A butcher in a stained apron and his wife in a bright house-dress stood on tiptoes as the bike racers streamed by in a long ribbon of lavenders and greens and umbers and blacks and golds. "Look at them!" said the butcher disdainfully, struggling to see over a roof of heads. "All muscles and no brains. What would they be without their muscles?"
The woman blinked through the blue-gray cloud from her husband's Gitane cigarette. "Butchers," she said.
Every year in the heat of summer the French play out the complex tragicomedy known as the Tour de France, and every year families are broken, pitched battles are fought and lifelong friendships reft over the hot-weather passions thus aroused. "You Americans can never understand the Tour," a Frenchman told me. "If you cannot understand such a simple thing as the souffl�, how do you expect to understand the Tour? My advice is do not trouble yourself to try. Go and enjoy some raspberries instead!"
"It's just a bike race, isn't it?" I asked.
"Oh, yes!" said the Frenchman. "It is just a bike race, and Jeanne Moreau is just a female."
After following the Tour from its start in Nancy to its conclusion in Paris, I am forced to agree that the Tour de France is not just a bike race. Who ever heard of a bike race that lasts three weeks and features a dozen dozen athletes fetchingly attired in advertising messages front and derri�re, cycling their hearts out with the help of a load of Dexedrine that would stagger even the students at NYU and Berkeley? And who ever heard of a bike race that meanders through an entire country, a gypsy caravan covering almost 3,000 miles of peddling and pedaling until one contestant finally wins and becomes—presto! chango!—an instant franc millionaire? And who ever heard of a bike race in which the roadside partisans spray the overheated contestants with garden hoses, hand them refreshments on the fly, give them discreet pushes on the steep grades—or throw tacks in front of their wheels, taunt them with bottles of cool, clear water and sometimes beat them up?
Parallels to other sports events in other countries simply do not exist. For one thing, nobody really sees the Tour. How can you see it? Let us suppose that the day's program calls for a 164-mile stage from Chamonix to St.-Etienne. The entire route is sealed off by police and turned into a one-way passage for the racing. You can watch the start at Chamonix, or you can pick a spot alongside the road and wait for hours to see the racers whiz by or you can watch them arrive at St.-Etienne. No matter what you do, you will see no more than an eyeblink of what goes on. One might just as well watch the World Series by training a telescope on a spot between first and second base and watching the action there for a third of an inning.
None of this bothers the French, who do not need to see a sports event to enjoy it. Anyway, the Tour de France is no mere sports event but a social, patriotic, political and semireligious spectacle as well, with its roots deep in the medieval concepts of knight and attendant, the mystique of giants and heroes and villains. It is impossible for French journalists to color the Tour anything but purple. The literary pattern was established in 1903 by Henri Desgrange, who conceived the idea of the race, compared himself to Emile Zola and then wrote in his newspaper for a starter: "From Paris to the blue waves of the Mediterranean, from Marseille to Bordeaux, passing along all the roseate and dreamy roads, sleeping under the sun, across the calm of the fields of the Vend�e, following the Loire, which flows on still and silent, our men are going to race madly, un-flaggingly...."
Racers who take the lead find themselves described in press and on radio as gods and demigods, Apollos, eagles, knights, heroes. When someone pedals after the leader, he "attacks." Contestants who give chase are "jackals," nipping at the heels of the "lions of the road." This year an otherwise calm newspaper in the east of France headlined on opening day: THE 130 GIANTS ARE OFF! and noted elsewhere on Page One that Charles de Gaulle had left for the Soviet Union. The public address announcer at the finish line in Pau, one of 22 daily stop-offs in the Tour, declaimed to a breathless crowd: "The giants are now pedaling through a horrifying mountainous pass!" and later, "The kings of the road are defeating the mountains with great nobility in a setting of antique splendor!" He really said that. Feuding cyclists inevitably are tagged "Cain and Abel"; a teammate who fails to help out becomes an overnight "Judas," and every stage of the race brings its apocalypse, its Armageddon or its apotheosis. Anyone who finishes the race is a hero (in a typical year about half the starters finish; the rest drop out because of sunstroke, frostbite, broken limbs, saddle sores, overstimulation by goofballs and sometimes even death). The cyclist who finishes last has come to be known as the Lanterne Rouge, or Red Lamp, and he is acclaimed and interviewed along with the rest. After all, another six or eight dozen did not finish at all. The Lanterne Rouge may have lost his toenails from the constant forward pressure in his cycling shoes, his backside may be pocked by suppurating ulcers and his mind so addled by amphetamine that he is not sure of his name, but he is a hero, a major athletic figure, a finisher in the Tour de France, the most trying sports event on earth.
"The Tour is finished," Founder Desgrange wrote in 1904 in his newspaper, L'Auto, "and I can assure you that the second edition has been the last—killed by its own success, by the uncontrollable passions which it has released. The fanatical spectators have caused us to forget any ideas of preserving the Tour de France." In the first year of the Tour a naturalized Frenchman of Italian birth had been the winner, and the next year supporters of a French cyclist set out to keep the foreigner from repeating. Cycling near St.-Etienne, he was attacked by a mob, and one of his racing mates badly injured. From N�mes to Toulouse the sporadic attacks continued, and police had to pull guns to protect the lead riders. To keep the race from collapsing on the spot Desgrange arranged for predawn starts, secret reroutings and police protection the length of the caravan. But on the final stage, the leg into Paris, cyclists were stopped by improvised barricades of trees, wagons and hay, and each time were set upon by the locals. It was after this that Desgrange issued his gloomy forecast.