Lights, camera, Netflix: The flies on the wall at the Tour de France

Team insiders explain what the Tour de France has been like with riders being followed by Netflix documentary crews

Lights, camera, huge sound beam recording every conversation had in the teams’ paddock. 

The Netflix crew filming a documentary series about the Tour de France this year are dressed in the uniform of the squads they’ve been embedded with since spring but aren’t incognito. 

In the paddock their recording equipment can appear at any time, hanging over you like a giraffe canvassing a tall tree for food. 

They move in different ways, unaccustomed to the unwritten rules of the press pack at the Tour but are equally not in the way, just watching, listening, ever present. 

Everyone outside of those involved is an unpaid extra. 

The sound beam with the huge, fluffy microphone at the end of an elongated black pole you sometimes don’t realise, other times you become self-conscious of it and stop just short of turning around and asking whoever is holding it, plus the producer with them, to butt out and get their own interview.

Their equipment isn’t conducive to an open, relaxed conversation amid the team buses where the real stories of the Tour are whispered and written. 

They’re also the only media that wasn’t booted out of the paddock at stage starts in what was a knee-jerk reaction to Covid-19 cases earlier. 

Read more: Beat the heat  – how pro riders hydrate and acclimatise during the Tour de France

A lot has already been said of the streaming service’s foray into pro cycling. 

The narrative, Ineos Grenadiers deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth says is to showcase the sport but not all teams were invited to take part.

BikeExchange-Jayco were keen to be involved, having an in-house videographer and strong social media presence already, but weren’t asked. Tadej Pogacar’s UAE Team Emirates squad declined, citing what Velonews reported in March as “logistical issues and lukewarm need to added exposure at this point in time”. 

Ellingworth was a fan of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, which gave an insight into Formula One. 

“We were quite up for the project. It’s great for the sport and you look at some of the work that’s been done, the sports covered, and I don’t know, personally I really enjoyed the Drive to Survive series,” Ellingworth said. 

“Their narrative is to show cycling in its, you know, how it works, what’s the tactics, how does the whole organisation work. Their narrative isn’t picking up on anything else. We’ve been dead open with them. 

“Maybe, typical me, people have been saying I want to see their plans, and I’ve been helping them where they’re best to be. We’ve been working pretty well together.” 

Like flies on the wall, the Netflix crew apparently don’t talk back to anyone outside of the project about the project. One journalist at the Tour was told crew had signed non disclosure agreements. Rouleur hasn’t verified that. 

The crew embedded with Ineos Grenadiers has followed Filippo Ganna, Geraint Thomas and Daniel Martínez at the Tour and in the lead-up to it. The team put Tom Pidcock forward as well, but Netflix wanted only three riders. 

That Ineos Grenadiers wants to expand on Tom Pidcock’s involvement in mountain biking and that he celebrated his first Tour stage win on race debut last week is, one could say, unlucky. 

Michael Mørkøv, before finishing outside the time cut on Sunday, admitted he was initially apprehensive about the project. 

His Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team is one of eight, including Ineos Grenadiers, EF Education-EasyPost, AG2R Citroën, Alpecin-Deceuninck, Bora-Hansgrohe, Groupama-FDJ and Jumbo-Visma to sign up. 

Geraint Thomas is one of the riders being tracked by a Netflix crew (Getty)

It’s understood teams get a financial kick-back for their involvement. 

“I was a bit nervous, or having second thoughts about it, because I assumed they did already a lot of series like that and I was curious to see how they would work in our group,” said Mørkøv

The 37-year-old lead-out specialist works closely with sprinter Fabio Jakobsen, who Netflix tracked along with world champion Julian Alaphilippe and sports director Tom Steels. 

“But the guys who joined us were super respectful,” Morkov continued. 

“For me, it hasn’t been disturbing at all. 

“They’re quiet, they’re just standing there. Usually, they tell you when they’re there, which is nice we know they’re there. So far, it’s been a pleasure. 

“I really just hope they’re going to expose cycling for the beauty side of the sport to maybe people who don’t follow cycling before, but also for the fans.” 

Ellingworth said that the crew following his team stay in close proximity but have been understanding of boundaries. 

“If you want them to stop filming you can ask them to stop filming,” he said. 

“It’s like anything, if you’re talking about a rider personally, something at home or whatever, we say stop filming.  

“All the riders know they can just ask them to stop at any time if they want to talk about something different.”

All reality TV fans would hope that means at least one throwing the mic down, walking off set scene at least. In the third week of the Tour when accumulative fatigue sets in, you haven’t seen your family for close to a month or stayed in the same place for more than a couple of days, let alone the racing, strict diets, insanely close quarters, that is more likely than not. 

Talking about something different, anything different than the Tour is also something racers start to crave when they’re competing because in July that’s all they’re asked about, that’s all they talk about. Some read books, listen to music, even hide to escape it.  

There’s plenty of literature and movies out there about cycling and the Tour especially, but the beauty of the race is that there is an endless supply of narrative. Everyone’s individual experience is different and the set, so to speak, changes daily. 

Lights, camera, bring it on … but don’t include this extra in it, especially in the third week of the Tour when everyone is on the limit and appears to have prematurely aged.