Cycling's enduring Tour de force

On the Tour de France's centennial, fans turn out in droves to follow one of the closest races in a decade.

The traffic signs on the steep mountain road, leading to this sleepy Pyrenean hamlet, warn motorists of two hazards: switchbacks and cows.

Soon after dawn on Sunday, however, a more unusual danger crowded the route: thousands of people tramping up the slope, loaded with picnic gear, seeking out a shady spot from which to view the biggest annual sports event in the world.

The Tour de France was coming, transforming a back road through forgotten villages into the backdrop for a competition watched by nearly one billion television viewers worldwide.

One hundred years after the Tour de France was launched as a stunt to boost a newspaper's circulation, the race has become part of France's national heritage, up there with the Eiffel Tower. And for three weeks each July, the traveling circus brings out millions to join the party all around the country. This year, fans are especially eager for a prime vantage point to follow one of the closest, most unpredictable races in a decade.

On the flat, the Tour is little more than "two minutes of lurid Lycra," in the words of British novelist JulianBarnes. But on mountainsides as steep as 12 percent, spectators crowd the roadside to get close to riders testing the limits of human endurance.

And for other pleasures. "We've come for the holiday atmosphere and a chance to taste some local specialties" in a region famed for its gastronomy, saysPaul Jalade, a retired hospital worker who arrived here in his camper on Saturday morning, 30 hours before the race, to ensure a parking spot.

"The Super Bowl is just for football fans, this is a huge international party," says Tristen Hall, who came from New Hampshire to watch her third Tour. "Just sitting next to people and interacting with them is the best part."

Wheel appeal

By Sunday morning, Mr. Jalade had made friends with other fans parked near him, and was deep in conversation with Laurent Pagnon, a policeman from Toulouse, about various riders' prospects for the day. A picnic table and garden chairs awaited lunch.

Eighty percent of French men and 50 percent of French women watch the Tour somewhere in France at least once in their life, enjoying a glimpse of a sport that all can appreciate.

"The Tour is free, it goes past people's front doorsteps, and everybody has ridden a bike, whether they are children or grandfathers," says BernardHinault, who won the race in 1985, the last Frenchman to do so. "They know what it's like."

"The Tour is utterly unique in the way it reaches out to people," adds James Startt, who has written a book about the race. "It is such a simple idea, a bike ride around a really beautiful country, instead of being in a stadium."

Drama in epic proportions

Over the years, the Tour has built an atmosphere of glamour that even international stars hope will rub off on them. This year, Arnold Schwarzenegger was in attendance. Past luminaries have included Orson Welles, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Dustin Hoffman.

The race is more than an extraordinary spectacle. Epic stories unfold each year, as about 200 riders make superhuman efforts day after day, covering some 2,175 miles in three weeks.

Summer after summer, the Tour offers drama. This year, all eyes are on US rider Lance Armstrong as he struggles to win a record-equaling fifth consecutive race. Clearly dominant in earlier years, this time he is fighting after 14 days to hold off his rivals. With just a week left in the Tour, Armstrong's nearest threat, German Jan Ullrich, was only 15 seconds behind him overall at the end of Sunday's race. The two have been neck and neck for days.

The race is often marked, too, by disaster and despair. The sight of JosebaBeloki, a Spanish rider, lying by the roadside screaming in pain and sobbing with grief after a crash last week put him out of the race for which he had trained nearly a year, was enough to break even the coldest heart.

And there is deceit as well: In the early days of the race, riders were known to hop the train, or scatter the roads behind them with nails and broken glass. More subtly, Lance Armstrong famously feigned distress as he climbed an Alp two years ago, lulling his rivals into a false sense of security before making a surprise attack and spurting far ahead of the pack.

The race also offers inspiring examples of stamina and courage. This year, spectators have been astonished to see TylerHamilton, an American, still challenging the leaders two weeks after fracturing his collarbone in a crash. And JimmyCasper, a Frenchman, won sympathy for his grit as he rode for days with his neck in a brace, continuing, he said simply, "because that's what you do in a race."

At the same time, the complexity of cycling tactics and strategy lend texture to the Tour as it unfolds.

Riders sacrifice their own chances of victory to help their teammates; rivals sometimes help each other to stay ahead of their own teammates. Some riders are chasing gold and the yellow jersey; others have their sites set on simpler goals, such as winning a day's stage, or the "King of the Mountains" title, and the pink polka-dot jersey that accompanies it. Each will ride a different race as a result, giving every day of action a number of subplots for fans to follow.

"You have everything," says Jean-Marie Leblanc, director of the Tour. "There is courage, hard work, willpower, team spirit; people identify with that."

"The script is a surefire success ... that plays from generation to generation," wrote sportswriter Jean-Michel Thenard in the daily Libération. "A panoramic school of life against the picture postcard setting of summer in France. Hollywood might envy it."

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