Netflix is giving the Tour de France the "Drive to Survive" treatment. Here's 5 ways it could work.
PLEASE LIKE MY SPORT
The fourth season of Netflix’s heralded Drive To Survive series is out today. The show has catapulted U.S. interest in Formula 1 to heights previously unthinkable, and the 2021 season was so deliciously dramatic that I’m sure DtS season four will continue drawing American eyeballs to F1.
And, hey, it worked on me! In the course of a few months, I went from only being vaguely familiar with Ayrton Senna to guffawing at Mercedes’ decisions on when to pit and standing up and hollering when Danny Ricc won at Monza.
DtS, to its credit, does a great job of showcasing both the racing and the personalities in F1. A bunch of posh (mostly) European superstars rubbing sidewalls at 200+ miles per hour then gossiping about it after the race is pretty foolproof television. Add in a few shooeys and sympathetic underdog stories and boom, there’s your hit show.
You can imagine my excitement when The Telegraph broke the news last week that the same production company that made DtS is working on a series about the 2022 Tour de France for Netflix.
This is a huge opportunity for cycling. TV ratings for the sport are whelming at best, and sponsorship money in the post-Lance era is hard to come by: The world’s best cyclists earn less than what an NBA rookie makes!
If cycling can get half the attention from this series that F1 did from DtS, that’d be bigger than Julian Alaphilippe wearing yellow on Bastille Day. That analogy will make sense in a few paragraphs, bear with me.
But I don’t think copying the things that work for F1 in DtS and pasting them onto a cycling backdrop would necessarily work. Despite common denominators like shady team benefactors and puncture-related stress in race situations, cycling isn’t F1 just slower and in Lycra.
So, Netflix, come on over here. Take a seat. Listen. We, the cycling commentariat, need you to nail this one for us. We need a win. We need people out there on screens wearing head-to-toe spandex looking cool. Here are some humble suggestions on how to make this series the next phenomenon:
1. Introduce the elephant in the room
Everyone watching this show will be thinking about the D-word. Doping is the indefatigable boogeyman of cycling, always lying in wait and evermore likely to rear his head at the Tour where the most money’s out there to be made.
For better or worse, there have been some foreshocks of a possible doping scandal earthquake in recent years. Tadej Pogačar, the Tour’s two-time defending champ, has looked…unprecedentedly dominant since coming out of lockdown and it’s been met with some accusations and plenty of skepticism.
It’s not just Pogačar. There are some modern teams, though Pogačar’s is one of them, who’ve hired the very same doctors that helped pump Lance, his whole U.S. Postal team and their competitors full of EPO 20 years ago, drawing what I think is some fair criticism.
(An aside: The biopharma company that pioneered EPO is Amgen, and it’s mainly used to increase red blood cell count in people with anemia. Amgen is also the title sponsor of the only-mostly-dead Tour of California. I could not make this up if I tried.)
It’s unlikely the sport is as dirty as it was in the 1990s and 2000s. But die-hard fans are thinking about doping. Riders in the peloton are thinking about doping. The broadcasters are thinking about doping but can’t say anything.
In DtS some team principals took shots at Ferrari when they got popped for bending the rules. For this Tour series, bring in some shaded-silhouette confessionals and altered voices, and let people sound off.
2. Lean into the nasty.
Cycling, despite its shiny bikes and the scenic vistas, is very hard and kinda gross.
Riders are in a pretty high baseline level of pain over the course of three weeks at the Tour, and it’s that grit-your-teeth-and-pedal-for-dear-life aspect of racing that can make it so thrilling.
Formula 1 drivers sweat, like, alarming amounts in the car, but that’s kind of the extent of it. Tom Dumoulin shit his britches on live television in the most critical moment of the 2017 Giro d’Italia (the Tour, but in Italy) and went on to win the race. It was incredible.
So circle Stage 5 of the Tour and pray for rain. 12 miles of cobblestones awaits the peloton that day, and hooo boy it could be a mess. The cobbles alone bring surefire entertainment, but when you add rain…
Look at those men. It’s like they’re flavor-blasted with grime.
3. Explain how the racing actually works
Drafting, breakaways and the general classification competition are really all you need to understand to enjoy the Tour de France, but it’s not easy stuff to pick up on.
Devoting a decent amount of time to explaining why certain teams would be motivated to chase a breakaway, and how big of a deal drafting is would connect the dots. Hell, you could even splice in Cosmo Catalano’s outstanding explanations of cycling tactics.
Just as understanding the undercut, tire selection and teammates blocking is crucial to watching an F1 race, it’s essential for casual fans to know what echelons are and why they form in crosswinds in cycling.
4. Focus on the teams looking for stage wins
Not everyone shows up to the Tour de France looking to win the general classification (which goes to the rider with the shortest overall time. They’re the one who gets the yellow jersey at the end).
No, in fact, most teams don’t have any interest in that. Most show up just wanting to take one, two, maaaaaybe three of the Tour’s 21 stages. These are the battles that are most fun to watch each day.
DtS did a great job of this by highlighting teams that are simply chasing points, not necessarily the championship. Same concept here. The teams hunting stages race more aggressively and seeing who gets their golden goose with a stage win each day is pretty much always more exciting than the GC. Especially when Pogačar’s likely to have it wrapped up after the first week.
5. If in doubt, follow Julian Alaphilippe
In addition to having a name that is deeply satisfying to say, Julian Alaphilippe is the most likable, electric rider the sport has.
In 2019 he very nearly won the yellow jersey on complete accident, and that is something so silly and unlikely that I can hardly explain how much of a feat it was that he was in the running at all.
He attacks even when it’s a bad idea and it tends to work because he’s just that strong. In this clip he’s with a group of the world’s best bike handlers as they fall down a mountain at what I’m guess is at least 40 miles per hour. He’s at the back of the group and 30 seconds later he’s at the front. That’s the cycling equivalent of overtaking eight cars on the last lap of the Monaco Grand Prix.
Cyclists aren’t usually the most personality-filled athletes. These are people who spend thousands of hours on their bike training alone every year. They’re not often exuberant or media-savvy, but Alaphilippe gets it. He’s an entertainer.
He might not have potential to steal the show how Ricciardo does in DtS (He might not even speak English), but Julian Alaphilippe has personality and *something* is going to happen involving him in the 2022 Tour.