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Analysis: Tour historian Christopher Thompson reflects on 110 years of French culture

Christopher Thompson probably knows more about the roots of the Tour de France than anyone. The 53-year-old Ball State University history professor has been studying the event for his entire career: from following the Tour as a young fan in the 1970s to his days as a French literature undergrad at Harvard, to his NYU dissertation on the history of cycling in France, all the way to his 2006 book, “The Tour de France: A Cultural History.”

That book is not so much a history of on-the-road bike racing — with its attacks and teams and players — as it is an analysis of the way fans invest meaning and assign sometimes impossible roles to their cycling heroes. Because Thompson studies the Tour’s larger cultural significances, his insights shed light on the state of the race as it heads into 2013’s centenary edition.

Building French identity with a race

Both in his book and during an extensive interview with VeloNews, Thompson explained that since its founding in 1903, the Tour de France was meant to project an image of a vigorous and progressive French nation — a portrait of health to counter the reality of a war-battered country in constant retreat and convalescence. After its defeat to Germany in 1870‘s Franco-Prussian war, France struggled with the loss of territory (Alsace and part of Lorraine) and national self-respect. The subsequent specter of civil war also haunted the country as the French military massacred thousands of revolting communard workers in Paris.

By the turn of the century, France still hungered for something to unify its fractured self worth and rebuild its international prestige. Henry Desgrange, the editor of the Tour de France-founding newspaper L’Auto, saw in his audacious new bike race a tool for both newspaper sales and public healing. As Thompson writes, “obsessed with the specter of national decline, many French clearly shared L’Auto’s view that cycling epitomized France’s revival through competition, physical exercise, and the adoption of modern technology.”

After World War I, the Tour continued that rehabilitation. During the war, five million acres of land had been poisoned by chemicals and unexploded ordinance, Germans had taken some 2.5 million farm animals — a devastating statistic in a still largely agrarian culture — and France’s factories and industrial output capacity lay in ruins. Ten percent of France’s male work force (1.3 million men) were killed in WWI, among them 1907-1909 Tour winners Lucien Petit-Breton and Francois Faber. Another 1.1 million returned from the trenches permanently maimed. As Thompson chronicles, “the demographic implications of these losses were disastrous.”

As the 20th Century lurched on, races like the Tour and Paris-Roubaix clung to their astonishing difficultly because they were designed to show that, in spite of their demeaning loss in three consecutive wars, Frenchmen still had a spine.

The 1919 edition of Paris-Roubaix took place across the very fields of damnation that witnessed World War I’s brutality — taking such a toll that only five of the 40 race vehicles finished the event. In its post-race write up, L’ Auto lastingly described that year’s race from Paris to France’s upper border as “the hell of the north.” Desgrange, always the salesman, optimistically argued that the horrific competition “symbolized renewal and a gradual return to normal for a convalescent nation.”

That summer, and in the years following the traumas of Nazi occupation and Vichy cooperation during World War II, the Tour de France filled an identical revivalist role. As Thompson writes, the unsparing competitions fulfilled the French thirst for “evidence of national resurrection in the perseverance, endurance, and courage of athletes, especially those confronted with such frightful conditions.”

He adds that in their race reports, journalists gave cycling road races additional cultural freight: “Their itineraries solemnly commemorated the very land on which so many French soldiers had made the ultimate sacrifice and, by symbolically reclaiming territory once occupied by the enemy, reaffirmed the existence of an eternal France defined by her physical borders.”

Today, with 13 of the last 16 editions of the Tour sullied by winners who doped, the event is no symbol of regeneration and authentic human achievement. For many, it has come to represent the very human weakness and capitulation to darkness that France confronted during World War II. An event that originally worked to bind and heal a shattered nation has come to represent fraud.

Thompson says that in 2013 the Tour “doesn’t resonate the way it did in the immediate aftermath of the World Wars.”
“I think it is very likely that we are living through a period of significant transition, or certainly of debate about what the Tour means,” he said. “Its meaning will be determined by how successful the current campaign against doping is.”

Thompson points out that while doping has been part of the Tour since its inaugural edition, drugs were not policed until after WWII. From the late 19th century to the 1960s, he said, doping was “this kind of artisanal, informal, not-very-scientific practice.” While amphetamines were first marketed in the 1930s under the name Benzadrine and widely used by soldiers in WWII, it wasn’t until the 1960s that riders embraced amphetamines and corticosteroids “pretty massively.” In the 1990s EPO-based doping at the Tour saw performance enhancement pivot from artisanal to clinical.

Thompson points out that incidents such as 1998’s Festina affair and doping revelations from Bjarne Riis to Floyd Landis to Armstrong raised questions about “whether the Tour is truly a viable sporting event — whether it represents the best values the public believes sport should represent.”

Though, Thompson says, the Tour has shown a tremendous capacity to “survive wave upon wave of doping revelations,” he thinks Armstrong’s downfall is a watershed moment in its history. If the Tour, which is a proxy for pro cycling at large, does not confront doping, Thompson suspects TV coverage and sponsor dollars will dwindle. While he couches his theory in the clause that as a historian he looks backward at facts rather than forward towards speculation, Thompson says there is “a threat economically to the Tour, commercially to the Tour, if it’s not perceived to be taking very strong action” with regards to doping.

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