Protesting Belgian workers throw wrench into Tour de France race

The fantasy world of professional bicycle racing in Western Europe last week plunged headlong into the real world of recession and unemployment.

For the first time in the 79-year history of the sport's most prestigious event - the Tour de France - a daylong ''stage'' in the 22-day spectacle was cancelled. Some 300 steelworkers achieved this unheard-of happening. Protesting layoffs at their plant in northern France, they threw barricades across a road and brought all 170 cyclists, in effect, to a screeching halt.

Public outrage against the incident was immediate and deafening.

''It's a scandal,'' said a Belgian textile worker who has followed this, one of the world's most elaborate annual sporting test for years. ''That workers should disrupt what is essentially their show - no matter how just the cause - is unthinkable. It shows how serious the industrial crisis really has become.''

The Tour de France - lasting three weeks each July and covering some 2,500 miles over every sort of terrain from the snow-covered French Alps to the sun-baked flatlands of northern France, and ending in Paris - has been untouched by the kind of political or labor violence that would force the cancellation of a day's race, or of the entire tour, since Maurice Garin won the first tour in 1903. Only two World Wars have succeeded in doing that.

The reason: the Tour de France is Europe's fete populaire, the working man's sporting event. It is hard, unsophisticated work for little pay, and for the winner there is glory - every man's dream.

Throughout Western Europe, professional bicycle racing - second in popularity to soccer - is followed year-round with religious fervor by working-class families who dispute the merits of their favorite riders in village cafes while others compare Wimbledon with Forest Hills in suburban country clubs. It is - as Marx would put it - the opiate of the masses.

By its very design, the Tour de France reaches out to meet the people. Factories close shop when the tour sweeps through town. Farms shut down. Fifteen million people - one-third of the population of France - line the roadside each year to see the tour race by in a flash of color.

''If you want to separate one distinctive feature from the rest,'' wrote Geoffrey Nicholson about the tour, ''it is that the race goes out to the people.''

To the July 7 disruption of the tour by steelworkers from the Usinor factory in Denain, the ''people'' reacted angrily. Perhaps most significantly, the toughest denunciation came from the communist trade union, the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) - never one to back away from public disruption.

While acknowledging the rightness of the workers' cause - noting that Usinor's decision to close the Denain plant by 1984 would lead to the loss of 1, 300 jobs in the region - the CGT said it ''disapproved categorically'' of the workers' action.

An editorialist for the French Communist newspaper l'Humanite called the action ''wrong and misguided.''

But Felix Levitan - one of the tour's directors - took it all in stride.

''It was a regrettable incident,'' he said. ''But we will be back here next year, and the tour will continue.''

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