Tour de France
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).

The Tour’s secret is in its intimacy

Above everything else, it is the spectacle that makes the Tour de France larger than life.

A young boy in yellow shorts and a yellow cap wanders with his parents through a still-empty square. He waves a flag of red dots on white. His name is Thibaut, just like his favorite French rider, Thibaut Pinot. “J’ai six ans,” he says, holding up six fingers. He has come to Livarot for the seventh stage of the 2015 Tour from his hometown, Vimoutiers, six kilometers to the south, in the back seat of his parent’s silver Renault. He carries a small autograph book filled with the faces of his heroes, but no autographs yet.

At every hotel within 100 kilometers, the sleeping Tour de France is just beginning to wake. The fatigued tingle of six stages and nearly 1,000 kilometers of racing stirs 195 pairs of lean legs. Pinot’s are among them. His, like everyone else’s, have been honed for months, years, for these three weeks in July. There will be innumerable more violent bursts of speed and soul-emptying efforts over intimidating mountain ranges to come. Every movement is deliberate, calculated. Nothing extraneous can occur.

Each morning in July, a new sleepy French town is transformed.

Not far away, a few hundred members of the press shake off last night’s red wine. The TV men begin to unwrap 10 kilometers of cables that will have to be wrapped up 10 hours later. The drivers of the 22 team buses fill up until the pumps won’t give any more, hundreds of liters and thousands of dollars to be burned away. A TV commentator has his morning tea, preparing his voice for another bout with the microphone. Millions of fans plan their day around his television coverage.

Each morning in July, a new sleepy French town is transformed. Shiny plastic signs that magically appeared in the night point to Départ, the start line, and to Village du Tour de France, where riders will take their last-minute coffee break. Long strings of triangular flags, green and yellow and polka dotted, crisscross between buildings. Shop windows overflow with spray-painted yellow bicycles, probably stored in a shed since the last time the Tour came through. Shopkeepers put out signs that say, bienvenue, cyclistes! In the air is the sort of calm that comes only before a storm.

A Tour de France morning builds slowly. Fans walk toward the start line from the out-skirts. Men in green shirts direct the early traffic as others in black and red uniforms zip-tie banners to fencing. The village begins to fill with dignitaries: Bernard Hinault and Raymond Poulidor, then Christian Prudhomme, the Tour’s director.

Little Thibaut has never seen the Tour before. His family sets up a short distance from the sign-in stage, beneath a shade tree. In three hours, each rider will glide past Thibaut’s position and climb cleat-footed up eight steps to the sign-in board. Thibaut will reach his hands out as they ride past, waving his book and a thick pen. He’ll try to get them to stop.

It’s 9:30 a.m., two and a half hours until rollout, and the square is beginning to fill, first with noise. The announcer’s opening words are a welcome, and he won’t stop talking for half a day. For 40 years it was the voice of Daniel Mangeas that enlivened a new quiet French square each morning. This year a new man has taken over; his voice is melodic but is in some way less comfortable than the old one.

A din begins some 500 meters west of the square. Horns blare, and the faint beats of European pop music begin. Thibaut does not know it yet, but the Tour de France’s mighty caravan is coming.

The parade, 30 minutes long, begins with a lion — a massive plaster version of sponsor LCL Bank’s feline mascot, stuck on top of a glorified go-kart. A man in aviator goggles sits in an open cockpit at its crotch. By the end of July, he’ll spend 3,500 kilometers in there. When asked if it’s difficult, he grimaces and says, “I eat many bugs.”

The lion sets Thibaut’s eyes wide.

Inside the publicity caravan is a fleet of tiny Citroëns older than any rider in the race. Done up in the red and white tablecloth checkers of packaged sausage company Cochonou, they carry people hired to throw bite-size meat products out the windows to eager fans. Children dart for each prize, and grown men prove they are still children, too.

Bannette covers small hatchbacks in fake baguettes. It’s a very French form of camouflage. Vittel, a bottled water company, straps dashing young men and women to red trucks filled with water and tasks them with pressure-washing the crowd, even when it’s raining. An enormous yellow cyclist that appears to be made of sturdy papier-mâché sinks the rear suspension of a Volkswagen Beetle to the wheel wells. Far behind the flotilla of Cochonou Citroëns is a float dedicated to some sort of laundry detergent. It’s covered in blue ribbons and simulated bubbles and has a half-naked man strung up at its center. He dances like nobody’s watching, though everyone is.

Thibaut has, by the final float, amassed a haul of trinkets and sausage that would be the envy of any dollar store. He holds it up like it’s a gold miner’s haul.

The Tour de France is a circus the size of a city and a parade 3,500 kilometers long. It has 4,000 accredited press and a thousand vehicles and hundreds of millions watching on TV. Viewed from above it is almost immeasurably huge.

Sign-in begins as a trickle and ends as a flood. The crowd doesn’t even notice the first rider pass by until he’s standing behind the clear board. His form is strikingly different from the mortals around him. Those are not thighs, they’re haunches. It’s a body honed down to its most basic elements. No more than is necessary, and no less. A momentary hush descends on the hundreds who surround the stage. He waves, a big hand on a thin arm. Thibaut, his hand stuck through the fencing with a big pen, waves back. The rider steps off the podium, stops 10 feet away, signs a few hats, and then disappears. To Thibaut’s great disappointment, no autograph.

Thibaut’s low-angle arm waving is proving ineffective. His father picks him up and puts his feet on a rung of the fencing, so that his face is above handlebar level. He replaces the pen in his outstretched hand with his autograph book, which is larger and louder. It’s all about choosing the right lure.

The teams pile up below the stage in a mass of color. A few riders make their way into the Village, grab a small and quite terrible coffee and pick up a copy of L’Equipe to read about themselves. A few more wander the edges of the crowd. Thibaut snags a few for his book: Jérémy Roy of FDJ and Koen de Kort of Giant – Alpecin. Five minutes to the start.

Pinot rests 10 feet off the back of the field with one foot clipped in, his thigh on his top tube and forearms leaning on the top of his handlebars in cycling’s classic casual stance. Little Thibaut yells to big Thibaut. “S’il vous plait monsieur!” Pinot looks over, smiles, and waves.

The starter’s gun fires. Pinot rolls off. The click of 190 pedals is how a bike race says goodbye.

There is no sorrow on the face of little Thibaut, even as his pen and book fall to his sides. He got a wave, and a smile. “We’ll get him at the finish,” his father says. Thibaut is on top of the world.

Perhaps you wonder why the Tour is Le Tour, why it sits a tier above the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España and every other bike race on the planet. The best bike racers in the world are here, in their best form of the year; the Alps are inspiring; the Pyrenees are dramatic; the heat of the Massif Central is so vivid it feels alive; Paris is the center of the world. The Tour de France is a circus the size of a city and a parade 3,500 kilometers long. It has 4,000 accredited press and a thousand vehicles and hundreds of millions watching on TV. Viewed from above it is almost immeasurably huge. It’s the spectacle that makes the Tour, it would seem. It’s the combined excitement of a million Thibauts, and it’s the enthusiasm of just one.