Three weeks and 3,000km long, the Tour de France is perhaps the greatest - and most gruelling - sporting event of all. Life or death? To the French, it's much more important than that

The French call it La Grande Boucle - the great loop, circle or strap - and they use the expression because of a feeling that the Tour de France holds their country together. Certainly a map of the route always looks like an encompassing belt. The cyclists will cover some 3,000 kilometres and in any year they might speed from the wet farmlands of Picardy across to furthest Brittany, south to the provincial capital of Bordeaux, thence to the Pyrenees, along the Mediterranean coast and through the high Alps before a triumphant finish in Paris. When the race began, in 1903, many people in these different regions could not have dreamt of venturing beyond their departements or their local towns. For three weeks every summer, however, the Tour magically made them aware of shared Frenchness. It is an annual festival of national unity.

The Tour was also the people's race, a rural festival on wheels, especially since the majority of the riders came not from the cities but from peasant backgrounds. This egalitarianism is reflected in the haunting photographs published here. They are part of the record of the populist Tour de France. The camera responds to the nature of humble people who became heroes through cycle racing, were famous throughout the land yet still belonged to their native villages. Maybe it's appropriate that the photographers who produced these images should be anonymous. None of the officially great photographers of modern France ever managed to capture the Tour. It was the speciality of photojournalists who didn't sign their work, had no pretensions - but did have a lot of fraternal feeling for their subjects.

These pictures belong to a special form of newspaper photography, a genre that was allied with the Tour and was at its height in the Fifties. There had always been a close relationship between cycling and the press. The Tour itself began as a newspaper stunt. It was invented by Henri Desgrange, the young editor of L'Auto-Velo, who hit on a way to increase circulation. L'Auto-Velo was printed on yellow paper - hence the yellow jersey of the Tour leader. Soon other newspapers came to promote and own cycle races, and they still do. But nothing could equal Desgrange's creation. His Tour de France even gave birth to new newspapers. The one still with us today is L'Equipe, which began with the Liberation. For photography, the most important publications were the magazines But et Club and Miroir-Sprint. They were brilliantly edited, had enormous sales and made a feature of work by excellent, uncredited photographers.

But television killed photo-magazines. The last of them, Miroir-Sprint, folded in 1971, at just the time when the Tour became commercial in a new way. Its organisers say that the Tour gets bigger and better. But it has lost its populism and intimacy with the masses. A rule of late- 20th-century life is that the more a sporting event is followed the less direct contact it will have with its followers. These days, even the journalists who report the Tour are not really in its company. They watch the action on screens in press marquees, many kilometres away from events on the road. Such developments are dismaying to old-timers. I first saw the Tour in 1955. At the end of a stage a little English boy could sometimes go right up to the riders, gaze at their exhausted faces, say something to them ("Bravo" would do) and touch their bikes. No wonder that some people are traditionalists when it comes to the emotions stirred by the Tour.

These photographs are traditional too. Right up to its demise Miroir- Sprint threw a sepia tint over every picture in the magazine (apart from an occasional colour photo of scenery). Why? Maybe because sepia unified the appearance of the magazine. Prints of highly varying quality arrived in the Paris office late at night and had to be made to look equally professional when published the next day. Furthermore, sepia also gave a feeling of history, even antiquity. It was as though the most recent dramas on the road were immediately a part of France's unchanging nature.

All true lovers of the Tour are also its historians. Just as much as the students of Wisden, but with less futile pedantry, we constantly review the evolution of the world's greatest sporting event. I think that the definitive years of the Tour were in the Fifties, but these photos make me think again about the remote period after the First World War. The roads were terrible, the bikes primitive, there was never enough team support or food. Note the wartime-ish look of Robert Jacquinot, never a final winner but always an animateur of the race in the early Twenties, requisitioning soup in the middle of a cold, muddy stage, perhaps in the Ardennes; or the tremendous portrait of the proud Ottavio Bottecchia, the first Italian winner of the Tour in 1924, who won again in 1925. These photographs are about cycling but they are also concerned with a new spirit in the labouring classes. In 1927 Bottecchia was murdered while out training - reputedly because he was a famous socialist in Fascist Italy, though this has never been proven.

From its earliest days the Tour welcomed non-French riders. Two more superb Italian winners were Gino Bartali (in 1938 and 1948) and Fausto Coppi (1949 and 1952). Like many pairs of rivals, they understood each other the better for being opposed in temperament. Bartali, the heavily built, broken-nosed Tuscan, represented the old moralism of Catholic Italy. After every stage he had his massage and dinner, then studied the next day's route with a statuette of the Virgin at his bedside. The atheist Coppi, fragile, thin-boned, electric in personality both on and off the bike, scandalised Europe by his passion for a woman who was not his wife. Bartali belonged to the Church; Coppi to opera.

A ritual of the old Tour, almost a sacred one, was the team supper at which 12 men ate together. After one stage in 1951 Coppi came to the dining- room and took a separate table with his mistress. By today's standards this may not seem extraordinary. But Coppi's affair split two nations, for Italy's most popular rider and was also loved in France. He is still loved today, as an icon. No Italian child is christened "Fausto" without Coppi being in mind. This year, as always, devotees will chalk his name on the high mountain passes he used to grace. Coppi's cycling record is outstripped by other champions, in particular by the great Eddy Merckx. But Fausto remains the central symbol of cycle sport.

That's because the Tour was like a folk religion. The riders were its secular but none the less adored saints and martyrs. Just as, in the Thirties, annual local fetes in French villages became more popular for their cycle races than for their religious processions, so La Grande Boucle gained more of a place in the French soul. On both sides of the political fence it was sensed that something important was happening in the mentalite of old southern Europe, so the Tour's soul became a desirable property. Bartali was publicly blessed by three successive Popes. Miroir-Sprint was a communist publication. And yet, almost instinctively, its photographers recorded Fausto's solo rides in the mountains - he specialised in the one-man breakaway - as though they were recording a holy person on his way to a calvary.

And then we see him bathing his swollen feet in a bidet. Tour photographers were keen on the riders' domesticities in hotels. In the photograph of the elegant Swiss Hugo Koblet shaving his legs (as all cyclists do), one senses that the photojournalist must have been sitting around in Koblet's room, not asking the champion to pose - for these anonymous photographers never asked for a pose from anyone - but just chatting. The almost familial relationship between camera and subject produced memorable images of defeat rather than triumph. When riders abandon the race, it's a foretaste of death. Koblet dolorously bows his head. Bahamontes is lifted from the roadside. Thevenet looks around in bewildered terror, for his fall has made him amnesiac.

The sufferings of Tour riders are unparalleled in any other sport. Tom Simpson rode himself to death on the Ventoux in 1967. Others could have met the same fate. More sophisticated medical care now helps the coureurs both during and after their racing careers. In the old days, racing cyclists often died in their fifties, and usually they weren't rich. A champion might be able to buy a farm. Those who made up the field retired with little reward. One wonders why they did it. Of course, there was the reclame of being a folk hero. More important was a simple love of the bike. A racing machine gives its rider a feeling of aerial vivacity quite impossible to explain to anyone who hasn't tried it. And that's a feeling that no toiling peasant could have known before the modern century.

This year's Tour begins in Rouen on Saturday and ends in Paris on 27 July. Images from Philippe Brunel's `Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France' (Buonpane, pounds 29.95, for copies call 0181 876 4671).

Main picture: smoking en route, quite a common show of bravado until the Sixties. Above: Ottavio Bottecchia, who in 1924 became Italy's first winner, washes with a soda syphon

Above: the sacred tradition of the team supper. The legendary Fausto Coppi, winner in 1949 and 1952, is at the far right. Below: Gino Bartali makes plans for the next day's battles

Hugo Koblet, one of the Tour's playboys, always carried a comb in his jersey

Bottechia in 1925, on the way to his second Tour victory

The Swiss riders Colle and Parel stop for a bock in Dalstein, Moselle, in 1921

On hot stages there's a constant need for water. One year everyone laid down their bikes and ran into the Mediterranean

Bread, soup and wine for the Parisian Robert Jacquinot in the early 1920s

Big Ferdi Kubler, the Swiss champion, in one of his characteristic rages in 1949

Federico Bahamontes, six times King of the Mountains, suffers in 1957

Bobet climbs in the Alps in 1954. Imagine coming down at 60kph

In 1975 Merckx was hit in the liver by a French fan on the Puy de Dome

After Thevenet's crash in 1972 the French rider temporarily lost his memory

Bartali used to search his rival's room for drugs - but here Coppi is merely bathing his feet

Koblet abandons in tears in 1954. On the left is the Tour's director, Jacques Goddet

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