France isn’t just the home of the Tour de France — as our nearest neighbours across the Channel it’s also been Britain’s gateway to Continental cycling culture. So, with Brexit at the very back of our minds, cycling journalist Matt Lamy focuses on the elements of French influence that unite us rather than divide us.
The Tour de France
OK, let’s get this out of the way now. The Tour de France is the greatest race known to man. Why? Here are some compelling stats. The 2016 Tour will be competed by 198 riders from 35 different countries, split between 22 teams. However, the total Tour organisation will involve 4,500 people, including race officials, corporate partners, 300 team support staff and 2,000 journalists. The race itself will cover 3,535 kilometres over 21 stages and the general classification winner will take home a €500,000 prize. Finally, it’ll be watched by an estimated 12 million people at the roadside, and 3.5 billion on TV.
Racing cyclists might give the impression they need nothing more than a strong cup of coffee for breakfast, but for the rest of us, a pre-ride buttered croissant is just enough to get the motor ticking. True, it’s not exactly high in vitamins and minerals, but French food is known for putting taste and enjoyment first, so we thank the French nation for this fine way to start the day.
Peloton, directeur sportif and domestique
The dictionary of cycle racing terms would be all but bare without those written in French. Were it not for France we’d need eight words to say ‘the main body of a group of cyclists’ rather than ‘peloton’. We’d need nine words to say ‘team-manager-come-coach-come-tactician-come-support-service’ rather than ‘directeur sportif’. And we’d need a whopping 19 words to say ‘cyclist whose job it is to ride solely in the service of his team leader instead of personal glory’ rather than the far more succinct ‘domestique’.
On the bike, Bernard Hinault didn’t represent so much the tenacious, obstinate and combative character of the typical Frenchman, more the tenacious, obstinate and combative character of the typical Breton. Son of Brittany, Hinault was nicknamed ‘the Badger’ and not only won the Tour de France five times but is also one of only two riders to have won more than once all three Grand Tours — France, Spain and Italy. However, it’s his other exploits — such as punching shipyard protesters blocking the road at Paris-Nice in 1984, or cycling 50 miles alone through the snow at Liège-Bastigne-Liège 1980 — that showed just what kind of character he was.
The Michelin Man
Long before the ‘Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’ was even a glimmer in Bill Murray’s ghostbusting eye, France had given us all another immense, bulbous, snow white, smooth-skinned behemoth: the Michelin Man. As well as Michelin having sponsored cycle teams in the past, not to mention supplying tyres to bike racers throughout the years, the Michelin Man is a regular on the Tour de France publicity caravan that precedes the race, handing out freebies to spectators.
Bidon and musette
It’s not just cycle racing where French cycling terms have added their joy and colour, even us mortal bike riders can enjoy some Gallic influence. Bidon, for example, is a drinking bottle, while musette is the thin, lightweight satchel-like shoulder bag than cyclists keep their sandwiches in.
The Col du Tourmalet might be higher, and Mont Ventoux might have it’s own crazy moonscape and unique challenge, but nothing represents Tour de France and cycle racing mountain venues better than Alpe d’Huez. With its 21 hairpin corners and roadside decoration featuring the names of past winners, it’s much more than a mountain: it’s a cycling icon.
If Bernard Hinault was the ultimate fighter, Laurent Fignon — who first appeared on the Tour de France scene in 1983 — was seen as the ultimate cycling thinker. He even earned the nickname ‘The Professor’. Fignon was only 22 years old when he won the Tour on his debut in 1983, then he won it again the following year. But he’ll always be best known for losing the 1989 Tour by just eight seconds in the final time trial around Paris to an aero-helmeted Greg LeMond.
Roadside race spectating
With their mammoth motorhomes and picnic tables, it seems like all of France relocates to fields along the Tour route in July. However, it’s a phenomenon that France has even exported to us, as anybody who witnessed last year’s incredible roadside scenes of the Tour de France in Yorkshire will confirm.
We’ll look at our favourite Tour de France team jerseys in a separate blog soon, and French squads such as Gitane and La Vie Claire will surely rank highly. However, for cycle fans of a certain age, the classic black and white checked Peugeot tops, and then the brief-but-fondly-remembered cartoon blue Z-Peugeot jerseys of the mid to late-1980s represent the height of retro style. Add to that the fact that many of us had our first taste of road cycling on Peugeot junior drop-bar bikes, and the French lion has a firm place in our hearts.
Hinault was also no fool when it came to technology and he played a large part in helping French ski brand Look create the first clipless cycling pedals. By transferring some of what Look knew about ski bindings with Hinault’s personal knowledge of cycling, Look clipless pedals took off in the mid-1980s and led to the fertile clipless pedal market we have today.
The Eternal Second
Frenchman Jacques Anquetil might have been the first rider to win the Tour de France five times, but it was his rival countryman, Raymond Poulidor who captured French fans’ imagination. Poor old Poulidor became known as ‘The Eternal Second’ after missing out on Tour glory first to Anquetil, then to Felice Gimondi, then he had a couple of years affected by injury, and then came along a chap by the name of Eddy Merckx. Poulidor may have stood on the final Tour de France podium eight times, but he never got to wear the yellow jersey even for a single day in any of the 14 Tours he started.
And finally to one of the most endearing French cycling phrases. Effectively reducing the English congratulatory message ‘I take my hat off to you’ to a single word, ‘chapeau’ means: well done, great effort and that was impressive. So chapeau France for having such a positive influence on our sport.