The soundtrack of the Tour de France
It’s July, and at our house, that means living vicariously through the race’s announcers.
Summer has the liveliest soundtrack. Half-closed windows pleasantly muffle the kids’ outdoor disagreements. One next-door neighbor’s shears clip-clip-clip through her bushes, while the other’s mower roars through his grass. My television, which rarely gets a rest in July, blares with the voices of two British men.
The Tour de France, the annual three-week bike race, is a visual riot. Sunflowers choke the fields of the country’s flatlands. Riders’ faces twist in the agony of climbing a 15-percent gradient. Sunlight sparkles off the shiny carbon frames that would look quite at home in my backyard.
I doubt I will ever see the Tour in person. Time, money, and logistics are not simple obstacles to overcome. But it has become my favorite sporting event. Not much gets done around my house in July, when I make the couch my semipermanent residence.
What draws me to a spectacle I have never experienced are the sounds of its presentation. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are the Tour’s longtime announcers. They are strait-laced Brits with corresponding language. Amid all the words that tumble from their mouths, my favorite is one they use to describe what the cyclists do every day.
Even heavy-legged riders like me are familiar with the term. “To suffer” is a verb. The word can also be used as a noun to describe the spirit of cycling. We all identify with it as we grind down flat roads, struggle up steep ramps, and fight to stay upright amid the peril of riding alongside drivers addicted to their phones. To me, the Phil-and-Paul pronunciation sounds like my final exhaled gasp as I crest the Blue Hill Access Road, my local climb.
These days, the Brits are not alone in providing my ears with sounds from the Tour. Last summer, for the first time, I bought a TV package that provided a commercial-free broadcast. Australians Matthew Keenan and Robbie McEwen were as delightful as the Brits in their presentation of language. When I find myself panting up the access road (about three-quarters of a mile long, 9.7 percent average gradient), I repeat, using their accents, a phrase to continue turning over the pedals: “Just cloym.”
Last year, the Tour picked up a complementary voice, albeit a dissonant one. Lance Armstrong is banned from participating in cycling events following his disgraceful exit from the sport. But he is free to comment from the fringes, which he chose to do via Stages, a daily podcast. It was insightful, explanatory, and honest. Armstrong, a native Texan, spends part of his year in Colorado. His voice contains an interesting blend of Austin flatness and Aspen cool. He says “dude” a lot.
I love it all: the athleticism of the participants, the tactics of the 22 teams, and the downright goofiness of a sport where match-thin riders in colorful Spandex relieve themselves on the curbs of French boulevards or from the seats of their bikes. Both the Brits and the Aussies call these “nature breaks” — rolling ones, for the cyclists who do their business while continuing to pedal.
As recreation, cycling can be lonely. While some riders like venturing out with their buddies, I prefer going solo. Cycling alone, especially free of city limits, can be a quiet exercise. Even then, your ears are your best friends. It’s important to pick up the sound of an approaching car and determine whether you have time to steer left around the sewer grate or stay right and chatter over its bars.
But when you’re out for three-hour stretches, you have a lot of time to occupy your thoughts. So I find myself riding with the voices of Phil, Paul, Matthew, Robbie, and Lance in my head as I execute my limited imitations of the pro cyclists. Men I’ve never met have become pleasant virtual companions.
Summer will eventually end. My kids will go back to school. Cooler days will send my neighbors indoors. Shorter days and brisker rides are coming.
But in my mind, it’s always summer on the road. The sounds of the Tour’s voices remind me of that.