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

Selling cycling on good, old-fashioned suffering

One of the enduring images of the Tour, Thompson points out, is the image of the rider as the motor of a sophisticated machine. When fused with the French psyche’s need for symbols of the capacity to overcome, bike and man in a symphonic harmony of modern productivity became a potent representation of a promising French future.

Yet Desgrange’s fascination with forcing the Tour’s slaves of the road into ever-deeper suffering clashed with larger political concerns over worker exploitation — and he was criticized in café and press alike. Today, Thompson sees similar conflicts between performance enhancement through drugs and the limits of natural rider capacity. The locomotive-men of 100 years ago are the EPO-enhanced Centaurs of the 21st Century.

Over the last two decades, Thompson points out that Taylor-like science of productivity has returned to cycling: “you’ve got this renewed emphasis on taking advantage of every possible technological and scientific advantage and innovation: new materials, wind tunnel experiments, to make yourself as efficient as possible.”

Beyond the adoption of minutely measured wind-drag tolerances, plastic materials, and even coffee shop amateurs discussing workouts using the currency of machine measure — wattage — Thompson says “of course the doping is so much more sophisticated and scientific than ever before.”

Thompson feels one of the contradictions in the evolution of the Tour since he started watching it in the 1970s is how average velocities seemed to escalate in proportion to the riders’ speed of recovery.

“When the blood doping came along these guys went much faster than any Tour cyclist had ever gone before, but they recovered so quickly, they looked so fresh comparatively,” he said.

The fact that the riders in the post-LeMond era finish Tour stages without the shell-shocked visages of their contemporaries from the 1970s is, in Thompson’s view, a problem for the Tour.

“Because what used to sell the Tour for generations was the image of the racer as incredibly hard working, tough, courageous, enduring; not necessarily zipping around France at 50 kilometers an hour,” he said. “That poses a challenge for the Tour in terms of how to sell itself to the public.”

Thompson suggests the Tour has run into trouble by clinging to the belief that the public will only watch the race if the riders, like machines, increase their productive output and speed year over year. Thompson does not buy the argument that people will not watch the Tour if riders are not laying down the sort of speeds Armstrong set in 2005, when he averaged 41.654 kph over the Tour’s 2,241 miles.

“People were interested from the very beginning of the race, when the racers went much more slowly. What people are interested in is a narrative that’s heroic,” said Thompson. “Where there is suffering. Where a racer has a good day and then a bad day then a good day, so it makes for an exciting story. They don’t care whether it’s being done at 37 kilometers an hour or 45 kilometers an hour.”

The possibility that, in the wake of Armstrong’s collapse, the Tour could introduce an honest race strikes Thompson as a golden opportunity to reintroduce fans to events where the suffering is genuine and unmediated by the mystery of which riders best respond to chemicals.

Thompson says races in the 1990s, where riders finished in huge turbocharged packs — fields that in previous decades would have dripped like shredded clots across the line over the course of hours — changed public appreciation for the sport.

“It’s no longer this war of attrition, it’s this sort of speed fest and you aren’t really sure what you are watching,” he said.

While Thompson feels doping is still part of pro cycling, if the Tour can purge, he contends, “as the speeds go down, as people see the racers suffer in ways that they didn’t in the 1990s for the most part and into the first decade of the current century, I think there is a chance for the public, for the organizers, to reconnect with what has traditionally been appealing about the racers and about the race.”

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