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Commentary: Should a cycling journalist earn France’s highest honor?

Samuel Abt remembers how the Tour de France awarded him for 20 years of service in the most French way possible.

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Editors’ Note: Author Samuel Abt was a long-time sports journalist and columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He covered the Tour de France and other professional cycling events  for more than 30 years. A long-time resident of the Paris area, Abt retired several years ago. Below, he speculates on why more writers and journalists have not received the Legion d’honneur, France’s highest decoration for individual distinction.

Francisco Franco, dictator and oppressor, was awarded it. Benito Mussolini, ditto both in job description and award. Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Romanian despot, and Manuel Noriega, drug kingpin of Panama, were awarded it although Noriega’s was revoked while he was in a U.S. prison. Vladimir Putin, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have won it.

I haven’t.

“It” is the Legion d’honneur, France’s highest decoration for individual distinction and/or service to the state.

Who says I don’t serve? They also serve who only stand and wait, the poet John Milton wrote. I‘m standing. I’m waiting.

Where’s my reward?

For decades I wrote about races ranging from the three-week Tour de France to the three-hour Grand Prix of Puteaux. I’ve interviewed riders descending from Eddy Merckx (525 victories on the road) to Axel Merckx (6 victories). Yes, I delight in writing time and again that no Frenchman has won the Tour since 1986. On the other hand, my work has long celebrated the country’s landscape, its food and wine, even its cheeses. Who doesn’t recall my ode to Camembert after a Paris-Vimoutiers race? Or my prose poem to the chickens of Bresse during a Tour visit to Burgundy.

Again, where’s my reward? Writers can delight in their own graceful turn of phrase or piercing insight and they can also be fragile and need to know that others appreciate their words, that they have informed, even charmed readers. In short, I believe that writers appreciate recognition.

There’s the case for me to get the Legion d’honneur’s red ribbon in my buttonhole, not simply to impress my concierge. By now, though. I accept that it won’t happen. No matter; I have decorations enough: I’ve won both the medal and the tray of the Tour de France. (I’ve told this story before, so if it sounds overly familiar, scroll to the race reports. If not, as they say in swashbuckler movies, let’s away.)

The Tour is also big on service, which is why I got my tray for 30 years of it. By “service” Tour officials basically meant that I had shown up each year all that time. While wiseacres say that 80 percent of success is showing up, in the Tour that rises to 100 percent. Be there for 20 years, whether as a journalist, team official or driver of the broom wagon, and you win the medal. Thirty years and it’s the tray.

It’s a small one, the kind that informal homes of yesteryear sat on a table near the front door for visitors to leave their calling cards. Hardly anybody uses calling cards now, so the tray is sort of useless. They told me that it was silver.

Jean-Marie Leblanc, then in his last year as the race’s director, gave me the tray in 2006 in Tarbes and I have official photographs showing the presentation, including kisses from him on both my cheeks. Very French.

Leblanc was to have given me the tray the day before he actually did but he lost track of time while he was, I kid you not, inspecting some prize cows in the VIP area. When he remembered me and my tray-to-be, the stage was ready to start, so I was told the presentation would be held the next day.

Which it was, kisses and all. The date was July 12, according to a press release I still have, and that is puzzling. July 12 has no significance for me; as an American, and a patriotic one at that, I would have preferred July 4.

The Fourth was, in fact, the day in 1996 I chose to receive my medal for 20 years of service and it was in fact, no prize cows grazing nearby, the day it was presented.

The medal is heavy, brown, the size of a cocktail coaster. It does not have a ribbon, so cannot be worn around town. Like the tray, the medal has my name on it, but more about that in a bit.

Recipients usually have a claque to applaud at the ceremony and I invited, among others, Lance Armstrong. He said he would try to be there but no promises because of his team schedule before the start. In the event, Motorola had not shown up when I received the medal from Bernard Hinault, then a Tour public relations official.

As we stood on the platform, Hinault mumbled something that I didn’t catch. I nodded in agreement anyway. The Motorola team arrived just as the ceremony ended. Spotting Armstrong nearby, I left the platform and hurried over to crow about the medal. “Nice,” he said. “How do I get one of them?”

“Put in your 20 years and it’s yours,” I replied.

Suddenly the medal was whipped from my hand by an official. Unlike Hinault, he did not mumble although the message was undoubtedly the same: The medal had to be returned immediately after the ceremony since it was the only one traveling with the race and had to be awarded countless more times.

“We’ll send you your medal with your name on it in a few months,” the official promised. Sure enough, the medal had no name on it. Knowing all too well the French insouciance about names, dates and other facts, I gave the official my business card. My name is often misspelled with a “p” where the “b” should be and I wanted them to get it right.

Not to worry. A few months later the medal arrived in the mail and my family name was correctly engraved. Michel Abt, 1996, the medal said. Michel! Very French.

I sent the thing back and asked for a correction. In time, another medal, accurate in all details, arrived. I put it in the drawer where I keep my socks and have rarely looked at it since. Certainly I would treat the Legion d’honneur with more reverence.