Back in elementary school, long before my first trip to France, I had heard about the Tour de France. Based on photos in magazines such as Life and National Geographic teams of cyclists went zooming down snow capped mountain sides and passed through tranquil country roads lined with vineyards, orchards, and fields of flowers. Since this was before 1960 when alcohol was banned for the participants, there was even a photo of 2 riders, bicycles beside them, enjoying a glass of wine at a sidewalk café. Even at that young age it was an appealing sport where you get to ride through beautiful countryside and then relax at the end of the day at a quintessentially French bistro. Little did I know that years later I’d be standing at one of the daily finishing lines and 2 days after that at the next starting line as 176 colorful jerseys went by in a flash.
What started in 1903 as a way to sell more newspapers has turned into a sporting event bigger than the Super Bowl with 3.5 billion TV viewers worldwide. The racers cover a distance of 3351 km (2082 miles) in 21 days with only 2 rest days, one of which was right here in Carcassonne last Monday. Cities pay for the Tour to stay in their communities but I read that for each euro a government agency spends to lure the race to them, tourists and other visitors spend three euros so it is a lucrative investment for the area.
Preparations here have been going on for months including the distribution of window decorating kits to merchants, banners on light posts, and giant replicas of the winning yellow jersey displayed on monuments around town. Expositions of photos, bikes, and other memorabilia about the Tour were arranged. Concerts, dinners, wine tastings, and displays of regional products had all been set up for the 3 days surrounding the arrival and departure of the teams. There were even special trains including a steam engine and cars from the 1930s to 1960s bringing people in for the festivities.
Although the riders had an official rest day here, there wasn’t much relaxation since they still must ride daily to avoid muscle cramps and to use up some of those 5000 calories they consume every day. We had hoped to spot some of the contestants out for a spin but since amateurs and professionals all wear traditional cycling gear it was impossible to distinguish one from the other.
The winner of this race that always concludes in Paris earns a prize of around 600,000 dollars. Because the timings are cumulative over the 3-week course, it’s possible on that final day for someone who has never been in the lead nor worn the yellow jersey to pedal especially fast and emerge as the surprise champion. That happened in both 1947 and 1968 while in 1989 only 8 seconds separated the winner from his rival in a race that had started 23 days and 2000 miles (3200 km) earlier. It will be fun to see later today which colorful flash that went past us last Tuesday morning takes home the prize. We’ll be waiting at the bistro.