Part sporting epic, part media extravaganza, part assertion of national identity, the Tour de France cycle race will depart from Noirmoutier-en-l’île in the Vendée region on Saturday, July 7. What makes this barnstorming annual event so compelling?
Held every July, the Tour de France — literally “tour of France” — is an epic, 2,200-mile cycle race lasting 23 days. It is divided into 21 day-long stages, or étapes, that take competitors up sheer mountainsides, down zigzagging hairpins, and across deceptively flat plains in a grueling, immensely physical contest culminating in a sprint to the finish on the majestic Champs-Elysées in Paris.
A casual observer might be surprised to learn that a mass bike ride across rural France (with incursions into neighboring countries) is now the world’s third most popular sporting event, after the Olympic Games and the Soccer World Cup. La Grande Boucle, or “great loop”, as the Tour is also known, garners TV audiences of some 3.5 billion across 170 countries1. Here at home, between 10 and 12 million spectators line the roadsides during the three-week event to cheer on the riders and, more generally, soak up the festive atmosphere.
So what attracts these mega-audiences, including people like myself who almost never put foot to pedal? Part of the answer is that the Tour de France has always been about much more than cycling. One astute observer has called it a magical mystery tour combining sport, culture, and politics. Even the origins of the race are distinctively French, rooted as they are in a political spat.
“The Greatest Cycling Event Ever Organized”
At the turn of the 20th century, public opinion in the country was split into two bitterly antagonistic camps over the guilt or innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer accused of selling secrets to the enemy. On the pro-Dreyfus side of the fault line was a sports newspaper, Le Vélo, whose chief editor came out vocally in the captain’s defense. The paper’s stance aroused the ire of the anti-Dreyfusards, including several auto and cycle manufacturers, who founded their own paper, L’Auto-Vélo. The original paper successfully sued for plagiarism, forcing the upstart to change its name to L’Auto. Fearing an exodus of cycling-loving readers, and the revenue they generated, the editor and his backers decided to organize a long-distance cycle race across France. And to advertise it heavily.
Just as important, L’Auto portrayed the race as a showcase for the values and virtues of a modern, industrial nation and its vigorous, healthy youth. Billed as “the greatest cycling event ever organized,” the first Tour de France was staged in 1903. In the ensuing 70 years, with a hiatus during the two world wars, the race took on an almost mythical quality, with stories of riders repairing broken bikes on the village blacksmith’s anvil before soldiering on to the finish line. Stories about the magic powers of the #51 on the winning rider’s shirt. Stories about the Eternel Second, the underdog who never won the Tour but was always more popular than the winner. Stories about completing the steepest of hill climbs despite ripped tendons and broken bones. Stories about pilgrimages to the monument honoring a rider who collapsed and died on the Mont Ventoux.
The Myth of the Tour
And of course, being France, the myth has been talked up by intellectuals. Take the philosopher Roland Barthes. He described the race as “a utopian image of a world searching obstinately to reconcile itself through the staging of a totally clear portrayal of the relations between man, men, and Nature.” The great Yogi Berra might have described the bike race more straightforwardly: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
© Olivier Tallec/France-Amérique
On a less lofty note, La Grande Boucle has been immortalized in the marvelous Astérix et le Tour de Gaule, which sees the wily warrior touring the country, picking up regional culinary specialties along the way, in order to thumb his nose at the Roman occupiers, who may have conquered Gallic lands but would never vanquish the doughty natives.2
Even today, in our eclectic and ironic era, the Tour serves as a showcase for the beauties and charms of a privileged land. TV cameras linger lovingly on proud church spires, stately châteaux, gorgeous landscapes, pretty vineyards, and sleepy hamlet. These and other images evoke a timeless vision of France, a place steeped in history and sure of its identity. As one commentator put it, the Grande Boucle is a pre-modern contest in a post-modern era.
A Small Fortune for Each Stage City
Such is the Tour’s media exposure that towns and villages vie for the honor of hosting an étape or simply being on the itinerary. In my Burgundian village, which was on the 2010 circuit, the mayor spent a municipal fortune repaving the main road, leaving the side streets full of potholes, so that the cortege of riders, advertisers, journalists, and camp followers could whiz past in comfort. Apparently, the 15 minutes of fame were worth the outlay. Similar scenes are repeated every year across the land.
It’s not just about sport, of course. The Tour was conceived partly for publicity purposes, and the “caravan” of advertisers and sponsors that precedes the riders is an integral and much-loved part of this show on wheels. (In fact, the Tour’s website says that 47 percent of spectators come primarily to watch the caravan.) Just picture it: a 170-strong fleet of brightly painted and often wacky vehicles filled with smiling, waving youngsters who pelt the crowd with trinkets, candy, and mini-sausages as they careen past at nearly 30 miles per hour. Who needs targeted web ads?
There has always been something rather old-fashioned about the Tour de France, the ultimate man- versus-machine contest. In reality, however, the event is constantly evolving. For example, riders originally raced in teams sponsored by cycle manufacturers. In the 1930s, the teams were organized along national lines. Thirty years later the trade teams returned, and the era of big-name sponsorship be- gan as banks, insurance companies, and major retailers competed against sporting goods firms for eyeballs (and, today, for, clicks).
Greg LeMond, the First American Winner
Likewise, starting in the 1990s, the Tour’s organizers made serious efforts to internationalize the race, which had long been focused on France and its immediate geographical neighbors. The first U.S. team, 7-Eleven, made its debut in 1986. And that same year, the race was won by an American rider, Greg LeMond, who became the first person from an English-speaking country to head up the general classification. One less savory evolution has been the reliance of some riders on increasingly sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs. The stimulants of choice in the early days were wine — combined, in the case of one rider, with oysters — and ether. These have made way for EPO, growth hormones, testosterone, and chemical boosters.
As the Grande Boucle becomes globalized, it has less and less to do with French sporting prowess: an elderly lady once complained to me: “Je ne sais pas pourquoi on l’appelle ‘le Tour de France’: ce n’est jamais un Français qui gagne !” Indeed, no French rider has won the Tour since 1985. And, comble de l’horreur, the winner for the past three years has been a een a Brit, Chris Froome. Just as significantly, the status of French as the event’s official language is receding. English has become increasingly important, arguably since the seven-year winning streak of U.S. rider Lance Armstrong (who was later stripped of his titles) and the rise to prominence of American and British cycling teams. What’s more, today’s squads are composed of riders from many different countries, so the choice of English as the lingua franca seems logical. Even the official Tour de France media hub is now called Le Race Center. Ô mon God!
A Popular Pursuit
Another big change is the phasing-out of the “podium girls” — known, demurely, in French as les hôtesses du Tour — who greet each day’s winners with flowers and kisses (but are not permitted to talk to them!). Even though these poised and accomplished young women do a taxing job in often trying circumstances, the organizers have concluded that the tradition is ill-suited to the times. So, they are following the example of other major sporting events, notably Formula 1 motor racing, is trying to ditch a red-blooded-male image.
Thus the Tour de France is accelerating into the modern era with drones, bike-mounted GoPro cameras and real time data analytics. Nevertheless, in a world of “eventism” and sporting gigantism, there’s something romantic about this contest, something old-fashioned yet timeless, something patriotic but not nationalistic. Despite the big money and global coverage, the Grande Boucle is, in essence, a popular pursuit dating from a time when cars were for the bourgeoisie and bikes for the working class. It is a global sports event that can be watched live for free; a street party that goes on for weeks; a contest where the winner shares the (relatively modest) prize purse with the entire team, including the mechanics and bus drivers. And it’s accompanied by a publicity caravan that hands out gewgaws rather than cash and corporate freebies. In short, the Tour de France is reassuringly accessible. And what if a French rider doesn’t always win? As Yogi Berra philosophized: “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
1 In the U.S., the entire 2018 Tour is covered on TV5Monde.
2 Interestingly, the title of the German version is Tour de France whereas the English-language title, Asterix and the Banquet, commemorates the outcome rather than the journey.
Article published in the July 2018 issue of France-Amérique