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In a hilltop town in Brittany a grocer slicing garlic sausage for a customer was interrupted by a squeal from his wife in the doorway. "Ils arrivent! Ils arrivent!" she shouted, her foot-high, stiff lace cap bobbing with excitement. The grocer froze in midslice, then he and the customer leaped like hares for the curbstone to cheer and applaud as 120 men on bicycles came whirring down the slope in a flash of colored jerseys and sparkling wheel spokes.
Like every other Frenchman who could draw breath last month, the Breton grocer was cheering on the heroes of the Tour de France, the biggest, noisiest, richest bicycle race in the world. More than a half century old, the Tour began this year on July 5 with the pop of a champagne cork as a starting signal in the cathedral town of Reims, wound north for a quick bend into Belgium, west along the Normandy beaches, south for a tendon-popping tussle with the Pyrenees mountains, east along the C�te d'Azur for another lung-bursting battle with the Alps and a short detour into Italy, then a long sprint north through the central plains of France for a tumultuous welcome on July 28 by more than 35,000 cheering fans in Paris' Pare des Princes. It lasted 24 days, stopped in 22 cities, covered 2,800 miles, awarded $120,000 in prizes.
As a prime French national obsession, the Tour ranks somewhere between l'amour and lunch. It is estimated that 12 million people line the roads to watch the race go by: bearded monks at the gates of their monastery walls, blanket-wrapped invalids on stretchers, schoolchildren shepherded by white-coifed nuns, town mayors standing stiffly in front of their city councils, shopkeepers, soldiers, and babes in arms. The Tour is a good-sized village moving at 25 miles an hour: in addition to the 120 riders, the procession includes more than 1,000 hangers-on, including 108 managers, coaches, masseurs, 70 officials, 430 reporters and photographers and 280 employees of commercial firms who send along traveling exhibits advertising soap, aperitifs, soft drinks and deodorants. Totaling some 240 autos and 100 motorcycles, the caravan stretches out for 30 miles along the road, closely guarded by more than 10,000 policemen, plus about 3,000 of the tough blue-uniformed Compagnie R�publicaine de S�curit�, France's highly trained mobile shock troops. Main highways are turned into oneway streets for the Tour's sake, and all side roads are blocked off. Traffic is paralyzed but nobody minds, because everyone is watching the race.
The very first Tour was born because Count Albert de Dion threw an egg at the President of France. A ferocious aristocrat, the count detested republicanism, and one day in 1899 he gave vent to his feelings by lobbing an egg at the high hat of President Emile Loubet as he sat in the stands of Paris' Auteuil race track. Arrested and imprisoned for a few months, the fiery count emerged from jail with a fresh grievance: some of his friends, especially the editor of a daily sports newspaper, had condemned his assault on the President. To avenge himself on the faithless editor, the count decided to found a competing newspaper, L'Auto, and in the editor's chair he installed Henri Desgrange, one of the most vibrant figures in the febrile history of French journalism.
Trained as a lawyer, big, black-bearded Henri Desgrange had early given up the courtroom for a career as a professional bike rider. He became French champion on the tricycle, and in 1893 set a new amateur speed record for two wheelers. When he became boss of L'Auto, he hit on a freewheeling scheme to boost circulation: the newspaper would sponsor a great bicycle race which would tour round the entire country, last nearly a month, attract the finest professionals of the day. Aghast at his own conception, which he compared in grandeur to the powerful work of Emile Zola, Desgrange saluted the start of the first Tour on July 1, 1903 with the following plushy paragraph: "From Paris to the blue waves of the Mediterranean, from Marseilles to Bordeaux, passing along all the roseate and dreamy roads, sleeping under the sun, across the calm of the fields of the Vendee, following the Loire which flows on calm and silent, our men are going to race madly, unflaggingly...."
An ex-chimney sweep named Maurice Garin won the first Tour, covering 1,508 miles in 94 hours and 33 minutes of mad, unflagging pedaling. France went wild over the Tour, and nearly destroyed the event in her delirium. The following year when the riders took to the roads, they found the country split into fiercely partisan factions, each violently determined that its favorite would win. During one lap, 100 men waylaid Maurice Garin on the road, belted him with clubs, shouting "Kill him! Kill him!" Maurice wobbled groggily on only to meet further dirty work: nails scattered on the road which produced a series of punctures. Wherever the Tour appeared, riot and commotion followed it. At the finish line, the first four riders were disqualified for various "irregularities." Moaned Henri Desgrange: "There will never be another Tour de France."
But the Tour managed to remount for a third time, and it pedaled smoothly into history, surviving two world wars, the German occupation and 86 cabinet crises. Along the way, it piled up a rich store of folklore, stirring tales of handle-bar heroes. One of the earliest was Francois Faber, a 200-pound hulk of a man, who won the 1909 Tour, munching steadily on a dozen cold, cooked pork chops he always kept in his rucksack (he was later killed in action during World War I). During the 1913 Tour when Eugene Christophe broke the fork of his bike, he hoisted it to his shoulder, trotted 14 km to a blacksmith, personally banged out a replacement on the anvil and rejoined the race (he lost).
To describe feats like these, journalists covering the Tour de France have remained faithful to the purple-prose tradition established by Henri Desgrange. In this tradition, the riders become "giants of the road"; when they pedal fast, they "attack." A handsome Swiss cyclist named Hugo Koblet is known as the "pedaler of charm." During a single lap of a recent Tour he was compared variously to one of the Three Graces, a nymph, a demigod, and suddenly, as the finish line neared, he became an eagle harried by a pack of jackals. Last month when a cyclist had a breakdown in the Pyrenees, one writer said simply: "He died in beauty in the mountains."
Under these super heated conditions, the Tour becomes an obsession for both riders and public. When Brambilla, who seemed near to victory in the 1947 Tour, lost out in the last lap, he slipped into cavernous gloom. Friends visiting his house one day found him filling in a huge ditch at the end of his garden: he had buried his bicycle, standing it upright like a king's charger, because he deemed himself unworthy to ride it any more.
Symbol of victory in the Tour de France is the maillot jaune, a yellow, short-sleeved jersey with the initials "H.D." (in memory of Henri Desgrange who died in 1940, aged 75) embroidered on the left breast. It is awarded every day at the end of each lap to the rider who has currently racked up the best total riding time; normally the maillot changes hands a dozen times before it winds up on the back of the ultimate victor.