With 10 days to go to the Grand Départ, Cycle Sport’s deputy editor Edward Pickering explains why the Tour de France is the jewel in cycling’s crown.

Words by Edward Pickering

Wednesday June 20, 2012

There’s no other bike race like the Tour de France.

Nothing compares to it. The Tour is the biggest, fastest, most important and best race in the world: it’s an event that both defines and transcends cycling.

There are only 10 days until the start of the Tour, and I’m experiencing the same excitement I’ve felt every summer since I first discovered the race in the mid-1980s as a teenager. Back then, I knew nothing of professional cycling, only that for three weeks, Channel Four would show 30 minutes a night of a slowly-evolving, constantly changing race that combined the speed and strength of elite athletics with the absorbing tactical play of a Test Match. It all took place in sublime landscapes, in front of crowded, cheering lines of spectators. I could see the Tour had excitement, subtlety, atmosphere and beauty – most sports offer one or two of these, but the Tour de France lies at the intersection of all four.

Can you remember the first time you encountered the Tour? The first stage I ever saw involved two Colombian riders flying away from their rivals in a setting of dramatic mountains and winning, a fact which the television commentators were extremely excited about. I can’t remember much more than that, even who the riders were, although looking back at the results tells me that it must have been stage 12 of the 1985 race, from Morzine to Lans-en-Vercors, and that the two riders were Fabio Parra and Luis Herrera, who were first and second that day.

I dipped in and out of the Tour that year, siding with Hinault in the battle for the yellow jersey against his team-mate Greg LeMond. Family holidays in France and a father who taught French had made me sympathetic to the Tour’s host nation, a partiality which stays with me to this day.

By 1986, I was hooked. I was disappointed that Hinault lost that year to LeMond, although I was now warming to the American’s easy charm. In 1987 I cheered as Roche won, then sat glumly through the dull 1988 race, a joyless, predictable affair dominated by Pedro Delgado.

Then came 1989. It was the greatest Tour in history, and it coincided with my first ever opportunity to see the race in the flesh. I persuaded my mother to drive us from the Ardèche, where we were on a camping holiday, over to Gap, where the mountain time trial would take place. We got stuck in Gap’s infamous traffic jam (as I have done every year the Tour has been back there), where I caught a glimpse of my first ever professional cyclist in the flesh, Martial Gayant of the Toshiba team, who freewheeled past the car, still in his team kit. I could have reached out the car window and touched him. Then we camped out on the Col de Manse (the descent of which caused such problems to the Schlecks in last year’s race), and watched the riders go past one by one en route to the finish at Orcières-Merlette. I yelled encouragment at Martin Earley, Sean Yates, Sean Kelly and Robert Millar, the four Brits/Irish left in the race, and stood in awe as LeMond swept past in his gold mirror Oakleys. I was so close I could hear his breathing, giving me momentary access to his world, a glimpse that was as intimate as it was fleeting.

And every year since, I’ve accumulated new memories. I’ve not got such fond ones of the 1990s, when Miguel Indurain made the Tour boring, or the 2000s, by which time I knew what was going on and loathed the mockery that was made of the race by EPO and blood doping. But the landscape of France, the host nation’s culture and the crowds, have never let me down – they continue to lay down rich memories, along with each new race.

***

It’s not that fashionable to love the Tour. I’m extremely taken by the Tour of Flanders, while racing purists and aesthetes seem to come out in favour of the Giro d’Italia, a more charming and classically beautiful race, above the Tour.

But the Tour is the Tour. It is the most important race because it is the most important race, a statement that is no less true for being tautologous. It was the original stage race, getting a six-year head start on the Giro that the Italian race has never managed to catch up, and in my opinion never will.

At the Tour, the best riders turn up at their peak form. They fight harder for stage wins, mark each other more closely, give less quarter to their rivals. Paradoxically, this is bad for the race as a sporting spectacle – the playing field is level, making it more difficult for spectacular attacks to succeed.

The Tour’s mountains may be no higher than their counterparts in Italy and Spain, but there’s something about the contrast between the Alps and Pyrenees, about the way the roads are designed, and the way the Tour is raced on them, that makes them epic.

Even the flat stages of the Tour are superior. While we yawn at interminable desert traverses at the Vuelta a Espana, the Tour speeds past bright fields of sunflowers, magnificent châteaux and flower-decked villages, plus the ubiquitous hay bale sculptures that seem to get more complex and ambitious in scale every year.

The Tour fits perfectly into, and over, the landscape, geography, patrimoine, culture, gastronomy, history, people and terroir of France. The Tour showcases these things, and they, in turn, elevate the race to being an expression both of the French nation and of cycling as a whole.

The Tour is just a bike race. But it’s a bike race that seems to capture the imagination of the public and the participants more than any other. I’m looking forward to seeing what the 2012 race brings, both on a sporting and a personal level.

What’s your first memory of the Tour? Leave a comment below, get in touch via Twitter or email the author via cyclesport@ipcmedia.com

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