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Tour de France 2023: taking a moment to appreciate the world’s greatest bike race

With the Tour de France 2023 about to start, Laurence reflects on what makes the Tour de France such a sporting spectacle.

Litebike Tour de France 2023

Illustration by Neil Stevens.

The world’s greatest bike race, the Tour de France, is just days away. 176 of the world’s best cyclists will set out from Bilbao, Spain. These athletes will cycle over 3,404 km gaining over 55,000 meters in elevation, their hearts pounding as they pull themselves up and over one hill and mountain after the other.

This year as I settle to watch the race, I’m reminded of a thought provoking essay written by the late David Foster Wallace, titled “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”.

Wallace’s essay explores the complexities of heroism in sport and while he focuses on Tracy Austin the tennis prodigy, what he talks about can be applied as much to cycling. One of his central observations is that great athletes seem to possess supernatural qualities, rendering them exempt from the physical laws that govern mere mortals. As Wallace puts it, they possess:

“a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man…To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel…”

Wallace articulated this phenomena in his characteristically perceptive prose. But the gist of the observation was hardly original. We connect athleticism to the divine all the time. Look no further than Old Trafford on a Saturday afternoon, where the Manchester faithful come to watch, sing and cheer their heroes Beckham, Ronaldo, Scholes.

My cycling heroes have this effect. In their relentless pursuit of mastery and their triumphs they provide me with a huge amount of inspiration and awe. In anticipation of the Tour de France 2023, I have been thinking about how these elements are on display over the 21 day-long cycles.

First, there’s the battle against nature. While the route changes every year there are some staples on the menu: the Pyrenees and the Alps and the Champs-Elysees finish. There are the difficult climbs, such as the Alpe d’Huez or the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees where riders ascend 1,395 meters over an 18.6km course. An absolute classic. It is ‘Hors Categorie’ or ‘beyond categorisation’ because of how challenging it is. There is also the battle against the elements. The French summer sun, winds from all angles that our cycling heroes have to resolve.

Then there’s the personal triumph. While the general classification (won by the rider with the lowest cumulative finish time) gets the most attention, there are a variety of contests over the 21 day-long cycles. The points classification for sprinters, the mountains classification for the climbers, young rider classification for riders under the age of 26. All eyes will be on Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar, general classification winners in 2022 and 2021 respectively, but there are many individual stories to follow. For those of us watching, on the other side of the screen, there is a veritable feast of athletic heroes for whom to cheer and vicariously live by.

And finally, there’s the spirit of camaraderie. While there is a team classification prize for the best team in the Tour de France, it is considered less important than the individual general classification and teams rarely set out to win it. Team members instead will dedicate their life to cycling, go through a relentless training program all season without skipping a beat, only to sacrifice their chance to win for the benefit of their riding companion. Wallace didn’t write about them but they are the unsung heroes of the road.

Each year the Tour de France inspires within me a new love for cycling and a determination to do my best. I don’t expect to transcend any physical laws but the experience itself of being out there, working hard, and having fun is more than enough for which to be grateful.

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