It was a burning passion for the Tour de France that led a teenage Roger St Pierre to teach himself French. Now he encourages you to catch Tour fever with him…
As a 12-year old grammar school boy I was pretty much hopeless at French – six out of 10 was my mark. Then my brother went to Normandy on a youth hostelling trip and brought me back some French cycling magazines. Printed in sepia, blue or green tones and packed with dramatic pictures, those wonderfully evocative journals graphically told the story of that year’s Tour de France – then as now the world’s greatest annual sporting event. A cycling club friend then gave me a massive pile of Miroir Sprint and But et Club back issues, from as far back as the late 1940s.
I was totally hooked. When I was not out on my bike I was up in my room, pouring through those well-thumbed volumes, working out from the pictures just what the captions were saying – and within a year or so I was pretty much fluent in French, though it was not until I was 18 and embarked on my first Continental cycle touring holiday that I actually got the chance to speak the language to anyone.
Who would have guessed that many years later I would become assistant editor of the official Tour de France pre-race souvenir magazine (oddly enough, produced in London by an Irish company!)? Talk about a boyhood dream come true.
Many years after my becoming a dedicated Tour fan, I was asked to write a foreword for ‘Tomorrow We Ride’, a wonderful book by Jean Bobet that recounts the story of the affable Breton’s career riding as a team-mate of his brother Louison – the first man to win the Tour de France three years in succession (1953/’54/’55).
In this I recalled how, as a junior, grinding up South Weald Hill on our local Essex training loop, I would imagine myself to be Louison, hanging on to the back wheel of the great Fausto Coppi – the demi-god the cycle racing crazy Italian tifosi called ‘Il Campionissimo’ (‘The Champion of Champions’).
As I pumped the pedals, heart pounding, lungs fit to burst and legs searing with pain, my thoughts would pretend that the diminutive figure turning up the pressure just ahead of us – in reality a modest local third-category rider – was Charlie Gaul, Luxembourg’s near-legendary ‘Angel of the Mountains’ super-climber.
When he presented me with a copy of the book, Jean was kind enough to add the inscription: “To Roger St. Pierre – who once was Louison Bobet”.
The Tour de France is much more than just a bike race. As powerful a French icon as the Eiffel Tower and fresh morning croissants, this race now belongs as much to the rest of us as it does to its Gallic promoters – which reminds me that croissants are not as it turns out as French as you might believe, having actually been invented in Vienna, Austria, to celebrate the withdrawal of a besieging Turkish army,
Preceded by a massive and truly spectacular caravan of colourful advertising vehicles and accompanied by a cacophonous entourage of team vehicles, media cars, motorcycle-borne TV cameramen and buzzing helicopters, today’s ‘Grand Boucle’ (‘Big Loop’) attracts competitors from every continent – divided into 22 talent-laden teams of nine riders each.
The 21-stage spectacle draws a roadside audience estimated at more than 17 million, plus several hundred million TV viewers and radio listeners globally. The media entourage is massive, the logistics involved in keeping the whole show on the road are staggering.
For the riders, those three weeks of pain, suffering, heartbreak, elation and high drama – with truly gruelling stages over the monumental passes of the mighty Alps and Pyrenées – reach a climax when the survivors hurtle over the bone-shaking cobbles of the Champs Elysées at the end of the final stage into Paris.
It takes a brave man to enter the race, a hard man to finish it and a superman to win.
One thing’s for certain: this year’s big hero will not be Sir Brad Wiggins who in 2012 became Britain’s first ever winner. Illness and injury have conspired to prevent the Manchester-domiciled Londoner from taking the start this time.
Could the yellow jersey of overall victory fit over the slim shoulders of his Kenyan-born Sky team-mate Chris Froome, runner-up last time and now undisputed leader of the squad? Well, he will certainly be among the favourites, along with Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, recent winner of the Giro, Italy’s own national tour – the second most important event on the stage-racing calendar.
The Italians have a long and glorious history in the Tour. In 1948 Gino Bartali’s victory was credited with rescuing his strife-torn country from the brink of civil war.
The man they called ‘Gino The Pious’ was struggling to remain in contention for what would be his second Tour victory when he received a desperate communication from the country’s centre-right president Alcide di Gasperi, informing him that Palmiero Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party, was lying in a hospital bed, victim of an assassination attempt.
The politician knew that both side’s followers needed something to divert their attention from internal dissention – and what better to unite the nation than a glorious Tour de France victory?
Bartali duly obliged, taking three stages in a row, the yellow jersey and, eventually, overall victory (by a massive 14-minutes) – and suddenly it was bike racing and not war that dominated the nation’s headlines.
A few years later, Bartali and his arch-rival – the aforementioned Fausto Coppi – refused bluntly to ride together on the Italian national squad. Italy’s national railway system promptly went on strike in protest and the Pope summoned the pair to the Vatican so that he could mediate.
The Tour evokes massive passion in other countries too. Colombia, for instance, rarely has more than a few riders in the race but regularly sends as many as 150 journalists and broadcasters to cover their progress in the greatest show on two wheels.
Like all things in life, Le Tour has undergone dramatic evolution, especially in recent times. It is, for example, now English rather than French that is the common language of the peloton and sadly the French have not been able to come up with an overall win of their own race since Bernard Hinault, way back in 1985.
At around 3,360km, the Tour is shorter these days, faster too, with victory margins much tighter. The era of marathon 300-400 km and more stages, sometimes finishing after dark, are long gone but it’s still a heroic event and Tour fever grips the nation as strongly as ever.
Follow it on TV by all means; rush out in the morning to buy your copy of L”Equipe and catch up on the latest news and views but if you get the chance – stand by the roadside and applaud these brave gladiators as they pedal past. You might wait for hours to witness a few moments of action but as the whole entourage gets closer the tension and excitement build to a crescendo and the ambience rivals a Wembley Cup Final. Welcome to Le Tour de France – once witnessed, never forgotten.
By Roger St Pierre, despite his French name, veteran globetrotting writer Roger St. Pierre is proudly British. He is, though, passionately Francophile and has been to every one of France’s 94 metropolitan departments.
Read about the Tour de France history.