Plus ca change
Tour de France keeps mystique 100 years onPosted: Thursday June 26, 2003 6:02 AM
Updated: Thursday June 26, 2003 6:02 AM
PARIS (AP) -- They cycled for weeks in blistering sun and cold night rains. Spectators compared them to bulls and gave them nicknames such as "the Brute" and "the Chimney Sweep."
They straggled into Paris caked in mud and sweat -- some after riding over broken glass strewn in the road by their rivals.
Much has changed in the 100 years since the Tour de France was first run in 1903 as a sports newspaper's publicity stunt, but one thing has stayed the same: the race remains a grueling battle of brawn, brains and ambition.
"It's the biggest race, I think the hardest race, the race that everybody wants to win, to do well in," said Bjarne Riis of Denmark, who won the 1996 Tour and raced in it nine times before retiring.
This year's Tour will be no exception. The race, broken up into 20 stages, will run 3,350 kilometers (2,077 miles), starting in Paris on July 5 and going clockwise around France, through the Alps and Pyrenees, and finishing on the Champs-Elysees July 27.
The focus again will be on Lance Armstrong, winner of the last four Tours and poised for his fifth in a row. A victory by the Texan would tie the record set by Miguel Indurain of Spain, who won it from 1991-1995. Three others have won five Tours, though not consecutively: Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault of France, and Eddy Merckx of Belgium.
Despite the enduring dominance of Armstrong -- and his own comment earlier this month that a tighter finish would be more exciting -- the contest has always been a spectacle, even when it was founded in the early days of the 20th century.
The race was the pet project of Henri Desgrange, editor of upstart French sports newspaper L'Auto, and his assistant, Geo Lefevre. The two were searching for a publicity coup to knock established paper Le Velo from its pedestal.
A highly publicized bicycle race all around France -- touted by L'Auto as "the greatest cycling trial in the entire world" -- seemed to fit the bill. Within a couple of years, Le Velo was out of business and the Tour was a brilliant success.
The early tours were as brutal -- and cutthroat -- as they were exciting.
Riders cycled through the night, and rules dictated they repair their own bicycles, fix flat tires and wear the same clothes from start to finish. They were known as "convicts of the road," and Desgrange heaped even more punishment by adding backbreaking mountain stages.
The cyclists themselves often did anything to win. Riders scattered broken glass and fans tossed nails on the road to confound rivals. One rider in 1903 claimed he was poisoned. Competitors were accused of widespread cheating.
The scandals fit in with riders' rough, working-class image. Racer Leon Georget was known as "the Brute"; Maurice Garin, who won the first Tour, was known as "the Chimney Sweep." The penchant for harsh nicknames far outlasted the early years: Eddy Merckx of the 1960s and '70s was known as "the Cannibal."
That image has only served to enhance the lore and mystique of the Tour, one firmly grounded in the charming and scenic French landscape and the ethos of the small farming villages that the race runs through.
"You can just feel it, the aura, the mystique is around you. Whole towns turn out hours in advance of the race coming through," said Graeme Fife, author of "Tour de France: The History, the Legend, the Riders."
"You just have to be in a town like that, and the whole place hums with expectation," he said.
The route this year was set to recall the 1903 race, starting in Paris and then going through some of the same cities: Lyon, Marseille, even Ville d'Avray, a leafy suburb west of Paris. Nine new towns will be on the route as well.
None of this year's stages starts or finishes outside France, although the 14th leg in the Pyrenees crosses briefly into Spain. There are two rest days, three individual time trials including the prologue, and one team time trial.
The Tour has seen many changes since the early years. The image of the single rider in the night has morphed into a modern cyclist with spiffily dressed teams and entourages. Racers once had to flip their wheels to change gears; now they ride finely tuned, state-of-the-art machines.
The competition has also fallen prey to history. Seasons were missed during the two World Wars, and despite the 100th anniversary, this Tour will only be the 90th. While the dangers of exhaustion and falling from bicycle were always part of the tour, some -- including Armstrong -- are now voicing growing concerns about protection from attack.
Doping -- real and alleged -- has also dogged the Tour. In the most recent cases, Lithuanian cyclist Raimondas Rumsas came under suspicion of using performance-enhancing drugs after finishing third in last year's race. Rumsas denied taking banned substances, and he did not fail his drug tests.
Spanish cyclist Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano was banned from this year's contest after a test during the 2002 Tour found excessive levels of an anti-asthma drug
Armstrong, who came under suspicion of drug use after recovering from testicular cancer to triumph in the Tour, said he doubted his sport would ever manage to escape widespread rumors of doping.
"I think it will move from cycling onto another sport," Armstrong, who has never failed a drug test, said of the suspicions. "But I think the fascination will always remain. We will never be free from it."