Pity Lionel Birnie. For the cycling journalist and regular Bike Show contributor, following the Tour means being stuck in a smelly Skoda with three other hacks for 5+ hours a day, living out of a suitcase, sleeping in tatty hotels with paper thin walls (if he manages to find a hotel room at all) and getting fat eating junk food (all the more galling in the land of haute cuisine). He’ll get a few fleeting glimpses of the racing, but mostly he will be stuck in traffic jams, waiting around in the press centre and trying to get a few moments of face time with knackered or nervy riders who’d rather express themselves on twitter than submit to the questions of a seasoned sports journalist.
For the rest of us who are not part of the media caravan, and thanks to the efforts of a legion of Lionel Birnies, we are spoilt for choice. Here are a few suggestions for getting the most from following the three week festival of cycle racing, the world’s biggest annual sporting event on its grandest stage.
My day begins with a short bike ride across Waterloo Bridge to a newsagent opposite the Royal Opera House, which sells L’Equipe, the French sports daily and the ‘house journal’ of the Tour. L’Equipe was formerly known as L’Auto, and its editor Henri Desgrange was the man who invented the Tour. L’Equipe provides the best coverage of the Tour. And it’s good for improving your French reading comprehension – I read it with a coffee, a pain au chocolat and a pocket dictionary. I particularly enjoy Philippe Brunel’s columns, which go beyond straight reporting. He is the nearest we get to a Norman Mailer for cycle sport.
The British daily newspapers do cover the Tour but with such brevity and at the most basic level that they’re generally not worth bothering with, unless one of their correspondents snags an exclusive from one of the British riders or teams. Look out for Richard Moore, lately of the Guardian, now at the Daily Mail, who has close links with Team Sky, and also the Fotheringham brothers, who cut their teeth writing about the exploits of les frères Pélissiers in the years immediately after the First World War, or so it seems.
For live race coverage, Eurosport is the place to be. You can watch it on TV if you’ve got a digibox and subscription or you can sign up (as I do) for a month of the Eurosport Player for just £3.99. Eurosport also offers a free audio feed if you prefer to imagine the scene and focus your attention on Sean Kelly’s soft yet menacing delivery and extraordinary pronunciation, which usually involves unaccountably shifting the emphasis around different syllables of longer words. It’s very interesting and sometimes quite entertaining. Kelly, a former hard man of the peloton (and convicted dope cheat) is paired in the commentary box with the solid and dependable David Harmon. The only real downside of the Eurosport commentary is a comic character called Carlton Kirby who intercedes from time to time from a padded cell in Eurosport’s Paris HQ. At his best (and it’s not very good) Kirby is very poor man’s David Duffield. Above all, listening to Eurosport means you are spared Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, a pair of shameless Lance Armstrong boosters who have spent the past 20 years in almost complete denial of the endemic doping that has marred the sport. Team Radioshack fans can tune in to their own dedicated coverage courtesy of Liggett and Sherwen – ITV4 carries the race live for the last 2 hours or so. This is available in the UK on freeview and online.
Steephill.tv carries a list of other free online video feeds, though beware: the quality is patchy and sometimes you get the distinct feeling you’re receiving signals from the dodgiest of Russian cyber crime syndicates.
On twitter, there are plenty of riders worth following. For English speakers, sprinting sensation Mark Cavendish has the best sense of humour. He also has good command of his camera phone, which can lead to comic results. Dave Zabriskie can be relied upon for a zanier take on the race and life in general. His tweets often read like cryptic northern Californian haikus. Garmin team boss Jonathan Vaughters is worth following, as he is prone to tweet from the team car during the race and takes time to engages with his twitter followers, which is unusual. Fabian Cancellara tweets in a flamboyant, unvarnished kind of way – not unlike like his riding – and deploys a fantastically creative use of the English language, reminiscent of the best of Eurotrash.
Almost on the hotel. Had a shity flight bevor… We lost around 100feet during the flight… Was first time not on my seat enymore for a bit
I’d like to see David Millar on the twitter but, having just penned a 100,000 word book, I suspect twitter is a little too short a form for “le dandy”. Michael Barry, another senior member of the peloton with literary talents will be penning a periodic Tour column for the Toronto Star.
Among English-speaking bloggers, the current go-to man is the anonymous Monaco-based blogger Inner Ring. He writes well, offers incisive perspectives and his work takes in the whole breadth of the spectacle, from snails crossing the course to race tactics and the latest intrigues over team sponsorship deals. Eben Weiss, aka Bike Snob NYC, is almost certain to be writing a regular column, either for ESPN or Bicycling. Like the bicycle messenger he once was, Weiss always delivers. NY Velocity has been most out there in terms of the recent doping scandals and can be counted on to take no prisoners in its reportage.
At the day’s end, ITV4 airs a solid 45 minute highlights show at 7pm, though you’ll want to turn the sound down if you share my allergy to Liggett and Sherwen. The post-race analysis with Matt Rendell, Ned Boulting and Chris Boardman is entertaining and sometimes informative. Better still is the daily ITV Tour De France audio podcast, produced by the same team but offering greater depth of coverage. This is one reason that there’s not a whole lot of podcast Tour coverage on The Bike Show. Even if I could find a way to follow the Tour, why would I when ITV does it so very well? The Flammecast is developing a following, I don’t know if they’ go into overdrive during the Tour. It’s possible. There are a few other podcasts out there but on the basis of past years’ efforts they’re not worth the hard disk space.
And finally, it goes without saying that it’s always worth reading Lionel Birnie’s dispatches from the front, written for Cycle Sport magazine. His series on the spring classics was exemplary. Let’s hope he carries the same form into the Tour. Like the riders, though in altogether different ways and without any of the glory, he is a man who will be suffering for our pleasure.
What else should I be reading/watching/listening to? Add your favourite sources in the comments. Vive le Tour!