Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Francophilia: Le Tour, toujours

On Bastille Day, I watched the peloton roll across the russet plains of the Limousin while thunderheads crouched on the horizon, and I asked myself why I love this event so much.

I actually can’t remember the first time I watched the Tour de France, but I do remember being instantly seduced by the beauty and rhythmic precision of the multi-coloured echelons sweeping along the D roads of rural France. I know it was before Lance Armstrong’s time, because the race is alw
ays different and more unpredictable when he hasn’t got the best, most expensive team in the world calling the shots. It was thanks to Lance, though, that the television coverage shifted from a precious 30 minutes of highlights a day to showing full stages.

It’s the drama that most attracts and holds me, I think. The breakaways that succeed for 150 kilometres, only to be chased down a few hundred metres from the finish line. Hollow-eyed riders literally clenching their teeth in pain as they struggle up monstrous mountains, their entire world shrunk to trying desperately not to lose the wheel of the bike in front. The cat-and-mouse b
attle that erupts a couple of kilometres from the end when a breakaway does succeed, and men who’ve worked together for hours to stay ahead of the bunch suddenly become sworn enemies. And, always, the men battling at the back, even behind the autobus, sharing food and support though they’re from different teams, trying to get each other to the finish line before the elimination time.

Then there are those bigger-than-life characters that seem to consider this as a metaphor for life itself and not merely a job. Tiny Marco Pantani with his enormous heart, soaring up Alpe d’Huez in his trademark bandana and silver earring. The crafty old sprinter Erik Zabel in Hell on Wheels, showing his human side by suggesting rum and coke would make a good recovery drink at the end of a particularly vicious mountain stage. And then there was Thomas Voeckler in 2004’s tour, clinging to the maillot jaune through the Pyrenees and into the Alps, against all hope and expectation. All day long, race radio would report ‘yellow jersey dropped, yellow jersey dropped’. The cameras would show Thomas, head hanging over the handlebars as he crawled along in his painfully awkward pedaling style, looking all but dead. But every time he went down, he would somehow find the guts to fight his way back to the group.

The Tour is, in all ways, quintessentially French. What could be more French than the calf-eyed Richard Virenque, undisputed king of the mountains, openly sobbing on national television as he begged forgiveness for his brush with the perennial Tour drug scandal? Drugs, of one kind or another, have been part of the Tour from its inception, though the early riders favoured cigarettes with a cognac or a bottle of wine instead of EPO or testosterone. And in what other sporting event would the guy who finished dead last – the lanterne rouge – be fĂȘted as much as the winner?

Back in 2006, I was staying in an alpine village when the Tour was due to come through on its way to Alpe d’Huez. For days before, the people living in this charming though somewhat rundown backwater had been decorating their streets and houses with banners, signs and balloons, and on the day of the race the entire town was en fĂȘte. They treated us – complete strangers from the other end of the world – as friends and neighbours, related by a common love for this unique sporting event. The Luxembourg rider Frank Schleck won that day’s stage, and the man from Luxembourg who was staying at our hotel celebrated that evening by buying everyone in the hotel bar endless rounds of champagne (the good stuff, too!).

I think the thing I love most is the way the people of France have always taken the Tour to their heart. Year after year, even after all the disappointments of drug scandals and France’s losing streak (much better this year, though, with a clutch of stage wins), they decorate their towns and create massive sculptures out of hay and farm equipment in their fields. They line the roadsides and wait hours for a glimpse of riders who streak past at 50 or 60kph. They hike up mountains and camp out for days for the opportunity to run next to the riders for a few seconds as they drag themselves up to the summits.

And then, of course, there’s the scenery. La belle France, indeed.

1 comment:

Steve Muhlberger said...

Good post. I'm not a fan, but you show why I might give it a try.