Tour de France 2020

VN Archives: A racer’s ode to the Tour de France

It's impossible to encapsulate the beauty of the world's most magnificent bicycle spectacle in words. But here is an attempt.

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Editor’s note: The following piece is from the July 12, 1993 issue of VeloNews by former Tour de France racer and current Tour de France commentator Bob Roll.

The Tour. Not the Vuelta a España. Not the Giro d’Italia. But the Tour. The Tour de France is it. The Tour is the pinnacle of the sport. The prestige, mystique, attention and economic importance of the Tour make it the biggest sports happening of the year.

Where the Giro is beautiful,
The Tour is brutal.

Where the Vuelta is wonderful,
The Tour is wicked…

In fact, the Tour is the crowning jewel of all cycling endeavors — whether that be commuting to work, a category-B crit in Oklahoma City, a kermesse at any Belgian town, the Olympic road race, the spring classics or the world championships.

The Tour is simple to understand. It’s the race of the common people. They can easily grasp the difficulties of the Tour — the never-ending climbs, the colorful speed of the peloton, the inherent danger of descending a mountain road at 100 kph. They can identify with the man in the yellow jersey… and the rider who drops behind and abandons the Tour in tears. And they recognize that no person will ever go faster, more beautifully on a bicycle than in the Tour de France.

The geographic diversity of France is another reason why the Tour has achieved its magnificent image. France has the perfect shape and terrain for a three-week bicycle race. And the French people — who will even argue about a game of pétanque in the village square — have a tremendous love for competition.

That is why they respect the Tour — which is pure racing. In fact, every aspect of a Tour rider’s life is competitive. Racing to breakfast, racing to the start, racing all day on the bike, then racing for the hotel (sometimes in the team car), racing to the showers, the massage table, the dinner table… and finally sleep. The Tour is also a race for the entire entourage: from the casual spectator to the busy journalist, the photographer, the soigneur, the race official, and the team car driver…

Although racing well at the Tour means economic well-being for a rider, money is never a part of the competitive equation. The pure joy of winning a stage — and especially the yellow jersey — transcends all the prizes, perks, and prestige that such a success can bestow.

The Tour generally starts in the north of France, and follows a cycle of stages with moderate climbs and terrible speed, leading to the first long time trial — in which the GC race begins to manifest itself. Then we come to the climbs in the second phase: the Alps and the Pyrénées. More climbs follow before the rush to the last time trial… and the final, exhilarating race into Paris.

After three weeks of real suffering, you climb the final hill near Versailles and catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, as you drop into the city. You rage around the Place de la Concorde, up the Champs-Elysées, make a hard left in front of the Arc de Triomphe, and bomb down to the finish before a mass of humanity. If you’re lucky, your wife or mom is waiting under the Arc. And if you’re really lucky, you aren’t on a team that goes to celebrate at some strip bar, but you’re on an American team that gets to eat at a Mexican restaurant in Montparnasse.

Had I not ridden the Tour, I would feel incomplete as a cyclist. The Tour tests every aspect of your abilities in the sport — your reserves, health, speed, endurance, climbing, descending, bike-handling in the pack, time trialing, cool, patience, and class.

Winning the Tour has created great champions and world-renowned heroes, like Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, and Miguel Indurain. But it exacts such a heavy toll that for many racers it has become their singular crowning accomplishment. Men such as Luis Ocaña, Lucien Van Impe, Stephen Roche, and Pedro Delgado went so hard to win the Tour that they were never again able to attain that level of excellence. Yes, it’s hard to live up to the lofty expectations that are created by the Tour — a race that transcends the individual.

If riding your bicycle through the countryside on a fine summer’s day were equivalent to a child’s pretty drawing of a wildflower, then the Tour is a Sistine Chapel fresco painted by Michelangelo. Even though some great 20th century writers, such as Hemingway, have tried, why haven’t they been able to capture the essence of this truly grand event? Perhaps because they weren’t racing in it. But also, I think, because it is so dynamic and the atmosphere is so rarefied, it is impossible to grasp the greatness and grandeur of the Tour with words alone. Maybe someday, a combination of song, pictures, and words will do fair justice to this greatest of all sporting contests: the Tour de France.