There are two Tours de France. The one that takes place in France for French audiences and the one that happens on the sports networks for fans and the worldwide audience. I’ve been a cyclist ever since I can remember and a keen fan of the Tour from outside France.
Who can forget the great Greg LeMond-Laurent Fignon duel? I watched it like millions of others with amazement as LeMond went into the last stage of the Tour almost a minute behind Fignon.
Fignon was all but crowned as the winner as of the last day. The race should have been over, but Lemond refused to quit. He strapped an aerobar on his handlebars. At that time, those aerodynamic extensions were not yet in wide use and it wasn’t even sure that they were legal. LeMond treated the last stage, not as comfortable stroll, but as a time trial against the clock and began the unthinkable slowly but steadily reeling in Fignon’s lead. When Fignon realized what was happening, he slammed into high gear also, but too late. He wasn’t prepared psychologically or physically, and the American LeMond beat him by 8 seconds!
Wow! What a race! The battles of the Pyrenees, the Alps, the long, hot, fast flat stages, several thousand kilometers and to win by eight seconds. What drama.
A summer time drama is, of course, what the tour is about each year. The terrible crashes, the dramatic head to head sprints, the courageous breakaway by lesser upcoming stars and give it all end of the line racers. Who will forget the many serious crashes this year? One racer smashed into by a media car and the great Kazakhstan rider Vinkourov breaking his femur on his last Tour.
This is what the fans outside of France see but the ones inside France see a very different race. For the French, the Tour starts with a show called, ‘Village Depart’, (the Start Village) the village where each race begins. It’s live from the village’s main square. There’s a cooking competition between two amateur cooks preparing a regional speciality. Sometimes, there’s a children’s bike race. There’s always several, popular singers. The village is profiled for its literary and artistic history, part of which, of course, includes local wines.
A few days ago at the village of Limoux, there was a feature on its famous product, the ‘Blanquette de Limoux’ sparkling wine that monks learned how to make 200 years before the Champagneof northern France. In Limoux, champagne is a new kid on the block. Blanquette is older and better.
Inside France, the Tour is less a bike race than a summertime promenade from village to town to village again. Except for the mountain stages which are regarded as sacred, the race itself is interrupted with tours of monasteries and chateaux of note that the Tour passes by. The race itself goes through UNESCO World Heritage sites like Carcassonne, not around them, all the while the long history of the city getting full play. There’s even a ‘Geology of the Tour’ segment which gives a brief, professional explanation of how the landscape came to be mountainous or flat or crumpled into valleys.
Finally, of course, the Tour finishes with ‘Après Tour’ which gives interviews with the the winners but also a bookend segment on the finish line village or Alpine landscape. In between there is some racing with the knowledgeable Laurent Jalabert giving excellent commentary. This year, there was a Frenchman Thomas Voeckler leading the Tour and more interest in the race itself than when Lance Armstrong was shepherding the Tour around France.
What I now understand is that the Tour will go on for as long as France is France because drug scandals and terrible accidents notwithstanding – the Tour is first and foremost about it being summertime in France. ‘Where will I go for my holidays?’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘What should I eat and drink?’ The race is well – just a race. As the headline in ‘L’Equipe’ said years ago and which I didn’t fully understand at the time. “QUE L’ETE COMMENCE!” “Let the Summer Begin!”