Before watching the latest Netflix docuseries Tour de France: Unchained I had no idea who Jonas Vingegaard was. I’m a golf journalist, and cycling just isn’t part of my world. My knowledge of the sport didn’t stretch far beyond understanding that bicycles have two wheels, and that Lance Armstrong was a doper.
If after reading that initial paragraph you’re now wondering how I’ve ended up writing for a cycling publication, it’s something I also thought would never happen. A close friend of mine who’s a cycling journalist messaged me saying he needed someone who was completely clueless about the sport. I ticked that box.
With that said, once I pressed play on the first episode of this TV show, I had finished it all within 48 hours. That statement might not mean much to most, but I can’t remember the last time I watched a film, let alone an eight-part series. It was an unexpected accomplishment.
The opening episode set an addictive tone from the off for a cycling newcomer as it followed Fabio Jakobsen’s jaw-dropping comeback story from a near-death crash. On-screen reporter Orla Chennaoui described his stage two win as “one of the greatest comebacks in the sport” and you would be hard pushed to argue with that. Tiger Woods’ triumph at the Masters in 2019 is a close rival, but perhaps I’m biased.
Despite the attention-grabbing start, I still had more questions than answers with regards to the sport. Why’s the race starting in Denmark? What’s a ‘sprinter’? What’s with the bizarre team names? There were some explanations for a newcomer like me, like what a ‘domestique’ is, but I needed even more. There wasn’t a map of the route in the first episode which seemed an obvious inclusion as well. Fortunately, I could call upon Google.
These fashionable sporting docuseries clearly have a fine line to balance in catering for the uneducated while still producing a compelling product for obsessives. Golf’s attempt in trying to emulate Formula One’s Drive to Survive – aptly named ‘Full Swing’ - didn’t succeed in this. It was good, but surface level at times and I found it boring, especially as a golf nut. I can’t say the same for this cycling equivalent as I was hooked straight away.
But, I could argue my engagement was because I had no idea what was coming next. Would Jakobsen win the Tour de France? Or has another rider got an even better story to come? It was like I was watching it live, and this was making me press ‘next’ on the remote. If I knew the outcome prior to watching, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to blast through all the episodes so quickly.
There was also another moment from the beginning of the series that stuck with me. Tom Steels described being in the peloton as “like being in a traffic jam at 200 kilometres an hour”. I thought this was a brilliant way to explain the constant wheel-to-wheel action at an incredibly high speed to someone who had no clue. I definitely had a new-found appreciation for the sport at this point; it’s not just a long endurance test as I once thought.
Bob Jungels won a stage in front of the Netflix cameras (Photo: James Startt)
Further stunning television followed in the cobblestones of stage six where Wout van Aert helped Vingegaard salvage time following the latter’s mechanical issues. However, it was another segment where I had questions. How exactly has Van Aert helped bring his team-mate back to the peloton? And if the Belgian’s that quick, why doesn’t he just try and win the race himself? Google wasn’t enough this time to answer my queries, I had to phone a friend.
Despite my confusion, which could have easily been my own failings at understanding the technicalities, I was still totally engrossed in this bike race. Each episode seemed to trump the one prior, and the chaos that enthralled the ride between Lille to Arenberg seemed a distant memory as the storyline progressed.
It was Bob Jungels turn for the Netflix limelight on stage nine as he won in four hours 46 minutes over 193 kilometres of mountainous terrain. That honestly blows my mind, and watching the Luxembourger triumph was also the first time we really saw the true beauty of France. Golf and cycling have very little in common besides one standout thing; both sports embrace nature to the max. I was starting to relate more and more with the obsession that cyclists have with their sport.
But despite the idyllic countryside on display through a multitude of breath-taking drone shots, there still appeared a gaping hole with no mention of doping. The lack of discussion around cycling’s dark side was a big surprise. As an outsider, I have a warped and unfair view on bike racing which has been fuelled by Armstrong being a cheat. Netflix allowed us in on Geraint Thomas getting a massage, but what I really wanted to see was the post-race drug testing. Or at least someone talking about it. This was a glaring absence.
However, what the show lacked in insight towards performance enhancing drugs it made up for in other areas. Steve Cummings’ tactic display board for the Ineos Grenadiers ahead of stage 11 was insightful and I actually paused this so I could read word for word what was on the screen. It was surprisingly simple for elite level competition.
The contributions of Orla, David Millar, Steve Chainel, and Marc Madiot were also instrumental in maintaining high engagement. They complemented the racing well and provided crucial context with their commentary and analysis. One bold statement came from Madiot, who described Thibaut Pinot's decline by saying: “There’s no place for feelings for people who achieve in the past.” Ouch.
The sound effects accompanying the visuals throughout were equally as impressive. The crunching of bike chains, swooshing of helicopter blades, and the energetic crowd cheers all contributed to an immense sense of urgency and drama. Watch parts of it on mute, and you’ll understand what I mean. It’s worth noting I watched the series dubbed, and I barely noticed it at times. The producers skilfully designed the audio to perfection, helping to elevate each moment of significance to greater heights.
Fabio Jakobsen narrowly makes it inside the time cut at the Tour de France (Getty Images)
As the series progressed, more personalities came to the fore with Tom Pidcock standing out as a really likeable maniac as the focus switched to him winning stage 12. This narrative helped make episode five the strongest in my opinion, with Jakobsen getting over the line in episode eight a close second. Alpe d'Huez was portrayed as an ultra-important part of the race, and the show illustrated this in depth as the Englishman secured his first stage win. Then, to watch him lying on his single bed after winning his first stage talking about eating chicken and rice really did make me laugh. It’s not all glamour in professional sport.
Jasper Philipsen also came across as another down-to-earth character that I warmed to. Netflix in general have done an excellent job here in showcasing the sport’s athletes as actual human beings, while keeping the integrity of the competitive nature of the race intact. Unfortunately, modern day sportspeople are overly guarded by agents, managers and the like, but this series seemed to escape much of that.
But it did start to become apparent by episode five that several major characters were missing, such as Tadej Pogačar. I’m sure the Slovenian's a lovely man, but I couldn't help think of him as a villain by the end of the full series through no fault of his own. I felt like I’d developed a fondness for the likes of Jakobsen and Jungels through listening to their honest interviews. I wasn’t given the opportunity to do so with Pogačar, but hopefully that changes with a possible second season.
I concluded the eighth and final episode wanting more, and there genuinely didn’t seem like there was a standout weak moment. Even watching Pinot feed his farm animals was somewhat engaging, but if I was being picky, his cameo in episode three would have to go down as the worst part. He seemed largely out of the picture to win a stage, and I felt like there may have been a better storyline to follow elsewhere.
Upon finishing it did now beg the question as to whether I’m now going to be fixated with cycling? No, but could I become a fan? Absolutely. The bigger talking point beyond my own personal satisfaction is will this Netflix show create more cycling enthusiasts? The statistics from Formula 1's Drive to Survive prove these series can greatly promote the sport. Eighty-five percent of casual fans have become more engaged in following F1 since the release of their documentary. It might be too early to determine if this cycling equivalent will achieve similar success, but I expect it will.
Tadej Pogačar's presence was a glaring omission from the Unchained series (Photo: James Startt)
I’m still very aware that the Tour de France is a brutal three-week race where there simply has to be some boring stretches. If the entire race is as energetic as the Netflix series portrays it be, I’m convinced these professional cyclists wouldn’t live very long lives. I was exhausted just watching them, and I later learned there are other similar races, such as the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. Their legs must really ache!
But on completion of Tour de France: Unchained, I now understand professional cycling isn’t just a doping-ridden mess that I once thought it was. I was poorly informed and wrong. This docuseries not only enthralled me for the best part of eight hours, but I felt educated on a passionate sport. The pain, suffering and sweat that these athletes put into their craft is admirable and highly impressive.
I won’t be ditching the clubs for a set of wheels anytime soon, or choosing to watch the Tour de France over the Open Championship this July. But I will be keeping a keen eye on the race, and praying there’s another edition of this show in the not-so-distant future. I’ll even have a look at the full racing calendar to see what else is to come throughout the year. Netflix has truly impressed me with this release, and I'm eagerly anticipating the possibility of a second season. As someone totally new to the world of cycling, I would give this a solid nine out of 10.
Cover photo by James Startt