On Saturday, 198 riders will embark on the most celebrated race in professional cycling, the Tour de France – a gruelling three-week test of mind and body. For the Tour’s 100th edition, Oliver Moore and John Allemang offer an overview of an event that can be as baffling to newcomers as it is engrossing for fans.
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History and Culture
There’s something impossible about the Tour de France, which asks cyclists to spend up to seven hours a day in the saddle over three weeks of punishing climbs, harrowing descents, high-speed chases, and the inevitable bone-breaking crashes – while enduring the mid-summer heat of Provence, the sudden showers of Normandy and the chilled peaks of the Pyrénées.
That was whole idea of the race as envisaged by its founding director, a sports-newspaper editor named Henri Desgrange – the original Tour asked riders to carry their own food and spare tires while cycling night and day on cumbersome bicycles along roads that often weren’t much better than goat tracks.
In today’s Tour, teams control the pace and the energy-saving pack of riders known as the peloton marshal their resources for the hard mountain climbs. But the original ideologues behind the Tour demanded displays of toughness. To a country still questioning its defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, cycling till you dropped became an uplifting display of moral virtue.
“Cycling captured the public imagination by showcasing qualities like determination, courage and acceptance of extraordinary pain over long periods of time,” says Christopher S. Thompson, author of Tour de France: A Cultural History .
Desgrange’s correspondents were there to tell the patriotic story. “This united the country behind the ‘giants of the road,’ as they were dubbed,” Thompson says.
The quest was commercialized from the start, but French intellectuals preferred to see the epic side of the three-week journey: Riders became the modern equivalent of Odysseus.
Those incompatible tensions remain in the modern Tour. Sometimes it feels like a giant sales pitch, and sometimes, when the dopers get caught, the heroic qualities are quickly reduced to human scale. But when you’re caught up in the breathless moment, as a breakaway rider tries to hold onto his slim lead with the force of the peloton bearing down on him – past the beautiful backdrop that is France – they might still be giants.
The Tour de France is an inhuman physical test, a huge moneymaker and an incomparable spectacle of landscape. When plotting a route each year, organizers have to balance these competing interests while maintaining a connection with the original idea behind the Tour – an exploration of the French nation.
These days, it’s more of a 21-stage tourism commercial, and communities pay to be showcased. But the cyclists still travel the country, ranging over mountains, rushing past seaside resorts, churning their legs past chateaus and startled cows, and finishing with a victory parade along the Champs-Élysées.
Their exploits are recorded by a vast army of cameras on motorcycles and helicopters who relay every grimace and see-you-later look on a testing mountain stage, expertly capture the go-for-it risks of a 100-kilometres-an-hour descent and still find room for long views of achingly beautiful vistas. Spectators become an intimate part of the proceedings: On the cramped mountain ascents, breathless riders forge a path between camera-hogging corporate mascots, shameless Speedo-clad well-wishers and a German enthusiast who dresses up as a trident-brandishing devil.
This year’s race visits Corsica for the first time – an oversight explained by the Island of Beauty’s once-fearsome separatist movement. “This is the kind of symbolic statement that the race can still make,” author Christopher S. Thompson notes. “It’s saying to Corsicans, ‘You are now safe enough and loyal enough to be included in the 100th running of the Tour.’ ”
The most exciting stage of the Tour should be July 14, a Bastille Day climb of windswept Mont Ventoux – the culmination of a punishing 242.5-km ride. But for cycling eye candy, it may be hard to beat the final nighttime stage, where the Tour will end as the sun sets in Paris.
Cycling is a team sport won by individuals.
Although only one man stands in yellow on the Champs at the end of the Tour each year, none would be there without the suffering of their support riders.