After more than 12 months of teasing, the much-anticipated Netflix documentary, Tour de France: Unchained, finally dropped last week. Here longtime BA journalist Peter Maniaty offers his insights into the highly-anticipated series … but does it live up to the hype?
Spread across eight episodes varying from 49 minutes to 34 minutes, ‘Unchained’ loosely follows the travails of eight teams competing in the Grand Boucle of 2022 and, by and large, is exactly what you’d expect it to be. Colourful. Noisy. Beautiful. Dramatic. Painful. Entertaining. (Oh, and with a thoroughly predictable ending given we already know who wins.)
The first instalment of this hugely ambitious fly-on-the-wall series was always going to be tricky, even for the acclaimed producers of ‘Drive to Survive’, Box to Box Films. There’s just so much to explain and establish, especially for casual observers who make up the bulk of the Netflix audience.
Whereas Formula 1 has just 10 teams and 20 drivers with at least one week between races (and often many more than that), the Tour de France is a far more complex beast to navigate – especially with its vast tangle of classifications, daily stages, 22 teams and no less than 176 riders, all needing to be unravelled. As cycling fans, we get this. But for the masses it’s a different story. Herein lies the problem.
Whilst I really enjoyed the series, I could never quite escape the feeling it was spreading itself too thin. Too many different faces, voices and storylines competing for my attention. It allbecame quite disjointed at times, jumping about like a waif-like climber trying to tackle the cobbles. Compare this to ‘The Least Expected Day’, also streaming on Netflix. This gritty fly-on-the-wall series began back in 2019 and shadows the Movistar team over the course of an entire WorldTour season. It has a much easier task as the focus is far narrower. One team. One manager. One set of personalities. One underlying narrative that can be built across multiple episodes. It’s now into its third season and, for me, it’s still the benchmark.
Looking back, the simplicity of the Movistar series is also why my favourite instalment of Tour de France: Unchainedwas episode 6, focusing predominately on Jasper Philipsenstriving to banish the demons of an embarrassing misplaced celebration earlier in the Tour. The story was clearer and the insights deeper, delivering a tighter and more coherent package.
With no narration to guide us, the Tour de France: Unchained story is instead told through the main protagonists themselves, with highlights including the ever-candid commentary offered by the likes of Geraint Thomas, Marc Madiot and Jonathan Vaughters. Patrick Lefevere even makes an appearance or two. Sprinkled in between are plenty of sound grabs from the two-wheeled combatants and their frequently-stressed directeur sportifs, together with a cavalcade of familiar faces and voices.
A Who’s Who, With Notable Ommisions
Everyone gets a run from Anthony McCrossan, Orla Chennaoui, David Millar and Christian Prudhomme (of course) to journalist Sebastien Piquet, the instantly recognisable voice of Radio Tour.
Also used prominently throughout the series is 39-year-old former pro and cyclo-cross rider Steve Chainel. Whilst perhaps well known in France, I found Chainel a very strange choice, especially for an international audience. I literally had to Google who he is. I kept asking myself, where is Jens Voigt?
Visually, the series is spectacular as we always knew it would be. France, together with Denmark for the Grand Depart, provide a majestic canvas perfectly-suited for loungeroom consumption on wide screen TVs. Sweeping drone shots are absolutely everywhere, and there’s crash porn aplenty of course. However I was a little surprised by the only sparing use of on-bike cameras.
As Velon has shown us time and again in recent years, in peloton footage is an absolutely gripping way to illustrate just how fast, close and skilful the riders are as they manoeuvre their way within the bunch. Personally, I’d love to have seen more of that.
Now it’s been released, the eight teams who took part in Season One will no doubt be delighted with the result, and their sponsors even more so. Brands like Ineos, Jumbo, Quickstep, Alpecin, FDJ and EF Education all get brilliant amounts of airtime. Which begs the question, why wouldn’t every team want to be part of this?
Where Are The Aussies?
As an Aussie, it was a shame that BikeExchange-Jayco – past masters of generating behind-the-scenes content – were basically nowhere to be seen, despite winning two stages with Dylan Groenewegen and Michael Matthews. In fact, the only dedicated coverage they received was 20 seconds or so during Stage 16 when Jack Bauer slammed unceremoniously into the back of the Team UAE Emirates team car. Team DSM equally missed a golden opportunity, with Romain Bardet at the pointy end of the GC for virtually the entire race, yet again barely mentioned. Same goes for Israel-Premier Tech.
Just on the subject of teams, it must be said the producers got very lucky, absolutely hitting the jackpot with Jumbo-Visma claiming six stage wins and being heavily involved throughout thanks to Wout Van Aert, Primož Roglič, Christophe Laporte and, obviously, Jonas Vingegaard. Pre-race favourites Team UAE Emirates were not one of the embedded teams in 2022, so as things turned out their relative underperformance (Tadej Pogačar still won 3 stages, mind you!) represented something of a bullet dodged. With the precedent now set, it will be interesting to see which other teams get on board for future editions and whether the producers and ASO will actually let them.
For me, Season One of Tour de France: Unchained was good without ever being great. It felt like a 6 out of 10 and I enjoyed it for what it was, but it won’t linger long in the memory. Hopefully Season Two, currently in production, will be far better with valuable lessons learned from 2022. Stronger character development. Simpler storylines. Deeper connections.
Less really is more sometimes.
Footnote: If you’re yet to watch it, do yourself a huge favour and select the French version with English subtitles.