The Tour de France, which finally clicked into its cleats and sped off on Saturday, is the jewel in the French sporting crown – grander than tennis at Roland-Garros, superior in spectacle to any old football match played by Paris Saint-Germain. The Tour isn’t just the toughest physical test for athletes in the world but also a three-week-long tracking shot in a vast commercial for France itself. The riders sweep through landscapes at the perfect speed for television: the Provence painted by Van Gogh and Cézanne, endless brand-name vineyards, dramatic mountain passes and then Hausmann’s grand Parisian boulevards – the pillars of the world’s first modern city.
This year, coronavirus is ensuring pressure like never before to represent the best of “Brand France” – and this year that means the unsexy job of controlling the traditionally febrile fans. In the run-up to the “Grand Départ”, the Tour was being hyped as the first major sporting event of the year at which spectators would be present and relative normality restored. The world’s hunger for civility and normality and the understandable French desire to see those things beamed live, daily, from Nice and Champagne might well lead to some wobbles and accidents besides those endured by the riders on the treacherous mountain descents.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme and the French education minister spoke publicly before the start about the importance of the race going ahead. The latter, Jean-Michel Blanquer, says, “It is a sign that we can continue to live, and of the resilience of our society.” Today’s stage ends on a sudden climb in an Alpine ski resort – a test of the best riders and a test for the Tour to keep those close crowds cool, too. So, careful how you go brave peloton – but keep going you should.