, there will be more riders in the lead pack at the stage finishes, and Armstrong will have to work harder to secure and defend his lead. Could be. But when Tour chief Jean-Marie Leblanc described the route as "classic," Tour-watchers knew exactly what he meant. That classic template—flat stages, time trial, mountain stages—will remain intact.
The Tour hasn't always been so dull. In its early years, starting in 1903, it circled France in as few as six stages, some longer than 250 miles (today's top out around 150). When the race first ventured into the mountains, the riders had to push their 40-pound bikes through mud and muck, not today's sissified paved roads. And instead of overtrained automatons, the sport produced wildmen like five-time winners Eddy "The Cannibal" Merckx and Jacques Anquetil, a man whose ideal race preparation consisted of "a good pheasant, some champagne, and a woman."
The Tour may be covered with 100 years of rust, but it's not a lost cause. Here's my four-point plan for bringing some joie de vivre back to the Tour de France.
Make the mountains count: There are seven mountain stages this year, but only three of them finish on climbs, where the contenders generally ditch the pretenders. (Pay special attention to Stage 10 on July 12 and Stage 14 on July 16.) Compared to those used in other European cycling races, French mountain roads aren't all that steep. The ballyhooed Alpe d'Huez, which is absent from this year's race, averages less than an 8 percent grade. It's a handicap-access ramp compared to Spain's dreaded Angliru, which kicks up to 23 percent, and Italy's Colle delle Finestre, whose last five miles are unpaved. The solution: quantity over quality. Put mountain stages in the first week. And there are undoubtedly still a few dirt mountain roads in France—the organizers should have the daring to use one.
Lose the dope … and the race radios: Since the 1970s, the average speed of the race has crept steadily upward, from just over 20 miles per hour to just under 25. This is partly because the bikes are better and lighter, and partly because of, um, improved training methods. The fast pace means it's now much harder for an individual or small group to break away from the field. And when riders do get away, the others hear all about it in their radio earpieces. The team directors consult their laptops and tell the chasers how fast to ride to catch the leaders before the finish—which is precisely what happens, nine times out of 10. So much for drama.
Ban the French: Traditionally, French riders have made up much of the field, especially since the organizers generally give "wild card" spots to mediocre French teams. Their numbers are down a bit this year, but there are still gobs of them: 30 of 189 riders. The sad truth is that French cyclists just aren't that good. The last one to win the race was Bernard Hinault, in 1985. Are the French bitter about this? Bien sûr. But they still won't crack the top five this year, and they're taking the spots of racers who might actually do something.
Lance must lose: No matter how inspiring his back-from-cancer life story may be, or how impressive his winning streak, Armstrong's long reign has sucked some of the life out of the race. If last year is any indication, the six-time champ will race defensively, like a hockey team killing a penalty. When he gets the leader's yellow jersey—not "if"—his ruthless Discovery Channel-sponsored squad will simply take control of the race, and only the most determined and insane riders (like Kazakh bandit Alexandre Vinokourov) will dare to attack.
Armstrong has already announced that he's retiring when the Tour ends. Here's hoping he loses this one. Why? Because whoever knocks him off will have earned the title, not merely inherited it; a coup is more exciting than an election. Even if you admire Lance, like I do, it's OK to cheer for his challengers: When he's in trouble, the Tour really gets interesting. In 2003, Armstrong crashed twice, rode into a field, nearly passed out on a mountain climb, and lost a time trial. It was one of the best Tours ever. The telltale sign that he's in difficulty is something his rivals and journalists call the "Dead Elvis Grin." It looks about the way you'd think. If you see it, stay tuned.