France has its Tour back. From successful local riders to the drama of Friday’s stage being halted by hail, this year’s race has reawakened fans’ fervour for the world’s greatest cycling event.
Enthusiasts lining the roads to urge on their favourites this week have been so loud that the race has sounded like a football match. Broadcasters and sponsors are rubbing their hands at record audiences as the three-week contest heads to a finish on the Champs-Elysées in Paris on Sunday.
Two Frenchmen take most of the credit for the revival of interest in the Tour de France: Thibaut Pinot, 29, who charged uphill to victory in the stage to the Pyrenean pass of Tourmalet last weekend before withdrawing with a leg injury on Friday two days before the finish; and Julian Alaphilippe, a 27-year-old whose cheery, risk-taking style of riding has endeared him to the French and earned him the leader’s maillot jaune — the yellow jersey — for 14 of the Tour’s 19 stages so far.
“These are two great competitors,” French president Emmanuel Macron said as he put his arms around Alaphilippe and Pinot last week, relieved to be talking about the maillot jaune — a winner’s symbol celebrating its 100th anniversary this year — and not the gilets jaunes protesters who have challenged him with anti-government demonstrations since last November.
“May they both continue to honour our country as they are doing today to inspire the young and the not-so-young.”
If a Frenchman wins, it will be the first time since Bernard Hinault’s final victory in 1985. But in the end it does not matter too much that victory could in the end slip tantalisingly from the grasp of Alaphilippe, who on Friday lost his lead to Colombia’s Egan Bernal in a dramatic Alpine stage unexpectedly shortened by a summer hailstorm.
France has been captivated by the suspense of the 2019 Tour after years of predictable races that either turned out to have been marred by doping scandals or were dominated by the methodical British “superpower” Team Sky, now Ineos.
“The game is open — it’s the glorious uncertainty of sport — and a Frenchman could win,” says Pascal Boniface, head of the Iris think-tank and a specialist on the geopolitics of sport. “In the past we knew it would be [Lance] Armstrong or [Chris] Froome, and they weren’t particularly charming winners — they didn’t have much panache or personality.”
Laurent-Eric Le Lay, director of sport at France Télévisions, has welcomed record viewing figures that peaked at 7m last Saturday. “In previous years it was always Sky that won,” he says. “Perhaps Ineos will win this year but at least it will have been undecided until the end.”
The significance of the Tour de France, first organised in 1903, goes much deeper than a national enthusiasm for the sport of cycling.
“It’s part of France’s heritage that existed before globalisation. It is part of the French DNA,” says Mr Boniface. “Other sports are more elitist, but this is the working-class sport of rural France . . . And you can see villages and nice countryside — it’s a type of tourist guide — and not just the châteaux of the Loire and the Eiffel Tower.”
France today is a politically and socially fractured nation, but as the 176 cyclists in their 22 teams race through largely rural parts of the country on a route that changes each year, they bind the nation together.
Organisers say that more than 10m will have seen the riders from the side of a road this year by the time the contest ends in Paris on Sunday. “It’s very popular because the Tour de France passes everyone — not everyone every year, but in a way that almost everyone can say the Tour de France has been near them at some point in their lives,” says Mr Le Lay.