Written for In the Bunch
When L’Auto editor and journeyman cyclist Henri Desgrange dreamed up the Tour de France in 1903 as a gimmick to boost his newspaper’s circulation, I’m sure he had little idea of how the storyline would unfold.
By all accounts, he did not have much of a vision for the race in its early years – he did not even attend the inaugural one.
He was also dead against including the Pyrenees and only did so at the dogged insistence of colleague Adolphe Steinès.
And then Desgrange reportedly regretted the decision when riders began protesting that they would be eaten by bears – should it even be possible to reach the summits – so he feigned illness and stayed away once more.
The original idea of a “tour of France” is actually credited to one of his reporters, Géo Lefèvre, who blurted it out during a crisis meeting on the publication’s ailing circulation – because, he later admitted, he felt under pressure to say something.
Desperate times called for desperate measures and the idea, and budget, was approved by the newspaper’s financial manager Victor Goddet.
It turned out to be a brainwave of note and the newspaper’s circulation shot up from 25 000 per day before the Tour to 65 000 thereafter as the spectacle caught the public’s attention.
During the 1933 event, sales peaked at 854 000 and Desgrange, who had strategically “redeployed” Lefèvre to other sporting beats years earlier, looked like a genius.
For the record, Lefèvre had covered the first editions by train and bicycle . . .
Thankfully that is no longer the case as journos from around the world will e-mail, upload, tweet and beam news from air-conditioned mobile offices to an audience claimed to be as large as 3.5 billion over the three weeks.
Some people dispute the figure as it would roughly account for half of the earth’s population, but I think it is safe to say that the Tour is followed in many countries by hordes of people who speak lots of different languages.
Not only has La Grande Boucle – The Great Loop if you’re not French-speaking – crept over national borders, it has also transcended political upheaval, multiple depressions, world wars and, dare one say it, the war on drugs.
Its longevity is a testimony to its popularity, but the race is so much more than popcorn box office material. It offers, on a silver platter, a raw account of human suffering and survival.
Race director Christian Prudhomme pulls it all together nicely when he describes it as an event driven by “passion”.
My own passionate affair with the Tour started in 1986 when I stumbled on an American-produced highlights package one Sunday afternoon.
It portrayed the now famous battle between Frenchman Bernhard Hinault, gunning for a sixth win, and his protégé Greg le Mond looking for his first.
It was the ultimate tale of villain versus hero with Le Mond, being American, portrayed as an outsider who had to fight Hinault on the bike and tradition off it.
The following year’s highlights – scored to the emotive instrumentals of Yanni’s Reflections of Passion – saw Irishman Stephen Roche push himself beyond human limits atop La Plagne to keep in touch with Spaniard Pedro Delgado.
He had to be revived in hospital while Delgado, I would imagine, had a sleepless night counting sheep and lost chances.
Although I have followed every Tour since, it is these two that have shaped my impression of the race. As a youngster, I watched them so often that I eventually knew every word off by heart, pre-empting the commentators for minutes at a time.
Years later I went to the Alps and walked up and down the roads I had gotten to know on video. Those were surreal moments not even matched by attending the prologue and seeing Lance Armstrong in person in Rotterdam in 2010.
The 100th chapter of this amazing story will play out in front of our eyes from late June and it is evident the organisers are pulling out all the stops to make it memorable.
Not only will the race fall completely within the borders of France for the first time in 10 years, it will also visit the only two French departments it previously had not (Corse-du-Sud and Haute-Corse on Corsica, which hosts this year’s Grand Départ).
Prudhomme says the route was chosen specifically to showcase the best France has to offer, but, looking at the final week, perhaps one should say the best the Tour de France has to offer.
Experts reckon this year will have the toughest final week of any Tour with a vicious run-up from the Wednesday, which features a 32km time-trial said to have no flat road in the first 30km.
The following day the peloton climb the mythical l’Alpe d’Huez twice in what is already a major talking point. I’ve been there and all I can say is “respect” . . . twice.
For the sake of TV and us watching the real-life drama unfold, two more kick-ass mountain stages follow before the traditional finish on the Champs-Élysées.
Then, before looking ahead at Le Tour 101, we will hold our breath to see if the winner will remain the incumbent hero once the housework has been completed.
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