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Sports-Pictorial.com
  The Tour and its times.

 

The Tour and its times
History, tradition, legends and cutting edge technology

100 years of Tour de France against a backdrop of world and family history


Graham Jones, July, 2003.

Introduction

The Tour de France is without doubt the most famous cycle race in the world. Everyone knows of the famous Yellow Jersey even if they are not quite sure how it is won. This year (2003) the race celebrates 100 years since its first running in 1903. Two world wars prevented a continuous run of races and so this yearís centenary edition is in fact the 90th Tour. Leading up to the race numerous writers have recalled the history of this great annual spectacle with articles full of legends, stories of its greatest participants and endless statistics retold with unbridled enthusiasm.

On a recent trip to England from the USA the long flight gave me pause to think about Le Tour in a different way. As a passionate fan for over forty years, I started to think about what was happening in our family during that long time span. As a logical extension of this I began to wonder about the world as it was throughout the Tourís century.

The result of these thoughts is written here. I have intermingled Tour history with world history and a little family history. The journey starts in 1903 which is the year that man made his very first powered flight. Since then we have been to the moon and now live in a high-tech, interconnected world. Yet the fundamental concept of the Tour de France has survived and prospered these hundred years to the great delight of many millions of spectators every July.

The Tour and its times is a celebration of an enduring phenomenon.

Graham Jones, July 2003


The Tour and its times.
History, tradition, legends and cutting edge technology.

The beginning 

A couple of weeks after Lucien Petit-Breton took his first TdF win in 1907 my grandmother gave birth to a little boy who become number four child and the only boy in the family. A couple of years later another sister joined the family, while in France Francois Faber became the first Luxembourger to win the Tour.  With the Tour being just a little older than my father, my thoughts on the Tour also intermingled with my thoughts on the changes that my father has seen and experienced through his long life. Nowadays my father loves his art and his wife of 60yrs. Over in France Le Tour has grown and evolved into one of the biggest sporting spectacles in the world. The racing kilometers ridden through itís storied history would stretch to the moon.

As we celebrate the 100th TdF much has been said and written about it's history. Routes have been recalled, riders remembered and legends retold with renewed enthusiasm. Yet through all of this great build up to today's race I find little that positions the great event with it's times. We tend to think of Maurice Garin, and all of the great Tour winners that have followed, in the same terms as today's athletes.

My father and his four sisters were born into a world very different to today's. Queen Victoria died in 1901 and England (and much of Europe) was still very much Victorian in it's ways. Known as the gentle Edwardian era, society was still rigidly organized with it's class structure. If you were amongst the privileged, these were idyllic years. Unfortunately the world was edging towards it's first global holocaust with the outbreak of WWI.  But in the years leading up to the Great War life was good, if somewhat spartan by today's standards. Historians tell us that at this time the average (European) citizen never traveled more than about 25mls from their home during their entire life. Yet in 1903 technology was ready to burst forth with innovation that would change the old ways forever. The first manned flight took place in December of 1903 when Orville Wright piloted his heavier-than-air powered machine up and away from the sands of North Carolina. In the same year Henry Ford opened his first automobile manufacturing plant but it was not until 1908 that he introduced the legendary Model-T.

So when the first Tour set out from the Au Reviel Matin cafe just outside Paris, bicycles were still a new fangled development. Roads were predominantly populated by horses and getting communication between communities was still measured in days and weeks. Dealing with basic domestic chores was a full time job. It would take a whole day or more to get the family washing done. Every day the family evening meal would be started in the morning using raw materials and take the whole day to prepare. But as Marconi's first wireless signals across the Atlantic in 1901 and the Wright brothers and Henry Ford's innovations in 1903 heralded, technology was on the move. Right from the start the TdF has been in the vanguard of progress. This struck me as I was looking at some prints from those first Tours. You see bunches or small groups racing over terrible roads but through huge crowds as they pass through towns and villages. With most of those spectators living out their entire lives within a relatively small territory, they are cheering on a group of athletes coming from places those spectators will never see and continuing on to other places beyond their comprehension. As  ambassadors to the future, those early riders were ushering in a new world to a wondrous public. One Tour stage would be upward of four hundred kilometers at a time when the average citizen would consider a journey of thirty-five kilometers as a life experience. The race organization was rudimentary but extremely strict to eliminate, as much as possible, any cheating. The first race referee's had to traverse the country by train in the  hope that they would arrive at the right place in time to rendezvous with the riders. Race reports took very many days before they appeared in L'Auto or L'Equipe.

Those early Tours were limited to just twelve short years before the world was plunged into war. But Henri Desgrange (founding father of the Tour and recognised on this year's Yellow Jersey by his initials) and his band of pioneers established the foundations that have sustained the Tour ever since. As a sales and marketing type myself, I particularly like the fact that the Tour was born out of economic necessity and that the event was in fact one big marketing gig to boost sales of the newspaper L'Auto! By the end of that first Tour the circulation of L'Auto had doubled (a marketers dream). By 1904 the Tour had already become the biggest thing in cycling (and in sport in general in France). The riders and their teams cooked up all sorts of scams and tricks to win. Crazed spectators spewed tin tacks across the roads and in some cases physically attacked riders that they wanted to lose. As a result, and after many months of investigations, the first four riders on GC were not only disqualified but in most cases banned from the sport for life. The newspapers described the 1904 event as 'the last TdF'.  Luckily Desgrange and his team were made of stern stuff and the race returned in 1905 with more robust rules and regulations as well as improved controls out on the road. That year also saw the introduction of the first "simple" mountain stage when the Tour ventured into the Vosages mountains and ascended the Ballon d'Alsace. Anyone watching the Tour on OLN today will be familiar with the "flamme rouge" which marks the start of the final kilometer of each stage. This concept was first introduced in 1906. Francois Faber of Luxembourg became the first foreign winner in 1909. In 1910 the Tour made it's first passage of the Pyrenees and the following year the high Alps were tackled with the ascents of the Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier. These first forays into the high mountains were made on atrocious roads used mainly for logging and at that time there was still the danger of being attacked by wild bears and other animals. While the race reports made for great reading in L'Auto, the riders did not appreciate these new challenges and famously the organizers were accused by the riders of being "assassins". Months before the outbreak of WWI, Philippe Thys of Belgium won his second Tour in 1914. This race was also the first time that race numbers were affixed to the rider's bike frames. In November of that year the world plunged into long dark years that cost millions their lives. The Tour would not restart until 1919 when my father was twelve and by all accounts adored by his four sisters.

Between the wars

The Great War left  Europe in a serious state of deprivation. A whole generation of males had been lost in the conflagration. However in the pursuit of new means to kill the enemy with greater efficiency, technology made great advances that were eventually put to good peace time use. Motorized vehicles had made great advances, aircraft were coming of age and the humble bike was also becoming more sophisticated. Sadly, many of the great pre-war TdF hero's had lost their lives in the trenches of Flanders. So when the Tour resumed in 1919 a new generation took to the roads with Firmin Lambot taking the win for Belgium. The 'roaring twenties' was party time. Movies became big business with legends like Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin capturing legions fans on the silver screen. In 1927 the 'Jazz Singer' with Al Jolson premiered as the first American feature film that 'talked'. At home new time saving contraptions were appearing to help with the washing, cooking and cleaning. Most importantly medicine was also seeing major advances with penicillin being one of the most significant in 1928. Always looking for innovation the Tour came of age in the twenties. The first mountain stages had already been included in the 1910 edition of the race. In 1919 the Yellow Jersey made it's debut with Eugene Christophe it's first wearer. Finally in 1923 (won by the legendary Henri Pellisier) the riders were allowed outside mechanical assistance. Until then riders were strictly forbidden to receive help of any sort and the legend of Eugene Christophe's broken front forks was born of this ruling. While descending the Tourmalet, Christophe was forced to repair his own broken machine. He ran down the mountain, found a blacksmiths forge in a small village and set to work on the repair. Unfortunately a race referee located him and spotted a small boy working the bellows. Christophe received a huge penalty for this innocent assistance. Such are the French emotions towards their race that 'the Forge' is still a much revered national monument.  In 1929 the first radio transmissions were made of the Tour. In October of that year Wall Street crashed and the party was over.

In his own way my father joined in with the new ways of the 1920's. Already women's emancipation had started in earnest in 1913 with the 'suffragettes'. But in conservative middle class Europe the head of the household still ruled the roost over both male and female offspring. My grandfather had been a pioneer in the new industry of electricity and in fact was very proud to have been in charge of the project of 'wiring Buckingham Palace'. My father wanted to become an engineer in this exciting new technology. In a moment of uncharacteristic lack of foresight, my grandfather refused to allow his son into this fledgling industry claiming that it had no future. He was to be a teacher, and that's that. So my father went through teacher college and then just about managed one year of teaching which he hated. To the total astonishment of the entire family my father rebelled by quitting his teaching post and returning to college to study electrical engineering. He eventually spent his entire working life as an electrical engineer. But while my father was 'finding himself' an equally important family event took place early in the decade. My mother was born.

The 1930's opened with 'the great depression'. The Tour by now had become a great focal point for all of France and much of Europe every July. Following the gladiators of the Tour gave the general public a great diversion from the harsh realities of everyday life. Great riders had left indelible memories on the collective minds of the public and the Tour organizers continued to innovate and improve their great event. In 1930 the first live radio reports were broadcast. In 1933 Vicente Trueba (Spain) won the very first 'King of the Mountains' competition. That same year Hitler came to power and once again (as forewarned by an ignored Winston Churchill) the dark storm clouds of war gathered over Europe. Finally, due to ill health,the father of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, passed over the reins of the Tour to Jaques Goddet in 1936. Desgrange passed on at the age of 85 in 1940. Derailleurs made their first appearance in 1937 and Sylvere Maes of Belgium won the last TdF before the war in 1939.

WWII 

Like all occupying forces, the Germans tried to restore a semblance of normal life to occupied France. Try as they may, they could not induce the Tour organizers to put on the TdF. Offers of rarities such as food and equipment could not move the French who feared that the Germans would use the Tour as a huge propaganda exercise. However the occupational forces did succeed in having the French organize a 'Circuit de France' which bore very little similarity with the Grande Boucle. It seems incredible that in the middle of war torn Europe cyclists could even get out and train. It was during this time that British forces entering Italy claimed Fausto Coppi as a POW. Undoubtedly many other well known racing cyclists who were conscripted into Mussolini's army also met a similar fate. 

Meanwhile back in England my father was conscripted into a 'reserve occupation' to help keep electrical power on line. His post was the Ford motor works at Dagenham on the eastern reaches of London. It was here that army trucks, tanks and so forth were built. The Germans were well aware of this location so my father spent much of the war as target practice for German bombers.   My mother spent most of the war in the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). Initially she was a mechanic working on planes and vehicles. At one point she was posted to an airbase utilized by the Americans. One day she was trundling out to a B-52 bomber on the tarmac when suddenly they were strafed by the Luftwaffe. A bomb just missed my mother's truck but it blew her straight out of the back of it. After a temporary loss of hearing and some R and R (rest and recovery) to repair superficial wounds, my mother was reassigned to be an official 'chaperone' for American airmen arriving in England. For an attractive 20-something English rose this was a delightful posting. The reality however was extremely harsh. As the war records show, about 50% of those sent over in the bombing raids did not return. To this day my mother is deeply saddened by the loss of all those fine boys, many of whom she met. Between the bombing raids my father met my mother and just as the last raids subsided over London I popped into the world.

A Golden Era

The war changed Europe forever. For cycling, the period up to the early 60's became a Golden Era. From 1947 through to 1964 the TdF is crammed packed with some of cycling's greatest legends; Robic, Bartali, Coppi, Kubler, Koblet, Bobet, Gaul, Bahamontes and finally Anquetil. All names that any cycling fan holds with deep respect and awe. My first contact with the world of cycle racing came around 1957. A school mate of mine came from a cycling mad family. At school lunch times we used to go off to his place down in New Cross (a really rough part of London near the East End docklands) and either listened to Duane Eddy records or take turns in riding his fixed wheel racing bike around his block of flats. One lunchtime, clad in my first ever pair of long trousers, I got the trouser leg trapped between the chain and chainring. That night I caught hell from my father as he surveyed the black, greasy perforations in my ruined trousers. After that it was back to shorts for a while.

Package tours, a new concept for the middle classes emerged during the 1950's. Up to that time most average English citizen's had only visited mainland Europe to fight wars going back to early times. Now it was possible to visit these exciting lands as a holiday maker. My mother and father, with a great spirit of adventure, packed us up and we took the ferry across the English Channel to Calais in France. There we climbed on to a 'sleeper train' drawn by a magnificent monster of a steam engine. To a young schoolboy in 1955 this was an eye-popping experience. The Cote d'Azur (South of France) greeted us with weather and sweet aromas from exotic plants that were totally alien to us. Our accommodation was basic to say the least but this mattered little as we lived on the beach and ate wonderful French cuisine. Trips into the nearby mountains have remained as clear in my memory as anything that I have experienced. During our visit to Grasse, one of Picasso's homes at the time, we toured a perfume factory. While women worldwide would pay a King's ransom for these perfumes, the concentrated smell at the point of manufacture was overwhelming and nauseating. Upon returning to England my father became so depressed at the sight of England's grey atmosphere that he simply could not bring himself to return to work. So he packed us all up again and we trundled down to Hove (next to Brighton) on England's South coast where we re-acclimatized ourselves with 'normality'. We eventually returned to the South of France the following two years.

It took a lot of begging to get my first bike. A gleaming new black and yellow Elswick Hopper Invincible. It weighed a ton but it was mine and I soon became intoxicated with the new found freedom of the open road. My school friend introduced me to the world of club riding and I became a member of the Wren Wheelers. Without doubt my most vivid memories of those days are of rides down to the Kent countryside with huge bunches of riders. Cars were few and far between and for many families the bike offered a realistic means for recreation. Entire families would be part of the bunch on all sorts of weird contraptions; trikes, tandem trikes, tandems or solo bikes hauling trailers containing the tiny ones. Young and old, nobody was left at home. London was seething with huge cycling clubs and on those idyllic rides hundreds of riders would meet up on the roads or at some pub where lunch was being taken in the garden. Every little cafe and tea house in South East England was known to every cyclist. Our rides were most civilized and frequently punctuated by stops for tea. It was only a matter of time before I was enticed to take part in my first race. This was probably in 1959 and it was a club '10'. Ten mile TT's are a staple diet of English clubs to this day with one run every Wednesday throughout the season. I don't recall what sort of time I posted but I do remember the rude awakening of racing on a bike.

Our family left London in 1960 to move down to Maidstone in Kent. Here I soon joined the San Fairy Ann Cycling Club and shortly after that met my lifelong friend Roy Manser for the first time. Now 15yrs old, I was starting to become aware of the opposite sex and cycling offered plenty of opportunity to meet those fair English maidens. Cycling had become an attraction to many young girls as a way to meet (fit) young men. Consequently cycling clubs at that time were often a regular 'Peyton Place'. Conscription in England lasted until around the end of the 50's. Most of England's best racing men of the time were either in the Army or Airforce where they were encouraged to train, race and generally live a Pro type existence. Roy Manser (builder of my steel bikes) was in the Army stationed in Egypt and became one of the last British soldiers to leave the Suez area after it was returned to the control of Egypt's President Nasser. He tells me of the TT's that the lads organized along dusty desert roads near the canal. Orders were issued that while racing, riders had to carry a revolver at all times to deal with troublesome locals or crazy dogs. Roy arranged to be 'demobbed' (discharged) from the army while serving out his time in Cyprus. His plan, true to any real cyclist, was to ride back to England from there! It was shortly after his return that I met Roy looking like a bronzed Greek God. The young women in the club were besides themselves with joy and the competition for his attention was fierce.

The frugal post war years were a boon to cycling. Club riding boomed, racing boomed and big events like the Tour attracted a huge following. In England the annual Easter Herne Hill track meet in London secured the appearance of most of the great TdF hero's in front of thousands of highly enthusiastic spectators. This was cycling's Golden Era and it was the outgrowth of social conditions created by a recovering Europe. The brief summary here focuses on England at that time but I am sure that on mainland Europe and maybe in the USA, cycling was also benefiting from the newly liberated world. I would be most interested to hear from anybody who can provide some feeling for the cycling connected society of those times.

The Tour restarted in 1947 with little Jean Robic winning for France. But those early post-war years also saw the emergence of Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. Their great rivalry is a legend unto itself whereby they battled each other for Grand Tours, Classics and World Championships. At this time Europe was once again a sorry mess with cities everywhere bombed to the ground and the necessities of life in very short supply. In particular Italy was in dire straights. Mussolini had wrecked the country and due to it's recent fascist history there was little sympathy from other countries to help. Food shortages and anarchy threatened a complete collapse of the society. The rivalry of Coppi and Bartali captured the attention of the country and polarized it to one camp or the other. The intensity of this attention is today greatly attributed to diverting the population from the issues of state that would have largely destroyed the country had Coppi/Bartali not become a 'safety valve'. Of the two, Coppi (the Campionissimo, or champion of champions) became a legend in his own life time. A tall gangly man with apparently brittle bones, he was often sidelined to heal breaks and fractures. On the bike he produced some of the most dominating wins ever witnessed in cycle racing. Off the bike he created a scandal to match anything coming out of Hollywood. Although married, he had a (not so) secret affair. Despite feverish media attempts, the lady in question was never truly identified and she became known as the 'white lady'. On a safari trip to Africa in 1960, Coppi contracted malaria and he died at the very young age of 40. The whole of Italy and much of Europe was plunged into deep mourning for this unique champion.

With the 1950's prosperity was beginning to seep back into war ravaged Europe. Although in England I can remember food rationing continuing until about 1954. By the mid-50's TV's and labor saving devices that we take for granted today started to enter the average household for the first time. Early memories of my home life at that time recall a spartan environment with no TV, no washing machine, no dryer or any 'modern' device save for the radio. Around 1956 we finally became a motorized family and got our first telephone. Social developments at this level of society became the catalyst for the Tour to enter into a golden age of new ideas and spurned a whole line of legendary riders. In 1952 the first Tour TV coverage was produced (even though the average European home had no TV!). Most importantly, the newly mobile citizenry were able to venture out to the Tour's far reaches to see their heroes in action. In particular the high mountain passes became a magnet for huge crowds. Seeing the economic potential, the sport started to attract new types of sponsors. Once the preserve of cycle industry manufacturers and producers of wine and other alcoholic drinks, we see the emergence of  companies like Bic pens and then Ford cars (who sponsored Anquetil's team for a while). Big money was on the way. The Green Points jersey made it's debut in 1953 and the first photo finish was installed in 1955. Fausto Coppi took the first ever stage finish at L'Alpe d'Huez in 1952. The 'Angel of the Mountains'  (Charly Gaul, Luxembourg) and the 'Eagle of Toledo' (Federico Bahamontes, Spain) carved their names into Tour legend with their unbelievable climbing skills and exploits in the high altitudes. In fact when Bahamontes first rode the Tour he soared away from the field on the first major climb, gained a 20 minute advantage, and then, at the top he dismounted and enjoyed an ice cream while he waited for the rest to catch up! Both Gaul and Bahamontes won multiple KOM competitions and they each won one Tour (Gaul in '58 and Bahamontes in '59). For three years (1953,54,55) the mercurial Louisan Bobet ruled the Tour. And then in 1957 'Maitre Jaques' entered into Tour history with his first of five Tour wins. His forte was time trialing and it can be said that he brought the discipline into the modern era. Although a prolific winner, Anquetil was aristocratic, ice cold and calculating and as such he never won over the hearts of the French public. Instead it was Raymond Poulidor, the farmer's boy who perpetually challenged Anquetil but could never beat him, who became the darling of the race fans. Pou-Pou as he was known, eventually became known as the eternal second for he never won a TdF and sadly never wore the Yellow Jersey.

On the world stage the structure of the DNA double helix was discovered in 1953, a year which also saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the first ascent of Mt. Everest. MaCarthy-ism racked America and the Rosenbergs were executed for treason (1953). In 1954 Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile. The Hungarian uprising was crushed by the USSR in 1956 and during the heat of the final battle British newspapers published a photograph of an ancient English car and a couple of perplexed looking young men surrounded by tanks in Budapest. My adventurous cousins had inadvertently made a brief appearance in world events! The Sputnick was launched by the USSR in 1957 and that same year Russia put Laika into space. This poor dog was the first animal to leave the earth's atmosphere. More important to those of my generation, Bill Haley and his Comets hit the entertainment world with "Rock around the clock", James Dean became an icon in "Rebel without a cause" and Elvis Presley started on his path to immortality with "Hound Dog". Towards the end of the decade I 'discovered' the TdF! Everything was in place for us baby-boomers as we hurtled into the 60's.

Into the modern era

Gastone Nencini opened up the 1960's with his TdF win for Italy. Anquetil then came back to take four straight wins (1961-1964). Around 1962 my father and mother retired and have been living happily ever after. While Anquetil ruled the roost, America went into shock with the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963. The following year the Beatles 'invaded America'. That same year I made my first foray into Belgium and those first races were a rude awakening. No matter, I eventually spent two full seasons there in 1967, 68 rattling my brains out over the pave. My poor parents were convinced that I had thrown my engineering career down the drain and had no future. In 1966 drug controls were introduced to the Tour and the following year Tom Simpson died on Stage 13 while climbing Mt. Ventoux. Drugs were cited as a major contributor to his death. The 60's closed out with Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and a young Eddy Merckx taking the first of his five Tour wins.

During my two years in Belgium I vividly remember a conversation with a group of Belgian race fans at a local 'kermesse'. Belgians are both passionate and extremely knowledgeable about their sport. At the time Rik Van Steenbergen had recently retired and the 'Emperor of Herentals' (Rik Van Looy) was on the decline. They were bemoaning the fact that Belgium had no more great champions to laud and that with the emergence of drug scandals and the changes in society being wreaked on it by the young generation, cycle racing was becoming a casualty and slipping into history. In 1967, and following the death of Simpson, it certainly seemed that way as ever thinner crowds turned out to our races. Yet as we spoke, and probably not too many km's from where we were talking with the fans, Belgium was starting to see the rise of the 'cannibal' Eddy Merckx who would eventually prove to be the greatest racing cyclist of all time. If racing and the Tour was threatened in the public consciousness, then Eddy would certainly be a major contributor to it's restoration as a leading sport (on mainland Europe).

The 1970's were a time of great economic stress. In England unemployment was widespread and strikes a daily fact of life. Unable to make a career in England I moved 'temporarily' to Germany. Thirteen years later I was transferred from Germany to the US.  The Tour, in it's own inimitable way, continued to prosper. Air transfers between stages were first employed in 1971 and the first stages to be run in England were greeted by record crowds in 1974. For the first time the Tour finished on the Champs Elysees in 1975. England saw it's first woman Prime Minister when Margaret Thatcher (the iron lady) started her 11-year tenure in 1979. In the US, Nixon resigned in 1974 and Marlon Brando starred in the Godfather(1972). At the Tour the decade was sandwiched by two great champions. Eddy Merckx closed out on his five wins in 1974 and then in 1978 Bernard Hinault opened up his account to eventually take Tour number five in 1985.  

Unlike the 70's the 1980's were a period of great prosperity and change. I spent most of the decade living in super rich West Germany which was a dream come true. I traveled all over Europe, enjoyed skiing at Europe's best resorts and generally languished with the best of everything. Life was luxurious but regretfully I rarely rode the bike. However I did meet my future wife and both our children were born in Germany. For the Tour, the New World was about to burst upon center stage. In 1981 Phil Anderson became the first Australian Yellow Jersey wearer. Columbian Luis Herrera won the L'Alpe d'Huez stage in 1984 to become the first Columbian (and South American) stage winner. And then in 1986 Alex Stieda became the first Canadian Yellow Jersey wearer while Greg LeMond took the first USA TdF win. In addition to winning three Tours, LeMond was at the forefront of driving new technology and 'big sports' salaries into professional cycling. While on the way up he was famously double-crossed by his teammate Bernard Hinault who would go to any lengths to win. In 1989 Greg surprised the cycling world with the introduction of 'aero-bars' in the time-trials. This innovation eventually contributed to one of the most dramatic Tour wins in history when he beat Laurent Fignon in the final TT into Paris to win the Tour by it's, as yet, smallest ever margin of 8 seconds. Prior to this final test it was universally considered by the experts that it would be impossible for LeMond to overhaul Fignon's lead. The result was the fastest ever Tour TT in history. A record that still stands.

More than anything else the 1980's will be remembered for the collapse of communism which was heralded by events such as the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1988 and the rise of the 'Solidarity' party led by Lech Walesa in Poland. Ronald Reagan was President from 1980 to 1988 and, together with Margaret Thatcher in England and Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia, he helped lead us into a brave new world. Underlining this was the student protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989 which although did not precipitate the collapse of communism in China certainly triggered major reforms that pushed the country into the modern world.

A new millennium

1990 opened with the reunification of East and West Germany. At first greeted with uncontrollable enthusiasm, the West Germans soon woke up to the fact that East Germany was both impoverished and it's infrastructure little changed from WWII days. The economic demands on the West to rebuild the East became the topic of much bitterness as the West Germans saw their affluent ways of the 80's dissolve into excessive taxes. Headlines focusing on Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Mid-East dominated the 1990's. The affluence of the 80's finally erupted into the 'dot com' and Enron type scandals that nearly wrecked the economic structures of the US and Western Europe.

In tune with the collapse of communism the Tour saw it's first stage winner from a former iron curtain country when Dmitri Konyshev (formerly Soviet Union) won a stage in 1990 (also the year of LeMond's last TdF win). Then in 1991 Miguel Indurain (Spain) took the first of his five straight wins. Possessing a massive heart and set of lungs, 'Big Mig' totally dominated TT's and, even though a large man, could generally keep the climbers in check. Unfortunately his dominance fostered dull racing but his gentle demeanor and classic Spanish looks endeared him to the public. Indurain's reign was ended by Bjarne Riis in 1996 who then passed the mantle to his teammate Jan Ullrich in 1997. 'The Pirate', Marco Pantani produced a Giro/Tour double in 1998 and has been surrounded by controversy ever since. 1998 also saw the lowest point in the Tour's history when the Festina drugs affair broke. In fact many people predicted that this would be the end of the Tour. Then in 1999 Lance Armstrong came along. As a recent cancer survivor few gave him any chances to finish yet alone win. But win he did and in so doing is credited with saving the Tour due to the incredible nature of his story of the fight back from cancer. This very human experience deflected the media's attention away from the seedy side of racing and gave the public something positive that they could identify with.

The 21st Century opened with Armstrong continuing on his winning ways. A new type of cyclist, focused almost exclusively on Le Tour, Armstrong designs his whole year around the race. Almost no other race counts to him. With American corporate business planning and implementation techniques, Armstrong has raised the science of racing to new levels. Cutting edge technology is used for equipment, training techniques, nutrition and psychological preparation. An armada of specialist support staff and a team totally dedicated to assisting him win have all combined to make him totally dominant through four Tour wins. This year is a good bet for number five and then if he still has the interest he could go on yet further. While the Armstrong juggernaut rolls on, this year's Tour is seeing another legend being created. Having come down in the massive pile up at the end of Stage 1, leading Tour contender Tyler Hamilton emerged with a fractured clavicle. Everyone thought that would end Tyler's dream but after a year of dedicated preparation few counted on Tyler's ability to ride through pain. Here we are on the eve of entering Paris and Tyler is a leading GC contender with an epic stage win and many superhuman rides to his credit throughout the Tour. However it is not just his riding but more his attitude towards his misfortune that has created intense media attention and admiration worldwide. The Tour is a very special race and nobody gives it up easily. Tyler's story is the stuff of Tour legend. He will prefer to be remembered for race performance rather than an injury but the story will be retold whenever Tour history is recalled. 

In 1903 those first roadside spectators were mesmerized by crazy mud-caked cyclists streaking through their towns and villages. Without fail every race since has drawn increasing numbers to the roadside. Whatever world events were raging around them, through good times and bad, they turn out in droves. Today it is not unusual to see over one million spectators along a single Tour stage. Police estimates this year put the throng at over 600,000 on l'Alpe d'Huez alone. For the upcoming TT, reports tell us that people started camping out along the course to claim their viewing territory almost one week before the race arrives. Well over one million people are expected to line the TT route to witness the great Armstrong/Ullrich battle and countless other millions worldwide will be following every pedal stroke on the television or over the internet.  We may consider ourselves vastly more sophisticated, technically advanced and worldly than our forebears in 1903, but Le Tour draws us as it did them. In that respect little has changed.

The Tour itself continues to evolve and in the process adopts any technology that improves the race, it's organization or it's promotion. In fact that is probably it's secret of success. History, legend and tradition are skillfully integrated with evolving technologies to produce a race that can be identified with those pioneers of 1903, yet is very much a product of the 21st Century. Le Tour will outlive us, our children and our grandchildren so long as it does not drown in it's own success and continually embraces change and innovation while retaining the values of the past.

At the personal level my father is back home after about six weeks in the hospital. I think that I have so educated him on the Tour over the years that he just wanted to watch the daily coverage from the luxury of his own sofa (but between cricket matches of course).

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