In a hilltop town in Brittany a grocer slicing garlic sausage for a customer was interrupted by a squeal from his wife in the doorway. "Ils arrivent! Ils arrivent!" she shouted, her foot-high, stiff lace cap bobbing with excitement. The grocer froze in midslice, then he and the customer leaped like hares for the curbstone to cheer and applaud as 120 men on bicycles came whirring down the slope in a flash of colored jerseys and sparkling wheel spokes.
Like every other Frenchman who could draw breath last month, the Breton grocer was cheering on the heroes of the Tour de France, the biggest, noisiest, richest bicycle race in the world. More than a half century old, the Tour began this year on July 5 with the pop of a champagne cork as a starting signal in the cathedral town of Reims, wound north for a quick bend into Belgium, west along the Normandy beaches, south for a tendon-popping tussle with the Pyrenees mountains, east along the C√¥te d'Azur for another lung-bursting battle with the Alps and a short detour into Italy, then a long sprint north through the central plains of France for a tumultuous welcome on July 28 by more than 35,000 cheering fans in Paris' Pare des Princes. It lasted 24 days, stopped in 22 cities, covered 2,800 miles, awarded $120,000 in prizes.
As a prime French national obsession, the Tour ranks somewhere between l'amour and lunch. It is estimated that 12 million people line the roads to watch the race go by: bearded monks at the gates of their monastery walls, blanket-wrapped invalids on stretchers, schoolchildren shepherded by white-coifed nuns, town mayors standing stiffly in front of their city councils, shopkeepers, soldiers, and babes in arms. The Tour is a good-sized village moving at 25 miles an hour: in addition to the 120 riders, the procession includes more than 1,000 hangers-on, including 108 managers, coaches, masseurs, 70 officials, 430 reporters and photographers and 280 employees of commercial firms who send along traveling exhibits advertising soap, aperitifs, soft drinks and deodorants. Totaling some 240 autos and 100 motorcycles, the caravan stretches out for 30 miles along the road, closely guarded by more than 10,000 policemen, plus about 3,000 of the tough blue-uniformed Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité, France's highly trained mobile shock troops. Main highways are turned into oneway streets for the Tour's sake, and all side roads are blocked off. Traffic is paralyzed but nobody minds, because everyone is watching the race.
The very first Tour was born because Count Albert de Dion threw an egg at the President of France. A ferocious aristocrat, the count detested republicanism, and one day in 1899 he gave vent to his feelings by lobbing an egg at the high hat of President Emile Loubet as he sat in the stands of Paris' Auteuil race track. Arrested and imprisoned for a few months, the fiery count emerged from jail with a fresh grievance: some of his friends, especially the editor of a daily sports newspaper, had condemned his assault on the President. To avenge himself on the faithless editor, the count decided to found a competing newspaper, L'Auto, and in the editor's chair he installed Henri Desgrange, one of the most vibrant figures in the febrile history of French journalism.
August 12, 1956
Trained as a lawyer, big, black-bearded Henri Desgrange had early given up the courtroom for a career as a professional bike rider. He became French champion on the tricycle, and in 1893 set a new amateur speed record for two wheelers. When he became boss of L'Auto, he hit on a freewheeling scheme to boost circulation: the newspaper would sponsor a great bicycle race which would tour round the entire country, last nearly a month, attract the finest professionals of the day. Aghast at his own conception, which he compared in grandeur to the powerful work of Emile Zola, Desgrange saluted the start of the first Tour on July 1, 1903 with the following plushy paragraph: "From Paris to the blue waves of the Mediterranean, from Marseilles to Bordeaux, passing along all the roseate and dreamy roads, sleeping under the sun, across the calm of the fields of the Vendee, following the Loire which flows on calm and silent, our men are going to race madly, unflaggingly...."
An ex-chimney sweep named Maurice Garin won the first Tour, covering 1,508 miles in 94 hours and 33 minutes of mad, unflagging pedaling. France went wild over the Tour, and nearly destroyed the event in her delirium. The following year when the riders took to the roads, they found the country split into fiercely partisan factions, each violently determined that its favorite would win. During one lap, 100 men waylaid Maurice Garin on the road, belted him with clubs, shouting "Kill him! Kill him!" Maurice wobbled groggily on only to meet further dirty work: nails scattered on the road which produced a series of punctures. Wherever the Tour appeared, riot and commotion followed it. At the finish line, the first four riders were disqualified for various "irregularities." Moaned Henri Desgrange: "There will never be another Tour de France."
But the Tour managed to remount for a third time, and it pedaled smoothly into history, surviving two world wars, the German occupation and 86 cabinet crises. Along the way, it piled up a rich store of folklore, stirring tales of handle-bar heroes. One of the earliest was Francois Faber, a 200-pound hulk of a man, who won the 1909 Tour, munching steadily on a dozen cold, cooked pork chops he always kept in his rucksack (he was later killed in action during World War I). During the 1913 Tour when Eugene Christophe broke the fork of his bike, he hoisted it to his shoulder, trotted 14 km to a blacksmith, personally banged out a replacement on the anvil and rejoined the race (he lost).
To describe feats like these, journalists covering the Tour de France have remained faithful to the purple-prose tradition established by Henri Desgrange. In this tradition, the riders become "giants of the road"; when they pedal fast, they "attack." A handsome Swiss cyclist named Hugo Koblet is known as the "pedaler of charm." During a single lap of a recent Tour he was compared variously to one of the Three Graces, a nymph, a demigod, and suddenly, as the finish line neared, he became an eagle harried by a pack of jackals. Last month when a cyclist had a breakdown in the Pyrenees, one writer said simply: "He died in beauty in the mountains."
Under these super heated conditions, the Tour becomes an obsession for both riders and public. When Brambilla, who seemed near to victory in the 1947 Tour, lost out in the last lap, he slipped into cavernous gloom. Friends visiting his house one day found him filling in a huge ditch at the end of his garden: he had buried his bicycle, standing it upright like a king's charger, because he deemed himself unworthy to ride it any more.
Symbol of victory in the Tour de France is the maillot jaune, a yellow, short-sleeved jersey with the initials "H.D." (in memory of Henri Desgrange who died in 1940, aged 75) embroidered on the left breast. It is awarded every day at the end of each lap to the rider who has currently racked up the best total riding time; normally the maillot changes hands a dozen times before it winds up on the back of the ultimate victor.
No taint of amateurism is allowed to touch the Tour. "This race is where your money is," explains one rider. Every entrant signs a contract with several advertisers and he wears their trade names emblazoned on his tunic: Dunlop tires, St. Raphael quinine water, and Peugeot bicycles. In addition to prize money, men who do well in the Tour can be sure of a full year's work appearing in exhibitions and other tours all over Europe.
FREE WHEELS FOR STARS
Riders are usually divided into 10-man teams representing seven nations (France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Luxembourg and Spain) plus five regional French groups. Each team usually is led by a star rider, faithfully attended by several mates called domestiques who try to push him on to the championship. If the star has a flat during a fast lap, one of his domestiques will stop, quickly detach one of his own wheels and give it to him, rather than waste precious minutes waiting for the repair automobile in the rear. Then two more mates will drop back and help the star catch up with the fleeting column. (It is a curious fact about bike racing that three men together can ride faster than one man alone. This is partly psychological, partly because a 25-mile-an-hour rider encounters considerable wind resistance from even a five-mile breeze. Cooperative teammates, alternating as windbreaks, enable the star to keep up a faster pace than he could on his own.)
Director General of the Tour Jacques Goddet, 51, an erect, sunburned Frenchman, is the spiritual and material heir of Henri Desgrange. The son of Desgrange's right-hand man, Goddet is boss of L'Equipe, the biggest general sports daily newspaper in the world (circulation 385,000), successor to L'Auto which was forced to shut down at the liberation because it had continued to publish during the German occupation. Like Desgrange, who kept fit by taking daily fencing lessons in a room adjoining his office, Goddet keeps an anxious eye on his muscle tone: he does 40 minutes' calisthenics daily, runs cross-country two or three times a week in the Bois de Boulogne. In Paris he makes his home, with wife and three children, in an apartment actually within the grounds of the Pare des Princes, a big velodrome and athletic field which he controls.
"The Tour de France is half his life," says one of Goddet's associates. Eleven months of the year he holds conferences twice a week in his office to iron out details of the Tour, which are about the same magnitude as running Ringling Brothers Circus in full performance cross-country from New York to Chicago. To qualify as a stopover for the Tour, a city must have plenty of hotel and restaurant space, be willing to pay $7,000 to $10,000 in francs for the privilege. Once the route has been established, a Tour official travels over every inch of it, making a personal call on some 10,000 mayors. In stopover cities he holds long conferences with the police chief, the city engineer, the telegraph and telephone authorities (every city sets up a press room containing a special telephone center with 24 private booths). Five months before the race starts, some 1,200 hotel rooms have been reserved in every city.
In July, Jacques Goddet takes to the road himself, as commander-in-chief of the Tour. He rides in a fire-engine-red Renault with an Italian body, standing erect in the rear, sturdy in shorts and open-neck shirt, crowned with a sun helmet. Rattling out commands to subordinates over a short wave radio, he is as imposing as a general at the head of his troops, a spirit which frequently creeps into the daily column he writes for L'Equipe.
This year, in a column titled "The Tour Sounds the Charge," he described a sprint from Toulouse to Montpellier: "In the morning, the bombardment began—in pursuit of Raymond Elena, who had formed the rallying point for this lightning spurt, there were formed three waves of assault, composed of 17 grenadiers."
With General Goddet in command, the Tour made its final charge along the 136-mile lap from Montlucon to Paris last week but without the services of France's brightest racing star, Louison Bobet, who won the Tour three years running, in 1953, 1954 and 1955. This year Louison was out of action (saddle sores: bike riding's occupational disease) and, without him as a rallying point, the French team exploded under the pressure of individual ambition. At the halfway point of the Tour, Andre Darrigade, a 27-year-old rider from southwest France, had made the best record on the national team and had managed to win the maillot jaune several times. In the last few miles of the mountainous run from Luchon to Toulouse, Darrigade was in the lead when he got a puncture. He pulled off to the side of the road, yelled to his teammates for aid, but they looked straight ahead and pedaled on. Despairingly, Darrigade changed his own tire, a much slower process than switching a wheel, and arrived in Toulouse well behind. At the finish, he burst into tears, sobbed: "I will never ride on a French team again!" That night, while others celebrated far into the evening, two hundred Frenchmen gathered under the hotel windows of the French team and chanted "Bobet! Bobet!" as a lament for the lost leader.
But other teams functioned perfectly and their action led to the downfall of the prerace favorite, a 24-year-old Luxembourg rider named Charly Gaul, "the angel of the mountains," famed for his ability to whirl up steep slopes in record time. This year Gaul seldom got a chance to break away: his path was always clogged by dawdling rival domestiques who kept him boxed in while their own stars rode far and fast ahead. Days before the finish, it was apparent that Gaul had lost his chance for victory.
"The winged angel had pedals on his feet," was the way Goddet put it in a perfect bit of Tour-tailored prose.
One man who obviously had neglected to wear pedals on his feet was the winner, curly haired, ski-slope-nosed Roger Walkowiak, a 29-year-old Frenchman on the regional Nord-Est-Centre team. His total time: 124 hours one minute 16 seconds, a scant one minute 25 seconds faster than his closest rival. Jacques Goddet beamed as Walkowiak made his triumphal tour of the Pare des Princes, carrying an enormous bouquet of gladioli, but, like a good commander, his mind was already on the next campaign. Said he with simple eloquence: "Plans for the 1957 Tour start tomorrow."