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The buzz around the confirmed Tour de France Netflix series is already palpable, and it won’t even air until this time next year.
Although only eight teams will be featured in season one, there is excitement across the peloton that the streaming giant can do the same thing for cycling as its Drive to Survive series has done for Formula 1.
“I think it’s going to hopefully be massive,” said Groupama-FDJ’s Lewis Askey, whose French team will be involved in the filming at their home Grand Tour this summer. “Like the boost to F1 with Drive to Survive, hopefully it’s the same for us.” In the way that Drive to Survive has shown Formula 1 to be a carnival of rich men with a penchant for stabbing each other in the back and not just bobbing heads in really fast cars, the hope for the cycling version is the intricacies behind the riders on bikes is also laid visible to the wider public.
“Cycling is one of those things…” Askey continued, speaking to CyclingTips before the start of the Tour of Flanders in Antwerp. “…here in Belgium it’s different but back in the UK they don’t really have a clue.”
When Askey returned home last winter, having secured a WorldTour contract after impressing in the French squad’s continental outfit, he met some of his old school friends on a night out who were curious as to what he had been up to since graduating.
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a cyclist.”
“Yeah, but what’s your job?”
“I’m a cyclist.”
“Ah, like Uber Eats!”
Askey is only joking about the last bit, but it speaks true to the esteem with which professional cycling is held in countries where it is a minority sport.
Formula 1 has seen its audience double in size since the show first aired in 2018, adding an estimated 73 million fans in 2020 alone. The potential impact of the Netflixification of a sport, when done right, cannot be underestimated.
While Patrick Lefevere has lamented the fee teams will be paid for the intrusion during the most important race of the season, “when ASO passes the cash register first then there is usually little left,” the Belgian Quick-Step boss previously remarked. But the benefit for current sponsors and the added pull when trying to attract new commercial partners will have been key to the decision to take part.
There is one notable omission, however. Tadej Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates. The Slovenian will not be featured in any substantial way as he chases a third consecutive yellow jersey. What’s more is he believes that fact could be key to whether he manages to pull off the three-peat.
“I watch Netflix quite a bit but I don’t think it’s a downside for the team that we’re not doing the series,” Pogačar admitted in Belgium last week.
“I can imagine it’s going to be hard in the Tour having crew filming on the bus and all day when you want to relax. I don’t mind that we aren’t doing it.”
For the yellow jersey in particular, the Tour de France presents an already cumbersome sequence of duties to fulfil in addition to riding each day’s stage. Riders say how racing the Grand Boucle already feels like being a goldfish in a bowl, and now camera crews will be waiting to capture every waking moment before and after the stage.
“We always have a camera crew around so it actually doesn’t change that much for us,” Oliver Naesen said of how Ag2r Citroën view their participation in the project. “The only thing is that the camera crews around us now are the team’s camera crews. They filter what they want to show and not show.”
“I found the Tour last year stressful and I’m not Tadej Pogačar,” added Fred Wright. “So I can only imagine what he must have to go through. It definitely would be an added stress.”
It won’t just be the riders feeling the heat of the spotlight. It’s understood sports directors are already wary of having to temper their language inside the team cars.
Another insider pointed out that Pogačar’s choice is one his rivals aren’t necessarily able to make. The potential financial windfall from being in the series is not of much concern to the team’s backers, the United Arab Emirates, a country with a GDP of $421 billion. Seeing their logo in the Netflix series won’t lead to an uptick in the sale of Emirati natural resources, yet that Quick-Step AlphaVinyl flooring being advertised on Julian Alaphilippe’s chest could convince millions their kitchen needs re-doing.
This begs the question of Ineos Grenadiers’ involvement. The British team’s title sponsor has no discernible product or service to be flogging to the masses, CEO Jim Ratcliffe’s investment more a profession of his love for the sport. Without much hope of winning the big prize in France this year, however, a bit of good PR couldn’t go amiss for a team often on the sharp end of media and public perception during July.
However, all is not lost regarding Pogačar’s absence. Mercedes and Ferrari had exactly the same reservations as UAE Team Emirates, those familiar with the situation have said, but both quickly realised not only the huge benefits of being involved but that it wasn’t as big of a distraction as initially feared.
Netflix have promised full transparency in the series, producing a wry smile from fans accustomed to the skulduggery of cycling, and while there is usually less controversy in the actual races compared to Formula 1 Grand Prixs, any repeat of doping controversies such as the one that engulfed Bahrain-Victorious’ success last summer would bring an unwelcome scrutiny of their own design.
Ultimately, should the series succeed in conveying the intricacies, magnitude and intriguing storylines of the race, which EF boss Jonathan Vaughters worries is a difficult task, it should be a hit.
“Knowing that the rest of the peloton and cycling fans are going to see it on Netflix, it’s definitely an added pressure and something riders haven’t experienced before,” reckoned Arkéa-Samsic’s Connor Swift. “I hadn’t even take that into consideration. I do think maybe some riders will play up to the camera, maybe others will show their true colours. It will be interesting.”
Imagine, for just one second, if we’d been able to see inside the Team Sky bus after stage 11 of the 2012 Tour when Chris Froome attacked his yellow-jersey-clad team-mate Bradley Wiggins. Scenes.
To finish, would Swift like to offer up some suggestions as to who the peloton’s equivalent of F1’s Max Verstappen, or Kimi Raikkonen, will be? Or which team managers and sports directors will bare similarities to your Toto Wolffs, Christian Horners and Guenter Steiners?
“Certainly not any [thoughts on] team managers, no!”
After all, contract year is always just around the corner. And if this potential golden goose does transform cycling in the way the sport hopes, that contract could soon look quite different.