The Tour de France: a 100-year-old bike race that spans an entire country. You know it better as the race Lance Armstrong turned his body into a mobile chemistry lab to win a bunch of times.
Like most Americans, for years I was as aware of the Tour as I am the booger hanging out of my nose when I meet someone new. My girlfriend is a huge fan of the Tour de France, so I guess that means I'm one, too. So for three weeks we suspended our normal TV and video game schedule to dedicate all of our free time to watching a bike race. These are the things I learned about a sporting event I used to know nothing about ...
#4. Cycling Fans Are Fame Whores
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I don't know when it happened, but at some point a strange phenomenon took hold of the world -- people started thinking that wearing a costume is a shortcut to getting noticed in a crowd. The stinky weirdos in front of Mann's Chinese Theater in LA and the audience of The Price Is Right are great examples, as are the diehard Tour de France fans who pack the thin, winding roads. To these fans, a bunch of whisper-thin dudes in tight stretchy pants on bicycles speeding by at 60 mph is an occasion to break out their man-thong and werewolf mask.
On any given race day you'll see Superman:
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Batman and his longtime crime-fighting partner, Terror Chicken:
The classic dude-in-boxers-running-with-a-dead-pig:
And, of course, Satan:
This is an actual, serious competition with actual athletes who train all year. We're not sure when fans decided to start ruining it, but by 2013, the Tour's roads look like this:
The guy dressed as the devil up there is the best example. His real name is Dieter "Didi" Senft. Watch footage of nearly any stage of nearly any Tour since 1993 and you'll find Didi as the devil, hopping around and running beside the cyclists. He travels ahead of the cyclists and paints a trident on the road to let home viewers and cyclists know he's coming up. It's like a serial killer's calling card, but for fame whoring.
So OK, but what do his parents say he does when their friends ask?
All of this would be fine if the costumed spectators viewed themselves only as spectators. They're unofficial drunk hurdles. They wait beside the road for hours, sometimes days, getting wasted. They close in around the cyclists as they pass, narrowing their path from a full road to a gauntlet of drunks. Way more often than you'd think anyone would allow, a drunk Superman or Borat will chase down passing cyclists -- sometimes in large herds of drunk people -- and try to touch the cyclists or talk to them as they try to complete a race so grueling that apparently the only way to win is to cheat.
Because they're only humans, the cyclists get fairly pissed off at the drunks chasing them down. This leads to professional cycling being unique in that ...
#3. It's the Only Professional Sport Where Athletes Can Hit the Fans
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In 2004, NBA player Ron Artest was suspended for 86 games after hitting a fan during a Pistons-Pacers game. The event was even given an ominous name that we're instantly supposed to associate with sadness upon its mere mention like it was 9/11 -- the Malice at the Palace.
Cyclists so regularly hit fans that the play-by-play announcers barely even acknowledge it. No one will be sued afterward and no one will be kicked out or banned. Nothing happens; the race just goes on. It's a bizarre, unspoken agreement between crazy/drunk spectator and drugged-up, ultra-competitive athlete: "You can act like a dick, but if I can't take it anymore, I'm knocking you the fuck out." To this, the fan wordlessly agrees. And then it happens and everyone's cool. It's incredible. If this were an American sporting event, there would be a couple of lawsuits, some countersuits, a lifetime ban, major fines, some forced apologies, and then a reality show on Bravo about the guy who got punched called Punch Drunk Doug. (The guy's name is Doug.)
Like in this video, wherein the guy who would go on to win this year's Tour, Chris Froome, hits a fan and the announcer talks about it for about eight seconds with no hint of shock before transitioning back into the play-by-play.
Or in this one from 2011, where the same thing happens and the announcer's only remark on it was "Well, that was not very nice," as if he was doing the play-by-play on a dog shitting on a neighbor's lawn.
Not that the punch matters. A cyclist's punch looks like a guy's imitation of a limp-wristed girl punch. Asshole fans should be glad cyclists' legs are too busy pedaling.
Cyclists Andre Greipel and Robert Forstemann, moments before they impose their will upon your genitals.
Everyone's a dick and everyone accepts it. But, it's France -- if stereotypes are to be believed, the French are a bunch of elitist dicks. That must be why ...