Castelsarrasin, July 25
For sure, he will be there, and perhaps from the start in Castelsarrasin, capital of France’s Tarn-et-Garonne region, which like the finish town of Sarran is welcoming the Tour for the first time. According to some sources, he will follow the entire route in the flagship vehicle seated next to Jean-Marie Leblanc, the race director. Others insist that he will arrive incognito and watch the race from the roadside, like so many of his predecessors. Still others tell us that he will head for kilometer 157, at Les Escures, where the Tour enters the Corrèze region. In any case, from the first to the last of the 229km, spectators and followers will be talking of no one but him. He’s not Lance Armstrong, nor Miguel Induráin, Bernard Hinault or Eddy Merckx, but Jacques Chirac, former congressman of Corrèze and president of France since May 7, 1995.
When Chirac accepted the presidency, Induráin ruled the Tour, shadowed by runners-up Alex Zülle and Bjarne Riis; and Laurent Jalabert — second at Lannion, second at Charleroi and winner at Mende — was setting the race alight. Today, the Spaniard and the Dane no longer race, and the Swiss is not taking part in this year’s Tour. But Jalabert continues to ride, as youthful as ever, and a touchstone for French cycling in its current thin times. One can imagine him alone in the lead, or leading a breakaway toward Sarran, on these twisting roads he loves so much. President and Mrs. Chirac, the most celebrated locals, are besides themselves with joy, and Jalabert is in heaven. Out of habit, he slowly raises his arms, as the spectators applaud. Sarran, the presidential town, has taken its place in history.