Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Francophilia: Pour Bastille Day - Le Tour

It’s Quatorze Juillet, and I’m celebrating Bastille Day by watching the six hours of Tour de France coverage I taped overnight. I enjoy watching other cycling events, like the Giro d’Italia and that uniquely gruelling madness known as the ‘Hell of the North’ - the one-day classic from Paris to Roubaix that is distinguished by the bone-shattering, tire-tearing sections ridden over the narrow cobbled pavé. There, the weather gods frequently conspire to produce a combination of rain and cold that is misery for road cyclists (though it makes for great entertainment for us armchair athletes).

But there’s something special about the Tour de France. Something romantic in the true Byronic sense about some of those epic high mountain climbs like the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Col du Galibier and the monstrous Col du Tourmalet, where the epic battles of the Tour are waged. Sometimes it’s men pitting themselves against other men, more often it's men battling against themselves, simply to survive to the finish and ride again the next day.

When I think back to some my favourite moments of Tours past, it’s always those elemental dramas that stand out. Tiny, gnomelike Marco Pantani, all guts and teeth, soaring up Alpe d’Huez in the boiling heat miles ahead of the rest of the field. Thomas Voekler, amongst the most unlikely wearers of the maillot jaune ever, dropped over and over again on the vicious slopes of the Pyrenees and, every time, clawing his way back to hang on to the jersey for another day. Tyler Hamilton riding the entire 2003 Tour with a broken collarbone but still winning stage 16 from Pau to Bayonne with a ridiculous solo breakaway and finishing fourth overall. In the same Tour, Lance Armstrong taking a hair-rising ride across an alpine field - on a road bike!- to avoid hitting Joseba Beloki after the latter’s sickening crash on the descent into Gap. (Sadly, Beloki never really came back from that one. He returned to racing, but never again came so close to winning one of the ‘grand tours’.)

Yeah, yeah, I know - over the years, most of these guys have been implicated in drug scandals, and those that haven’t are probably lucky and/or particularly well-served in the undetectable chemicals department, as opposed to ‘clean’. (Lance Armstrong, I’m looking at you.) But I sometimes wonder if you’d have to literally be superhuman to ride some of these routes - and not only that, but to do them day after day for three weeks - without some kind of artificial help. I’ve driven up Alpe d’Huez, and it was so steep for such a long way, we had to have the car in second gear! In some strange ways, the dopage has only added to the distinctive nature of the Tour. I mean, who can forget the oh-so-Gallic Richard Virenque, all-time King of the Mountains, sobbing unashamedly on national television during the infamous l’affaire Festina? It all seems quite consistent with the early history of the Tour, when to stop off for a stiffening brandy or even a hit of cocaine ('the natural stimulant') was not unheard of, and competitors accused the organisers of trying to murder them by making them ride the high mountains. Stages were up to 300 miles long, on virtually unpaved roads with bikes that had no derailleurs. Who wouldn’t take drugs to survive that??

So, in honour of today’s Bastille Day stage (which the French will go all-out to win, as they always do), I leave you with a clip of one of the great stage wins of Tours past: Marco Pantani screaming past King of the Mountains Richard Virenque (in the polka dot jersey) and eventual Tour overall winner Jan Ullrich to take the victory on Alpe d’Huez in 1997.

Photo credit: Hippolyte Aucouturier (could you get a name - or a moustache - that is more French??) at the start of the 1905 Tour in Paris, from a great series of historical Tour photos at The Wall Street Journal.


Good Enough Woman said...

Stopping by to say "Hi" and thank you for the Tour post! I don't follow it, but your post about it is great. You are such a great close reader of events as well as written texts, and you write about your "readings" with such great detail!

Bavardess said...

"Hi" to you, too, and thanks for stopping by. I'm not sure exactly when I developed my addition to the Tour, but now I'm dedicated to spreading the love.

Bardiac said...

The way they go up those hills just blows me away. It's an absolutely amazing athletic feat that people finish each day and get up to do it again and again.

Bavardess said...

Oh yes. The stage the day before yesterday was vicious - that super-ugly climb over the last kilometre or so, after 180-odd km of riding!