Nothing compares to the Tour de France
[Originally published on theguardian.com, written by David Millar, CHPT3 Founder]
The Tour de France is big, really big. That’s the first thing that hits you, 4,500 people working on it, and only 176 of those are riding. There is no other bike race that even comes close to this scale. Yes, there are two other Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, yet they are family affairs in comparison.
The nature of the course doesn’t vary massively: it’s approximately 3,500km long, made up of 21 stages, mixing from flat transitional days to battles of epic proportions over some of the highest mountain passes in Europe. The rider with the least accumulated time over the 21 stages wins the overall and the coveted yellow jersey, of course, but winning only one of those stages can be career defining.
The yellow jersey, or maillot jaune, wasn’t always around. This year is the 100th anniversary of its introduction, and the race itself is 116 years old. The history of the jersey itself is fascinating: a masterpiece in marketing by the Tour’s creator, the newspaper L’Auto, which was printed on yellow paper. Here was a leading motoring publication tapping into cycling, the new big thing. Henri Desgrange, the editor, understood that by creating its own race it had exclusivity, and by making it a three-week race – and inhumanely difficult – it could create the most interesting narratives. Think of Big Brother, or Love Island, for newspapers.
The public lapped it up, circulation increased more than sixfold, the participants went from unknown eccentrics to national stardom, and the greatest bike race in the world was born.
It is this very nature of how and why the race was created that explains why it has become so important. It was never truly about the final results – this isn’t an event where winning is everything – but about the human condition. Failure is often celebrated as much as success. Making it to Paris is for every rider, from the maillot jaune to the lanterne rouge in last, an emotional experience, and one that transcends racing.
This is what riding the Tour de France is truly about for me. It’s about becoming part of the history of our sport. There are so many stories, myths and legends that surround and engulf it, from glorious heights to the deepest depths of darkness, and being part of it means you have earned the right to find your role.
It is this history that sets the Tour apart and what makes it so special. For me, it was only ever about the history, and this is what I fell in love with when I was a kid growing up in Hong Kong.
As a rider I was never stressed by the circus nature of the race – in fact, that’s what I loved most – and the noise made it easier for me to focus on what it was.
Most of the other races were dull in comparison because they didn’t have the depth and didn’t mean as much because they didn’t have as much history. In France the fans don’t go to watch the Tour de France riders, they go to watch the Tour de France event.
This year we will see a changing of the guard. Chris Froome looked on track to equal the greatest Tour racers’ record of five overall wins but his horrific crash on a recce ride at the Critérium du Dauphiné last week put him out. I have no doubt he will be back for 2020.
So it falls to Geraint Thomas to defend the title he won in a magisterial manner last year. Although he also crashed out of his final preparatory race he did not suffer injuries that could qualify as affecting his chances. Team Ineos will be the team to beat. They know how to do it better than anybody with six overall wins in the past seven editions in the colours of Team Sky and, remarkably, with three different riders.
Yet, in all honesty, who wins doesn’t really matter. The Tour de France is bigger than any individual, it’s become a cultural phenomenon, a Proustian memory of summer for the majority of the French population, omnipresent in the background of their whole lives, memories of carefree childhood Julys and shared timelines.
It’s often referred to as the Circus, and maybe that’s the best way to think of it: the greatest show of them all.
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