PARIS – Ahead of its 100th running starting Saturday, the Tour de France remains a fantastic idea. Asking riders to pedal around Western Europe’s largest country and up and down some of its tallest mountains for three weeks is still zany and whimsical enough to be interesting.
But is the Tour still worth taking seriously as a sports event?
The fall of Lance Armstrong in the past year, along with other dopers who ruined the credibility of cycling and its showcase race, has opened that question to debate like never before.
From the outset in 1903, when journalist Geo Lefevre and his editor Henri Desgrange, hatched the idea of an endurance race around France to boost sales of their newspaper, L’Auto, the Tour has always been part-publicity stunt, part-genuine sporting contest.
Then, as now, it sucked in spectators with the theater both gruesome and inspiring of men made to suffer on bicycles.
And even now, at the sport’s nadir, the Tour’s essential charms to fans and sponsors remain the same: roads, mountains, the beauty of France and men willing to push themselves to extremes.
The competition is always colorful if not always believable, a fun excuse for sleepy villages to come alive and a free summer spectacle for holiday-makers. The millions of people who line the route largely don’t seem to care how many riders are pumped up on banned drugs and blood transfusions. Just as long as they see the spandex-clad racers zoom by and get a good picnic spot and freebies from sponsors, whose floats precede the riders, tossing out sweets, cheap sunhats and bite-size packs of cured sausage. Tour spectators, surveys suggest, make a day of it, often coming in groups and spending six or more hours by the side of the road.
Their presence and media coverage in a month when other sports, including soccer, are largely dormant means the Tour remains worthwhile for sponsors, which argues for it continuing to hold a special place in the athletic calendar.
“For its 100th edition, it is in rude health,” Nestle Waters’ sponsorship manager Francoise Bresson said in an interview about the Tour. “Doping has no or little impact. The sporting exploits dominate and the festive dimension. In these times of crisis, there aren’t that many free sporting events which are a pleasure for the spectators.”
But no one is foolish enough to say all dopers have been weeded out.
“This has been a hard period for cycling, anyone who denies that is off their rocker,” said Jonathan Vaughters, a former U.S. Postal Service teammate of Armstrong’s who now runs the Garmin-Sharp cycling team. “The bad news has hit and hit hard, and we’ve had to deal with it.”