Monday, July 19, 2010

Flying the Tricolor - A Centenary to Celebrate

All eyes were focused three kilometers down the north slope of the Porte de Balès, the fight for yellow was in full flight, attacks, counter-attacks, but over the summit and down the southern slope by a couple of minutes flew a diminutive Frenchman clad in the vibrant Tricolor, the colors of the champion nationals of his home country. Since 2004 we have come to love him for his affable smile and genuine verve for the sport, Thomas Voeckler was racing pell-mell for the lovely and historic spa-town of Luchon. Voeckler, of the French team Bbox Bouygues Telecom, scored not only a victory into Bagneres-de-Luchon for himself, but more importantly the 5th of this Tour for France, in Le Tour de France. In dropping the hammer and escaping his breakaway companions on the upper 10% reaches of the Porte de Balès, he help insure this was a day of double celebration. The victory marked the most successful Tour de France in a quarter century and Happy Centenary for Le Tour de Pyrenese.

For winner only mentality Americans there will be the inevitable question: So what's the big deal? Isn't this a race for the yellow jersey? And no Frenchman even cracks the top 10; in fact, John Gadret riding for AG2R La Mondiale trails in 15th at 14m 24s off the lead - that's about as close as the French will get to winning
their race this year.

The big deal is, this is their race. Le Tour IS a French race. Despite the occasional starts on foreign soil it is called the Grand Boucle because it annually swings its way around the whole of France. Those scenes you see the helicopters beaming around the planet in HD - that's France. Those castles and chateaus Paul Sherwin warbles on about - they're French. This great race was born 106 years ago in France and despite its recent globalization it is an expression of French sport, culture, economics, politics and passion. More importantly it must remain French -
Le Tour de France - and to do that it needs the French to love it, like they can only do if they feel a part, yes, that means winning.

The story of the birth of
Le Tour de France is well known to most - a French newspaper's (L'Auto) marketing ploy to increase circulation, insure survival and most importantly perhaps, eliminate the competition (L'Velo), whose publisher had opposing political views. Buried on the backpages of this new event was the patriotic passions of the founder, self-appointed director, and often chief chronicler Henri Desgrange. Desgrange loved France with obsession, consequently his race was and is a representation of all he believe France and the French people should aspire to be.

Over the decades, through, and because of, political strife, wars, economic good times and bad, shifts in sporting attitudes, and the coming of new medias, the race that first circled the rutted roads of the French countryside has been influenced by, and influenced, French life. I won't lead you down the long history of Le Tour, if you are interested read the excellent, LE TOUR, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, but suffice to say for the Tour to remain Le Tour de France needs a French cycling resurgence. There will never be enough American or British or Australian or Kazakh cycling fans to create a living gauntlet up L'Alpe d'Huez, or engulf the Tourmalet like they will Tuesday and Thursday, or set a table of fromage, vin and baguette roadside in a small village in the middle of Provence and wait three hours for its passing - forget your own nationalistic pride for two seconds and you realize part of what you love about this race is it is French. And it is a more than a bicycle race, it is a human drama in an amphitheater of life, that no other country could have invented and no other country has ever equaled.

A few months before that first climb to the Pyrenean summits, that crazy idea of making cyclists on bicycles that invented the word, ascend over mere muddy goat tracks, to which the race officials were shouted at "assassins!" American President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in Paris, a speech entitled "The Man in the Arena". A speech that wasn't of the pen, but of the heart of Henri Desgrange and at the heart of his beloved Le Tour de France. President Roosevelt spoke,

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Today I smiled with joy for daring Frenchman Thomas Voeckler and
was proud to love my very French Tour de France.

Photo: AP

No comments:

Post a Comment