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Esprit du Tour

Riders in the 100th Tour de France will set out from the Corsican town of Porto-Vecchio this month, launching not only a grueling three-week cycling race, but also a countrywide celebration of what it means to be French. Rachel Sturtz introduces us to some of the people who will take their place along the route.

Author Rachel Sturtz Photography Laura Stevens

 

L’Equipe cycling editor Gilles Simon, in the sports paper’s Paris headquarters

L’Equipe cycling editor Gilles Simon, in the sports paper’s Paris headquarters

THE RACE USED TO BE ABOUT A MAN AND HIS BIKE. There was no tag-along support team, no earpiece that dispensed tactical advice. In the years following its 1903 inception, the Tour de France was one swoop-backed rider pitched against another, spare tubes looped over their shoulders like a gunslinger’s ammunition. Alone, the riders would tear down dirt roads flanked by towering berms of grass, their skin patterned with tributaries of mud and sweat, their woolen jerseys heavy with rain.

For all the grime, the cyclists were inspiring and thrilling. Their grit came to symbolize the endurance of France, a nation rebuilding after World War I, seeking resurrection and redemption after World War II. Created by the sports paper L’Auto as a Hail Mary effort to boost circulation, the Tour de France galvanized a population that had seen little in the way of unity. Blacksmiths loaned equipment to cyclists to fix broken forks. Fans offered up their bikes if a racer’s failed. For the duration of the race, France became whole.

Today, the Tour de France remains a big, defining event, albeit one with a different feel from that of its early years. Families have picnics along the route, catch cheap trinkets tossed from sponsor vans and explore beautiful, forgotten corners of the country. The French passion is there, but so is the insouciance. When asked about doping, a topic that enrages Americans who have never even watched a cycling race, the French simply shrug. “The riders were fast then; they are fast now,” says hotelier Jean-Malo Tizon. “It is all the same for us.”

This year marks the 100th Tour de France (11 years were lost to the two world wars) and, for all the recent PR debacles in cycling, the crowds promise to be as large and enthusiastic as ever. This is because the race is more than a sporting event. Thanks to a 2,088-mile route that changes every year, there isn’t a French region, town or resident untouched by the Tour. And even if those waiting by the roadside are rewarded with little more than a 20-second blur of color, the race is a visceral reminder of what it means to be part of something bigger.

“It is a symbol of our country in the same way the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of Paris,” says Gilles Simon, cycling editor at the sports paper L’Équipe. “It’s not cycling; it’s the Tour de France.”

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