On The Tour De France And Time

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“Time passed indifferently, barely leaving a trace.” – Haruki Murakami,
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

“For these riders, time is running out.” – Phil Leggett

Though the event ended a few days ago, the last few weeks had me watching a lot of Le Tour de France. (I also wrote about Le Tour two years ago here.) By turns enthralling and humdrum, the cycling race put me in a zone while giving me stuff to think about. While watching this year’s race I thought about why I enjoy it so much. Some of the obvious reasons: the spectacular scenery, my recognition as an endurance enthusiast that the cyclists are pumping out mile after mile of steady speed, wattage, and high heart rates, and of course, the magnificent play-by-play commentary, especially the careful words of veterans Phil Leggett and Paul Sherwen. Phil is particularly good; he could narrate the goings on of a bee hive and I’d watch, totally entranced. But a deeper reason for my affection for the TDF is that it slows down my sense of time.

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Clocking in at twenty-one days, the TDF is the longest televised sporting event. For some two thousand miles, it just goes and goes and goes. For most of July you can tune in every morning and see cyclists snake their way through the French countryside and mountains. Progress–for both the cyclists and you the viewer—appears slow. On any given day at any given moment not a lot seems to be happening, in part because the distances the cyclists must traverse are so immense. Those aerial helicopter views of the peloton give you a sense of the vastness of the natural landscapes of forest, rock, and sky against which the cyclists appear as mere specks, pedaling away.

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My sense of time shifts when I watch the TDF. I notice change in much more gradual increments than what I’m used to, gauging progress happening so slowly, so imperceptibly, sometimes with the threat of potential drama up ahead (incoming bad weather, a steep decline), but usually nothing once we actually get there. And then I reach a point during the day’s TV coverage where I don’t care so much that it’s even a race and that the athletes and their teams are fiercely competing to come out on top. The TDF has become pure process, a very slow rhythm (distance traveled) with very fast subdivisions (the cyclists’ pedaling cadence). In a welcome change from my everyday soundscape, the race is like a music without sound, a performance that begins in one place, takes you on a gradual journey, and then ends when it’s done.

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