I love the Tour de France. It can get a hard time, not least because there’s always someone willing to pipe up that ‘they’re all on drugs anyway’, but such sniping is easy to ignore when there’s regular live coverage and nightly highlights on multiple channels. Those who find it hard to understand how anyone could happily sit and watch several hours of people cycling are missing out on the vaguely Zen experience of live Tour coverage, one that is interrupted from time to time by a dramatic breakaway or a nasty crash. When you finally get to see the Tour in the flesh, you come to realise that it is a full-on spectacle, a massive circus that rolls into town with countless team buses, cars, and trucks before there’s even the faintest whiff of cycling action. As you wait for the flash of brightly coloured Lycra and the whoosh of bikes going at top speed, you are entertained by the arrival of the legendary publicity caravan, a gaggle of ludicrous floats and decorated vehicles promoting the Tour’s myriad of sponsors. They hand out free tshirts, pens, caps and giant foam hands to a delighted crowd. Sometimes one wonders quite what the more surreal participants in the caravan have to do with cycling, but the caravan is now an essential (and popular) part of the modern Tour.
The first Tour de France bicycle race took place in 1903, organised by Henri Desgrange in a bid to promote his sports newspaper L’Auto. Though Desgrange is seen as the ‘father of the Tour’ – to the point where his initials appear on the yellow jersey worn by the race leader – the actual idea for the Tour came from one of Desgrange’s journalists. The notion of a ‘Tour de France’ has much older roots, however. The annual journey of the cyclists around France (and frequently beyond French borders) recalls the ‘Tour de France’ made by apprentice artisan journeymen since the Middle Ages. As members of guild-type associations called compagnonnages, young trainees were expected to spend several years completing the tour de France des compagnons. Moving from town to town across France, they worked under master craftsmen until they had developed and honed their skills to a level where they too could open workshops approved by their compagnonnage and the local guilds. The organisation of each compagnonnage ensured that the apprentices would have food and lodgings in each town.
As Christopher Thompson notes in his cultural history of the Tour de France, this connection between the epic bicycle race and the ancient route of the journeymen artisans was recognised by both the race’s organisers and its supporters. The first two editions of the Tour, in 1903 and 1904, visited the traditional major stop-offs on the compagnons’ route: Paris, Marseilles, Lyon, Toulouse, and Nantes. This memory of the origins of a tour de France, Thompson adds, continued into the twentieth century: in the late 1930s the mayor of Nantes, he notes, saw in the bicycle race a reminder of the three-year circuit he had completed as a young apprentice.
For those who had been educated in French schools during the Third Republic, however, the term ‘tour de France’ would also have recalled a well-worn school textbook: Le Tour de France par deux enfants, written by Augustine Fouillée under the pseudonym G. Bruno. Intended as a primary school reader, the book remained in use from its publication in 1877 to the 1950s. Since disappearing from the school curriculum, Le Tour de France par deux enfants has been republished several times and remains in print. Such is its place in French culture and the national psyche that an article on the textbook by Jacques and Mona Ozouf featured alongside items as diverse as the Panthéon and the Marseillaise in Pierre Nora’s great work Les Lieux de mémoire (translated in English as Realms of Memory).
Le Tour de France par deux enfants tells the story of two children, André and Julien Volden, who set out from the town of Phalsbourg in Lorraine to seek out their uncle after the death of their father. That the two children come from eastern France is no coincidence: the book appeared just six years after the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Prussia under the terms of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. André and Julien’s departure from Lorraine acquires a further significance in that the story is set around October 1872, the deadline for residents of Alsace-Lorraine who wished to keep their French citizenship to leave the territories. In addition to teaching French children to read, therefore, the book also emphasised the idea that, despite the annexation, Alsace-Lorraine remained spiritually French. Their journey around France allows André and Julien to learn about various trades, skills and crafts but also to appreciate the geographic, linguistic and economic variety across the regions of the French republic. From the snow-covered heights of Mont Blanc to the busy port of Marseille, the children discover their country’s history and culture. Despite this great diversity, the children come to learn, France remains a unified whole under the umbrella of the Third Republic.
On some level, the extensive coverage of today’s Tour de France still allows viewers to follow in the footsteps of André and Julien. Le Tour embraces and promotes the full geographic diversity of France (and beyond). A notable feature of most televised Tour coverage, especially in France, is the tendency of commentators to explain the various landmarks and features in the landscape as well as describe the race. French television coverage occasionally includes short filmed inserts that give the audience a more detailed insight into a particularly significant castle, church or chateau. In this, the hundredth edition of the race, this message is more prominent than ever. On the Tour’s official website it proclaims this year’s race to be ‘The Tour of the Beauties of France’, a ‘Tour of the whole of France, of every kind of France, of every French people too’. For the first time since its centenary ten years ago (i.e., the hundredth anniversary of the first Tour, as opposed to this year’s hundredth edition – it is a tad confusing), le Tour will not go beyond French borders. Its first stages were held on Corsica – the first time the race has ever visited the island. Other stages will be more picture-postcard than ever, with the cyclists finishing the eleventh stage at the foot of the remarkable Mont Saint Michel.
The final arrivée into Paris, held on a Sunday, is always a great occasion (fights for a good viewing spot on the rue de Rivoli aside), but this year it’s extra special. The riders depart from the palace of Versailles and arrive on the Champs-Elysées at dusk. They’ll even get to do laps around the Arc de Triomphe before finishing the final sprint.
I can’t produce any statistics proving exactly how French tourism benefits from this focus on regional diversity and on France’s many attractions in the coverage and promotion of the Tour de France. However, there’s no doubting – in my case, at least – that regular and consistent viewing of the Tour tends to make sure that France, or some idea of it, gets under your skin. Thanks to my dad’s love of it, TV coverage of the Tour – and, as a result, footage of the French landscape – was a permanent fixture in my childhood summers. The Sunday afternoon arrival into Paris was a particular highlight. I am not suggesting that I was some kind of odd child prodigy who, witnessing Stephen Roche winning yellow on the Champs-Elysées in 1987, pointed at the screen and announced that when I grew up I would be a historian of that glamorous-looking place. However, it is fairly safe to say that a healthy dose of the Tour de France ensured that France always seemed a bit special to me.
Perhaps le Tour has a lot to answer for.