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Analysis: Tour historian Christopher Thompson reflects on 110 years of French culture

Tour de France historian Christopher Thompson offers insight on the identity crises he sees for the race before its 100th edition

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Christopher Thompson probably knows more about the roots of the Tour de France than anyone. The 53-year-old Ball State University history professor has been studying the event for his entire career: from following the Tour as a young fan in the 1970s to his days as a French literature undergrad at Harvard, to his NYU dissertation on the history of cycling in France, all the way to his 2006 book, “The Tour de France: A Cultural History.”

That book is not so much a history of on-the-road bike racing — with its attacks and teams and players — as it is an analysis of the way fans invest meaning and assign sometimes impossible roles to their cycling heroes. Because Thompson studies the Tour’s larger cultural significances, his insights shed light on the state of the race as it heads into 2013’s centenary edition.

Building French identity with a race

Both in his book and during an extensive interview with VeloNews, Thompson explained that since its founding in 1903, the Tour de France was meant to project an image of a vigorous and progressive French nation — a portrait of health to counter the reality of a war-battered country in constant retreat and convalescence. After its defeat to Germany in 1870‘s Franco-Prussian war, France struggled with the loss of territory (Alsace and part of Lorraine) and national self-respect. The subsequent specter of civil war also haunted the country as the French military massacred thousands of revolting communard workers in Paris.

By the turn of the century, France still hungered for something to unify its fractured self worth and rebuild its international prestige. Henry Desgrange, the editor of the Tour de France-founding newspaper L’Auto, saw in his audacious new bike race a tool for both newspaper sales and public healing. As Thompson writes, “obsessed with the specter of national decline, many French clearly shared L’Auto’s view that cycling epitomized France’s revival through competition, physical exercise, and the adoption of modern technology.”

After World War I, the Tour continued that rehabilitation. During the war, five million acres of land had been poisoned by chemicals and unexploded ordinance, Germans had taken some 2.5 million farm animals — a devastating statistic in a still largely agrarian culture — and France’s factories and industrial output capacity lay in ruins. Ten percent of France’s male work force (1.3 million men) were killed in WWI, among them 1907-1909 Tour winners Lucien Petit-Breton and Francois Faber. Another 1.1 million returned from the trenches permanently maimed. As Thompson chronicles, “the demographic implications of these losses were disastrous.”

As the 20th Century lurched on, races like the Tour and Paris-Roubaix clung to their astonishing difficultly because they were designed to show that, in spite of their demeaning loss in three consecutive wars, Frenchmen still had a spine.

The 1919 edition of Paris-Roubaix took place across the very fields of damnation that witnessed World War I’s brutality — taking such a toll that only five of the 40 race vehicles finished the event. In its post-race write up, L’ Auto lastingly described that year’s race from Paris to France’s upper border as “the hell of the north.” Desgrange, always the salesman, optimistically argued that the horrific competition “symbolized renewal and a gradual return to normal for a convalescent nation.”

That summer, and in the years following the traumas of Nazi occupation and Vichy cooperation during World War II, the Tour de France filled an identical revivalist role. As Thompson writes, the unsparing competitions fulfilled the French thirst for “evidence of national resurrection in the perseverance, endurance, and courage of athletes, especially those confronted with such frightful conditions.”

He adds that in their race reports, journalists gave cycling road races additional cultural freight: “Their itineraries solemnly commemorated the very land on which so many French soldiers had made the ultimate sacrifice and, by symbolically reclaiming territory once occupied by the enemy, reaffirmed the existence of an eternal France defined by her physical borders.”

Today, with 13 of the last 16 editions of the Tour sullied by winners who doped, the event is no symbol of regeneration and authentic human achievement. For many, it has come to represent the very human weakness and capitulation to darkness that France confronted during World War II. An event that originally worked to bind and heal a shattered nation has come to represent fraud.

Thompson says that in 2013 the Tour “doesn’t resonate the way it did in the immediate aftermath of the World Wars.”
“I think it is very likely that we are living through a period of significant transition, or certainly of debate about what the Tour means,” he said. “Its meaning will be determined by how successful the current campaign against doping is.”

Thompson points out that while doping has been part of the Tour since its inaugural edition, drugs were not policed until after WWII. From the late 19th century to the 1960s, he said, doping was “this kind of artisanal, informal, not-very-scientific practice.” While amphetamines were first marketed in the 1930s under the name Benzadrine and widely used by soldiers in WWII, it wasn’t until the 1960s that riders embraced amphetamines and corticosteroids “pretty massively.” In the 1990s EPO-based doping at the Tour saw performance enhancement pivot from artisanal to clinical.

Thompson points out that incidents such as 1998’s Festina affair and doping revelations from Bjarne Riis to Floyd Landis to Armstrong raised questions about “whether the Tour is truly a viable sporting event — whether it represents the best values the public believes sport should represent.”

Though, Thompson says, the Tour has shown a tremendous capacity to “survive wave upon wave of doping revelations,” he thinks Armstrong’s downfall is a watershed moment in its history. If the Tour, which is a proxy for pro cycling at large, does not confront doping, Thompson suspects TV coverage and sponsor dollars will dwindle. While he couches his theory in the clause that as a historian he looks backward at facts rather than forward towards speculation, Thompson says there is “a threat economically to the Tour, commercially to the Tour, if it’s not perceived to be taking very strong action” with regards to doping.

A primitive business model

In his book, Thompson explains that the Tour de France was first televised in 1948, when just the final stage was shown on the first French nightly news program. Television coverage increased in the following years. In 1949 there were only 5,000 TV sets in France, and televising the race was seen as a way to build demand for the newfangled device. As coverage grew, corporations realized that getting their logos on rider jerseys was a way around the French ban on television advertising.

Today, Thompson says the Tour’s economic model is relatively primitive in terms of the impotence of the racers compared to contemporary American professional athletes.

“The model makes perfect economic sense for the organizers who keep most of the profits,” he said.

Thompson says that the fact that the race has not followed the hard-charging, revenue-sharing framework of American sports is ironic, considering that the Tour has otherwise always seen itself as a symbol of forward cultural movement and technological advancement.

“For a race whose generations of different organizers have long prided themselves on how modern the race was, how innovative the race was in terms of sponsorship and economic opportunities, that model is not up to date with regard to certainly most American sports,” said Thompson.

This business model is not much different than when the race was founded in a Paris press room in 1903, and Thompson does not see it changing soon.

“Until the racers organize and there is enough unity amongst the racers, I think the organizers will continue to organize things along these lines,” he said.

As evidence of the riders’ inability to capitalize on their true economic worth, Thompson cites the fact that the greatest rider of all time, Eddy Merckx, needed to launch his own bike line in part to support himself upon retiring from racing. “That would be just simply unheard of for an American athlete of that caliber,” said Thompson.

Turning again to the Tour’s current identity crisis, Thompson mentions that national politicians in France used to eagerly align themselves with the Tour to boost their credentials.

“Even after World War II, there is no question that the Tour, and the heroes who endured all the suffering involved in completing it — these were really positive values,” he said. “The French could really identify with surviving a tremendous amount of suffering and difficulty and obstacles. So there’s no question that many politicians chose to identify with the racers and their struggles.”

He adds that politicians saw appeal in attaching themselves to the Tour train; the race could highlight their campaign positions as defenders of exploited French industrial workers. Through the end of WWII, Thompson contends, “particularly politicians on the communist left, who were trying to make a strong case for more workers’ rights, saw the Tour as a really good example of the bourgeoisie — in other words the race organizers — exploiting poor workers who brought only their courage and their manual labor to the table.”

Today, however, national politicians on both the left and right avoid the Tour and its seemingly annual doping scandals. But while national politicians avoid the Tour like processed cheese, this Tour-toxicity is not the case at the provincial level, where the Grande Boucle can still pump up a mayor’s bona fides.

“Local politicians are clearly interested in the race because if they can get it to go through their community — and more importantly if they can get their community to be a host town for a Tour stage — then the publicity and the revenue is still a very significant deal for them,” said Thompson.

Some riders like Raymond Poulidor, who finished on the Tour podium eight times, but never won it, came to represent not factory laborer exploitation, but a nostalgia for a pre-industrial revolution France.

“His image was not so much the tough industrial worker,” Thompson said of Poulidor, who bridged the eras of giants Jacques Anquetil and Merckx. Instead, he was of the soil, “somebody from the countryside whose parents were farmers or agricultural workers.” According to Thompson, Poulidor’s image harkened back to a simpler time: “Sort of the traditional France of the peasantry of the countryside at a time when France was modernizing rapidly after World War II. It was a way to connect in a very nostalgic way with a France that was in the process of disappearing.”

The French drought

Both in reading Thompson’s book and speaking to him, it becomes clear that the stars of the Tour de France forged a connection with French culture that is more profound than that North Americans develop with their athletes, who are seen more as freakish baubles than essential fibers to the national cloth. Taking this into consideration, what does Thompson make of the reality that no Frenchman has won the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985 — a 28-year drought?

“I think that’s a major ingredient in perhaps declining interest,” he said. “I think the doping scandals and the failure of French cycling to produce a potential winner are major issues.”

While international interest in the Tour has never been stronger, the flagging native passion Thompson senses points back again at the Tour’s inability to get a handle on its doping problems.

“There is also a sense that one of the reasons the French have been unable to produce a potential winner — and I think this is a fair point — is that the French have been at the forefront of the anti-doping crusade, particularly since the Festina Affair in 1998,” he said.

For many French, their country’s inability to deliver a winner for nearly three decades can be pinned on their own attempts to race clean.

Spurning technology

In 1993 and 1994 Thompson spent a year in Paris as assistant and speechwriter to the U.S. ambassador to France. That was during the reign of Miguel Indurain, and Thompson recollects that while the Tour did not play a role in the everyday Franco-American affairs, the race’s presence was there, thanks to Greg LeMond’s historic first-American Tour victories. He often had meetings at the ambassador’s residence near the French president’s palace, and Thompson recalls walking into the cobblestone courtyard at the entrance of the mansion where high up on the right is a painting of a cyclist in a yellow jersey that was hung after LeMond won the Tour.

LeMond’s use of aero bars to help him snatch victory from Frenchman Laurent Fignon at the 1989 Tour introduced an era of rapid technological advancement in high-level cycling. This is also theme that plays a significant role in Thompson’s research.

In “The Tour de France,” Thompson discusses Desgrange’s paradoxical dedication to both adopting industrial-era scientific progress and his adoration of ox-like human performances. Though it was invented in 1887, Desgrange banned the derailleur from the Tour until 1937. He scolded the riders to “leave gear changes to women and the old, you are the kings, the giants of the road, you must vanquish the obstacles with which it confronts you by your means alone, without recourse to subterfuges unworthy of you.”

Thompson says Desgranges, “in his determination to make the Tour as hard as possible and the racers ‘legitimate’ — in his mind — heroic models, especially for French boys and young men, denied racers a well-established technology for three-and-a-half decades.”

While today these types of stresses manifest themselves as struggles between UCI caution and technological advancements (such as constraints on frame weights, seat angles, disc brakes, radios, and on-board cameras), the incongruous rejection of popular mechanical advancements has been an element of the Tour from day one. Thompson writes that “the tension between advances that made cycling easier and the need to preserve the Tour’s unmatched difficulty would repeatedly confront the organizers, sponsors, racers, and media.”

At the close of the 19th Century, the bicycle represented the promise of industrial era; it could be mass produced, was obtainable on proletarian wages, and made the compression of distance accessible not just to those wealthy enough to afford horse and carriage (or the still-rare automobile), but to an unprecedented spectrum of social classes and genders.

“By 1909 one could purchase a new Clément bicycle in the northern mining community of Longwy-Bas for 150 francs and a used one for only 50,” Thompson writes. “Even the humble workers and junior shop clerks, who were unlikely to make less than five francs a day, could now afford a bicycle.”

The bike was very much “an emblem of modernity.”

This was also a time when the scientific management and efficiency theories of American Frederick Winslow Taylor were creating a buzz among Industrial Revolution managers in Europe. Racing observers were fascinated by the applicability of these exciting mass-production methods to riders. In his book, Thompson refers to French writer Colette’s 1913 description of racers in locomotive terms, with legs as “two minuscule and indefatigable connecting rods which suffice to move this mechanical tempest.”

Selling cycling on good, old-fashioned suffering

One of the enduring images of the Tour, Thompson points out, is the image of the rider as the motor of a sophisticated machine. When fused with the French psyche’s need for symbols of the capacity to overcome, bike and man in a symphonic harmony of modern productivity became a potent representation of a promising French future.

Yet Desgrange’s fascination with forcing the Tour’s slaves of the road into ever-deeper suffering clashed with larger political concerns over worker exploitation — and he was criticized in café and press alike. Today, Thompson sees similar conflicts between performance enhancement through drugs and the limits of natural rider capacity. The locomotive-men of 100 years ago are the EPO-enhanced Centaurs of the 21st Century.

Over the last two decades, Thompson points out that Taylor-like science of productivity has returned to cycling: “you’ve got this renewed emphasis on taking advantage of every possible technological and scientific advantage and innovation: new materials, wind tunnel experiments, to make yourself as efficient as possible.”

Beyond the adoption of minutely measured wind-drag tolerances, plastic materials, and even coffee shop amateurs discussing workouts using the currency of machine measure — wattage — Thompson says “of course the doping is so much more sophisticated and scientific than ever before.”

Thompson feels one of the contradictions in the evolution of the Tour since he started watching it in the 1970s is how average velocities seemed to escalate in proportion to the riders’ speed of recovery.

“When the blood doping came along these guys went much faster than any Tour cyclist had ever gone before, but they recovered so quickly, they looked so fresh comparatively,” he said.

The fact that the riders in the post-LeMond era finish Tour stages without the shell-shocked visages of their contemporaries from the 1970s is, in Thompson’s view, a problem for the Tour.

“Because what used to sell the Tour for generations was the image of the racer as incredibly hard working, tough, courageous, enduring; not necessarily zipping around France at 50 kilometers an hour,” he said. “That poses a challenge for the Tour in terms of how to sell itself to the public.”

Thompson suggests the Tour has run into trouble by clinging to the belief that the public will only watch the race if the riders, like machines, increase their productive output and speed year over year. Thompson does not buy the argument that people will not watch the Tour if riders are not laying down the sort of speeds Armstrong set in 2005, when he averaged 41.654 kph over the Tour’s 2,241 miles.

“People were interested from the very beginning of the race, when the racers went much more slowly. What people are interested in is a narrative that’s heroic,” said Thompson. “Where there is suffering. Where a racer has a good day and then a bad day then a good day, so it makes for an exciting story. They don’t care whether it’s being done at 37 kilometers an hour or 45 kilometers an hour.”

The possibility that, in the wake of Armstrong’s collapse, the Tour could introduce an honest race strikes Thompson as a golden opportunity to reintroduce fans to events where the suffering is genuine and unmediated by the mystery of which riders best respond to chemicals.

Thompson says races in the 1990s, where riders finished in huge turbocharged packs — fields that in previous decades would have dripped like shredded clots across the line over the course of hours — changed public appreciation for the sport.

“It’s no longer this war of attrition, it’s this sort of speed fest and you aren’t really sure what you are watching,” he said.

While Thompson feels doping is still part of pro cycling, if the Tour can purge, he contends, “as the speeds go down, as people see the racers suffer in ways that they didn’t in the 1990s for the most part and into the first decade of the current century, I think there is a chance for the public, for the organizers, to reconnect with what has traditionally been appealing about the racers and about the race.”