The Tour de France is the world’s best attended sporting event. Every year, the annual 3,500 kilometre bicycle race attracts, literally, millions of spectators during its three weeks of gruelling competition. The most prestigious part of the cycling calendar, Le Tour has captured the imagination of the public almost since its inception in 1903, when it was the circulation-boosting idea of the French paper, L’Auto.
In the first races, of course, things were very different to the ultra-organised teams of today. At the beginning, there were 60 riders, covering 2400 kilometres in just six stages. In the first year, although there was prize money, the total amounted to just 12,000 Old Francs. In 2009, the winner, Spain’s Alberto Contador, picked up a first prize of €450,000. In addition, stage winners won between €8,000 to €10,000 each and there were substantial amounts for the winners of the various other jerseys. Also different was the fact that the 2009 edition of the tour actually passed through five other countries in addition to France – Andorra, Italy, Monaco, Spain and Switzerland.
This latter point illustrates the international appeal of the modern day Tour de France. The most prestigious of the three ‘Grand Tour’ events – the others being held in Italy and Spain – people worldwide are interested in who is wearing the Yellow Jersey. The distinctive outfit of the current leader of the Tour is well-known. Also significant are the Green Jersey worn by the racer with the most points in sprints during the race, the red polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains, the White jersey for the leading young rider and the prix de la combativité – a white number printed on red as opposed to the customary black on white – for the most combative racer of the stage.
Although it has always been a race that has carried with it a fair amount of controversy – even in 1904 there were allegations of cheating, rocks thrown at riders and even riders attacked by masked men jumping out of cars. More recently, of course, most of the controversial aspects of La Grande Boucle have had more to do with illegal drug use. The very fact that the race is acknowledge as being the most physiologically punishing sporting event in the world has always led to some riders being tempted to take drugs – to either enhance performance or, especially in the earlier days, to reduce the physical pain of the equivalent of running very fast marathons nearly every day for three weeks.
In the first Tours, the substances of choice were generally alcohol, ether, strychnine, chloroform and cocaine. In 1967 it was amphetamines which killed British rider Tommy Simpson – one of only three riders to have died during a stage of the race. In more recent years, it has been the ubiquitous Erythropoietin, EPO, which has been most commonly found in drugged athletes. The 2009 riders, however, must have been just about the most tested sportsmen in the history of drug control!
During the history of the race, some of the greatest cyclists of all time have finished as wearers of the famous maillot jaune. Four men won the tour on five separate occasions – Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault – Belgian Eddy Merckx and the Spaniard Miguel Indurain, who actually won his races in consecutive years from 1991 to 1995. Merckx, still regarded by many as the greatest rider ever, actually won the yellow, green and red polka dot jerseys all in the same year – 1969 – when his winning margin over the second placed man of nearly 18 minutes has not been threatened since. Merckx also twice won eight of the race stages in a single year; another record.
The only rider who could justifiably claim to match Merckx’s achievements, of course, is the American Lance Armstrong who won an almost unbelievable seven consecutive Tours. Armstrong’s feat was all the more remarkable because of his well-documented health problems and it is disappointing that his undoubted achievements have not always been fully recognised in France itself, where many have harboured suspicions of drug use against him. In the year leading up to March, 2009, though, for example, Armstrong was negatively tested no fewer than 24 times!
There is no substitute to actually being amongst the thousands along the route of an individual stage when the riders hurtle past. However, the planning that goes into this experience should not be underestimated! Hotel rooms in the vicinity of the race will book up months in advance, as will official camp sites, so you need to have your own itinerary prepared.
Although it might seem on the television as if the cyclists will be past you in a moment and, therefore, there is not a lot to be said for waiting at the side of the road, in reality the day will be quite full. Many people, of course, like to ride sections of the race before the professionals arrive – although as the road will be closed three hours or so before the race arrives you need to even plan this activity. The hubbub before the arrival of the cyclists and then the passing of the ‘caravan’ of about 250 advertising vehicles – often throwing around ‘freebie’ souvenirs and sweets – and the almost palpable air of tension means that by the time the cacophony of noise and colour that constitutes the race arrives, you will feel a fully integrated part of the event. Make sure you take plenty of sunscreen and a good pair of shoes, though; it’s a long day.
The the full itinerary can be found on the official tour website.