One hundred years ago tomorrow, a few dozen lumpy looking, young men in lumpy clothes, riding lumpy bicycles without gears, streamed out of Paris. Seventeen days later, a third of them struggled back again. They had just pedalled 1,500 miles around France in stages, completing the world's first cycle stage race. "Race" is a relative term. Their average speed was just over 15 mph. To change gear, they had to dismount and lengthen or shorten their chains. Many smoked as they rode. Most of them pushed their bikes up anything resembling a hill (mountain stages came later).
All the same a legend was born - the Tour de France; "Le Grand Boucle"; the world's greatest cycle race; the sporting event which has more live spectators than any other; now practised by impossibly slender young men, in impossibly tight clothes on impossibly frail-looking bikes, riding at an average of just under 30mph.
The centenary of the Tour has produced a publishing explosion in France this summer, with at least a dozen books on the history of the race, including a bumper, three volume, €50 (£34) account by L'Equipe, which records almost every wheel that has turned, virtually every puncture, in the last 100 years. The Paris town hall has a wonderful exhibition of old pictures of the Tour. There is also a new, French cartoon movie, Les Triplettes de Belleville, which is set on the Tour de France at some vague time in the past. It is currently the fifth best-grossing film in France.
All of this outpouring of sincere French devotion to the Tour de France has one thing in common. It is largely backward-looking and nostalgic. In a sense, that is fair enough. This is a centenary after all and the Tour has a wonderfully rich history. However, it has been difficult at times to recall - unless you look at specialist cycling publications - that there is also a race this year.
Interest in the Tour as a phenomenon - as part of the fabric and common memory of the nation - is huge. Interest in the 2003 race, the centenary Tour, which begins on Saturday (5 July) is at something less than fever pitch.
Why? French cycling journalists and fans offer two explanations. First, there has been the drip-drip of denigration of modern, road-race cycling since the Festina drugs scandal of 1998. Second - and perhaps more importantly - there is the almost complete absence of serious French contenders to prevent the Texan Lance Armstrong from winning this year's race for a record-equalling fifth time in succession.
France finds itself in a (so to speak) vicious cycle. The number of young people taking up the sport has plummeted since 1998. There are now 98,000 registered road cyclists, compared to 105,000 five years ago. According to local cycling club officials, there has been a dramatic slump in interest among teenagers. This is partly because of the sport's poor image; partly because cycling is expensive and demanding; partly because French roads - once so invitingly empty - are becoming increasingly crowded.
The drop in interest makes it harder to find new champions and the absence of a French cycling hero - a new Anquetil or Hinault - feeds the lack of interest.
No Frenchman has won the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985, the longest gap without a French winner in the Tour's history. This year, it is said, only two French riders, Richard Virenque and Christophe Moreau, have a serious chance of winning one of the 20 stages of the Tour, let alone the race itself.
For the French, the long wait for a new, cycling messiah resembles the British obsession with the interminable history of domestic non-success at Wimbledon. This comparison has even been made in the French press.
In truth, the 18 years of hurt on the Tour probably means far more, to more French, people than the lack of a British champion on the Centre Court means to the British. For most British people, Wimbledon is something distant, something on the telly. For the French, the Tour is (or used to be) a three weeks-long FA Cup final, which occurs, not in some distant stadium, but literally down their way. For a couple of minutes, a great international sporting event comes to within a few yards of their front door (or at least a front door which looks remarkably like theirs).
When I rode a stage on the Tour six year ago (admittedly drinking Coca-Cola in the back of a Ministry of Roads Land-Rover), Yannik Le Dû, a ministry official, told me: "The Tour de France... 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..."
The crowds that year were phenomenal, blackening every verge and pavement in a 200-kilometre swipe through Normandy and Brittany. Whenever I have made visits to Tour stages in subsequent years - after the Festina drugs scandal - the crowds have seemed to me considerably reduced. Officially, this is denied. The Tour is still said to attract over 10 million live spectators each year.
Fans at the roadside tell a different story. Marcel, a prosperous-looking late-middle-aged cycle fan, encountered in a thin crowd during a stage through the Creuse near the dead centre of France two years ago, said: "I don't know whether the crowds are bigger or smaller. I'd say they were smaller. But, more important, look who's not here. Where are all the teenagers and young people in their 20s? They don't care about the Tour like we did. It's football, football, football for them."
Vélo magazine has an opinion poll this month which purports to show that interest in the Tour remains as high as ever. Of those questioned, 91 per cent said they took at least "some" interest in the Tour. The small print was less impressive. Only 19 per cent of the sample said that they took a big interest in the race. Asked which sporting event they would most like to attend, 22 per cent chose the final of the Champions' League, 20 per cent the final of Roland-Garros and only 18 per cent a mountain stage of the Tour de France.
If a new French cycling legend was to emerge, all of this might change overnight. But where is the new legend to come from? The real power-houses of French sport (which is doing so well in so many other areas) are no longer the small towns and empty départements, which have produced most of the cycling champions of the past.
Road cycling, for obvious reasons, has always been a mostly rural sport in France. It has therefore mostly been a white sport. The boom in French football - and to a lesser extent basketball, handball, athletics and boxing - has been fed almost entirely from the ethnically disparate banlieues, or poor suburbs, which encircle most French cities.
The organisers of the Tour de France have - belatedly perhaps grasped that new reservoirs of sports-mad youth are waiting to be tapped. The Tour has been running cycling initiation classes, supervised by the former rider Laurent Jalabert, in the banlieues of a dozen French cities in the last few weeks.
The new cycling messiah when he emerges - if he emerges - may resemble Thierry Henry or Nicolas Anelka or Lilian Thuram (all children of the Paris banlieues) more than Jacques Anquetil or Bernard Hinault.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF THE TOUR DE FRANCE
BY ALASDAIR FOTHERINGHAM
How it all began
Ironically enough for an event now considered to be a vital part of the French national heritage, the Tour de France has its roots in a national scandal - the Dreyfus Affair.
After Pierre Giffard, the editor of the country's leading cycling newspaper, Le Velo, and the paper's financial backer, the Count de Dion, fell out bitterly over the controversy, Dion set up a rival daily, L'Auto-Vélo, with a former professional cyclist, Henri Desgrange, at its head.
As a means of boosting sales, Desgrange adopted an idea from his assistant Geo Lefevre for a round-France stage-race and indeed the new event triumphed rapidly. L'Auto-Velo's sales doubled to over 60,000 daily as interest boomed and Le Velo finally closed.
The conclusion from the account of his victory written by the first winner, Maurice Garin still holds water today: "With this race you [Desgrange] have revolutionised the sport of cycling and the Tour de France will be a key date in the history of road racing."
Whilst the Tour's basic format has barely changed since 1903 more than half-a-century would go past before the first rider would set the record total of five Tour wins.
That honour first went to Jacques Anquetil, a rider perceived by the public as a cold, distant figure, not helped by his clinical displays of power in the time-trials which nonetheless clocked him up one victory in July after another.
Next to reach the same total was the Belgian Eddy Merckx (right), whose first Tour win in 1969 - which included a 140-kilometre lone break in the Pyrenees and a winning margin of 17min 54sec - was very much a foretaste of things to come.
Nicknamed "the Cannibal" for his ability to gobble up race wins, Merckx's last Tour victory in 1974 came just four years before the pugnacious Frenchman Bernard Hinault - known as "the Badger" because of his fierce competitiveness - gained an equally iron-fisted grip on the same event.
Hinault's attempt to take a sixth Tour in 1986 was foiled by his American team-mate Greg LeMond, who in turn met his comeuppance in 1991 at the hands of the gentle Spanish giant Miguel Indurain, the first - and so far only - rider to have taken five consecutive Tours.
Now 2003 is the first opportunity for Texan Lance Armstrong to see if he can draw level with Indurain.
The glory years
As a means of regaining national identity after World War II had torn France apart, the Tour had no equal in the 1950s and 1960s.
With the increasingly available wireless and television sets heightening the impact and immediacy of the event, riders like Louison Bobet, the Frenchman who was the first professional ever to take three Tours became household names as they battled against foreign invaders of the two-wheeled type such as the gritty Italian Fausto Coppi.
In the more prosperous1960s other figures were to take Bobet's place in the nation's imagination: cold, calculating, aristocratic Anquetil was pitted against Raymond Poulidor, a far more popular, but ultimately far less successful, proletarian type.
After Anquetil quit, the arrival on the scene of all-time great Eddy Merckx, who took the unprecedented hat-trick of yellow jersey, green points jersey and the King of the Mountains in his first Tour win ensured public interest remained high - even if Merckx was Belgian.
Death and drugs
If the most unpleasant side of the Tour can be found in cycling's overly rich tradition of doping, the death of three riders in the event is a reminder of how lethal cycle racing can be even without drug abuse.
Spaniard Francisco Cepeda died in 1935 from injuries incurred after falling on the descent of the Galibier, whilst Italian Fabio Casartelli was killed in 1995 when he crashed and struck a concrete pillar in the Pyrenees.
Together with heat exhaustion and dehydration, doping was an important component in the lethal cocktail that caused the death of Briton Tom Simpson (below right) in 1967, who collapsed close to the summit of the Ventoux. Despite the Tour's efforts to clean up the event with stricter anti-doping controls the following year, the scandal-struck 1998 Tour all but caused the race to grind to a permanent halt.
Britain and the Tour
Thirty-six years after his death on the Tour, Simpson remains Britain's greatest-ever professional cyclist, the first to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour and the one who forged the way for a generation of Anglo-American riders. Top UK names since then include Robert Millar, the only Briton ever to finish on the final podium of the Tour when the Scottish rider took the King of the Mountains competition in 1984, three-times 1990s prologue winner Chris Boardman, and, the country's only competitor in this year's race, 26-year-old David Millar.
The Tour route itself has crossed the Channel to Britain on two occasions; firstly in 1974 when it rather forlornly trailed up and down a dual-carriageway near Plymouth, and secondly - and far more memorably - in 1994, when enormous crowds greeted the race for two stages between Dover, Brighton and Portsmouth.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling WeeklyReuse content