David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” is a sprawling, impossible novel, 1079 pages long with hundreds of foot and end notes that break up and expand on the multiple plot lines. It chronicles the tragi-comic exploits of a Canadian separatist group, a prep school tennis player and a half-way house addict, among others. It’s a book that bites off far more than any one novel could chew, but it is absolutely and stunningly brilliant.
The Tour de France is an impossible bike race—21 stages, thousands of kilometers, high mountain passes, time trials, bunch sprints. When Henri Desgranges concocted it, it was as the most audaciously challenging sporting event on the planet, like nothing sporting cyclists had ever attempted. And from its inaugural year, it has always sought to fulfill bike racing fans’ wildest dreams, an infinite jest.
In Foster Wallace’s book, there is a video cartridge, referred to as “the entertainment,” which is so compelling that it completely incapacitates anyone who sees it. It literally blows their minds. “The entertainment” is a comic element, but only because it doesn’t exist. There is no one perfect entertainment.
One of the things I don’t like about grand tours (I know, blasphemy!) is that they attempt too much. There are 21 races within the one race, but there are also mountains, points and young rider competitions going on simultaneously. There is the team competition. There are intermediate sprint points, combativity prizes. There is so much going on, there are so many opportunities to win SOMETHING, that it can begin to feel like a cub scout jamboree. Everyone leaves with a prize, and so, some years, none of the prizes seems to hold any great value.
The 2011 Tour de France was not one of those grand tours. The general classification battle between the Schlecks, Cadel Evans, Thomas Voekler and Alberto Contador inspired each of those riders to amazing rides. But also we watched Phillipe Gilbert storm the green jersey, before Mark Cavendish took it back. All the while JJ Rojas stole points to remain close. Andre Greipel took a stage off his former teammate/nemesis, as well. In the climber’s competition, we watch Johnny Hoogerland write a modern cycling legend, climbing out of a barbed wire fence to pull on the polka dots. Garmin-Cervelo won the team competition by animating the first week of the event and then launching Tommy Danielson into the top ten.
Did a day go by without some great story being told in carbon fiber, sweat and chain grease?
When I was younger I was a much more earnest reader of serious fiction, and I plowed through “Infinite Jest” over the summer of 1997. I loved it, but holy shit, that’s a book you can’t recommend to anyone else without looking like a pretentious jerk. Anyone who publishes a novel in excess of 1000 pages is taking a big gamble. If it fails, it’s an epic failure, and, if we’re honest, sometimes the Tour de France fails. This was not one of those times. In the wake of Angelo Zomegnan’s kamikaze Giro d’Italia, Tour director Christian Prudhomme needed to deliver a legitimate epic.
And, like Foster Wallace, he did, combining compelling characters with clever plot twists and iconic settings. It would be a stretch to call the Tour de France an infinite jest, but its perseverance, and the sheer quality of this year’s version, in the face of the ignominy of the last decade, suggest there is something enduring to the grandest of all bike races, something ineffable that holds our attention, even when common sense might suggest we turn away.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International