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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

With their RVs parked just steps from the action, hard-core fans cheer on Tour competitors in the Dauphiné Alps

With their RVs parked just steps from the action, hard-core fans cheer on Tour competitors in the Dauphiné Alps

IN THE PARIS OFFICE OF L’ÉQUIPE, oversize shots of sweat-soaked racers dominate the lobby walls. The desk of Gilles Simon, the lanky editor of the paper’s cycling section, sits beneath a collection of framed and signed yellow jerseys. This should come as no surprise, as the sports daily has long had close ties to the Tour: L’Équipe was founded in 1946 by the editor of the race’s original sponsor, L’Auto, a brand name that had been tarnished by a too-close association with the Occupation.

Over the years, the paper’s staffers have documented every step in the evolution of the Tour, from its waxed-mustached progenitors to the spandex-clad dopers who sullied its name over the past decade—the “black period,” as Simon describes it. “Ten years ago, we became more careful about what we wrote on the Tour de France,” he says. “We had to become”—he pauses, searching for the right words—“less enthusiastic.”

The response to the doping scandals here has been anything but straight­forward. The French, traditionally, adopt a laissez-faire attitude to personal behavior. But in the case of the Tour, the tendency toward liberalism has clashed with the country’s collective infatuation with the race and how it ties into the French sense of national identity. Doping may not have detracted from the excitement of the parade of vans or the family picnic, but it does put a damper on the pride, and no amount of Gallic shrugging can diminish this fact.

“This is bigger than just cycling,” says Simon, who saw his first Tour as a boy on holiday in Nice. He can still picture himself, he says, not far from the finish line, crammed in among so many people so much bigger than he was, desperately trying to pick out the maillot jaune—the yellow jersey awarded to the race leader—and then convincing himself that he saw it as the racers flew by.

“There’s something special about the Tour de France,” Simon says. “You don’t go to a stadium or watch in a bar; you go to the country with your entire family. Even if you’re a fan of one rider, everyone cheers together. That’s why people still love cycling—nothing else comes close to that atmosphere. For Europeans, it is the best example we have of a truly popular sport.”

RACHEL STURTZ is a writer based in Denver. On the whole, she prefers downing French pastries to climbing French mountains.

 

2013 TOUR DE FRANCE
Dates: June 29–July 21
Distance: 3,360 kilometers (2,088 miles)
Stages: 21
Teams: 22
Racers: 198
Percentage of last year’s racers who did not finish: 23
This year’s highlights: 10 new city stages, including the Grand Départ on Corsica; the double climb of Alpe d’Huez; the finish on Paris’ Champs-Élysées at night (a first for the Tour)

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