Cliched photographs capture farm workers halting from their labours in idyllic landscapes or old men resting from their games of petanque outside the village bar as a nation applauds the peloton. Le Tour representsour annual renewal of anydiminished affection for France as the riders negotiate stages whose evocative names resonate almost magically in our psyche.
This year, we have been even further engaged, London having borne witness to the Grand Départ, an event which began at around the same time as Lewis Hamilton prepared for his first British Grand Prix. For the million or more who thronged 10-deep along the route, it represented sport in its purest form, in which the spectacle of the human engine at its optimum performance contrasted favourably with the vast fortunes expended onthe science employed in conjuring a few hundredths of a second a circuit more out of aFormula One car.
Until they reached the killing fields, that is. It has been a week in which reputations have been destroyed, and would-be heroes pitchforked and strewn over the French countryside, objects of derision. Theseinclude the former yellow jersey-wearer Michael Rasmussen, of Denmark, who on four occasions had failed to make his whereabouts known for random doping tests. The dismissal by his own team, Rabobank, followed the positive test results of the pre-race favourite, the Astana team leader Alexander Vinokourov (accused of blood doping), from Kazakh-stan, and Italy's Christian Moreni (elevated testosterone levels), whose team, Cofidis (among whom was Britain's vehement anti-doping advocate Bradley Wiggins) withdrew in disgrace.
When it began in 1903, the concept of a couple of rival journalists, this summer ritual was seen as embracing the Corinthian ideal. They could never have foreseen just what capacity for devilry existed within their seemingly innocent, adventuresome child.
Even in the early days, theanticipated pain at the prospect of a daunting mountain climb was eased by a slug of brandy. The death, from a heart attack, of Britain's Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux in 1967 was followed by the introduction of drug testing, together with40 years of considerable self-denial as the race became a metaphor for deception and pharmaceutical intrigue.
Just about any other sporting event would curl up in shame at the incongruity of its participants having their Lycra felt by les gendarmes. Certainly, in some quarters the belief is that its only salvation now is for the organisers to scratch the Tour, or as one correspondent of The Daily Telegraph articulated it, "burn the village to save it".
Knee jerks should be left to the boys on the bikes. The race will conclude today, as always, to the generous appreciation of Parisians. A French sociologist describes it as a soap opera. The doping spices up the storyline, he says. As we on this side of the media divide can bear witness, scandal tends to excite the passions more than the glorious escapades of victors.
Yes, it has been a week ofignominy for the race. However, it appears a curious logic for an event to be damned because its cheats are being exposed. Have we ever heard the same arguments for the elimination of the 100m from athletics schedules?
Certainly, London Mayor Ken Livingstone's enthusiasm has not been dimmed. He has called for the Tour to return to the capital in 2013 or 2014, presumably having recognised that a harsh reality has imposed itself on the event, principally, one suspects, because of the knowledge that it will continue only so long as its financiers sustain it.
Sponsors of the 21 teams, who inject £100 million a year, have no desire to be associated with a discipline of cycling in which discussion of an inner tube often refers to the one connected toa vein.
"Ten years ago there would have been riders' protests about drug testing, but times are changing," says the Tour de France director, Christian Prudhomme. "This year, there is a protest against riders who don'tride clean."
Wiggins, who admitted that he felt like "thumping" his shamed team-mate Moreni, added more constructively: "The riders have to take a stand as a group. Maybe that means, 'We're not riding with this guy; put him at the back of the field'."
It is the most effective response to those who not only express profound doubts about whether the Tour will ever wash entirely clean but, perhaps even more contentiously, argue whether the battle is justified. They include James Waddington, an author who wrote a critically acclaimed novel about drugs in cycling,entitled Bad to the Bone.
He appeared on BBC2's Newsnight on Thursday, attempting to persuade us that we should speak of "body technology" rather than doping. In an interview in The Independent back in 1998, he objected to "the high moral tone that everyone takes [on the subject of drugs designed to enhance performance] that is not helping anyone.
"As for the argument it ruins sport, that is totally unrealistic. Do we want to go back to the Olympic ideal as represented in Chariots of Fire?"
Yet a clear distinction exists between what is acceptable technology and what is not in the search for that elusive edge in sport. While there will always be those who will attempt to traverse those boundaries,given the nature of the Tour's unique demands, effective policing of those borders must be maintained. But even more crucial are the harshest of verdicts from the jury of fellow competitors for anyone who attempts to pervert the course of cycling justice.
Don't reinstate Piggott's OBE – give him a knighthood
It was approaching 20 years ago that Lester Piggott was jailed for three years for VAT and tax evasion. We are told he received the sentence at Ipswich Crown Court "stony-faced". Well, he would have, wouldn't he? The nine-times champion jockey could never be described as the most demonstrative of characters.
So few of us would have been surprised by his less-than-effusive reaction this week tothe campaign mounted by supporters, including the former BBC commentator Peter O'Sullevan and the Racing Post editorialdirector Brough Scott, for the reinstatement of the OBE which was subsequently stripped from him. There are two separate petitions on the Prime Minister's website. "I appreciate the efforts people are making... but I'd prefer matters to be left as they are," he said. "I was saddened at the pettiness of it being removed, but that's the way things are – and I wouldn't want it back now."
In one sense, he is correct. There should be no going back. What he should actually receive is a knighthood. If ever a sportsman merited such an honour it is this remarkable, enigmatic character who won his first Derby, on Never Say Die, at 18, and, who, at the age of 54, was still riding with that unique style and sense of timing to claim the prestigious 1990 Breeders' Cup Mile in America. Nine Derby wins were among his 5,300triumphs worldwide during 47 years in the saddle.
Let us not pretend it wasn't a serious crime. It was then the biggest individual income tax-dodging case ever in Britain, at a time when his personal fortune was estimated at £20m.
But the years have passed. Piggott is now 71. Standards in public life could be viewed as rather different now from 1988. One suspects that if the finest rider of more than one generation was as media-friendly as Frankie Dettori, the command for hisattendance from the Queen would have been delivered well before now. Despite his protests, Lester, who partnered many of the Queen's racehorses, would not decline that invitation.Reuse content