The Tour de France is going on again. It’s the biggest bicycle race in the world and undoubtedly the most popular ,as well as the most followed. Lasting around three week-long, it’s also the longest, or one of the longest bike races. And, it’s the oldest big race, run for the first time in 1905. I watch it some of the time because it comes on my French-language television channel, TV5, right before my favorite French soap.
I am one of those rare seniors who wonder why things remain the same as much as they do. It irritates me. I want to see some interesting change before I check out. And, I would like some indication that someone is learning from experience, some time, somewhere. In the case of the Tour, I am perplexed because the media commentary of the race is practically indistinguishable from what I remember from 50 years ago. It’s puzzling but not for the reasons you might think.
In 1962, the organizers decided that the competing teams would not be identified by nationality any more but according to their corporate sponsors. So, the French Post Office team might, in principle, include a Portuguese, two Italians, a Belgian, three Brits, and no Frenchman. That’s not the way it worked out and especially from a perceptual standpoint however. The media never fail to mention the nationality of winners, of racers who fall behind, or of racers who fall down (a distressingly frequent event). The fact that many additional national groups joined the race after 1990 may have heightened again the national focus of the race. First came those who had been imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain: Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians, even the occasional Kazakh. Most interesting among the new joiners are those who did not exist officially, by Tour de France criteria, until recently. I mean exotics, such as Slovenes, Croatians, and Slovaks. And then. finally, thanks to cheap international travel, there are now competitors from the other side of the globe such as South Korea, and even Australia, sometimes New Zealand.
Yet, by and large, it’s the same Tour de France: Three hundred odd cars, vans and motorcycles framing and pushing around one hundred-odd young men in tights and helmets putting out nearly super-human efforts over 20 daily races of more then one hundred miles each. No question that all the participants without exception are top athletes by any world standards. However, there is not much reason to believe that #1 at any stage is a better athlete than #20, or even better than # 30, or better than anybody in the race. At least, he is probably not stronger or endowed with greater endurance. Instead, consistent winners within one tour probably have better pharmacologists than others. Racers at that high level are all doped up, it seems, and I am told by people who ought to know. The evidence is incontrovertible, they say, and there can be no exception. Yes, I would like to believe that an American cancer survivor, a one-ball maverick in the best American tradition, won the Tour six times without any chemical aid. I love fairy tales as much as the next guy and as much as the next child, really. The facts don’t look good, however.
No matter, media commentators continue to do their job with a straight face. They provide contemporaneous running commentaries of the race, as it takes place. They do it as if this were 1953 and no one suspected a racer of anything worse than having had strong coffee for breakfast. Everyone remains imperturbable.
This sort of determined collective make-believe always surprises me. I don’t know why the Tour has not been changed into a pharmacological/cycling contest. There would be some scientific merit to it. We could all learn useful things about performance-enhancing drugs, their side-effects, their dangers. It would also be more fair, in the best of sports traditions: Why would those who provide an important ingredient of victory be kept away from the celebration? I can easily see a purple jersey for best chemist to complement the yellow jersey for best cyclist.
Here is another intriguing aspect of the race that may suggest an explanation for the race’s fixed format and narrative. This year, the first two days were run entirely within the area of Brittany. Spectators along the race waved the expected national flags to encourage their favorites. Of course, there were many French flags. It’s my impression however, that there were many more black and white flags of the Duchy of Brittany than there were tricolors of the French Republic. Yet, the last year there was an independent Duchy of Brittany was 1531.Go figure!
Well, maybe the main point of the race is to showcase the attractive French countryside in all its interesting cultural and historical diversity. With this perspective, indifference to the not-so-genuine character of the athleticism of the race would make sense. So would the frozen nature of the narrative commentary. After all, how many low-brow different comments can you make about the Pyrenees mountains, about the Bordeaux vineyard country?
And then, of course, there is always the possibility that few really care about the athletics of the Tour. Masses of strong men in tights with really good legs will always inspire all kinds of fantasies. At least, after more then one hundred years, it’s surely considered a winning formula. As in connection with other sports events, not enough attention is paid to the influence of women.