Going home after a long court hearing on one of our First Amendment cases over timely access to new court filings, I poured a glass of red wine and turned on the Tour de France.
The Tour is a summer idyll that I now look forward to every year, a way to speed the hot month of July on its way. When I started watching it, it was broadcast on the somewhat obscure History Channel and it took dedication to follow the stages.
But now the race is broadcast on a mainline sports station, NBC Sports, and the analysts are quite lively, while the action is often dramatic. But what makes it such a pleasant accompaniment to a glass of wine are the helicopter shots of the French coastline and countryside.
The imagery takes the mind entirely away from court hearings and legal battles and transports you from your couch onto a slow, day-by-day voyage through a country that has nurtured and kept a balance between small farmers and a lush earth.
With all the over-touristed destinations in southern France, it can be easy to forget the pastoral beauty of the country and the simplicity and charm of the small French towns with a central area, old stone buildings, a couple cafes and a few shops.
I was watching stage 4 from La Baule to Sarzeau that day and the shots of the Golfe de Morbihan in Brittany were stunning, from on high showing the interplay of land and shallow sea, the intricate pattern of small evaporating ponds where salt is harvested.
The sinewy lazy curves of the river Vilaine come onto the TV screen, a river that kind of cuts off the arm of Brittany. It flows from San Malo on the English Channel in the north, meanders in a southwest direction and flows out into the Atlantic below La Roche-Bernard.
The helicopter images are interspersed within the coverage of the race taken by a cameraman riding on the back of motorcycle. The crashes are frequent and the race planners have sprinkled intermediate sprints into the course of the race where points are accumulated.
A 28-year-old American cyclist from Boulder, Taylor Phinney, provides often-funny video sketches from inside and around the team bus. And the excitable former German professional rider Jens Voigt provides highly accented and slightly wild opinions.
The closing drama of the sprinters riding for the finish line is truly exciting as the riders draft on each other, work with their teammates who force an opening in the pack and, at the perfect moment, allow the champion to launch on a high-speed, desperate blast of cycling, swinging ahead and stay ahead in the rush to the finish line.
In the daily ceremony that concludes that day’s racing, the French, compared to us Americans, seem to display a lack of complication about displays of femininity. A different pair of comely women stand beside the champions in various categories, yellow for the overall leader, green for the top sprinter – generally the affable Slovak Peter Sagan – polka dots for the king of the mountains and white for the under-25 leader.
The women in matching dresses put the jerseys on the men, give them bouquets of flowers, and receive kisses on both cheeks in return.
The overall routine is familiar but within each day is both drama and beauty. The French countryside provides the frame, the beauty. The race designers who seem to delight in making things difficult for the riders, with cobblestones in places, narrow roads, sharp turns, brutal climbs, and the riders themselves – all provide the drama.
In the past year and a half, I have generally watched the news before any sporting event. I have looked forward to the news broadcasts, wondering what new craziness the day would bring from the national administration, what new, jaw-dropping outrage would overtake the same from the day before. But, maybe it’s the summer weather, these days, I would rather watch the Tour.
Watch the bikes whizzing along, hear the helicopter’s chop as it circles a church or a chateau or cruises along a mountain ridge or swoops along the coastline, listen to the analysis of the challenges and personalities in the race, and slowly sip the red wine, in a welcome reverie.