IT was shortly before midnight in this town of 10,000 people at the foot of the Pyrenees in southwestern France, and the preparations were nearly complete.
Early the following morning, as a band played Spanish bullfight music and local Basque tunes, hundreds of invited guests sampled regional products, drank Colombian coffee, and scrutinized the results of the previous day's run. They exchanged views with the riders as they prepared to sign in for the 13th stage of the 81st Tour de France, a 223-kilometer (138-mile) run between Bagneres-de-Bigorre and the striking city of Albi deep in the French countryside. The mood was festive as the riders were introduced to the hundreds of people who had stood for hours on the streets outside the fenced-off ``departure village,'' a collection of sponsor tents, rest areas, cafes, and more that accompany the Tour wherever it goes. Only the privileged, the press, and local officials (who see the Tour as a financial bonanza) had been able to secure invitations to the restricted area.At midmorning, the 158 riders still in the race took off for Albi in the intense heat. The day would be remembered most for what befell Swiss cyclist Tony Rominger, widely considered a co-favorite to win this year's Tour. Rominger slowed to a stop on the side of the road and dropped out of the race.
``I have a problem,'' he said later. ``I've had a problem for three days, and today I paid for it. I was over my limit.'' He was not the only one: By Thursday morning, only 126 of the original 189 riders who make up the 21 teams remained. Many dropped out because of the heat: Temperatures have reached 100 degrees F. on the course at times.
Rominger's departure, along with that of two others - America's Greg LeMond (winner of three Tours since 1986) and Italian champion Claudio Chiappucce - make it almost certain that the other co-favorite, Spaniard Miguel Indurain, will win his fourth straight Tour on Sunday.
As the Tour made its way through the mostly flat countryside of this rural part of France last Saturday, signs were posted in villages along the way wishing the 30-year-old Indurain a happy birthday. He is the dominant figure in bicycle racing today.
The fact that, barring something unforeseen, Indurain will arrive at the finish line on the Champs Elysees in Paris wearing the champion's yellow jersey did not seem to bother local folks who turned out along the main street of L'Isle Jourdain, a tiny village along this day's route.
``There's no suspense as to who will win the yellow jersey,'' said Daniel Delourme as he waited for the riders to pass by, ``but you never know. And, anyway, each stage of the Tour has its special charm, its own specialist.''
A few moments later, the riders whisked through L'Isle Jourdain, accompanied by the usual cohort of police, photographers riding motorcycles, and the riders' cars carrying bikes, spare parts, and the riders' entourages.
The Tour flashes past
The Tour, a movable feast steeped in tradition and folklore, mixes top-level athletic competition, popular culture, and crass commercialism. It passes through the town in less than a minute, but those who saw it had no doubt that the wait had been worth it.
``More people turn out to watch the Tour pass by than for the annual village party,'' said Alain Faregue, who was among the hundred or so people lined up along the main road of L'Isle Jourdain.
By the time the Tour ends Sunday, an estimated 8 million to 10 million people will have waited along main streets, country roads, and mountain passes to glimpse the riders.
Each year the Tour takes a different route, although the Pyrenees and the Alps are always on the schedule. This year, Roberto Conti of Italy won the grueling stage through the Alps.
Tour organizers pay tribute to historical events or major news in planning the route: This year, the Tour took the Channel Tunnel to England and rode along the Normandy beaches to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
For many, the most impressive aspect of the event is the organizational genius that it takes to make it work without a hitch. The logistics are impressive: Hundreds of cars, motorcycles, trucks, and helicopters - not to mention 4,600 people - are in constant motion for three weeks in July. Major highways and small roads are closed to traffic; crowds are patrolled by thousands of police, and hundreds of hotels must be booked along the route.
Shortly after the riders took off from Bagneres-de-Bigorre, workers began a daily ritual of dismantling the departure village, which would be loaded into trucks and taken to the starting line for the next stage of the race. There it would be reassembled, ready for hundreds of guests next morning.
The cycle begins again
At each finish line, dozens of giant trucks belonging to the French television networks or leased by corporate sponsors as hospitality suites await the riders. Television and radio studios are set up for the French and foreign correspondents who cover the race. These facilities also are dismantled at the end of each day and trucked to the next stage.
When the riders finally reached Albi, the crowd cheered and the winner of the day, Bjarne Rils of Denmark, slipped on the white jersey reserved for the top performer in each stage. Then Indurain kissed the beautiful women who offered him flowers and a can of soda, courtesy of one of the Tour's major sponsors.
And so it goes, year after year. ``Without it, something would be missing in France,'' remarked Christian Larroque, an engineer, as he stood on the road in L'Isle Jourdain. Just being there made him part of something special.