The Tour de France is about cycling, but cycling is not my favorite part.
I prefer the TV interludes that show nice beaches, famous castles, or magnificent cathedrals—usually with a bit of historical background from the announcers. A close second would be the glimpses of some of the happiest and most insane fans in the sporting world. The occasionally wear costumes, and they always appear to be applauding the competitors—all of the competitors. I assume most of them have been sitting there by the side of the road, drinking most of the day.
I’m not sure how many of you are watching the Tour de France. It might be that you, like me, were a casual fan who gave it up after the Great Armstrong Disappointment and other doping scandals. Or it might be that you, like me, are a shameless europhile with a weakness for interesting sport, strong personalities and entertaining backdrops, naïvely optimistic that cycling has been mostly cleaned up. Suckers like us can only stay away for so long.
The Tour’s U.S. television ratings were up 12 percent last year over 2013. It’s too early to say how it’s doing this year, as the later stages bring more drama and interest. It helps if there is an American rider doing well. There is, by the way: as I write this, Tejay Van Garderen—born in Washington, raised in Montana, racing for the BMC team — sits in third place. But anything could happen tomorrow.
If you want to watch live, start with breakfast. The NBC Sports Network coverage typically starts at 8 a.m. EST, just as the riders are taking off. Or you can watch the evening replays. It’s easy to avoid spoilers in America—nobody cares! ESPN ignores it and your office colleagues (who might still be wearing Livestrong bracelets) will pretend they’ve never heard of it.
As a busy sports fan I find this refreshing. This is one you can have to yourself. And even if someone does spoil it for you, it doesn’t really matter: the actual competition is secondary to the spectacle.
You should know that this is supposed to be a good year to watch. A lot of the stages finish with steep climbs, exciting to see — not necessarily for the pained faces of exhausted riders giving it their all, but for all the rest of it. Uphill means slower, and that means a better view of the scenery—mountains and villages that look like war film throwbacks, plus some of the most excited fans of the sporting world, whooping and hollering and entirely too close to the action. There are devils, Beatles, Borats in mankinis and anything else you can imagine, somewhere there along the roadside. It’s not unusual for a camera to catch a glimpse of the riders waving or laughing at them.
I can now say I’ve stood there among them, although I didn’t have the best spot. The early stages of this year’s Tour were in the Netherlands and Belgium. I was there in Antwerp to watch the sign-in and start for Stage 3—through armpits and raised smartphones, I caught a glimpse of the peloton pedaling down the riverside. Then I retired to the Paters Vaetje for a bolleke of De Koninck, a spicy Martino sandwich, and a more entertaining view of the enthusiasts streaming by.
It was a hoot, but trust me: The view is better on TV. As a spectator sport the Tour de France was made for television.
Assuming that you have a TV, or a computer that can pretend to be one, here are a few beers you might consider drinking with this year’s Tour — whatever the hour, whatever the privacy of your office cubicle.
First, something tasty and Belgian. All of Belgium is mad for cycling, and the Tour de France usually includes a couple of early stages there. There are some beautiful cycling routes through the Ardennes and wider Luxembourg province, where the locals have a long-established taste for smoked game and drier, bitterish beers like the classic Orval. Another regional beauty well suited toward a warm day is La Rulles Estivale—if you can find it—made by a brewer who loves American hops but could teach American brewers a thing or two about using them with balance and panache.
A fine French beer is obligatory. As I watched the riders wind their way through Pas-de-Calais in the North I had to think of brewer Daniel Thiriez and his excellent Thiriez Extra. Dry, full of spicy-floral hop and cereal character, and weighing at only 4.5% strength, it tastes like something that has wheeled from Kent through Hainaut to French Flanders, stopping to take in the scenery all the way.
New Belgium’s bicycle logo is iconic, and Fat Tire is one of the first beers that pop into our heads when we think about beer and cycling. Personally I’d like to find a good spot on the roadside and sit on an iced cooler full of Slow Ride, the Fort Collins brewery’s fruity Nelson Sauvin-charged session IPA.
The label depicts a plush upholstered couch pimped out with bike wheels, which also seems appropriate enough for casual television viewing. I might like to get one for the office.