Last week I read an article in the Guardian which generated both empathy and disappointment at the same time (though far more of the latter, than the former). The article – written by Tom Marriage – laments an apparent loss: …peculiar achievement, of anoraks and curly cheese sandwiches eaten on forgotten B-road laybys. It was a […]
Good stuff on TIME about the tour de France
When it comes to sustained, frenzied fan enthusiasm around an athletic spectacle, few contests anywhere can match the Tour de France. Yes, the World Cup and the Olympics are phenomenal, and phenomenally anticipated, happenings that devotees follow, utterly riveted, for weeks on end — but they’re quadrennial events, which might account for at least some of the hype and the slavish attention they enjoy. The Super Bowl, meanwhile, has ballooned through the years into an unavoidable mid-winter juggernaut — a gaudy, hyper-macho circus that draws in fanatics and the curious, alike, from all over the globe — but these days a huge number of American football fans admit to paying more attention to the TV commercials that (happily) break up the action than to the often long, long, long game itself.
For the Tour de France, on the other hand, entire countries seem to stand still. For the three weeks that the riders are pushing themselves to the very edge of human exertion, and then pushing beyond, millions of people think of nothing else, talk of nothing else, watch and read of nothing else. C’est tout!
That said, of course, not everything Tour de France-related is quite sweetness and light, no matter how overwhelming the attention it receives or how celebrated its history. After all, it’s impossible to even touch upon the tour without addressing — not to put too fine a point on it — the sport’s colossal and enduring doping problem, an issue so well-documented that big-time bicycling can sometimes make horse racing feel, by comparison, like an utterly pure, unblemished pursuit. Indeed, there are times when it seems as if every bicycling champion in recent memory has either tested positive for a banned substance, or has been and will forever be hounded by shrill, undying accusations.
Bicycling’s drug problems didn’t begin recently. There have been charges and admissions of cocaine and amphetamine use, for example, since the 1940s, while rumors of riders taking everything from nitroglycerine to exotic concoctions that today might be classified as “bathtub” or “designer” drugs (depending on who’s doing the cooking) have dogged the sport for close to a century.
And yet … every year, as midsummer approaches, all of France and millions of other aficionados in bicycling-mad nations the world over blithely put their indignation and their suspicions on hold and avidly follow the circuitous stages of La Grande Boucle, a three-week traveling carnival of superhuman exertions, spectacular crashes and the type of drama that routinely unfolds when profoundly bitter, supremely competitive rivals vie for supremacy day after day after day.
Here, on the eve of the 99th Tour de France, LIFE.com offers vintage (and in some case, previously unpublished) photos from the 1953 version of the great contest — pictures made at a time when most of LIFE’s readers were probably only marginally aware that each summer people rode bikes for a few thousand miles on the mountain roads and through the sunflower fields of France and, occasionally, across the border into other European nations. The magazine’s brief discussion of the atmosphere surrounding the race manages to sound at once slightly bemused and openly admiring — a reaction that will not be unfamiliar to countless Americans, 60 years later, as the peloton again begins its grueling, inevitable fast-paced slouch toward the Champs-Élysées:
From a blog on SPITALFIELDS LIFE
On a day when the light was as you thought only existed in landscapes by Gainsborough, five hundred dapper gallants on bicycles, dressed up to the nines in tweeds and other fancy gear, set out from St Paul’s Cathedral at midday to flaunt their finery in the face of the metropolis’ populace. And to see this vast current of stylish cyclists go forth from the great cathedral – launching themselves with a cheer down Ludgate Hill on flawless Spring day – it was a joyous spectacle, guaranteed to melt the heart of any foolish misanthrope in a flash.
I never saw so much tweed gathered together in one place, as I saw that morning beneath the gleaming dome towering overhead. There were so many plus-fours and suits and jackets and trews and caps and waistcoats and ties, that I thought my vision was going awry for all the herring-bone pattern crossing my retina. Yet everyone looked different from another, everyone wore tweed differently and everyone had dressed to look their very best, expressive of their relish at being among the first five hundred who managed to snaffle up one of the coveted tickets. The gentlemen had waxed their moustaches and the ladies had primped their perms. Groomed and shining, all were raring to leap astride their mounts and take the city by storm, riding vintage bicycles, penny-farthings and tandems and boneshakers. There was even a piano-bicycle with a pianist who kept on pedalling even as he played the keys.
Just in its third year, no wonder the magnificent Tweed Run is already a global sensation. Beginning with one hundred and sixty cyclists arrayed in tweed for a turn around London in January 2009, it has now inspired copycat events in sixteen other cities across the world including New York, Paris, Sydney and Tokyo. Elegant in its simplicity, the notion of enthusiasts for traditional cycling attire banding together for a beano, enjoying a high old time, lifting the spirits of a city and raising money for bikes for Africa, the Tweed Run is one of the things we can be proud of giving to the world.
The traffic ground to a halt – horns honked and five hundred cycle bells tinkled – and drivers leaned from their windows to gawp in awestruck delight as, like salmon coursing through a great river, the playful cyclists of the Tweed Run teemed through the city streets spreading innocent amazement, causing pedestrians to stop in wonder and break into laughter at the bizarre poetry of this unique event.
Across Westminster Bridge they pedalled, over to the Palace then down the Mall, around Trafalgar Square and up Regent St – where Saturday shoppers broke into cheers and applause – before veering East to arrive at Lincoln’s Inn Fields at two for tea. Remarkably for such an unseasonably warm day and the ubiquity of tweed, there were few who displayed visible perspiration or reddening of the face, although the queue for a cuppa stretched halfway to the Old Cheshire Cheese and the lawn was littered with those grateful to recline upon the soft green grass in the shade of the heavy blossom and freshly unfurled leaves overhead. Music from the bandstand drifted gently among the trees as photographers took advantage of this colourful fête champêtre, while the tweedy cyclists, having become a tribe now, turned enthusiastically gregarious, and since they no longer required any introduction to one to another, a spontaneous sense of communal goodwill and excitement arose which overflowed the park.
From here, as the afternoon shadows lengthened, it was a straight home run Eastward down the Clerkenwell Rd to arrive at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Social Club, completing the day’s modest ten mile jaunt. There was singing and tap dancing, and a lively trade in pints at the bar as parched cyclists quenched their thirsts, and the party soon spilled out onto the green where new friends were swapping contacts as the time for farewells drew near. Lingering late and reluctantly leaving, it was a day of beautiful hullaballoo, already containing the anticipation of fond memories to come.
Later, I realised how rare it was to see so many people relaxed and happy in public, and inhabiting the city streets as if they owned them – which we all do. The day was a celebration of our great city which offers an unsurpassed backdrop to life, and the day was celebration of British idiosyncrasy and our culture that delights in imaginative individuality of all kinds, and the day was celebration of dressing up and having fun, and the day was a celebration of moustaches, and the day was celebration of cycling, and, naturally, the day was a celebration of tweed – because, in case you did not know it, tweed is sexy again.