The Tour de France is the greatest annual sporting event in the world. This week the 101st edition of the classic cycle road race begins not in France but in Yorkshire, right here in England, against the beautiful backdrop of the Dales. Since the 1960s Le Tour has furnished neighbouring countries with the honour of wishing bonne chance to the assembled pedalling ranks as they set off for well over 2,000 miles of endeavour, endurance, agony and ecstasy on the long road to the Champs-Élysées.
The concept of effectively giving away the showpiece opener of such an event will strike many sports administrators around the world as recklessly generous and quixotic. Especially given the many millions of euro-shaped benefits associated with a motivated, cycle-hungry public by the industry’s commercially savvy business leaders.
This grand gesture, however, does more for Le Tour – and France, indeed – than any well-conceived publicity campaign ever could. We are not just talking about the glorified showreel that is France’s own wonderful mountain passes, rural roads and riverside avenues. The route of Le Tour runs deeper, like so many veins through the very fabric and body of the country. To chart its progress is to understand the French psyche, its traditions and its passions.
Now of course, Le Tour and its extraordinary competitors (drawn as they are from dozens of countries around the world) are no strangers to controversy. It’s all too easy during the advent of another edition to gloss over the ignominies and indignities heaped upon the global cycling public by successive generations of rule breakers, dopers and other miscreants.
Yet the sport has tried to rid itself of these cancerous elements and appears, finally, to be more at ease with itself after years of infighting and fundamental self-doubt. The warmth with which Le Tour is embraced overseas is a measure of both the wider sport’s and the race organisers’ efforts to tackle the problems in their midst.
This is in stark contrast to the commercialism on display in Brazil during these summer months where Fifa’s jamboree, the World Cup finals, are being played out against a backdrop of heavy-handed advertising. This is carefully ring-fenced and tax-free income for Fifa and its top brass, a group for whom sharing the wealth has only the most cursory, metaphorical meaning.
Le Tour by contrast does far more than merely paying lip service: the people and businesses along the sure-to-be spectator-lined streets of Leeds, Harrogate and Sheffield (not to mention Cambridge and a still post-Olympics-tanned London, where the race heads on day three) will attest to that.
So chapeau bas to Le Tour and its big opening day in the Dales. Maybe some of the planet’s other sporting extravaganzas could take a leaf or two from the Tour de France playbook.
Tom Edwards is Monocle 24’s executive producer.