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Commentary: The Tour’s most important participants

LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (VN) — The whole population of France stood alongside the road this past Saturday.

That’s my estimation, at least.

It sure seemed as though all 70 million Frenchmen, Frenchwomen, and French children crowded along 183 kilometers of asphalt between the towns of Blagnac and Rodez to watch the Tour de France. They cheered and waved homemade signs for Romain Bardet, and screamed Bidon! Bidon! Bidon! They stood shoulder to shoulder, five deep in some sections, for every centimeter of the course.

I marveled at the spectacle as I zipped past on a motorcycle. Each year, Tour de France organizer ASO reserves a handful a race moto rides for lowly print journalists. The idea is that a day spent zipping within the race caravan will open a writer’s eyes up to the magic of the Tour and the many mysteries of the peloton.

For all the chaos and drama of riding on a moto, the most compelling image from Saturday was still the size and energy of the crowds. As we zoomed along, the French fans waved at me as if I were somehow worth their admiration. They performed a roadside version of “the wave” and flapped their French tricolors as I sped by. They cheered for me — some putz from Colorado who cannot pronounce aubergine — as if I were Thomas Voeckler.

I waved back and smiled, yet I couldn’t help but ache with envy. Throughout my lifetime, there have been multiple attempts to recreate the spectacle of European road racing on home soil. For each organizing group, the recipe for success has included a different secret sauce. What’s the best way to recreate the Tour de France in America? Do you create a course that generates the most drama? Perhaps you simply invite the world’s top teams and riders, or you attract the right title sponsor, or the best collection of sponsors. Or maybe you shell out millions for a television package on a mainstream network.

The latest idea? Hold the bike race in conjunction with a rock concert in hopes that trendy bands drum up interest.

I applaud all of these attempts — I really do. Yet I know that these American races will always face a Tourmalet-sized uphill slog toward longevity, sustainability, and the other metrics we use to rate their overall health. Because, in my opinion, the true secret of the Tour de France are those zillions of French fans I saw alongside the road on Saturday.

Do you want an American race to survive? Convince a million Americans to stand alongside a lonely stretch of road every day for a month. Get them to come back every year. A rock concert and mainstream TV package and a peloton full of stars can accomplish this for a few years. Can it convince fans to show up for 100 years? We just don’t know.

So why did the entire population of France (again, rough estimate) show up on Saturday? Sure, many were there to cheer for Bardet, Voeckler, Warren Barguil, and the other national cycling heroes. Others were there to collect a bidon or a musette, or to try to get on TV. And then there were the wackos who donned golden speedos or Mickey Mouse outfits.

We American cycling fans are very familiar with these fans. We have plenty of them.

And then there were the young, the old, the tricolor flag-waving French people who did appear to be hardcore fans, attention seekers, or drunk. These people stood alongside the road because, well, that’s what you do if you are French and the Tour de France passes within a day’s drive of your village. They came to the Tour de France on Saturday because they went to the Tour de France as children with their parents. Someday these fans will bring their own children to the Tour de France, who, someday, will bring their kids, and on and on.

I asked Françoise Deligné, 49, a French fan in Rodez, why he attends the Tour de France, and he gave me a puzzled look, as if to say this is what we do, man. 

“This was my family tradition,” he said through a translator (his wife). As it turns out, his father had won the French military cycling championships in 1950. He has been attending the Tour for so long he could not remember how old he was at his first. “I was a young boy,” he said.

It’s the same dynamic you see in Belgium and Italy and Spain and other places with long cycling traditions.

Will an American race ever enjoy such permanence? It’s difficult to say. Those children who watched the Amgen Tour of California’s debut in 2006 are now in college. I hope that, someday, they will have the opportunity to bring their kids to see the riders spin laps around downtown Sacramento or climb to Mt. Baldy. Perhaps they will create crude signs from their bedsheets. Perhaps they will yell and scream at a terrified journalist on the back of a motorbike.

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