The Televisual Tour de France on OLN: Confessions of a “Cynic”

by: Walter Metz / Montana State University-Bozeman

Bike Crash

Bike Crash

The state of television viewing in my household during the month of July is remarkable. For three entire weeks, my satellite dish’s Personal Video Recorder is running virtually non-stop shuttling the antics of Lance Armstrong on the Outdoor Life Network’s coverage of the Tour de France to the hard drive.

My family loves watching the tour, but I am firmly convinced that bicycle racing is a sport only televisable in the age of the PVR. Most of the time, the best riders sit back in a big group of bikes called the peleton. Lance Armstrong has won seven years in a row, and during most of the hundreds of hours of his victories, he has been hidden at the front of this peleton, flanked by his teammates (first on the U.S. Postal Service team; now, in perfect post-network fashion, Team Discovery Channel). The other team members are — in some gender studies crucial way — called domestiques because their job is to ride their bikes back and forth from the team car to get water so that Lance can keep properly hydrated.

For a sporting event, there is little of interest to watch during most of the race, except for the beautiful French countryside. Without the PVR to zap the commercials — a typical basic cable string of self-promos and John Basedow’s abdominal muscles — the boring race would begin to compete with the advertisements in a grand competition of stupefaction. Once in a while, Lance will decide to climb a mountain at a superhuman speed that no one else could possibly match, but he only needs to do this once or twice a summer to assure his overall victory in the “general classification,” as the genial British OLN announcers, Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett, refer to the overall race lead. The ends of most races feature a mad sprint, whose excitement lasts for less than one minute, but Lance does not join in for fear of a tour-ending crash. I keep hoping that Lance will lose, given the hype that OLN heaps upon him. Aren’t the other riders — perpetual second-place finisher, German Jan Ullrich and this year’s upstart, Danish Michael Rasmussen — just as heroic as Lance? Rooting for the hyper-scientifically-trained Lance strikes me as only slightly less offensive than rooting for the Yankees.

Bike Crash

Severe Bike Crash

It baffles me why anyone would want to ride a bike in the first place: It is a mode of transportation specifically designed to be a pain in the butt (and remember, I am a film scholar, whose primary function in life is to sit in uncomfortable chairs in the dark!). I have friends who ride to work with their infants in crazy yellow contraptions tied to the backs of their bikes, as an environmental statement, but no such thing can be true of the sport bicyclists, as they discard at least 100 plastic water bottles on each race course every day. In his winning podium appearance on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday, July 24, in which he was, in unprecedented fashion, allowed to address the crowd, Lance chided the “cynics” who dispute cycling’s importance. I speak to you as an unrepentant cynic: as a television critic, I find cycling as bizarre a televisual event as ever. For a different opinion, please see John Levesque’s defense of OLN’s coverage as “exotic” and “exciting,” two adjectives that would have never crossed my mind, ever.[1] OLN shows each stage of the race as many as four times a day, constituting somewhere between a half and three-quarters of its daily schedule. It is perfect narrow-casting: basic cable outlet OLN links its coverage to outdoors programming meant for viewers interested in fitness. That’s not me — my walk to the university’s library from my office is exercise enough, thanks — but I continue to watch. I wonder, however, what the future of the Tour de France coverage will be without Lance Armstrong. Like the NBC Olympics, OLN’s coverage is focused on Armstrong as a representative of the United States, despite the fact that Team Discovery Channel (and more ironically last year, Team USPS) is mostly an international conglomeration of bike riders. My guess is that OLN will air the tour next year as well, but the ratings will be so abysmal that they will abandon the tour like some sprinter done in by a hors categoire climb.

The implications of my family’s now three-year-old July ritual are profound, and indicative of the state of post-network television. I recently decided to suspend my satellite programming so that I could get more writing done, until it dawned on my wife that this meant missing next year’s Tour de France. This, it seems to me, is the brilliance of narrow-casting. Other than an occasional rodeo bull ride, we never even think about watching OLN outside the month of July. The fact that we cannot suspend our $100 per month programming because of one event in one month on one basic cable network is a pretty strong defense of their business model. Vive le television! Vive le tour!

[1] Levesque, John. “Tour de France an Exotic Diversion.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. July 21, 2005. Accessed: July 25, 2005.

Outdoor Life Network
Offical Website for Lance Armstrong
Bike TV

Image Credits:
1. Bike Crash
2. Severe Bike Crash

Please feel free to comment.


  • Christopher Lucas

    The TdF shows us how TV isn’t TV anymore

    Metz is right on the money that the TdF is ideal PVR-TV and narrowcasting at its most brutally manipulative, but the TdF also shows how TV no longer stops at its traditional boundaries. If anything, for me, taking in OLN’s TdF coverage at the end of each day was a capstone to a full days engagement with the race – the early-AM live feed was perfect “glance” TV, I’d keep it on all morning in the background and wait for Phil Liggett’s voice to go up an octave and then run into the room. Afternoon breaks were a good time for surfing the myriad TdF websites, fan sites for my favorite riders (ie not Lance), reading postmortems and tour gossip. Let’s have no confusion: pro cyclists are divas of the first order and a fast-moving stream of gossip and innuendo parallels the TdF like a sweet river of slime. Late at night I could email my cycling friends and tune in for the hi-jinks of Bob Roll and OLN’s “extended” coverage, which was a fun mish-mash of highlights and disinformation (check out the recent Armstrong profile in Outside magazine for an example of OLN as a Lance-centric disinformation machine). Yes, I too cede my July to the TdF. But national pride plays almost no role at all and TV’s role is necessary but not sufficient.

  • I am willing to bet that neither one of you are cyclists of any kind. With the way that ya’ll talk about cycling; i am disgraced to even have ya’ll on the internet. It is a shame that there are people like ya’ll. And in case you have ever ridden a bike like the do then you shouldn’t be talking about it like ya’ll are. And if you have ridden a bike to the point that you can’t see straight, and you can’t even unclip your self from the bike. When you can go out and ride with the local Tuesday-Thursday group and average 22 mph with only 3 people and as you sprint up the last mountain of the day and scream because you legs are on fire. Then and only then if you still hate the massive amount of satisfaction that you get out of it; can you talk about cycling like that. Please all cyclists that are reading this comment.

    Vincent Wallen16 y.o. Vancleave, Mississippi

  • slt tous les coureures
    c’est un beau tour de france.

  • USPS is amazing service. All USPS services are offering under USPS.

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