Hell On Wheels

The 2012 Tour de France just ended and here’s what you need to know:

  • It was the 100th running of the event (but not the 100th anniversary as several years were skipped on account of some world wars)  EDIT:  It’s actually the 99th running.  Thanks, Gerry!
  • A Brit won for the first time, making the entire country insufferable as they are now hosting the Olympics
  • Actually, with a winner in the General Classification (Wiggins) as well as one of the world’s best sprinters (Cavendish), British cycling is enjoying something of a hey day.
  • Nine out of the last 14 winners spoke English as their first language.  The other five were four Spaniards and a Luxembourgian (if that’s the word)
  • Several young French riders won some stages, meaning that country need not be as embarrassed as it usually is at its performance.
  • Another famous cyclist was caught doping.

There you have it.  Apart from some stunning vistas, a few dramatic crashes at the beginning, and some small squabbles over smaller categories like Best Climber, Best Sprinter, and Cyclist Closest To Zero Percent Body Fat, that pretty much covers the 2012 Tour de France.

For those of you are are very very interested in what it is like to compete in “Le Tour,” you may be interested in the 2005 movie, Hell on Wheels, a documentary of the German Team Telekom’s experience in the 2003 TdF.  This was the actual 100th anniversary (but NOT the 100th running – see above) of the Tour and featured some legendary moments, including Lance Armstrong cutting across a field to avoid Joseba Beloki (I am not making that name up), who had crashed in front of him on a fast descent.  Armstrong also famously won a stage after catching his handlebar on a spectator’s bag and crashing.  Finally, there was Tyler Hamilton, who cycled almost the entire tour with a broken collarbone, won a mountain stage, and took 4th place overall.

If you don’t think a broken collarbone is painful, go break it and try to ride a bike around the neighborhood.  Then ride it 2,000 miles.  Over some mountains.  Then we’ll talk again.

The movie is almost entirely in German and French with English subtitles.  If that sort of thing drives you to distraction, then you will not enjoy this movie.  There are many interviews with the riders, who discuss how they manage to persevere in spite of their many injuries (well, one rider does not and is forced to quit).  There are also tributes to the majesty and history of the tour, mostly narrated by a French cycling historian who is nothing if not passionate about the TdF.  Basically, all other forms of human endeavor pale in significance when compared to The Tour.  There are tributes to the fans, the gendarmes, the broadcasters, the setup/tear down crews, the team masseuse, and just about everyone else connected to the tour.

As a person who enjoys the strategy of any competition, I was disappointed that so little time was spent on this aspect of the race.  Very little discussion was given to how teams decide to approach a given stage or how they hope to put their cyclists in the best position to achieve their goals (and in the TdF, there are so many different ways to “win” that there are many different possible strategies).  Instead, a great deal of time focuses on suffering.  You watch the riders slowly break down psychologically over the course of three weeks and are impressed to see most of them rally back each day despite tremendous fatigue.

One is left with an admiration for the dedication of the cyclists who overcome incredible obstacles.  Unfortunately, this admiration is greatly tempered when one realizes almost the entire Team Telekom (including most of the riders featured in the documentary) would be scandalized in a doping controversy only a few years later.  So much for the idolization of hard work and determination.

This film therefore appeals to a very small audience: namely those interested enough in cycling to watch two hours of German with English subtitles but not familiar enough with the inner workings of professional cycling or the TdF to be intrigued by the perspective.  Everyone else should probably find something else to watch.

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8 thoughts on “Hell On Wheels

  1. Steve … you crack me up. I love all things to do with cycling and watch crazy old movies about it. Cycling is a happy pill for me and my hubby. I say all this to tell you … I have NEVER watched the tour. hahaha. I don’t know why. I think I like reading your blog more than that. You know … real people out there enjoying the ride. So I doubt I would ever watch this movie–espeically with all the doped up folks in it. Not that their doping takes away from all they have accomplished–cuz I don’t know if I could do it even with the dope. hahaha

    Love all your pics. Keep posting 😀

  2. Insufferable! Us! I think I need to explain something to you about us Brits…We have invented the Worlds most popular sports, then proceed to get roundly beaten by the very Nations who we gave them to. That does get mildly irritating at times.

    So on the very rare occasions we do actually win something, I’m thinking 1966 (yawn), 2003, the odd Olympic Gold Medal and now the Tour, we quite naturally behave as a starving man at a banquet.

    As for the Olympics, while I hope the Boss of the Olympics uses the usual phrase “The best Olympics ever” as is tradition at his closing speech, (a phrase never used at Atlanta controversially I recall) I am worried that a humiliating disaster on a Global scale is about to befall us.

    I think the phrase “expecting the worst, hoping for the best” sums up my mood as I look forward to watching the opening ceremony tonight. I just hope I’m not watching it cringeing from behind my hands covering my eyes!

    On the subject of the Tour, not too much fuss is being made about Dave Brailsford the Head Coach, he is an icon in the coaching world and I have heard him speak quite a few times at various coaching conferences in aid of my Rugby Coaching. The man is a genius and I’m certain that Team Sky (now Team GB) would not be where they are now without him.

    As usual a very enthralling post mate!

    • You wouldn’t expect me to do anything less than to poke fun at you during a moment of national triumph, would you, Clive? Let us hope your worries are misplaced.

  3. A classic cycling film already and one that I should probably see again. Thanks for posting your thoughts on it, Steve. Just one small correction if I may – the 100th Tour will be next year and already rumors of unique stages are floating through the blogosphere, including an Individual Time Trial up Mt. Ventoux.

    • I had no idea I was watching one of the classics! The correction has been duly noted in the text of the blog. Thanks as always for keeping me straight!

  4. Didn’t know of the movie … and so predictably will watch it … you know, incredible cyclists, shot at least partly in France …

    But for those who prefer their films in English, shot in the US, try Ride the Divide. Magnificent scenery, tremendous endurance from the riders. Not a team sport, not so much strategy, but I thought a film worth watching. For cycling nuts anyway.

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