2011 saw Headset Press visiting two stages of the Tour (for the first time). What we saw was the whole; which was strange, growing and constantly moving. The racing is the raison d’etre but, the circus that orbits this is huge. We became fascinated by the whole universe of the Tour not just the racing. We went for the racing, and photographing the racing, but came back with something else or maybe something more than expected.
What is the Tour de France? Bike race? Media event? Circus? All of those things? I find it hard to define the Tour de France, sure the obvious is available but, to me; the Tour is like a beating heart, pumping away, beating, it feels the emotion, the love and troubles of its body. The body is France and the heart is strong. Vive la Tour! It also comprises all the elements of a village or town or make a small planet…
Often people will ask questions like; How long is it? Do they stop? What’s the yellow jersey for? I answer these questions matter of fact, along with who is winning and so on. BUT… The way the race is best explained; is that of the opera [maybe soap opera] you have the lead parts, the villains, heroic acts and of course the heartbreaks. Not many sports capture this opera like performance. Football for example is over in 90 minutes or so and is more like a dance. Cycling and the Tour de France folds out hour after hour, then it’s repeated again the next day and the next… Until only one can win – The Hero that is most valiant – and you can bet he didn’t get there without some dramas.
Even then this doesn’t encompass the entirety of the Tour only the act of racing. The collective psyche of France changes every year for three weeks. It changes not only the nation but, the cities, towns and villages. The Tour brings money, tourism and excitement to the people and places. France grabs it with both hands and embraces all that it brings – and it brings. What does it bring? It brings a huge moving operatic beast with bicycle racing at it’s centre but, not it’s whole. The whole is something strange and growing (It grows year after year). The Tour de France is France is Tour de France, or rather France in summer. Every year the Tour brings the money and shares the gains over the country for those who are prepared to work for it. It’s the cash cow and I see nothing wrong with this cash cow.
From the moment the Tour starts, a village worth of people are on the move. On the move across France like a nomadic village of cycling kings and their people. Every place they visit is eager and ready. No City, Town, Village on the route will miss the opportunity to welcome the Tour. Every effort is made to show the visitors the Tour matters in our place. Every kind of gesture is made from small shrines to the biggest model bicycle a town can make. Everywhere you go the colour of the Tour adorns buildings that want to celebrate and bring in revenue.
The media blood runs rich within the Tour, to the point where it takes over front pages and news reports. Nothing is left out, no part of the animal is thrown – all of it eaten. No other country has this level of coverage – just the French – for they know the value of the Tour. They know how heroic the cyclists are, and make the drama sing, like the opera it is. Front page ‘bon courage’ ‘sans victory’ and so on. This is no coincidence as the Tour was born from the French media and this fact is never far away from the Tour’s history.
Every media outlet around the world has something on the Tour, and every year some freakish moment takes the Tour around the globe in one or more bizarre happenings. This year was no exception. Next year will no doubt be the same.
There is an abundance of things to buy, to remember the Tour. Oh wait! The caravan is here and throwing things from novelty vehicles! Oh the joy! Jump and shout, wave your arms, watch the junk fly, run for the trinket, wrestle with the crowd and it’s yours! And so the promotional caravan moves sweeping the people aside, content with their free promotional fare. Wearing their newly gained sun hats, clappers, sweets and other assorted junk they wait further but, satisfied for the peleton.
First comes the team cars up front, looking serious, racing ahead, to get in place – wherever that place is. Motorbikes follow and follow… More and more. Then the crowd changes only looking in one direction down the road. The swarm approaches cameras clicking, gendarmes outflanking, pushing us in and out of harms way. Whoosh or rather that noise a large fast group of cyclists make. Something unexpected is the smell. The smell of washed kit, sweat, embrocation all come together to make homme de peleton. No sooner here as gone. Cyclists stretching out along the road, but the moment always passes. No matter if its flat or Hors catégorie they will pass and be gone.
Whats left when the riders are gone? A string of support vehicles follow. Loaded with bikes and equipment for the eventual crash or mechanical failure. Wheels everywhere. Mavic yellow cars with matching bikes that are used once in a lifetime or never at all. They all pass by, finally behind the last vehicle comes the rubbish truck picking up litter, from all over France for three weeks. And thats it – all over – and the planet which is the Tour passes in orbit. The crowd that gathered and excitedly took position, the best position for them to see this planet, move away.
All that is left is some promotional items and a little bit of Tour magic. You were there, history in the making, passed you by. Somewhere in the peleton the winner had passed by you. You saw the jerseys that mean so much. Maybe, you even saw the pride of the wearer. Never will the noise or smell fade from my memory and if it does I will go and catch it again. Somewhere in France every year you can catch these memories for free and Headset Press think that is wonderful.
Every year the story of the Tour is made. The stats are drawn up and entered into the big book of cycling records. The pictures and words are printed. The opera is sung and the curtain is drawn. Next year the opera will be sung and the lead role taken. The Tour village will pass like a planet. The press will write the facts but, only you can imagine the feeling. Only you can get excited. Headset Press will be excited. We always were.