Tour de France: It whizzes by in 20 seconds, but they'll talk about it for 20 years

La France Profonde basks in reflected glory of kings of the road
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The Independent Online
We bowled at 60mph along straight, narrow, empty roads, hedged by tens of thousands of contented, munching people.

Picture a garden-party 10 yards wide and 130 miles long, stretching across part of Normandy and the breadth of Brittany.

Each village was a festival of drinking and sausage-grilling. Each farmyard had a makeshift table for a score of people, loaded with food and wine.

Children, in school groups, lined the road, screeching with joy. The entire population of old people's homes sat grinning in rows in their wheelchairs, covered in blankets despite the scorching sunshine.

They were waiting for hours, in great patience and great reverence, for 190 of the fittest young men in the world to hum past like a swarm of candy-coloured bees.

As the local newspaper, Ouest- France, said: "The Tour de France lasts twenty seconds but people talk about it for 20 years."

I had the great honour to ride in the Tour for a day.

Admittedly, I was riding, and drinking cola, in a bright orange mini- truck belonging to the Ministry of Equipment, Transport, Housing and Tourism.

We were the lead vehicle in a procession 400 cars, 190 bicycles, 3,000 people, 60 miles and 90 minutes long. In the front passenger seat was Jean-Francois Inizan, who was the ministry's "Monsieur Route", or Mr Road, for that day's stage.

Monsieur Route's job was to inspect the readiness of the road. Was there too much gravel on that bend? Were the patches of new tarmac swelling in the heat to make an invisible hazard for the bikes?

Riding in the lead vehicle in the procession gave an unparalleled opportunity to observe the French - the rural, non-cosmopolitan French - en masse. French exceptionalism, in terms of casual dress, is clearly dead. A random sample of this crowd, young and old, would not have been out of place in a shopping- mall in Essex or New Jersey. In a 130-mile incision across La France Profonde, I spotted only three berets. The baseball cap has conquered the world.

At one point, we were overtaken by elements of the high-speed carnival which precedes the race itself, distributing plastic and teeth-rotting largesse to the spectators. To reclaim our leading position, we had to slalom between a giant fibre-glass strawberry on wheels, a giant peach, the space shuttle, a 10-foot camembert and several large coffee-cups.

We turned a corner and screeched to a halt. A mobile Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy had halted, in vee formation, in a rare break in the crowd. The drivers were peeing, in formation, beside their vehicles. France is an ethnically disparate and very large country, bound together by language, flag, bureaucracy and, for three weeks every July, by the Tour de France.

Yannik Le Du, from the ministry in Paris, squashed into the back of the truck, marvelled at the crowds. "Just look at all the kids. This is what the Tour de France is about. It engraves itself in the memory of the nation from a very early age. It's not just a race: it is rooted in the country itself, it is part of our identity ..."

During its anti-clockwise circuit of the country, the Tour is watched by one in six of the French population, an estimated 10 million people, more than any other sporting event. Unlike any other front-line, international sport, people do not have to travel to the Tour de France. It travels to them. If they are lucky, and patient, it comes, literally, down their way. Hence the celebrations we saw all along the route; it was as if one rally of a Wimbledon final was being played on the village tennis- courts.

Despite the inevitable conversion of the Tour into a commercial and media circus, it has managed to maintain its close contact with the people of France.

Sometimes, too close. A spectator stepped in front of the two leading riders on one stage this week. All three ended up in hospital. There were three serious spills in the first few days, causing some riders to question the sense of taking the Tour through narrows roads and village streets. The organisers said the problem was that the riders were getting fitter and faster. Did they really want to cycle down autoroutes?

The suspicion remains that the annually changing route is increasingly contorted by non-sporting considerations. Towns and villages lobby and wheedle and pay large sums of money to be the point of departure, or arrival of a daily stage. Vire, in Calvados, a town of 10,000 noted for its fine andouille sausages, was the starting point that day. It had paid pounds 70,000 to be on the Tour for the first time in 58 years. But this was just the official fee.

Improvements to roads and other facilities, demanded by the Tour organisers, had cost the little town another pounds 20m.

Before the start, at the Tour's mobile village, I came across Rene Courastin, treasurer of the Brotherhood of the True Andouille Sausage of Vire, looking rather uncomfortable in his mock-medieval velvet robes. "Yes, it costs a lot of money but it is worth it in the end," he said. "The whole of France is watching Vire on TV today. The next time they are in this part of the country, they will come to Vire. Before they might have driven past ... Now we are the `town that was in the Tour de France'."

By the time that we arrived in Plumelec, in southern Brittany, I was exhausted. The 3,000 people in the procession had been doing this for four days; they had another 18 days to the finish on the Champs Elysees. If you insist on doing it by bicycle, the Tour de France is the most demanding sporting event known to Man, something like running a marathon every day for three weeks. But, in truth, the Tour is a formidable test of stamina for everyone involved. Imagine driving 2,500 miles from Rouen to Paris, by way of the Pyrenees and the Alps, at the wheel of a giant strawberry.

Race report, page 24