Tour de France: Unchained Season 2 Reveals the Drama, Beauty and Danger of the Sport

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The Netflix series Tour de France: Unchained 2 is quite different from its 2023 predecessor, which was thrilling but incomplete, for the simple reason that road racing is as complex as a Russian novel and cannot be accurately portrayed in a single season. Another reason the first part of this series left me a bit hungry was that UAE Team Emirates did not open its doors to the filmmakers, and thus deprived us of a close-up and personal look at not only the greatest rider of his generation but also the most fascinating – Tadej Pogačar.

That has been rectified in this year’s offering so viewers are treated to a more comprehensive look at the duel in last year’s Tour between the Slovenian – who was coming off an injury suffered in the Liège–Bastogne–Liège, which compromised his chances – and Jonas Vingegaard who won his second yellow jersey in a row last year.

But Unchained Season 2 was, unfortunately, forced to add another element of road racing, a reminder that the high-speed sport we love is, sometimes, a matter of life and death. Episode 1 opens with AG2R-Citroën’s Ben O’Connor being informed of the death of Swiss rider Gino Mäder in a high-speed crash during his home race, the Tour de Suisse.

“This death reminded us of our fragility,” O’Connor says, though I’d say that, given that no race is without its harrowing incidents and crashes, a road racer must be aware every time they sit on a bike of just how vulnerable they are at 100 km/h. Julian Alaphilippe’s comment, following a minute’s silence in Mäder’s memory, comes closer to expressing a road racer’s fragility: “We are nothing on Earth and even less on a bike. Just mentioning Gino gives me the chills.”

This issue is particularly pertinent this year as the sport has suffered two mass crashes, at the Itzulia Basque Country and, recently, in the Critérium du Dauphiné. Every year, new speed records are set for races and every year, there are more serious crashes and more injuries. It is becoming an issue begging for a remedy.

Because this is a French production, Unchained Season 2 spends a lot of time on French riders, focusing, for example, on Alaphilippe’s feud with his Soudal–Quick Step boss, Patrick Lefevere. The always acerbic Lefevere had criticised the French two-time world champion’s weak performances, which were due largely to a series of crashes and illnesses he had suffered.

But Alaphilippe is a straight shooter. “You want the truth? I was crap on this Tour,” he admits, adding, however: “How much am I paid? A bit too much for Patrick, I think.”

The French focus also provides what is arguably the most moving chapter of the series, the last ride for Tour glory by the valiant Thibaut Pinot and the marvellous support he received from his fans at the “Thibaut curve” as he passed them in his last-ever Tour mountain stage with a 26-second lead. He finished seventh in the stage.

Alpecin-Deceunick’s ITT specialist Jasper Philipsen, who went from “Jasper Disaster” to “Jasper the Master” in this Tour, also gets his due en route to a dominant green jersey championship.

Mäder is again a subject of the series in episode 4, which focuses on Bahrain Victorious’s attempt to win a Tour stage in honour of their deceased rider. The most articulate and emotional characters in this chapter are Pello Bilbao and Matej Mohorič. The latter falls short of a victory on the unforgiving slopes of the Puy de Dôme on stage 9 but Bilbao gets the win on the very next stage and then manages to contain his emotions as he thanks his family for helping him cope with the loss of his friend, adding: “I needed to do my best for Gino.”

Episode 7 shows Mohorič’s emotional, articulate and deeply philosophical interview after he, too, gets a stage victory, on stage 19. The win, he said, “means a lot because it’s just hard and cruel to be a professional cyclist. You suffer a lot in preparations. You sacrifice your life, your family and you do everything you can to get here ready. And then, after a couple of days, you realise that everybody here is just so incredibly strong that it’s just so hard to follow the wheel sometimes.”

That interview should be required viewing for all athletes.

Of course, the marquee battle between Pogačar and Vingegaard is not omitted, with the Slovenian’s shocking collapse on stage 17 featuring prominently. This follows a bit of controversy after Vingegaard’s super-human performance in the stage 16 time trial where he beat Pogačar by 1:38. This inspired the always controversial Marc Madiot to hint darkly, “At some point, the truth will come out.”

The always sober Vingegaard replies to the slur by gazing straight into the camera and saying, convincingly, “I am clean. Even in a hundred years, nothing will be found in my samples.”

So, Tour de France: Unchained Season 2 reminds fans just how much non-racing drama takes place during the Tour but wisely focuses its cameras on the racing drama, which, as in Season 1, is thrilling, scary and highly entertaining. The series is not perfect, of course, but it’s a challenge to carve sense out of the always chaotic and frenetic competition that is road racing.

Any fan of the sport will be delighted by all eight episodes, interested not-yet fans will be enlightened and seduced, and everyone who watches the series will be richly entertained.