Le Tour de France is losing traction in its homeland

The race remains world cycling’s crown jewel, despite the doping scandals. EPA/ Kim Ludbrook

July in France means tourists, sunflowers, Bastille Day and the running of the national bicycle race. The Tour is one of the most recognisable symbols of France in the global imagination.

But it is an interesting paradox that the Tour’s popularity and cultural relevance in France may be fading as the event’s global fan base grows in countries such as Australia and the United States.

Do the French still care about Le Tour?

According to a 2010 poll by Sud Ouest Dimanche, only 44% of French surveyed “love” the Tour de France, compared to 59% in 1964. Most of those surveyed no longer watched the Tour on television, many because they were “disgusted” by drug scandals.

Among those who did watch the race on television, nearly three times as many people (28%) responded that they did so to take in images of the beautiful countryside rather than to see the competition (10%).

A 2014 poll by the Département Opinion et Stratégies d'Entreprise, released a few days ago, found that young people seem to be abandoning the Tour: around two-thirds of them say they “don’t like” the Tour. How did it come to this?

c. 1934: German rider Ludwig Geyer stops 50km from the finish of a stage to drink champagne. Riders often did so to settle their stomachs and loosen their legs. Author/ US National Archives

The iconic Tour

The Tour has been an iconic vessel that carries immense cultural meaning for the French. Long before France’s football team served this role in the national discourse, the Tour was a barometer of national strengths and weaknesses, political and social upheaval, and cultural change and continuity.

No sport was more popular: even in the Tour’s early decades, a quarter of the French population may have watched the race on the roadside. Today, the Tour’s masters claim a global audience of 3.5 billion television viewers.

Henri Desgrange, the world-record tricyclist and newspaper editor who invented the Tour in 1903, hoped that the Tour would convey to fans a certain idea of France, one that was traditional and conservative.

Desgrange believed that the annual race would reinforce traditional values and worldviews at a time when France was undergoing rapid, disorienting transformation, amid social and political conflict and victory and defeat in war.

Geography and national unity

Desgrange devised an annual itinerary that celebrated France’s geographic and political unity. Unity was something that needed promoting: borders were in flux given the territory France lost and reconquered during the Franco-Prussian War and the Great War, and violent clashes erupted often due to deep divisions between France’s social classes and movements on the political left and right.

1928 Tour de France. Anders

Until the early 1950s, the Tour’s itinerary was usually contiguous and followed France’s borders as closely as possible. The iconography of rural, historic France that French and foreign fans still enjoy during media coverage of the Tour was developed in the germinal phase of the event.

The fields of sunflowers and grapes, famous castles and abbeys, the Alps and Pyrenees, lush river valleys, and sun-drenched plains comprise a rolling, idealised history of the nation that repeats and renews itself every year amid the drama of the competition.

The Tour’s heroic canon

The Tour’s iconography also revolves around its cyclists. Great riders have been sounding boards of France’s triumphs and traumas. One of the Tour’s great qualities is that its many storylines of heroic triumph and failure run parallel to one another each day, for all to see, ever deepening the event’s iconic power.

Founder Henri Desgrange constantly tinkered with the Tour’s format and rules to increase its cultural impact, as well as its marketability. In 1930, Degrange threw out the corporate team sponsorship formula and organised the Tour as an Olympic-style competition among national teams. The French national team responded by winning six of the ten Tours that decade, a reassuring embodiment of a France resurgent during the troubled years between the world wars.

Raymond Poulidor and Jacques Anquetil in the Alps, 1966 Tour de France. Chris Protopapas

The Tour developed a “heroic canon” that was reflected in the dramatic stories of its riders. The French lionised heroes who embodied cherished masculine qualities that seemed threatened in modern times, especially unbreakable human resilience, endurance, aggressive panache, willingness to sacrifice oneself for the greater good, and the ability of men overcome superhuman challenges like the Tour.

The French cherished defeat as much as triumph, as long as there was nobility.

In the 1960s and 70s, the French preferred perennial loser Raymond “Pou Pou” Poulidor to dominant, five-time Tour winners Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. Poulidor’s bad luck, crashes, and unfortunate mishaps combined with his aggressive, attacking riding style and unbreakable determination to finish races in dramatic fashion made him an ideal Tour hero-cyclist, even though he never won the race.

Doping and cycling heroism

Doping led to national and international scandal in the Anquetil years of the 1960s. Anquetil refused to denounce drug use. A 1971 New York Times Magazine article repeated a famous quote from the retired champion:

everyone in cycling dopes himself. Those who deny it are liars.

The same article included Anquetil’s assertion that without amphetamines Tour riders would “pedal 15 miles an hour instead of 25”.

British champion Tom Simpson, his veins full of amphetamines, keeled over and died while struggling up Mont Ventoux in 1967.

US cyclist Lance Armstrong of the Discovery Channel Team signalling a seven as he is on his way to win his seventh Tour de France in Corbeil-Essonnes, France. 24 July 2005. EPA/ Olivier Hoslet

Public knowledge of cycling’s pervasive doping culture pulled the veil off the myths of cycling heroism. It was clear that superhuman cycling performances were indeed inhuman – fuelled by drugs, not grit.

The Tour, as cycling’s bellwether event, embodied the worst of the sport’s drug culture. Since 1998’s Festina affair, when the Festina team and various members of the backroom staff were implicated in a doping scandal, it is clear that illegal doping has sullied the entire sport, not just a few bad apples.

Virtually every Tour victor in the past two decades, including every champion between 1996 and 2007, has either admitted to or been convicted of doping.

Who do the French cheer for today?

Thomas Voeckler (R) during the break away of the 4th stage of the Tour de France 2014. EPA/ Kim Ludbrook

Veteran Thomas Voeckler, the plucky Alsatian who attacks on flats and steeps, has worn the yellow jersey, but has no chance to win the Tour, seems to be a crowd favorite, somewhat of a 21st-century Poulidor. No French rider has won since Bernard “The Badger” Hinault’s record-tying fifth Tour title in 1985.

All the while the Tour’s global prominence grows. In the early years, Desgrange successfully promoted the Tour as the unofficial world championship of the globalising sport of cycling. The best riders from dozens of countries still make a pilgrimage to France to compete.

French supremacy in the world’s greatest endurance spectacle – French riders have won 36 yellow jerseys, twice as many as any other country – was a source of tremendous national pride.

Although France’s champions no longer compete for the yellow jersey, today the Tour de France dominates global road cycling – in fact, the Tour’s parent company owns many of the planet’s greatest races, including the Tour of Spain.

The race remains world cycling’s crown jewel, despite the doping scandals.

The recent revival of drug-free racing, with British champions Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome at the fore, may be a harbinger of better times to come for the world’s greatest endurance contest.

See further Tour de France coverage on The Conversation.