Ivry-sur-Seine, France — At 2:30 p.m., everybody in this Paris suburb stopped what they were doing to line up along the main street. The old men ceased their game of petanque, strollers stood still. Even marriage ceremonies were delayed.
A sense of excitement simmered as the publicity trucks passed, followed by helicopters and police with sirens blaring. It boiled over into a chorus of cheers as a rush of colorful jerseys and steel spikes zipped past. The Tour de France, the world's largest bicycle race, is in full gear, and Ivry has had its day to remember.
''What an honor for the tour to pass through town,'' beamed Mayor Jacques Laloe. ''Ooh, la la, it's really something special,'' added trucker Joseph Raffray.
In a country where bicycling is equivalent to baseball for Americans, where rural roads are clogged each weekend with ten-speeders, it is no surprise that a bicycle race should be so popular.
''Frenchmen love the outdoors,'' explains the tour's secretary-general Robert Taurand. ''We also love adventure, and the tour is the ultimate adventure.''
The tour, which started July 1, is a 24-day marathon, covering about 2,315 miles. It circles France counterclockwise, passing along the cobblestones of the north, through the lush farmlands of Normandy, Brittany, and the Gironde, up through the hills of the Midi and the peaks of the Alps before ending July 24 with a sprint down the Champs Elysees.
''The tour is the hardest cycling test in the world, perhaps the toughest sporting event in the world,'' says tour director Felix Levitan. ''Six hours a day on the bicycle, averaging 38 kilometers (24 miles) an hour and reaching speeds up to 90 kilometers an hour is an incredible achievement.''
This year 140 cyclists are competing. But only about 100 of them are expected to be able to endure the rigors and complete the event. Some will be hurt in spills. Other will simply become too fatigued along the way.
Because of an injured leg suffered in a race last month, cycling's superstar, 28-year old Frenchman Bernard Hinault, was forced to default before the race began.
Hinault had won the event four of the last five years. Last year he was so heavily favored before the race began that when he gave himself a 95 percent chance of winning other cyclists thought he was being modest.
Without Hinault, the tour is wide open. More than 10 cyclists are given legitimate chances to win. As of Sunday morning the leader was a relatively unknown Dane, Kim Andersen. But the race has not yet moved into the mountains where the toughest are separated from the not-quite-so-tough.
''On the flats, the teams can protect their leaders,'' explains Pierre Danguillaume, director of the Coop Mercier Mavic Team. ''But in the mountains, the cyclist is alone. It's cold, it rains, and the wind blows.''
The racers are divided into teams of 10 each. The team tries to pace its designated leader, protecting him from the elements and competitors. If the leader's bicycle gets a flat, for example, a teammate must drop out and give him his bicycle.
The teams are sponsored by cycling and auto companies which foot the expenses because of the publicity surrounding the event. About 15 million spectators turn out to see the racers pass, and 50 to 100 million Europeans are glued to their television sets each night during July.
The tour is one of the world's largest sporting events, with a budget last year of $3 million.
Part of the buildup is a natural outgrowth of the popularity of the event. But the tour's directors, L'Equipe magazine, have also exploited the event to an extent that shocks even Americans used to the commercialization of sports.
Publicity trucks lead the cyclists around the country, blaring slogans for breakfast foods, auto tires, and other products. A town pays up to $500,000 to host the tour and grab the limelight from Paris for one day.
The tour directors have also expressed interest in holding parts of the race in the US and Japan. The idea is to generate foreign interest - and cash.
''For the right price, they'll try to move the entire Champs Elysees to Tokyo ,'' sniped the prestigious daily, Le Monde.
But here in Ivry, commercialism is forgotten amidst the excitement. ''It's part of the national patrimony,'' said Taurand. ''Just like the Chateau de Versailles.''