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Cycles of Life

The beautiful, corrupt Tour de France.

FOR ALL THE soccer played by Spain, and fine tennis at Wimbledon, something was ailing me this past month. It’s called Tour Fever. My promiscuous love for sports includes rugby (which I played a very long time ago), skiing (which I still relish as an aging downhill daredevil), and cricket (despite the English weather). For obscure reasons, I follow the Red Sox, with little joy at present, and thanks to the hospitality of the University of Texas, where I sometimes lecture, I consider myself a long-range Longhorns fan. In fact, the only sport I simply cannot begin to see the point of is basketball.

But bike racing—and the Tour de France in particular—is at once the sport whose appeal is the most elusive to the sadly uninitiated and the most addictive to those of us who are hooked. Nothing matches the mixture of passion, arcane ritual, high drama, heroism, and skullduggery that the great three-week bike race offers us tifosi (as the Italians call bike-racing fans). Every year, we count down the weeks until the Grand Départ. Then, after the short prologue, the jousting begins on the open roads, team against team, but also rider against rider, with the long breakaways (often forlorn), the temporary alliances, the bitter rivalries, the terrifying sprint finishes, the crashes, and then the celebrations and recriminations.  Some of those recriminations occur off-road. On the first Thursday of this year’s Tour, a Dutch newspaper put new speed on the Lance Armstrong saga by naming several American riders who have allegedly testified against Armstrong in return for leniency in their own cases. It will be a grievous blow to Texan pride if the only man to have won the Tour seven times is stripped of his titles. And we tifosi will again have to face up to the fact that we love the sport despite one painfully large part of its history.

ALTHOUGH I’M A POLITICAL and literary journalist by trade and not a professional sportswriter, for some years I moonlighted covering the Tour for two London papers (Financial Times and Daily Mail, somewhat incongruously). I’d loved the Tour from afar since I was a schoolboy, in the age of heroes like Jacques Anquetil, Federico Bahamontes, and especially Tom Simpson, the best English rider the Tour had seen until he keeled off his bike and died on the climb to Mont Ventoux in 1967, having taken one mouthful of amphetamines too many. But until my accreditation, I had never followed the Tour at close hand. 

Even now, I remember the sense that I was experiencing something out of the ordinary when, in 2002, I drove up to the Col du Galibier in low gear, through the lines of parked cars and camper vans and the slogans painted on the road, some very touching. That year, Laurent Jalabert rode his last Tour, which he marked with a brilliant solo escape and ended with the climbers’ “red peas” jersey, but everywhere along the parcours this hugely popular rider was greeted with warm wishes—Merci Jaja, Bonne Retraite—for a happy retirement.

Before they reached the Galibier, the riders had already covered scores of miles, in stifling heat. I watched the thin long line of riders as they toiled up the hairpins to crest the pass—at over 8,000 feet. Mont Ventoux is a mere 6,200 feet, but the way that it rises straight out of nowhere in Provence, and the lunar bleakness of the summit, makes it seem even scarier. The mountains are where the Homeric epic of the Tour has most often been played out at its most intense, something you can see on television better than from the roadside. 

To be sure, as a spectator sport, cycling requires a little connoisseurship. Some days, the Tour might seem like nothing more than nearly 200 cyclists pedaling steadily in a line across long flat stretches of northern France with half a dozen escape artists out in front. But anyone can share the excitement of a wild sprint finish, or two or three men slugging it out uphill to the line, as Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans—an Englishman and an Australian—have been doing this year.

Those finishes are what connect us with the Tour’s heroic past. On the Gap to Briançon stage in the Alps in 1951, Fausto Coppi, who had won the Tour in 1949, escaped on the Col de Vars to lead by 40 seconds at the summit. He didn’t win that year, but he did the next—after he cut down the leaders on the damn-near vertical Puy de Dôme. Then there was the magnificent duel in 1964, also up the Puy de Dôme, the lovable Raymond Poulidor shoulder to shoulder with Anquetil. And Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by just eight seconds in 1989. 

That remains a sore subject inside the Hexagone. Three years earlier, LeMond had become the first American to win the Tour but not the last; a year before that, in 1985, Bernard Hinault won—and no Frenchman has triumphed since. This year’s favorite is Wiggins, a salty Londoner who wears hair and sideburns like a late-’60s pop singer and has been in the form of his life, at last taking the leader’s yellow jersey at the end of the first week. The French are very much in eclipse—and in the sport whose very name is a statement of patrie et gloire.

But hang on, I hear my reader say, isn’t there a darker side to the story? À qui le dites-vous, or tell me about it. Forget your Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. We tifosi ruefully insist on our beloved cycling’s hard-won status as Most-Doped Sport Ever. This is not a guilty secret; in Rumsfeldian language, doping has always been a known known. From the beginning, cyclists drank copious quantities of cheap wine and brandy, and between the wars, cocaine was the drug of choice, until it was replaced by amphetamines. The gear change came with the advent of steroids, then EPO, which boosts the red blood cells, as well as the ghoulish practice of blood-doping, or pumping in a pint of blood—the rider’s or someone else’s—for added stamina.

No one who has followed bike racing for as long as I have can be any kind of Pollyanna. But objective evidence suggests that the Tour is getting cleaner all the time. There are fewer miraculous, inexplicable uphill performances, more close finishes, more riders with dubious reputations who can’t seem to do it any more. I could, but shan’t, name a couple who were climbing like Superman a few years back but were absolutely cooked when the going got tough last year. At last, the testers do seem a step ahead of the dopers and their black arts. And I sympathized with Wiggins’s feelings, if not his vivid language, after he was asked about sneering accusations in the wilds of cyberspace and the dread Twittersphere: “They’re just fucking wankers. I cannot be doing with people like that.”

The best antidote remains the Tour itself. Every afternoon for three weeks in July, the fever races through me, as I sit at home sharing the helicopter’s-eye view. But oh to be there! In Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, close to the lovely Gorges de l’Ardèche, where the thirteenth stage begins on the quatorze juillet. And to dine the evening before in the Jardin des Saveurs. And then to see the riders set off across a landscape so beautiful I weep to think of it so far away. 

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of
The Controversy of Zion, The Strange Death of Tory England, and Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France.

This article appeared in the August 2, 2012 issue of the magazine.