Tour de France perseveres through 100 years of wars, doping, and hooliganism

The century-old cycling race remains popular in France, even after the Lance Armstrong era.

Regis Duvignau/Reuters
A combination photo shows four stained-glass windows by artist and former French cyclist Henry Anglade inside the Notre-Dame des Cyclistes (Our Lady of Cyclists) chapel near the village of Labastide-d'Armagnac in Landes, southwestern France Thursday. The Tour de France begins today, offering a unique window into the country.

As the Tour de France opens for the 100th time today, it would be logical to believe it’s in a fight for its survival.

The 100th edition happens to be the first since disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong finally admitted – after years of lawyer-defended denials – that he’s doped, including for each of the consecutive seven years he won the Tour de France. The race’s official victory list has gaping holes where he and others’ titles have been stripped over doping.

But the race is just as popular as ever. Networks around the world will be broadcasting a full nine stages into 190 countries, while some 12 million people are expected to crowd the route, in tiny picturesque villages and dramatic mountain passes across France, to catch a glimpse of British rider Chris Froome or Spaniard Alberto Contador whizzing by. Most of the revelers will be French, as the Tour de France has been firmly stitched into the fabric of a French summer.

In fact, if the 100th edition shows anything, says Bill McGann, co-author of "The Story of the Tour de France," it’s the staying power of a sporting event that, from its inception, was a wild success but has overcome, also from its outset, chronic cases of cheating, bad sportsmanship, and questionable ethics.

“It seems to have an extraordinary resilience,” says Mr. McGann, "which at its core is about the adaptability of the Tour de France."

A long, checkered history

The Tour was born of a publicity gimmick. In 1903, in an effort to boost circulation of the sports newspaper L’Auto, journalist Geo Lefevre proposed an idea to his editor Henri Desgrange that many bosses would have dismissed outright: to create a cycling race from Paris to Lyon, to Marseille to Toulouse, to Bordeaux to Nantes, and back to Paris.

Cycling at the time was like soccer in Europe today, having many avid fans. But a week before the proposed race, only 15 people had signed up. So Mr. Desgrange made last minute changes to the itinerary and prize money and finally garnered 60 starters. On July 1, 1903, at 3:16 p.m., they started off on a 2,428-kilometer (1,500-mile) course that wound its way around France and has since become the greatest stage race in the world.

Held every year since (except during the two World Wars), it was, from its start, the ultimate litmus test of strength and endurance. But it has also, from the very beginning, always been marred by scandal and events that nearly put it under.

In just the second year of the race, which drew 88 starters, it was already so popular that it provoked the kind of hooliganism that plays out in soccer stadiums today. Spectators spread nails across the roadway and physically attacked riders, who themselves sought advantage in any number of ways, including jumping on trains and cars to get ahead.

In November 1904, the French Cycling Union disqualified the first four riders who finished the Tour, according to the history amassed by McGann, amid a chronicle of antics that would have undermined the race’s credibility from the outset if it hadn’t been so compelling to spectators.

It is, of course, doping that has dogged the legitimacy of the race for the past quarter century, though the problem is not so new. As far back as 1924, two brothers, Henri and Francis Pelissier, told a journalist that they regularly took cocaine, chloroform, and many pills to get an edge. “We run on dynamite," Francis famously said.

But doping has come to be forever epitomized by Mr. Armstrong’s fall from the king of the Tour to its ultimate rebel. He admitted in August to using performance-enhancing drugs in what he described as a cycling culture where ambition and cutting edge chemicals made this the status quo. He admitted on Oprah Winfrey in January that doping was as routine as "air in our tires or water in our bottles.”

The scandals, which persist today with questions over how clean cycling really is, have turned some fans forever off – those who feel that it’s not genuine sportsmanship but more akin to the trickery of professional wrestling that’s now playing out on the back roads and mountains of Europe.

And the Tour de France has acknowledged the taint. Still, “The Tour will be stronger than doping and cheating,” said Jean-Etienne Amaury, president of the company that owns the Tour, at the unveiling of the 2013 itinerary last October in Paris.

A window onto France

Many, like McGann, agree with that statement. For millions of fans, doping is not the main plot line, just part of a story that’s bigger than any one rider or team or scandal. It’s part of the ritual of France that has spanned generations. If in the beginning whole villages, from the butcher to schoolchildren, to the priest and postman, came out to watch, today some 12 million follow in their footsteps – 80 percent of whom are French – drawn to the roadsides each summer for a free, three-week affair. They spend on average six hours watching the race, according to Tour de France statistics, many of them with picnics in hand.

Spectators were once drawn to the Tour de France for very different reasons, says Christopher Thompson, the author of "The Tour de France: A Cultural History."

In 1903, France was still reeling from military defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Over time, organizers and journalists used the Tour de France as a vehicle to create role models of toughness and resilience for young French men that endured through the World Wars.

“They generated the image of [the riders] as heroic, tough… people who could overcome terrible difficulties,” says Mr. Thompson, a professor of French history at Ball State University. “It came to be experienced by the public as an extraordinary epic, where racers struggled over bad roads, in terrible weather conditions, up extraordinarily high mountains, and down dangerous descents.”

After World War II, and more recently because of the doping scandal, the riders themselves are no longer national role models. And the Tour has grown into a huge international sporting event, with broadcasters, racers, and sponsors from across the globe. But it's still a window onto the geography, cuisine, and diversity of France. “Many French people watch the Tour, though they are casual cycling fans at best, for the extraordinary images of various parts of France, the beautiful castles, valleys, towns way up in mountains, and the extraordinary vistas,” says Thompson.

And of course there are the many million who tune in because they are fans who are in awe of the brute force or subtle intellect that the Tour demands, says McGann. Most know that doping still goes on, but they are willing to employ the "suspension of disbelief.”

“I think sports spectators are in general very forgiving,” he says. “We groan and gnash our teeth, and then the first of July get the TV turned on, and can’t wait to sit down.”

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