“L’état c’est moi,” said Louis XIV. He was nearly right. What he meant to say was, “L’état, c’est le Tour.” If he had, there’s a good chance France would still be a monarchy.
No other race is so enmeshed in its place and its history. People have written histories of the Tour de France that were disguised histories of France. They’ve written histories of France that talked about nothing but bicycle racing.
So, with this degree of cultural pretension in mind, what can we expect in the next three weeks? How will France enrich the race, and be enriched in turn?
Let’s start with dogs. We haven’t had a dog making it big at the Tour for a couple of years now. French dogs love the Tour. There are plenty of unattended sausages, lots of strangers to tell them they’re un bon chien, cyclists to bark at, and the opportunity to make it onto the evening news by having Philippe Gilbert yell at them while they pretend not to understand because he’s Belgian. It’s essentially dog heaven, and it explains why dogs in France (and their owners) always have that dopey, happy look on their faces.
In another distinctive aspect of French life, it’s always a pleasure to see so many farmers taking time out from filling in EU agricultural subsidy forms to mow greetings in their wheat for the benefit of passing helicopters. Note that these greetings are always correctly spelled.
This is closely related to those classes of French schoolchildren who take to the fields to link hands and form the outline of bicycles, often complete with rotating wheels, which always display an impeccable grasp of geometry. They even manage to make the wheels rotate at the same speed, while all the time not looking resentful that they’re missing the actual race. Both the farmers and their spelling and the children and their frame-angles are the French education system showing off.
France also likes to show off its spectators. There is nothing in the world quite like French Tour spectators. The closest equivalent would be an open bar at a convention for Japanese game-show hosts. One of the key cultural moments of any Tour is the bit where all the frenetic spectators part like the Red Sea before a rider on a climb. All, that is, apart from a bemused British visitor who gets left confused in the middle of the road and doesn’t know which way to run.
Spectators also like to showcase the Gallic sense of humour by satirical dressing. The ever-popular syringe is due a revamp, and the speculation this year is that the two-man electric-motor-and-battery-pack costume will be much in evidence. (Sadly, the lime-green mankini is still commonplace, and quite why the Leave side of the EU referendum never just put a Frenchman in a mankini on a poster is a political mystery.)
The grandest cultural gesture of all, though, is a whole nation pulling a sickie and broadcasting it live to the world. It’s a sensitivity to the priorities of life from which the rest of the world could learn much. The rest of us would phone work, cough so hard we wouldn’t be able to talk for an hour, then watch the race from behind a tree while wearing a false moustache.
The French spectator phones in, does a couple of half-hearted sniffs, then hoists himself and his family aloft in a digger bucket with a five-course lunch and a gallon of red wine beside what’s probably the world’s most heavily televised road, and does everything short of wave a banner with “So fire me, it’s the Tour” written on it.
It really is a wonderful nation, and a wonderful race.