The Tour's slow puncture: Cycling's great race is at the crossroads

Doping scandals, home failures and changing cultures have left the Tour de France struggling to keep up with the times. John Lichfield reports from Pau

We are standing on the Rond Point du Souvenir Français - literally the "roundabout of the memory of things French". A candy-coloured swarm of 168 of the fittest young men in the world is skimming in our direction.

One of the world's greatest sporting events is about to pass a metre from the front door of a dusty little boulangerie, offering "bread baked in the old-fashioned way".

We are in the centre of Pau, a higgledy-piggledy, snakes-and-ladders town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. People, young and old, line the streets, gathering the plastic and teeth-rotting largesse from a high-speed procession of grotesquely decorated sponsors' floats and cars. Spectators, young and old, scramble in the gutter, skilfully separating the dog shit from packets of sweets, key-rings and baseball hats.

Ah, the joys of the Tour de France.

Despite several new drugs scandals, despite the pre-race ejection of three favourites, despite the stubborn absence of a new French, two-wheel messiah (21 years now and counting), all seemed normal as the 2006 Tour met the mountains this week.

And yet all was not quite the same.

There is a lack of fervour about the Tour this year: a lack of drama, a lack of heroes and villains. At least the Texan seven-times winner Lance Armstrong, now retired, gave the French someone to hate. Stripped of personalities, overshadowed by the drama and villainies of the World Cup, the 2006 Tour is something of a mystery tour but not, yet, a magical one.

In any case, the Tour de France no longer grips France quite the way that it did. The Tour organisers deny it. Reliable, independent figures are impossible to come by. None the less, visits over the years suggest that the roadside crowds are not so large as they were a decade ago; not so joyous; and not so reverent.

Officially, the Tour still attracts 10 million spectators - some say 15 million - as it pedals for three weeks around France. This makes it the most watched live sporting event in the world.

I rode in the Tour myself nine years ago (admittedly in the back of an official roads ministry truck, taking nothing more stimulating than Coca-Cola). The crowds were overwhelming. They lined the entire 130-mile stage up to 10 rows deep in the villages and towns across lower Normandy and Brittany.

This week in Pau, you could find a place to lean on a barrier within a kilometre of the finish line five minutes before the race leaders came by.

The Tour de France is suffering, not from a broken wheel or a flat tyre but a slow puncture. There is no calamitous fall in interest, certainly not a wholesale turning away from the Tour, which is in any case more than just a sporting event. It is a carnival, a festival of freebies, a celebration of the diversity and beauty of the French landscape.

When I accompanied the race in 1997, Yannik Le Dû, from the roads ministry in Paris, said the Tour "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."

But is it still? Bruno Mas, 37, a security guard - on holiday from Paris with his wife and two children - was filling shopping bags with the presents scattered by the publicity caravan. Did he, or any of his friends, still respect the Tour as a sporting contest? Or a national celebration? What did the Tour mean to him?

"It's an afternoon's fun for the kids. Kids love a parade. We won't even wait for the bicycles to go by. I used to follow the Tour, as a race, when I was younger but..." He spread his hands dismissively. "It means nothing to me now. I hardly know the name of two or three riders. If they want to dope themselves, fine. Let them take that risk. But don't keep telling us it's clean when everyone knows it is not. Who are we supposed to believe? Who are our heroes supposed to be?"

A little further away from the finish line, Robert Saliou, 74, a retired factory worker, was waiting for his "20th or 30th Tour, I can't remember". (Pau is a near-permanent fixture on the Tour schedule.)

"Ah no, it's not the same. Not the same at all. I remember when I was young, the whole town would take the day off. The factories would close. There would be buses to bring in people from the villages. There was a sense of a feast day, a holiday. There's not that excitement now."

But why? Is it because of the doping scandals? The lack of a great French hero? The last French winner was Bernard Hinault in 1985 - the longest gap without a local victor in the 102-year history of the Tour.

"Not the dope. No one cares about that. It's just a few vitamins, isn't it? There don't seem to be the characters that there once were. Not the French characters, nor the foreign characters. We don't mind foreigners, so long as they are interesting and don't win every time." (Implication: Armstrong was not only a serial winner but a serial bore.)

"Looking at the list this year, after the expulsions, the names hardly mean anything to me. I can't even pronounce most of them."

The official reply of the race organisers is that the Tour is not "made by stars. The Tour makes stars". New personalities will arise.

France 2, which has the main television rights in France, admits that there has been a fall in its audience this year but "by less than five per cent". Sponsors say that they are still delighted by the impact of the tour. Driving a giant coffee-cup from Strasbourg to Paris via the Pyrenees and the Alps still has its rewards, apparently.

Real die-hard cycling fans, from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere, still blacken the roadsides of the mountain stages with their camper-vans. And yet, and yet. In private, and sometimes in public, the major players agree that the Tour cannot survive as just a circus. It needs a backbone of sporting seriousness and credibility.

Daniel Bilalian, sports director of France Televisions (including France 2) said this week: "The Tour needs to be cleaned out, not just a quick sweep of the broom, but under the beds and in the cupboards. We cannot go on with the [credibility of the] Tour getting a swipe on the head every year."

This year the Tour got two swipes on the head. In May, the Spanish police found 100 batches of frozen blood in a Madrid flat, leading to a doping investigation which threw up the names of 58 leading professional cyclists. As a result, one of the teams, and the Tour organisers, excluded the favourite, the German rider Jan Ullrich, and two other fancied riders just before the race began two weeks ago.

In a case less reported internationally - but widely in France - Laurent Roux, a former well-known French professional cyclist, and his brother were imprisoned by a court in Bordeaux this month for organising a drugs ring to supply professional and amateur cyclists with an amphetamine cocktail called "pot Belge". Roux told the court that he was the victim of a system which obliged all would-be successful cyclists, even at junior level, to take performance-enhancing drugs.

"Erythropoietin [EPO], growth hormones, testosterone, cortisone... I took all the basic things," said Roux, 33. "Everyone took those at least."

The evidence of drug-taking among amateurs draws attention to another slow puncture in French cycling - the gradual retreat of the sport at local and amateur levels. The newspaper Le Monde reported this month that there had been a 50 per cent fall in the number of people belonging to cycling clubs in France in the last 10 years. This figure is hotly disputed by the French cycling federation but no one denies that the numbers are falling. Local officials in the Loire area talk of a 30 per cent fall in 10 years.

Why? The drugs scandals play a part but there are other factors. Rural roads are more crowded and dangerous than they were. Youngsters are part of a generation which does not appreciate straining up hills on Saturday and Sundays. Many of the French champions of the past - Jacques Anquetil, Hinault - were from farming families and there are many, many fewer farming families in France: 600,000 compared to 3,000,000 in the 1960s.

In rural France these days you still see groups of men cycling at the weekends, but they are middle-aged keep-fit fanatics, not young wannabes. The teenagers are on motorbikes or all-terrain four wheel vehicles or - at best - on cross-country bikes in the forests.

The lack of interest among French kids - there were very few teenagers in the crowds in Pau - helps to explain why no new champions are emerging. And the absence of new heroes increases the lack of interest. It is - so to speak - a vicious cycle.

Just before the leaders reached us on the Place du Souvenir Français, the baker emerged excitedly from her boulangerie. She was a wiry woman in her 60s who had been watching the race on television. A French rider was in the lead, she reported excitedly, using cycling terms with great authority. He was called Cyril Dessel. The "peloton" was far behind. He would certainly take the "maillot jaune" for overall race leader. But he would probably be beaten on the "sprint" for the "stage victory" by his Spanish pursuer, Juan Miguel Mercado.

The people close to me in the crowd looked at her blankly. "Cyril who?" someone said.

The baker proved exactly right. So did the voice in the crowd.

Dessel, 31, got the maillot jaune for one day, for the first time in his career. He was the first Frenchman to wear it this year. His age tells the story. Dessel is a team man, a spear-carrier, who seized his chance for a day of glory. No new, two-wheel messiah there.

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