How to discuss the Tour de France with non-cycling fans

Here are some mainstream comparisons to put the 2021 Tour de France into perspective for the non-cycling fans in your life.

Photo: Getty Images

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It’s July — you know that means, right?

Yep, it’s that time of the year when cycling fans like us are momentarily relevant to the broader world. Yes, my friends, it’s our moment to shine, because we finally get to talk about the Tour de France with our normie friends, co-workers, and family members, who may have heard about the race on television, or seen something about it on Twitter.

I don’t know about you, but I love this part of cycling fandom.

There are no firm rules when discussing cycling with the casuals, other than to be patient and enthusiastic. Think back to the early days of your cycling fandom and remember how this mysterious and complicated sport left you with oh so many questions. Wait, everybody just stops and pees? Remember those cyclists who helped you learn the mysteries of the Tour. And also remember the snobby, stuck-up guy who explained cycling as though it were Tolstoy or math rock.

Don’t be like that guy. We want more people to follow our sport, right?

In my experience of discussing cycling with non-cycling fans, I’ve found it helpful to use comparisons to mainstream sports, video games, or even TV shows, plus the occasional simile and metaphor. Below are a few ones that may help grandpa or Dave from accounting or your football-loving bro appreciate the Tour de France a bit more.

The Tour de France as Mortal Kombat

See the green health bar? Every cyclist has one of those. Photo: NetherRealm studios

As we all know, one of the toughest concepts for non-cyclists to grasp involves the basic strategic element of the sport — drafting, teamwork, breakaways, attacks, etc. There are so many questions that spring from this concept. Wait, how is cycling a team sport? Are the guys in the breakaway going to win? Why doesn’t the yellow jersey just attack from the gun and crush everyone?

Of course, the answer involves explanations of aerodynamics and drafting and the magical 30-percent-energy-savings rule that come from riding in the peloton. I’ve seen plenty of eyes glaze over with boredom during this explanation. So over the past few years, I’ve tried to come up with a simpler one.

Here goes. I’ve compared the Tour de France to the video game Mortal Kombat.

Bear with me, everyone.

As well all know, in Mortal Kombat, our avatar has a green health bar above his head, and the more punches and kicks he takes, the health bar wears down, until the health bar is toast, and our avatar is brutally decapitated by some hideous monster. When watching the Tour de France, I tell my non-cyclist friends to envision this green health bar above the heads of every cyclist in the race. Not all health bars are the same size, of course, and the riders who have the biggest health bars — due to a blend of natural talent, training, etc. — are the ones who are earmarked to try and win the GC.

The Tour de France is just like a video game, only a bit longer. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Every stage of the Tour de France is simply too long and too hard for any single rider to break away and win from the gun — his health bar will evaporate long before the line. And that’s why everyone rides in the peloton. In the peloton, a rider’s health bar is unaffected. But the moment he puts his nose out into the wind, a rider’s green health bar starts ticking down. Accelerations, attacks, strong pulls on the front — these moves are the proverbial punches and kicks to the face that wears down a rider’s health bar at a faster rate.

This general concept can help people understand the race’s strategy, like teamwork, breakaways, chases, etc. The key is to milk that health bar as long as possible, all the way to the line. Teammates sacrifice their health bars to protect the health bar of their team leader. Doomed breakaway riders willingly give up their health bars to force rival teams to burn their own health bars to chase.

Of course, we know our sport to be far more complicated than the Mortal Kombat health bar, but you get my drift here.

The Tour de France as a 4th of July parade

You’ve probably fielded questions about the biggest story of the Tour de France’s opening week — the enormous pileup caused by the careless spectator on stage 1. This situation is likely to cause a normal person’s head to explode from confusion. Wait, a fan took out the whole race and they kept racing?

Fans are back at the Tour de France! Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Sure, every few years some maniac in a mankini storms the field during the Super Bowl — but if the fan tackles Tom Brady, the game stops! Not so in cycling.

I did an interview with NPR the other day about the crash, and the interviewer wanted to know why fans would attend a sporting contest and not be cognizant that the event was going by. Why not put barriers between the fans and the road? The world’s best cyclists are on the road, so why aren’t people paying attention?

It clued me into a cycling fact that mainstream folks may not understand. Those millions and millions of fans who attend the Tour de France — very few of them are hardcore sports fans, as we Americans would define the term. Take a packed NFL stadium — my guess is that more than half of the fans in attendance could name the quarterbacks for each team. That’s not the case at the Tour, and that’s because the sporting side of the Tour de France is a small element of its attraction to the French public.

Fourth of July Parade
This is our closest version of the Tour de France. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

Are all of these people on the side of the road cycling fans? No! At least, not by the definition that you or I may hold for cycling fans. The comparison I use for the Tour de France’s relationship with fans, is a Fourth of July parade. We Americans attended Fourth of July parades as children. We will likely take our children to see a Fourth of July parade. Why? Because it’s been sewn into our cultural fabric that on the fourth of July, you go see a parade.

Millions of French people do not attend the Tour de France every day to see whether Primož Roglič can match the accelerations of Tadej Pogačar, or to see whether Ineos Grenadiers’ tempo tactics are still a viable force. They attend the race because it’s a party. It’s a parade. It’s what you do if you are French. You load your kids into the family Peugeots, drive two hours into the countryside, and then sit on the side of a random roadside, eating baguettes and listening to the radio. You wait for the Tour’s publicity caravan to roll by, at which point you fight your fellow spectators for a branded ballpoint pen, or a goofy hat, or some other sponsored tchotchke.

And then, you wave at the television cameras, or the buzzing helicopters, as the riders fly by at warp speed. And you hope that nobody leans too far out into the road.

The common questions

Imagine the team car as the sidelines or dugout on wheels. Only with better snacks. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Of course no conversation about the Tour de France with a normal person would be complete without a few familiar questions.

Do they eat on the bike?

Yes, they eat on the bike. They eat rice cakes and energy bars and sandwiches and gels and teeny delicious quiches and other food.

Do they, you know, go to the bathroom on the bike, too?

Most of the time they stop for a pee break.

What happens when they crash?

Well, imagine jumping out of your car at 30mph while wearing a Lycra bodysuit. It’s not pretty.

Wait, so how does the scoring work again?

Imagine a marathon that starts and finishes every day over three weeks. Every day the clock starts at zero, and every day the finishers get a finishing time. You add up all of those times to decide the final winner.

What about the green and polka dot and white jerseys?

Those go to riders who are the best at climbing and sprinting, and also the guy who is fastest and under the age of 25. Imagine if during the Super Bowl they gave out trophies for most receiving yards, most touchdowns, and most touchdowns to a young guy. It’s kind of like that.

Why are there so many cars?

Imagine the cars are the rolling sidelines, or the rolling dugout. You can go back there, get food, talk to your coach, and get clothes, and not have to stop riding.

Ineos Grenadiers as the New England Patriots

The New England Patriots. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

OK, while Grandpa Jim is unlikely to ask you too many sporting questions about  Tour, there are a few storylines that might resonate with him. The plight of Ineos Grenadiers is a story that any sports fans can grasp. The dynasty in decline — will they right the ship?

Anyone who has cheered for the hated New England Patriots of the NFL is familiar with Ineos Grenadiers. The Patriots of 2021 are trying to get back to the Super Bowl without Tom Brady. Ineos Grenadiers is trying to win the Tour de France without Chris Froome. Tell your friends that Ineos has the budget of the New York Yankees and the recent dominance of the New England Patriots, but over the past two seasons they’ve lost their mojo, and other riders and teams are just better.

Then, tell them that their answer to Tom Brady isn’t exactly winning the Super Bowl with his new team.

Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel

Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel have broken the mold with their versatility. Photo: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Another storyline worth mentioning to your friends is the success of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. Over the past few decades, we’ve had it beaten into our collective understanding that cyclists are either sprinters, climbers, mountain bikers, or Tour de France GC riders. Now, we have two (three if you count Tom Pidcock) unicorns who can crossover disciplines, and blend specialities, to become all-around beasts on the bike.

Sprinters aren’t supposed to win mountain stages. Classics specialists aren’t supposed to win mountain-bike races. And neither guy is supposed to a great time trialist — yet, here we are.

Wout van Aert as Shohei Ohtani
Whether or not Wout van Aert has Ohtani fever is not yet known. Photo: Michael Owens/Getty Images

For Wout van Aert, a good modern comp is Shohei Ohtani, the awesome MLB pitcher who also hits towering home runs (or is he the home run hitter who is also the team’s best pitcher?). MLB fans understand just how historically good Ohtani is, and that his versatility hasn’t been seen in MLB in generations.

Wout can challenge Mark Cavendish for a sprint one day, and then go win over Mont Ventoux the next. I feel like that’s the cycling equivalent of throwing a 100mph fastball and then crushing a 400-foot home run to center field in the same game.

Mathieu van der Poel may be even more singular. Think Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, who were stars in baseball and NFL football at the same time. Now, add a third extremely difficult and competitive sport, like tennis. Imagine if Bo Jackson ran for touchdowns, smacked home runs, and then crushed Pete Sampras at Wimbledon.

Yeah, that’s how I’d frame Mathieu van der Poel.

Go forward, cycling enthusiasts, and spread the gospel of our sport with those in your surrounding. It’s our one shot to make bike racing of interest. Grandpa Jim, Dave from accounting, and the checkout lady at Safeway will undoubtedly be impressed.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.