If ever there was a popular sporting competition in France, then it’s got to be the Tour de France. Attracting nearly 10 million spectators every year, the Cycling Tour de France is undoubtedly, alongside the Roland Garros Tennis Tournament (also known as the French Open), one of the most hotly anticipated sporting events in France, and indeed the world. The 107th Tour will take place from 29 August to 20 September 2020 and is a great opportunity to celebrate the petite reine(as the bicycle is sometimes known in France). The legendary race offers a reminder that cycling is among the most commonly practised sports in France, together with football, tennis and basketball.
People in France are absolutely passionate about the Tour, as is clear from the television audiences it attracts. Last year, more than 35 million French people followed the competition via their TV sets. As we’ve noted, this year’s Tour begins in August. This is due to the health crisis – it was originally scheduled for 27 June to 19 July. But where does the Tour de France route start? Can you guess which lucky city has been chosen for the Grand Départ of this year’s hugely popular festival? Well, cyclists will have a chance to showcase their talent on the Prom’ (or the Promenade des Anglais, to give it its full title). Regularly selected as a stage city along the Tour de France route, the capital of the Côte d’Azur has not hosted the start of the competition for nearly 40 years. The first time a stage ended in Nice was in 1906, when a certain René Pottier was victorious. The Grande Boucle (‘Big Loop’), as the Tour is also known, is renowned for being one of the global sporting events that attracts particularly high media attention, with so many foreign journalists travelling to report on this exceptional competition every year that it’s impossible to keep count.
Winning the most coveted prize in cycling is no mean feat! Only great champions can endure the hundreds of kilometres they must cover both on the flat and in the mountains. These include some of the biggest names in cycling, some of whom have had the privilege of winning the competition five times over the course of their careers. This tiny circle of champions includes just four cyclists: Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault from France, Eddy Merckx from Belgium, and Miguel Induráin from Spain. The youngest rider ever to win the Tour was Felice Gimondi, in 1965, when he was exactly 22 years and 9 months old.
It’s worth noting that you don’t necessarily need to reach the top of the podium to become famous: winning over the public with tenacity and courage can also be a way to stand out from the pack. This was how Raymond Poulidor, nicknamed ‘Poupou’ by the public, was able to achieve huge popularity. His likeable nature made him France’s darling. Did you know that he competed in a total of 14 Tours de France and came second eight times without ever securing ultimate victory? While it’s a long time since a French cyclist has won the Tour, they nonetheless hold the overall record, with 36 victories and 21 first-place finishers! The French competitors who have left their mark include Louison Bobet, who succeeded in winning three successive Tours, Jacques Anquetil, who excelled at time trials, Bernard Thévenet, an outstanding climber, and Laurent Fignon, who claimed victory in his first ever appearance in the Tour in 1983.
An inextricable part of the Tour de France is the caravan, a vast string of publicity vehicles that was established in 1930 to fund the race. Sweets, tote bags, magnets, caps and pens are all distributed each year, to the delight of young and old alike. In 2019, nearly 15 million such advertising ‘goodies’ were given out! But being counted among the lucky members of the caravan comes at a cost, with brands paying €250,000 to secure a place in this lengthy convoy.
This year, 22 teams of racers will compete, promising some memorable chases and duels both on the flat and in the mountains. It’s impossible to list them all, so I’ll just give you a few examples, which you’ll find very useful for identifying the Tour de France teams if you decide to live-stream the race or follow it on TV.
For France, AG2R La Mondiale (https://www.cyclisme.ag2rlamondiale.fr/en/) will be Romain Bardet’s team. There’s also Cofidis (https://www.equipecofidis.com/uk/home) and Groupama-FDJ (https://www.equipecycliste-groupama-fdj.fr/en/), whose cyclists include Thibaut Pinot, a French favourite. Another one to watch is the renowned Astana Pro Team (http://www.astanaproteam.kz/), which stands out due to its cosmopolitan make-up and sky-blue jerseys. Movistar will be flying the flag for Spain with champions such as Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde. Finally, Britain will be represented by the Ineos team (https://www.teamineos.com), which features big names such as 2019 winner Egan Bernal from Colombia. Quadruple champion Christopher Froome and Geraint Thomas will race alongside him.
As everyone knows, the overall race leader wears the world-famous maillot jaune or yellow jersey. This honour was introduced in 1919, and is based on the colour of the pages of a sports magazine that was published at the time, L’Auto. Henri Desgrange, the publication’s director, was one of the men who helped to set up the competition in 1903. To boost sales, one of the journalists, Géo Lefèvre came up with the idea of organising and covering a cycle race around the country. The first race began on 1 July 1903. Every year, spectators spend three weeks on the edge of their seats as the event unfolds. There are other special jerseys, too. The green jersey, or maillot vert, is awarded to the cyclist who tops the points classification and is the most consistent sprinter, while the polka-dot jersey – the maillot à pois – goes to the best climber. The white jersey, or maillot blanc, is worn by the best young rider with the lowest overall time.