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Jill RiceJuly 14, 2023
The peloton climbs the Côte de Remilly-Wirquin on Stage 4 of the 2022 Tour de France. (Photo by Felouch Kotek via Wikimedia Commons)

You don’t watch the Tour de France for the interpersonal drama between riders or team directors; you watch it for love of the sport or for the scenery. The same can’t be said for the Netflix documentary series, “Tour de France: Unchained,” which you watch for just these conflicts.

I am not sure how the Tour de France exists in some people’s minds, except as some nebulous cycling race in France, but it has been a part of my life since I was young. (My dad jokes that my birth disrupted his watching of the Tour in 2000.) So I consider myself somewhat of a Tour aficionado. Despite my knowledge of how it usually works—and how last year’s Tour in particular went—I found myself engrossed in the documentary made about arguably the world’s greatest sport.

One thing every Tour de France rider says—which is true for the sport as a whole—is that he is not racing for himself, but for his team.

However, it is not a U.S. sport. In recent years, American riders haven’t placed in the top 10, because professional cycling is so much less of a phenomenon here than in Europe. But perhaps this documentary will stir up more interest among Americans so that more people will watch the Tour when it occurs every July.

The show, subtitled in French “At the Heart of the Peloton,” is not created for people like my father, who watches only the race and skips the post-race interviews. If it were, it would be a strange recap of last year’s Tour with far too many voices providing input. It is instead in the vein of other recent sports documentaries, like “Full Swing,” “Drive to Survive” or “Welcome to Wrexham,” created to elicit interest in a sport that Americans do not usually watch.

With this as the goal, the documentary might attract new fans to the sport. People who do not generally watch the Tour might be interested enough to at least follow it on social media (and hopefully watch the full Tour).

A caveat: It is not a show for either diehard fans or newbies, but for those somewhere in between. I was a bit disappointed in how much was either explained or left unsaid. Too much felt explained (how the teams are structured) for a serious fan, but at the same time too little was explained (how the jersey system works or how someone is disqualified) for the uninitiated. The show also consists mostly of interviews with higher-ups of the Tour (Christian Prudhomme, general director) and riders and team directors. In contrast to the actual sport, there is remarkably little bike racing.

Still, I was able to appreciate the effort that went into this show, from its creators to the cyclists and team directors who all contributed. It follows the main contenders throughout the 2022 Tour, both on the road and in various interviews. The show focuses on certain teams each episode, corresponding to different stages in the race. One thing every rider says—which is true for the sport as a whole—is that he is not racing for himself, but for his team. There is no space for selfishness in the Tour, not in the long term. A three-week cycling tour on some of the most grueling roads in the world is impossible to do without the support of others.

The Tour de France reminds us that we need to rely on others to get through life. No one can go it alone.

The riders on every team must rally around a leader who theoretically could bring the team to victory. That means sacrificing personal glory for something greater than oneself. Early in the show, Wout van Aert, a lead-out man (or domestique) for the team Jumbo-Visma, breaks away and ends up winning Stage 4. All TV shows must have protagonists and antagonists, van Aert is unfairly painted as the guy who selfishly won a stage and didn’t help his team.

Every rider is human, even if his capacity on a bike seems superhuman. Van Aert placed first in that day’s stage, and his victory did not hinder Jumbo-Visma’s leader Jonas Vingegaard from winning not only the yellow, as the fastest rider, but also the polka-dot jersey, awarded to the person who climbs mountains the fastest.

Yet a few episodes later, in Stage 12, a very similar thing happens. This time, because it is later in the race and closer to the end of the Tour, assisting one’s leader is even more important. Tom Pidcock of Ineos Grenadiers breaks away from the pack and makes an astonishing 100 km/h descent. But in doing so, the series suggests Pidcock has “betrayed” his team leader—2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas—in the same sense that van Aert had done just over a week prior. The dramatization of the documentary can be rather shocking.

The same “Wout van Aert should only support Jonas” mindset reoccurs throughout the series, continually insinuating that van Aert works only for himself. But a year later, in the Tour taking place now, van Aert is getting only praise from commentators about how helpful he is to his teammate and team leader Vingegaard (and also to his team as a whole), increasing morale by both leading Vingegaard out and by winning stages. The end of the very last episode of the doc, when Vingegaard slows down to allow van Aert to win the stage, finally shows that the two riders are working together. But for some viewers, it might be too late for van Aert’s reputation.

The Tour de France reminds us that we need to rely on others to get through life. No one can go it alone; it is very rare that a rider who breaks away from the group early in the stage will make it to the end by himself. Every cyclist needs the others, including members of other teams, who can help with pacing even while fighting against him. But that challenge, pushing each other forward, is necessary for one of them to win.

The show successfully portrays the world’s greatest sport and the world’s greatest race, and just how someone can come to win it, against all odds.

In the show, interviews with riders discussing their mindset heading into a stage—Wout van Aert, Jonas Vingegaard, Neilson Powless, Rigoberto Uran, among many others—are interspersed with clips from the race. The show does not do a great job of showing what the race actually is: namely, a large group of riders, called the peloton (yes, what your exercise bike is named after), who pedal together for over 100 miles each day.

The show covers breakaways, sprints, mountain summits and more. There are also a lot of crashes; cycling is a dangerous sport. In the documentary, Sara Elen Thomas described how she watched her husband, Geraint Thomas, the 2018 TDF winner, fall off a cliffside while racing. In June during the Tour de Suisse, Gino Mäder died from injuries after crashing and falling off a cliff.

“Tour de France: Unchained” is not really like watching the Tour. It is shortened (each stage of the actual race is nearly as long as the entire documentary.) It is also more dramatized, with many more interviews than the Tour coverage generally has. But it provides all the excitement without the boring parts. I hope that more people are watching this year’s Tour (available on Peacock) after seeing the Netflix series. The show successfully portrays the world’s greatest sport and the world’s greatest race, and just how someone can come to win it, against all odds.

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