A national epic on two wheels

May 23, 2003

With the 100th Tour de France approaching, Hugh Dauncey and Geoff Hare reflect on how one of sport's most gruelling events mirrors essential French values and character

In July, millions of French people will stand at their front door, wait by the edge of a nearby main road or even camp on a distant mountain to see their annual "two minutes of lurid Lycra" (as Julian Barnes has it). The modern Olympic Games and the World Cup may have been originated by Frenchmen. But the best demonstration that the French are a sporting nation is in their reaction to the third of the great sporting events, the Tour de France, which celebrates its centenary this year.

The French always feel they are participating in a national celebration as much as watching a mere cycle race. For a century, the Tour has been a laboratory of interactions between sport, politics, economics and culture.

When the starter of the original race raised his flag to send 60 riders pedalling furiously away from the Réveil-Matin Café in Montgeron on July 1 1903, he could not have imagined he was making history. Yet, the conception of the event strikes us now as a remarkably modern sporting, commercial and journalistic achievement. The Tour was devised and partly funded by a newspaper, L'Auto , in conjunction with the cycle industry to publicise French brands in an emerging mass market. Its originality was selling a consumer product through sport.

It also fixed the genre of the sporting press in France. The sports daily sold itself by creating interest in events that it invented, organised and sponsored, and on which it reported in a new journalistic form, the pseudo-live report. Since the Tour was a stage race lasting 19 days, L'Auto broke up the event and its coverage into episodes; capitalising on suspense and uncertainty to maintain interest.

The event emerged from the Dreyfus affair, which split France in two over issues of anti-Semitism, the rights of the individual and the future of the republic. Anti-Dreyfusards founded L'Auto as a rival to the top sports daily, the pro-Dreyfus Le Vélo . In a bid to outdo his rival, Henri Desgrange, the new publication's editor, invented the first cycle stage race that would visit all the big French towns. The event would be called the Tour de France.

Professional road races had usually involved pacers, such as the classic Paris-Roubaix, first run in 1896. But Desgrange, a former holder of the French one-hour cycle record, was not interested solely in speed. He wanted to explore the limits of the human body and pit man against man and against nature. The introduction of mountain stages from 1905 made the race even more demanding.

Today, the Tour is generally recognised as the world's most punishing sporting event. Scottish cyclist Robert Millar once said: "The riders reckon that a good Tour takes one year off your life, and when you finish in a bad state, they reckon three years." Desgrange believed that the ideal Tour would have only one finisher and that to create interest it was not enough just to report factually on the race's outcomes. "The Tour needs heroes," he observed.

Before the second world war, the Tour contributed more to France than modern heroes. As historian Eugen Weber has stated: "It put flesh on the dry bones of values taught in school but seldom internalised: effort, courage, determination, stoic endurance of pain and even fair play." Later, it introduced the French to commercial advertising. And as the Tour passed through a Homeric landscape, it also familiarised the nation with its geography and its historical heritage. The cultural historian Georges Vigarello argues that it helped create French national consciousness.

The Tour has become the stuff of legend, in which French riders compete against each other and foreign champions to create an epic narrative of effort and suffering in the face of obstacles imposed by the road and the race organisers, of courage, sacrifice and redemption. The story of Eugène Christophe epitomises such qualities. In the 1913 Tour, he broke his front forks in the Pyrenees so he shouldered his bike, ran seven miles to the closest blacksmith's shop, repaired it with his own hands as the rules required, and rode on two hours later. For allowing a boy to work the forge's bellows, Christophe was penalised three minutes, but he had secured his place in sporting history.

An article on the Pélissier brothers' abandonment of the race in 1924, by the investigative journalist Albert Londres, turned Tour riders into the mythical "slave labourers of the road". The Pélissier affair, couched in the language of workers' rights and magnified by the communist press, sparked a national debate about the race's abusive nature that lasted through the 1930s. In the 1960s, the phrase "giants of the road" was coined by Antoine Blondin to describe its modern heroes.

It is the superhuman challenge of the race that creates men who attract admiring millions. Though overnight stages disappeared before the first world war and the race's overall length has been reduced since the second, the general demands have been maintained. The Tour has burnt itself into the national collective memory because of its exploration and celebration of the resources of France's territory, its plains and mountains, and their climatic range, from scorching heat to the rain and cold of the climbs.

One of the most vivid of the Tour's instances of heroism is the death of the British rider Tom Simpson, whose ascent of the lunar heights of the sun-scorched Mont Ventoux in 1967 led to his roadside expiry through heat exhaustion exacerbated by drug-taking. The legendary Jacques Anquetil - five times French winner of the Tour - admitted that he used drugs while scathingly dismissing naive concerns over doping. He sarcastically asked whether anyone could really imagine that riders could survive the Tour without such assistance.

The "artificial" constraints and demands imposed by the race organisers on the riders sometimes lead to rebellion among the pack of riders, or peloton : the early organisers were called "murderers" by the first cyclists forced to climb the Pyrenees. More recently, there have been go-slows, sit-downs and other protests as the competitors - often led by charismatic peloton "bosses" such as Bernard Hinault - assert their right to have a say in how the event should be run.

Most recently, renewed concerns about the alleged abuse by riders of performance-enhancing substances have been compounded by the dominance of an American rider. Lance Armstrong, in remission from cancer, has won four consecutive Tours since 1999 and now aims to match the records of French stars Anquetil and Hinault and the Spaniard Miguel Indurain. The French media's dislike of Armstrong reflects widespread disbelief in France that someone who almost died from cancer can succeed without drugs. The US Postal rider is in turn convinced that the French do not like him because he is monopolising their national event.

Another criticism levelled at Armstrong by the French media is that he is without "panache", that he rides in a calculated manner, competes only in races he knows he can win and, in general, applies a cold rationality to sport that contrasts with the "bravura" and heroic exploits the Tour has traditionally demanded and produced.

Armstrong's current dominance marks a further stage in the globalisation of the Tour that has developed since the 1970s, as the race has attracted competitors from beyond traditional European cycling nations.

France's love-hate relationship with the US was first pushed into the sporting arena by Greg Le Mond. The American won his first Tour in 1986, ending the career of Hinault. He then took his second Tour in 1989 by a margin of only eight seconds from French champion Laurent Fignon. Le Mond's lead was gained during the final time-trial stage on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, where his high-tech aero bike gave him the advantage over Fignon's more traditional mount.

In 2003, of course, Franco-American rivalry in the Tour will be heightened by the presidential clash between Jacques Chirac and George Bush over the war in Iraq. Fellow Texans Bush and Armstrong are friends but have publicly differed over Saddam Hussein - the cyclist apparently believes the US should have paid more attention to countries such as France before launching military operations. Armstrong is committed to the Tour despite the risks to his personal safety.

The rift between France and the US will not have mollified French cycling fans who hate Armstrong. It will also have made the American more determined to win again. But whatever happens in the 2003 race, the Tour will continue as a palimpsest of sporting values, organisation and much more besides.

Hugh Dauncey is senior lecturer in French studies and Geoff Hare is research associate in the School of Modern Languages, University of Newcastle upon Tyne. They have jointly edited The Tour de France, 1903-2003: A Century of Sporting Structures, Meanings and Values , published by Frank Cass in July (£18.50).

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