But somehow the Tour continued the next year, and every nonwar year since, with frequent outbursts of violence and as many as 12,000 policemen (this year's complement) on the job. Long stretches of tack-strewn road became a commonplace, and racers would ride each stage with six or seven spare tires looped around their necks. In 1913 tacks forced two dozen riders to abandon the Tour on a single leg. One cyclist, Duboc, was headed for the lead when he accepted a refreshment from a spectator and collapsed, apparently poisoned. The Belgians, one of whom was the race leader, quit en masse to protest the pepper that was being flung into their faces. Bikes were sabotaged by second-story men while their owners slept at night. From time to time cyclists had to resort to false hair and beards, stage makeup and phony uniforms to get through certain villages without being buried in garbage, or simply smacked in the mouth.
And yet every threat by its backers to call off the Tour only brought a national cry of anguish from the French. No sports event ever became a monument so quickly, surviving even its own imperfections and its own tragedies, building an overnight folklore. One spoke reverently of the great P�llissier, who suffered serious injuries at the hands of an adulatory mob when he crossed the finish line in Paris. And how could one forget the tragic Ren� Pot-tier, who won the Tour in 1906 and soon afterward was found, inexplicably, dead by his own hand? In the Tour of two years later Ren�'s brother, Andr�, reached the summit of the Ballon d' Alsace and dismounted to salute a small monument to his brother's memory. Sobbing uncontrollably, young Pottier was persuaded to remount his bicycle, but he never regained the time lost at the monument and finished in 17th place. And what of the Spaniard Brambilla, who had one Tour all but sewn up, only to lose on the final lap? Brambilla went into a deep depression, and one day his friends found him burying his bicycle, upright like a knight's charger, in a pit in his garden. Another Spaniard, Cepeda, took a bad fall and kept on riding. Later he collapsed, was taken to the hospital at Grenoble and died of a fractured skull. Andr� Darrigade whirled into the Parc des Princes in Paris, traditional finishing place for the Tour, well in the lead for his sixth stage victory of the 1958 race. An official stumbled into Darrigade's path, and the two of them collapsed in a tangle of spokes and flesh. Darrigade recovered to ride the lap of honor with his head turbaned in bandages. The official died.
But not all the memories are so grim. Some recall the North African racer, Zaaf, who made a lone breakaway in the hot sun. Nipping at a flask of Corbi�re wine, he pedaled into a tidy lead, fell off his bike, remounted and rode off in the opposite direction, meeting the field head on in a few short minutes. And who could forget the Spaniard Bahamontes, who used to race to the top of a difficult mountain and then dismount, eat ice cream and joke with the crowd while waiting for his pursuers to come into sight? Then he would wave at them and take off for the next challenge. Unfortunately for Bahamontes, he was less inspired on the flat and won only one Tour, although he collected thousands of dollars in special prizes for being first over this mountain and that. The Frenchman Henri Alavoine had his own climbing technique. He would seek out one of the official cars chugging up a steep grade and engage the passengers in long argument over some technicality of the rules, all the time clinging tightly to the door and getting a free lift. The rules forbade such tows, but who could turn the poor gar�on away when he had a serious point to discuss? In the 1935 Tour, Romain Maes of Belgium opened up a slight lead on the first stage of the race, reached a railroad crossing just before a long freight train came by and thereby improved his lead so much that he was never headed for the rest of the race. The Tour de France is not always to the swift.
The French family packs a picnic lunch and supper, a bag of metal petanque balls, a deck of cards and the dog into the family Simca and heads for a vantage point to watch the annual appearance of the Tour de France. For brief seconds they see the cyclists flowing by, usually in a thick pack called the peloton, moving at speeds up to 45 and 50 mph. But before that fleeting sight they spend hours killing time and watching an outlandish commercial spectacle. The honky-tonk procession that winds past the spectator ahead of the cyclists is aimed at selling products, but judging from the remarks of the onlookers, it is viewed largely as comic relief, a peg on which to hang the French inner craving for ridicule and lampoon. I observed the caravan as it arrived at that day's finish line in a small southern town, and my notebook contains the following loose-knit impressions:
Two motorcycle cops blast their engines and race along edges of crowd, trimming back exactly as barber trims hair. Here is caravan! Four Peugeots in beautiful blue-and-white arrive with musicians on top clinging to platforms. Sign bills one as "Bernard Laroche, accordion champion of France." Not Olympic champion, just champion of France. Important distinction. Bernard is playing as fast as he can move hands, but nobody can hear him, because of din from horns and engines and frantic commercial spiel coming from man at mike alongside finish line. Bernard plays heart out, you feel sorry for the poor guy. He is advertising Camping-Gaz, a butane.
Here come five trucks advertising Catch, an insecticide. On top of each truck is huge fly or mosquito, dead on his back, feet sticking skyward. Very appealing. Crowd reacts with great ennui. Coffee truck comes by, and announcer screams, "This coffee is really good, folks!" Crowd not interested. Bernard Laroche runs up to finish-line microphone just as Esso truck comes along with "Mettez un Tigre dans Votre Moteur" lettered on side, followed by another car pushing hair tonic, another with a giant power saw on top and then a Singer sewing-machine truck bearing words, "Singer, your sincere friend," and all of them equipped with loudspeakers blaring commercial messages, but not one of them can be heard. Bernard Laroche and his champion accordion have taken over the P.A. system, and here he goes! He plays the Minute Waltz in 27 seconds by my watch, beating Liberace's record by eight seconds. Can see how he became champion of France. Another accordionist comes by atop another truck, and he is billed as "Champion Accordionist of World!" Does not faze Bernard; he plays on; he has the mike.
Now comes truck, topped by huge plastic banana, sponsored by Le Comit� de Propagande de la Banane, whose sign points out that banana is "Le Fruit � Maillot Jaune," the fruit with the yellow jersey. Significant because the daily leader of Tour de France is allowed to wear a maillot jaune, symbolic of his excellence, and so does banana. Get it?
Here come three baton twirlers billed as "Les Majorettes championnes des U.S.A.
" They are advertising Europe 1, a big radio station, and they are probably worst twirlers extant. Wear white crash helmets and short skirts and boots, and they stop often to retrieve dropped batons and try to pick up beat from little combo called Les Haricots Rouges, the Red Beans. Nobody can hear Red Beans because Bernard Laroche still has microphone. "Why do those girls wear crash helmets?" I ask, but my question is answered instantly when one of the majorettes conks self on helmet. "They wear them not only for safety," says a friend, "but also because they are bald!"
For an hour or more great procession keeps coming. Announcer regains microphone from Bernard Laroche and begins shilling for passing products. A car advertising Suze aperitif goes by, and harassed announcer informs bored crowd that Suze is a wonderful product and will kill bugs one! two! three! "He is probably right," says man next to me. Giant beer barrel rolls by on truck, topped by sign announcing "Champigneulles, queen of beers, the most important brewery in the Common Market." Atop the barrel sits still another accordionist, face covered with accumulated chalky dust of the countryside, fingers racing silently across keys. "What a job!" says a man. "I would rather have a thorn in my foot for a living." Trucks and cars come by advertising Coper p�t� de canard, Pastis-51, Longines watches, Poulain chocolate, Mercedes ("the Good Star of the Tour"), kitchen ranges, refrigerators, freezers, glue, gasoline, soft drinks, some 90 products in all, and each vehicle with its own distinctive screaming attention-getting noise. One modest little automobile rolls by silently, its panels advertising L'Humanit�, Communist newspaper of Paris. "There they go," says friend. "For once the Communists are making converts by keeping quiet." Truck marked L'EQUIPE screeches to stop, and two men begin shouting from tailgate, "Allons-y, les Sportifs!" Come on, sports! Afraid to risk being stigmatized as nonsport, I line up for privilege of paying 40� for L'Equipe's special edition, which includes five copies of other magazines published by L'Equipe company, all at least six months old. "That's how they get rid of back copies," man explains. "This morning I paid 10� for a special edition of another paper, and I got three TV programs from 1965. The very definition of useless!" Fat man pedals up to knot of local officials and delivers case of cold beer from deep box over front wheel. "What are you waiting for?" somebody shouts. "Join the Tour!" Fat man cries, "I am not crazy," pedals stoutly away. At last procession ends; short lull, and then far down road I can see a flash of color that marks first cyclists, straining and wiggling up the grade en dansant, like dancers. Who are these interlopers? I say to self. What are they selling?
The interlopers, themselves festooned in advertising patches like cars at the Indianapolis 500, started this year from Nancy, an industrial town near the German border and not far away from the fields where they say Joan of Arc tended her sheep. In a chill morning mist, the leader of a French Army contingent barked "Envoyez!", the tricolor creaked up a wooden shaft and La Marseillaise filled every corner of Stanislas Square. The cyclists pedaled slowly down a long row of plane trees, eased up to the starting line and then shot away with a speed that came as a shock to those seeing the race for the first time. "Outsiders have a tendency to think of the Tour de France as a leisurely spin across 4,300 kilometers," an official explained, "with the winner being the man with the most stamina, like the winner of a marathon running race. But the Tour actually is a series of longdistance sprints, with overnight rests in between." Indeed, the average speed for the 2,688-mile race is between 20 and 25 mph, and when one takes into consideration flat tires, steep mountain grades, icy passes and rough spots where bikes must be walked or carried, one sees that downhill speeds must nearly double the average, and speeds on the flats have to stay near the 35-mph mark if the rider is to have a chance. Add to this the behavior of the domestiques, or support riders, and one can see how the race involves brain and brawn in a torturously subtle blend. Each 10-man team has one, or sometimes two, riders who are reckoned to have a chance to win; all the others are domestiques, helpers, attendants for the stars of the Tour. The domestiques pace their heroes, serve as shields for them when the wind is breaking across the road, provide slipstreams in which the hero can pedal with less effort, and keep a weather eye out for stars of other teams attempting breakaways. Like picadors, they harass enemy racers. Sometimes they will form a slow-moving clot to hold back an attacker while their own man pedals into a solid lead. When an enemy star breaks away, opposing domestiques sprint after him, sometimes sacrificing themselves for the remainder of the stage merely to put the stopper on a challenger, like pawns in a chess game. It is not unknown for overeager domestiques to yank enemy stars by the sweater, try to dump their bikes and engage in other hanky-panky. There is something in excess of $100,000 in prize money hanging on the race, and by tradition it is divided among domestiques, with the stars making their own incomes from side money that pours in with each success. The smell of $100,000 seems to be enough to dispel the usual French sense of fair play. This year two riders were fined and set back to the last two places for dirty play. Others were not caught, or caught and forgiven.