French seek end to wait for Tour winner
Ghostbusters, the Milk Cup, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the ZX Spectrum…who can resist a bit of 1980s nostalgia?
OK, nearly everybody actually born in that decade - and later - can probably take the 1980s or leave them, but I would guess there is a sizeable chunk of this website’s readership with a soft spot for Ferris Bueller or perhaps his girlfriend Sloane Peterson.
But if Tuesday’s official announcement of the 2012 Tour de France route is anything to go by, we all must bow to the French in our regard for the quatre-vingts.
When Bernard Hinault won his fifth Tour in 1985, it was the 10th time a Frenchman had claimed the biggest prize in French sport in 12 years, and it meant a domestic rider had triumphed in exactly half of the Tour’s 72 revolutions.
Ex-tennis star Yannick Noah and Tour great Bernard Hinault with the new yellow jersey. PHOTO: Getty
Since then? Zut Alors. Cyclists from seven nations have climbed the podium’s top step on the Champs-Elysees but no French hero has even got close since 1989.
That Laurent Fignon got so very close - he lost by eight seconds - only makes it worse.
This 26-year wait is a blink of the eye compared to British tennis followers’ wait for a male champion at Wimbledon or the years of hurt experienced by English football fans, but it is no less nagging. And one of the many videos in an unbelievably grand presentation in Paris highlighted just how annoying this inability to win their own race is becoming.
The premise was a chance encounter between Hinault and tennis star Yannick Noah (the last Frenchman to win at Roland Garros…in 1983) on a quiet ride through the countryside.
Ah, salut Yannick, oui Bernard, ca va, tres bien etc etc went the small talk, before a surprisingly chipper Hinault (his nickname is “The Badger” because of his snarling aggression when cornered) brought up the good old days.
“What, when France used to win?” answered Noah. “Une belle epoque,” they both agreed, as did most of the 3,000 people packed into the Palais de Congres’ main auditorium, a number which is staggering in itself, especially when you remember the 2012 route had already been inadvertently revealed on the official website last week.
Sure, the obvious parallel here is Wimbledon and Britain's increasingly shrill desire to scratch that itch. But I think the French longing for a Tour win goes deeper.
Le Tour is France in a way that Wimbledon can never really represent Britain. A certain slice of England, perhaps, but everything about the Tour screams France.
OK, it likes to dip in and out of its neighbours from time to time - twice this year, the start in Belgium and a short detour through Switzerland - but this is always on the Tour’s terms.
There have been 12 wins by native Anglophones since 1985 but there were no concessions to the language of Shakespeare on Tuesday: not that any of the growing band of Aussies, Brits, Yanks et al would complain, they know where it would get them.
In fact, the most recent of that dozen, Cadel Evans, delivered a speech that would have made my French GCSE teacher weep tears of joy.
Of course, the Tour has a huge advantage over Wimbledon in the country-in-a-microcosm stakes as it does, by its very nature, involve the whole nation.
There is also a shifting narrative to the carefully chosen route. Villages, towns and even cities vie for the chance to be included.
Being photogenic helps but the Tour wants more: what’s your story, do you have a link to the sport, do you really, really want it?
A large proportion of the audience at the launch were there to represent places blessed with a start or finish, towns like Abbeville in Picardy, Peyragudes in the Hautes-Pyrenees or any of the other seven locales getting a slice of the action for the first time.
For them, the peloton’s visit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell their tale and sell their wares.
That last point is crucial because the Tour is unashamedly commercial. A quick flick through the list of “partenaires officiels” shows this is more than a sporting contest, it is France’s trade fair.
To give just one example, the real point of the Hinault-Noah epic was to draw attention to the Tour’s new kit deal with that most French of brands, Le Coq Sportif.
So perhaps a better choice for a British comparison would be the Tour versus our entire summer season - Lord’s, Wimbers, Silverstone, the Open and so on - but even this doesn’t quite work for me. France’s love for “Le Grand Boucle” crosses barriers of age, class and geography.
And yet it is changing, gradually but irresistibly. No matter how hard they try to pretend it isn’t.
Cycling has broken out of its traditional market in France, Benelux, Italy and Spain. Ever since Greg Lemond got the better of “The Badger” in 1986, America has cared, as have us Brits.
What used to be a motley band of English-speaking adventurers is now a sizeable segment of the pro circuit’s population.
Throw in the Scandinavians and multilingual Germans and eastern Europeans, and you have a very noisy minority.
This is reflected in the Tour’s expanding global profile. Pictures from the final stage in Paris are seen in 190 countries around the world, and 70 of those broadcast the entire race live.
Crews from at least half of those countries were in the Palais de Congres.
There is a flipside to this popularity, though, and that is an inevitable dilution of the very Frenchness that sets this remarkable event apart.
You can sense it every time an excitable commentator roars “Cavendish!” when our very own world champion crosses the line again, arms outstretched.
The tagline for next year’s race is “Tous Fous du Tour”, which (I think) loosely translates as everybody’s crazy for the Tour.
That craziness is definitely catching, I just hope it never kills the patient.