No taint of amateurism is allowed to touch the Tour. "This race is where your money is," explains one rider. Every entrant signs a contract with several advertisers and he wears their trade names emblazoned on his tunic: Dunlop tires, St. Raphael quinine water, and Peugeot bicycles. In addition to prize money, men who do well in the Tour can be sure of a full year's work appearing in exhibitions and other tours all over Europe.
FREE WHEELS FOR STARS
Riders are usually divided into 10-man teams representing seven nations ( France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Luxembourg and Spain) plus five regional French groups. Each team usually is led by a star rider, faithfully attended by several mates called domestiques who try to push him on to the championship. If the star has a flat during a fast lap, one of his domestiques will stop, quickly detach one of his own wheels and give it to him, rather than waste precious minutes waiting for the repair automobile in the rear. Then two more mates will drop back and help the star catch up with the fleeting column. (It is a curious fact about bike racing that three men together can ride faster than one man alone. This is partly psychological, partly because a 25-mile-an-hour rider encounters considerable wind resistance from even a five-mile breeze. Cooperative teammates, alternating as windbreaks, enable the star to keep up a faster pace than he could on his own.)
Director General of the Tour Jacques Goddet, 51, an erect, sunburned Frenchman, is the spiritual and material heir of Henri Desgrange. The son of Desgrange's right-hand man, Goddet is boss of L'Equipe, the biggest general sports daily newspaper in the world (circulation 385,000), successor to L'Auto which was forced to shut down at the liberation because it had continued to publish during the German occupation. Like Desgrange, who kept fit by taking daily fencing lessons in a room adjoining his office, Goddet keeps an anxious eye on his muscle tone: he does 40 minutes' calisthenics daily, runs cross-country two or three times a week in the Bois de Boulogne. In Paris he makes his home, with wife and three children, in an apartment actually within the grounds of the Pare des Princes, a big velodrome and athletic field which he controls.
"The Tour de France is half his life," says one of Goddet's associates. Eleven months of the year he holds conferences twice a week in his office to iron out details of the Tour, which are about the same magnitude as running Ringling Brothers Circus in full performance cross-country from New York to Chicago. To qualify as a stopover for the Tour, a city must have plenty of hotel and restaurant space, be willing to pay $7,000 to $10,000 in francs for the privilege. Once the route has been established, a Tour official travels over every inch of it, making a personal call on some 10,000 mayors. In stopover cities he holds long conferences with the police chief, the city engineer, the telegraph and telephone authorities (every city sets up a press room containing a special telephone center with 24 private booths). Five months before the race starts, some 1,200 hotel rooms have been reserved in every city.
In July, Jacques Goddet takes to the road himself, as commander-in-chief of the Tour. He rides in a fire-engine-red Renault with an Italian body, standing erect in the rear, sturdy in shorts and open-neck shirt, crowned with a sun helmet. Rattling out commands to subordinates over a short wave radio, he is as imposing as a general at the head of his troops, a spirit which frequently creeps into the daily column he writes for L'Equipe.
This year, in a column titled "The Tour Sounds the Charge," he described a sprint from Toulouse to Montpellier: "In the morning, the bombardment began—in pursuit of Raymond Elena, who had formed the rallying point for this lightning spurt, there were formed three waves of assault, composed of 17 grenadiers."
With General Goddet in command, the Tour made its final charge along the 136-mile lap from Montlucon to Paris last week but without the services of France's brightest racing star, Louison Bobet, who won the Tour three years running, in 1953, 1954 and 1955. This year Louison was out of action (saddle sores: bike riding's occupational disease) and, without him as a rallying point, the French team exploded under the pressure of individual ambition. At the halfway point of the Tour, Andre Darrigade, a 27-year-old rider from southwest France, had made the best record on the national team and had managed to win the maillot jaune several times. In the last few miles of the mountainous run from Luchon to Toulouse, Darrigade was in the lead when he got a puncture. He pulled off to the side of the road, yelled to his teammates for aid, but they looked straight ahead and pedaled on. Despairingly, Darrigade changed his own tire, a much slower process than switching a wheel, and arrived in Toulouse well behind. At the finish, he burst into tears, sobbed: "I will never ride on a French team again!" That night, while others celebrated far into the evening, two hundred Frenchmen gathered under the hotel windows of the French team and chanted "Bobet! Bobet!" as a lament for the lost leader.
But other teams functioned perfectly and their action led to the downfall of the prerace favorite, a 24-year-old Luxembourg rider named Charly Gaul, "the angel of the mountains," famed for his ability to whirl up steep slopes in record time. This year Gaul seldom got a chance to break away: his path was always clogged by dawdling rival domestiques who kept him boxed in while their own stars rode far and fast ahead. Days before the finish, it was apparent that Gaul had lost his chance for victory.
"The winged angel had pedals on his feet," was the way Goddet put it in a perfect bit of Tour-tailored prose.