The Power of the Docuseries
In 2014, the first three stages of the Tour de France were held in the UK, with the third stage starting in Cambridge — not far from where I live. My mum thought watching it would be a great day out and I was happy to oblige; however, I could not have cared less about the race. My main memories of that day consist of being deadly bored the whole morning, waiting by the barriers for the cyclists, followed by a lovely afternoon punting. This was indicative of my attitude towards cycling until a week ago: indifferent.
Therefore, in June when I heard that Netflix had released yet another Drive to Survive-style docuseries which followed the 2022 Tour de France, I was unmoved. It had been recommended by a couple of friends; however, I was so wedded to the idea that cycling was uninteresting to me, that I preferred to rewatch The Summer I Turned Pretty. Yet, in the spirit of journalistic investigation, I sat down this weekend to test the hypothesis of whether an eight-part docudrama could get me invested in cycling.
It is almost embarrassing to say how quickly my mind was changed. Tasked with following 22 teams, 176 riders, and 21 stages over 2000 miles, the series covers a wide range of perspectives on the Tour. Following the Drive to Survive formula of focussing on the intriguing personalities of the sport, the first episode has you rooting for the underdogs, before you even know who their opponents are. Instead, the dominant teams and cyclists, such as the two-time champion Tadej Pogačar are presented as looming, untouchable threats. This is in fact because Pogačar’s team refused to partake in the docuseries, however the producers use this to their advantage.
I must admit that a lot of the time I really did not know what was going on. The way the Tour works is never fully explained, meaning that I am still at a loss as to how the general classification operates and I still do not know what a time trial is. However, the lack of explanation around the Tour and around professional cycling in general does not detract from the viewing experience. The series really goes back to the story-telling basics of following a character, their ambitions, motivations, and actions.
Of course, some story lines are more interesting than others and the series can lose momentum at some points when new cyclists and teams are introduced. However, with only eight episodes, with running-times between 34 and 49 minutes, everything is deliberate and ultimately leads to a better pay-off in the final episode which had me close to tears. I would not yet say that I qualify as a cycling fan; however, Tour de France: Unchained offered an engaging insight into one of the most physically demanding, emotionally draining, and picturesque sporting events in the world. I may not be watching all 21 stages of the Tour de France next year, but I will be sat down, ready for season two.