Cycling: A Tour blurred by Chunnel vision: Geoffrey Nicholson looks at the wider appeal of the world's greatest bike race

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The Independent Online
WHY GIVE up on the Tour de France when you've covered it 19 times already? Another three-week flip around the hexagon and you'd be entitled to a Medaille de la Reconnaissance. Something you could modestly hang in the downstairs loo where every visitor would see it.

In particular why give up in this of all years when the Tour is coming to the south of England? That, of course, is a question which provides its own answer. You don't go off to Lille for the start of the race, with some 3,000 miles of French countryside and cooking ahead of you, only to reappear through the Chunnel at Dover a few days later. Must be some mistake. Someone tampering with the arrows.

To give due credit, this will not be a repeat of that sorry stage up and down the Plympton by-pass 20 years ago on the Tour's only other appearance in this country. No crowds, no spectacle, no atmosphere: a chain gang going through the motions. We order such things better here now. Alan Rushton, co-ordinator of the two English stages -

Dover-Brighton on Wednesday week, Portsmouth-Portsmouth via Basingstoke the next day - has been organising international pro road races for more than a decade. He began with city-centre criteriums, packaged for television, back in the early Eighties, went on to the Nissan Tour of Ireland, the Kellogg's Tour of Britain and latterly the English leg of the World Cup series - all run from a small suite of offices above the Pizza Piazza in Kingston-upon-Thames.

Now the jackpot, the Tour, which Rushton could not have lured across the Channel again without a guarantee that this would not be another hole-in- the-corner operation. There would have to be a sporting route, closed roads and ungrudging support from the police, the government and local authorities. And adequate funding. The race is not used to settling for second best.

While Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells or Winchester and Eurosceptics generally may fume in the traffic jams on either side of the route, there is no reason to doubt that thousands of bikies on the crests of the hills will see an authentic slice of Tour de France action. But what they won't see, of course, is the genuine garlic- soaked Tour en France, which is something else again. They will miss the mountains, bleached villages, sunflower fields and the other travelogue features. They will not even be allowed to paint their heroes' names on the roadway, which is a birthright through most of the European Union.

Given that the French are so protective of their institutions, it is surprising that they are willing to share the Tour with anyone else. Some are much against it. In 1968 I travelled with the reporting team from a provincial paper, the Sud-Ouest of Bordeaux, whose chef, a grumpy, kindly man, had once raced against Reg 'arris at 'erne 'ill. This was his only acquaintance with England, but he was unshakeably convinced that road races here stopped at every traffic light. His opinion of other foreign countries was no higher, and he thought the Tour had no business visiting them. So when one stage happened to finish in Spain, he insisted that we drove back across the Pyrenees to send our stories, eat our dinner and rest our heads. 'It is better to do these things in France,' he said, and no one argued.

The big idea in 1903 was to promote a race into the practically unknown, encircling the remotest parts of an enormously varied nation. It was 'La Grande Boucle' which would buckle it all together. All the more surprising that it now strays so far beyond its frontiers.

You could not see any of our born-and-bred British events - the FA Cup or Wimbledon, for instance - taking some of its early rounds away from the home supporters to stage them abroad. So why does the Tour do it? The search for extra income and exposure is the obvious answer. By putting on a show which is free to the public, the Societe du Tour de France is heavily dependent on commercial sponsors. In 1993 there were typically three 'big partners' - Credit Lyonnais, Coca-Cola and Fiat - and a handful of smaller ones, nearly all with multi-national interests, who welcome any chance to fly their flags beyond the French borders.

The next biggest earner is the sale of franchises to TV stations, which again is boosted by the number of countries involved. And third in importance is the flat-rate fee, upward of pounds 50,000, which stage towns pay to attract the Tour, and foreign away-days add to the number of potential bidders.

But if profit is the main motive - whatever the side effects these excursions have on the cohesion of the race and the biorhythms of its riders - a certain cultural imperialism is also involved. This is based on the belief that the race is more than the first and greatest of the national tours; it has the makings of a global event. The giddy limit was reached in the early Eighties when, inspired by the success of the football World Cup in Spain, the co-

directors of the Tour, Jacques Goddet and Felix Levitan, seemed to vie with each other to produce more extravagant plans. A contest between national teams drawn from all five continents. A send-off in front of the White House, with the riders crossing the Atlantic by Concorde.

These dreams faded when Levitan hurriedly left the organisation in 1987 and Goddet began to move steadily towards retirement. But Levitan left one memorable legacy in the summer after his departure, the Tour which started on a political island surrounded by hostile territory - beside the Wall in West Berlin. The upheaval of getting in and out of that city through the East German corridor, and the subsequent trek across West Germany before France was first sighted at the end of six days, discouraged the Tour from ever attempting an adventure on that scale again.

The two-day detour along the south coast of England will be a comparative doddle and will remain the wonder of Bishops Waltham for years to come. But it is not only the wiseacres and Little Englanders who will be asking: 'If it's the Tour de France, what's it doing here?'