Fortunately, the recently released Netflix series Tour de France: Unchained, plunges you into “the heart of the peloton” (which is also its French subtitle). But it does more than just put you in the heart and heat of racing; it also reveals so much of what we almost never hear or read about, the relationship between the riders and the team coaches following them in cars during a race, and how much these coaches endure and how hard they work. If you’re sensitive to expletives shouted in anger or joy, you might want to turn down the sound during these scenes. But for me, they provided an invaluable insight into the behind-the-scenes drama that accompanies the riders on the rods of the Tour.
Tour de France: Unchained (or Tour de France: Au cœur du peloton) is must-see entertainment for both sophisticated cycling fans and Tour-maniacs as well as for those who are new or just curious about the sport and the race. While it begins with the expected platitudes about the Tour’s status (“the biggest bike race in the world,” “it’s toughest race in the world”, “it’s an event that touches everyone,”), it soon goes on the prove those declarations in ways that are both touching and jaw-dropping.
Here is the Belgian Soudal–Quick-Step domestique Yves Lampaert describing his feelings after his first (and so far only) Tour stage victory, at age 31, when he unexpectedly won the Prologue time trial of the 2022 Tour: “My mind is exploding. I’m just a farmer’s son from Belgium. To do this I never expected.” Or the great Belgian multi-purpose Jumbo-Visma rider Wout van Aert after sacrificing his personal ambitions to rescue team leader Jonas Vingegaard in the brutal stage 5 of the race, after Vingeaard had lost precious time to his rival Tadej Pogačar because of a mechanical malfunction: “I had to help then, I had no choice, because I am also nothing without the team.” If anything, Unchained makes it abundantly clear that Grand Tour racing is above all a team sport.
It is also a sport that demands everything of its athletes, and then takes even more from them. As van Aert put it, in one of the many enlightening confessions that make this series so valuable: “Dealing with the pain is one of the biggest challenges of cycling. Luckily I like to hurt myself.”
There are moments of pure magic and moments of sheer madness in Unchained, and there are moments that have both, such as Tom Pidcock’s breakneck, 105kph descent of the Col du Galibier on stage 12, which set up his winning the stage on the Alpe d’Huez. And there are moments of absurd heartbreak, such as Fabio Jakobsen’s desperate solo climb of the Hautacam, with teammates shouting encouragement from the finish line, to make the cutoff time on stage 18, so that he could remain in the race and try to win the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées. He made the cut by 15 seconds, but lost his chain just as he set off on that sprint three days later. And it’s rare indeed to watch a film or TV series in which so many strong men are shown crying, whether from joy or disappointment.
If the series has a glaring flaw, it is Pogačar’s absence. His UAE Team Emirates did not permit camera access to the filmmakers, so one of the race’s main protagonists, the rider who had won the previous two Tours, is largely absent from the drama. I also think that far too much is made, in the French voiceover, of van Aert’s decision to ride for a stage win rather than help Vingegaard after a mechanical problem. As van Aert explains, there are situations in a Grand Tour race when it is impossible to make the right decision, and this was one. And, finally, there is too much voiceover, as if the filmmakers did not trust their own powerful images. By telling us what our eyes are seeing, the words sometimes diminish the drama.
But all in all, this is powerful viewing, dramatic, moving and highly entertaining. You can feel the pain and suffering of the riders when they dig deep into themselves to gain an extra few seconds and you can literally hear their pain when they crash to the ground in a tangle of mangled bikes. If you love cycling and the Tour de France, this series will make you better understand why you do. It will also increase your respect and admiration for the riders, who are shown to be true heroes. And if you’re new to the sport of cycling or indifferent to it, it will hook you and pull you into its irresistible heart.