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REVIEW: Tour de France – Unchained Season 2

Hopefully Season will be better with stronger character development, simpler storylines and deeper connections.” 

It’s almost 12 months to the day since I wrote these words about Season 1 of Tour de France: Unchained. Having just binge-watched all eight episodes of Season 2, which dropped last Tuesday on Netflix, it seems the producers have indeed made some deftly handled adjustments. If Season 1 was like a hard-working UCI Continental team, Season 2 has graduated to the very summit of the UCI World Tour.

Last year everything seemed a bit fragmented, with each episode trying to cover far too much ground. This time, the balance is pretty much perfect with a series of carefully chosen sub-stories framed within the broader narrative of cycling’s most famous race. In some ways it’s like watching a movie you’ve already seen. Familiar at one level, yet it’s shot from completely new angles offering far more intimate access to the characters, revealing entirely different layers of the story. It’s a proven formula and it works beautifully.

Many of the main protagonists from Season 1 are back, led by Jumbo-Visma (as they were still known in 2023) with reigning champion Jonas Vingegaard, Wout Van Aert, General Manager Richard Plugge and Sports Director Grischa Niermann. However in a significant addition, Team UAE Emirates also shares the spotlight for Season 2, providing another dimension through unrivalled access to Tadej Pogačar and Co in their three-week quest to loosen Vingegaard’s grip on the prized maillot jaune. The contrast between the two teams is fascinating.

Jasper Philipsen’s sprint dominance in the 2023 Tour sees him and his Alpecin-Deceuninck masters take on a far more prominent role in Season 2. Over the course of the eight episodes the Belgian sprinter and his team boss, Christoph Roodhooft, emerge somewhat as the bad guys of the peloton, given their seemingly brutal approach to winning, even with others crashing all around them. “What do others think of us?” ponders Roodhooft at one point, before shrugging. “We don’t care what other teams think.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jumbo-Visma boss, Richard Plugge – “We don’t want the popularity prize” – who comes across as being especially calculating in everything he does and says, at once stage throwing rival team boss Marc Madiot (Groupama-FDJ) under the bus for supposedly allowing his riders to get on the beers during the second rest day.  Never mind that Madiot vehemently denied the accusation, it all makes for great content, right?

For me, one of the greatest attractions of Tour de France: Unchained is that the producers rarely pull their punches – something that no doubt has few noses out of joint right now. For example, after Jonas Vingegaard’s demolition of the field on the Stage 16 uphill time trial, episode six quite openly explores the doping insinuations being levelled against the Dane. 

“How does he do it? Where is this energy coming from?” asks one French commentator, his words dripping with innuendo as Vingegaard relentlessly pursues Felix Gall on the Col de la Loze to Courcheval on Stage 17, Pogačar having long since cracked. To their credit, Plugge, Vingegaard and Niermann, all speak frankly about the accusations in front of the cameras, despite it clearly being a source of ongoing irritation.

Elsewhere, Mark Cavendish features prominently in the earlier episodes, as does his wife and family. You get the strong impression the producers were very keen to document the sprint legend’s quest to break the all-time record for Tour wins (currently shared with Eddy Merckx). Alas, a broken clavicle on Stage 8 ended Cav’s race and, with it, any more camera time for Astana-Qazakstan. Sorry Vino.

Like the Tour itself, Season 2 is filled with every type of human emotion. Director Sportifs routinely going berserk in their team cars. Vanquished riders swearing as they punch their equipment or seats on the team bus. Team-mates hugging wildly and celebrating with champagne glasses raised. Heaving fans waving flags and screaming obscenities on the roadside. But surely no moment can match the emotion-charged Stage 10 victory of Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) at Issoire, just weeks after the tragic death of team mate Gino Mäder at the 2023 Tour de Swiss. Barely a dry eye in the house, or team car.

Stitching together the tale of an epic three-week bike race in just eight episodes is no small feat. Structurally, the producers make clever use of studio interviews (no doubt recorded retrospectively), with a variety of riders, team officials and journalists such as GCN’s Orla Chennaoui engaged to help provide natural links between the different storylines and stages of the race.

From a purely Australian perspective, it was a shame GreenEDGE was once again nowhere to be seen. However, their absence was certainly offset by the excellent exposure given to both Jai Hindley and Ben O’Connor, who feature regularly with their teams throughout the series. Whilst Hindley (is his voice really that deep?) enjoys his moment in the sun, a stage win and the yellow jersey on Stage 5, and comes across as a thoroughly decent bloke, O’Connor’s story arch is far more complex. The earlier episodes certainly don’t paint him in the best of light, as the AG2R-Citroen team leader struggles to have an impact on GC. However, the Western Australian makes a spirited comeback towards the end of Season 2, supporting team mate Felix Gall to an historic victory on Stage 17 before going close to winning himself from the breakaway on Stage 19 to Poligny.

Looking back, I’d give the second season of Tour de France: Unchained an enthusiastic 9 out of 10. Yes, the fly-on-the-wall insights are fantastic. Yes, the scenery is spectacular. Yes, there’s action and crash porn aplenty. But ultimately it’s the human stories that bind it all together and make for compelling viewing thanks to tighter, narrower storylines and a far clearer narrative.

I loved it. How about you?

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