Le Tour de France stands for the most severe form of sporting activity on the planet. A short sketch of one of the most gruelling and unique sporting events of the world, by a former national cycling champion
Le Tour de France is not a sightseeing trip. Nor is it a picnic. It is a misnomer. It stands for the most severe form of sporting activity on the planet. It lasts three weeks and covers about 3,000 kms, give or take a couple of hundreds every year.
Think of a Bombay-Poona cycle race. Throw in some mountains three to four times longer and often steeper. Think of rising from the hot plains to above the snow line in a single day. Think of snowstorms and blizzards. And chilly rain. And 100 kms per hour mountain descents. All on a small, narrow saddle, with 20 mm width tyres inflated to over 150 psi, in a bunch of 100+ riders jostling for space on narrow roads.
It is not your day out; even though it’s called a Tour!
Tour in French means a circuit, a journey that goes around. Le Tour de France is a cycle that goes around France. And of late, other countries too, including England across the channel.
Le Tour is a series of individual races where all the contestants start off together every day. Each day’s performance is individually timed and recorded and the winner is the rider with the lowest aggregate time. One race was won by only 29 seconds.
These days the race is composed of about 20 teams of professional riders; each team has nine members. The whole exercise is a concerted effort in just getting the team leader first over the line every day. In fact, so important is the team spirit that the other eight riders are called “domestiques”, French for servants. (For more on domestiques, check out Google on ‘Domestiques in Cycling’.)
This is professional sports at the highest level. In case one wonders why in God’s name should the others help the team leader, the reason is simple. Money. All the winnings are usually shared. Of course, the winner gets a lot more from ancillary contracts, promotions, and advertising. And, the glory and adoration rival that accorded to cricketers in India.
So famous are the Tour winners that a survey taken in the 1950s threw up some astonishing statistics. The members of the French Army and Legionnaires were quizzed about the winners and 92% correctly named the winner of that year’s Tour, as compared to the Head of State who came poor second, somewhere in the 20%s.
The success of the Tour has inspired other such races. The Giro d’Italia, The Vuelta in Spain, all named for circuits. The Tour of Britain was once called the Milk Tour, sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board. There are Tours in Switzerland, South Africa, America and many other countries. None compares to Le Tour in prestige or effort. The other races call for extraordinary prowess. Le Tour asks for superhuman effort.
Le Tour is over a hundred years old; held every year except when interrupted by the two wars. The finish is always in Paris, on The Champs Elysees. Crowds are ten to fifteen deep over the streets, as lakhs watch the end of three weeks worth of cycle mania. And go mad if a Frenchman wins.
To really appreciate the skill and effort that go to make this event, see a documentary called, “Pour Un Maillot Jaune”; French for “For a Yellow Jersey”, the colour of the race leader’s shirt. Why yellow? Well, that’s another story; for another day.
As this is being written, it is almost 25 years to the day when we had our own stage race. The Zandu-Blitz Bombay to Delhi race. Ten days and 1,400 kms. At that time the longest in Asia, with Rs5 lakh as prizes; when the cricketers were earning maybe a few thousand over five days.
(Advocate Bapoo Malcolm was national cycling champion in 1962 and 1964. He also formed India’s first Professional Cyclists Association in 1982.)