THE greatest bicycle race in the world may be in town for a midpoint rest day, but the sleepy provincial lunch hour seems nonetheless untroubled in Dole, a small city of steep, red-tiled roofs in the Jura Mountains of southeastern France.
Then, suddenly, the slithery sound of racing bicycles breaks the calm, and a quiet pedestrian street of mostly shuttered shops is transformed. Heads turn to greet a half-dozen cyclists, their Lycra suits emblazoned with "Gatorade," the team sponsor. Children appear, clutching paper and pens, hoping to snag an autograph. Adults pick up their pace to view the cyclists; faces appear in upper-story windows.
The cyclists weave through a growing crowd, interested only in limbering their legs for the grueling tests to come. But as they disappear, a small boy fails to restrain the elation showing on his face and, waving the tiny plastic French flag he grips in one hand, exclaims, "Vive le Tour de France!"
Love for Le Tour is a sentiment the French renew every July. The venerable race, begun in 1903 and now in its 79th year, sends dozens of well-honed cyclists over thousands of miles of European countryside from gentle river valleys and fields of wheat and corn, to mountains that even some cars prefer not to climb.
It is not just a race that reveals the best practitioners of what many consider the world's most demanding and punishing sport, but an event that also unmasks the character of a people. The French may be known for a haughty sophistication and blase regard for much in the world, but their enthusiasm for this race and the numbers in which they turn out for it reveal the enduring nature of what is called la France profonde, or deep France. Catching a glimpse
All across the country, plowing tractors cough to a halt, workers in overall "blues" shut down machines, and vacationers quit their campgrounds, forests, and beaches to take up position on the route and catch a glimpse of - and pay tribute to - the boys of the tour.
With cows, castles, and church towers in the background, the French and their numerous European visitors form what is frequently mile after mile of an unbroken ribbon of humanity to cheer on the cyclists, from the best-known among them to the obscure. Often taking up well-scouted-out positions a half-day or more before the riders pass, spectators chat, read, picnic, or make new acquaintances.
Then, in a whoosh of advance cars, determined - sometimes grunting - cyclists, applause, and cheers, the race flies by. Unless there are "escapees" who have pulled ahead of the pack or those who have fallen behind, the whole event may come and go in a matter of seconds.
But if such fleeting contact with what, ironically, is a three-week sports event bothers the faithful, they don't show it. "When the tour is anywhere in your neck of the woods, you don't miss it," says Ginette Bouchard, who was thrilled when this year's tour route was drawn to cross her village of Lons-le-Saunier. "In my eyes, when it comes to sports, this is all there is."
Asked if it's the festive air that attracts her to the race's sideline, she retorts, "Oh, not at all! It's the racers - they're magnificent."
This year's tour route, 2,490 miles (3,983 kilometers) to be covered in 21 riding days or "stages" ending this Sunday, July 26, in Paris, miffed more than one French native by taking in the largest number ever of European countries - six, in addition to France. Tour officials say the decision to include Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Germany, and Italy translates their desire to commemorate 1992, the year the European Community is to complete its single market leading to a "Europe without b orders."
But that decision didn't please everyone. "To celebrate Europe, the Tour de France was transformed into the Tour of Europe, and that's too bad," says Raymond Poulidor, a Frenchman, longtime tour participant, and now cycling commentator. Gaining US followers
"I'm not opposed to taking in other countries, but not at the expense of French regions like the Pyrenees [Mountains]," which this year were dropped from the race, says Agnes Petit, another tour spectator. "These are regions that have grown up loving this event."
"But the tour has become so popular across Europe there was no way we could not mark the `Europe without borders,' " says Albert Bouvet, a former professional cyclist and now the tour's assistant director for athletic services.
The tour, whose now-traditional finish down Paris's Champs-Elysees is carried live in the United States, has widened its American audience ever since US cyclist Greg LeMond first won the tour in 1986. An exhausted LeMond dropped out Sunday and ended his unsuccessful bid to wear the race winner's famed yellow jersey for a fourth time.
But another American, Andy Hampsten, moved in by taking the tour's exhausting Alpine stage July 19 and, at this writing, had claimed the third spot overall.
Some tour enthusiasts worry that big money, big sponsors, and internationalization could ruin an event that compares with the Boston Marathon for popular appeal and contact. Old-timers like Charles Roux, who won the race in 1925, recall how yesterday's tours crossed either dirt roads or cobbled streets ("We were either eating dust or slogging through mud," he says) and how riders changed their own flats, because no entourage of technicians and already-pumped-up spare tires was following close behind.
But on the road the race retains its contact with the people, and that keeps it the Tour de France.
"It's the villages and the country roads that make this race," says Ms. Petit. "Put this in a stadium and you kill it."
Even Miguel Indurain, well on his way to securing his second tour title in a row, says it's the people out on the side of the road who count. "It's the personal contacts that keep this the Tour de France," he says, just minutes after receiving in Dole a 28th- birthday cake and a song from Spanish journalists. "When you're riding, you don't think about the notoriety and the media audiences, but the people out there, even in small numbers - them you see."