Tour de France, Tour de France: A recollection and two images

When I was a teenager, I liked bicycles, and I often visited a bicycle shop that was only a couple of blocks from where I lived. I don’t know quite what I did there. Presumably it was the same thing I did in the college bookstore that was also near me, or the camera store a little farther down, or the antique-weapons shop just beyond: I looked at what was there and adjusted yet again my sense of how many things were in the world, what they did, how they worked, who used them and for what—and what they cost. In the small, neatly crowded bike shop, this meant looking at serried ranks of bicycles themselves, and accessories such as caps and pumps, and all sorts of components, and even posters of components, such as an elegant depiction of the elegant products of the Campagnolo company, which, needless to say, was Italian, and which gave me some early ideas about design as a quality in itself.

One day, glancing across the shop toward a rack of books and periodicals, I saw a magazine whose cover proclaimed to me, in large bold type, a thing called the Tour de France, which I hadn’t heard of. I can almost see the letters now; they were red, I believe. This is not when I learned what the Tour de France is. Oddly incurious, or perhaps more attuned to the siren song of real derailleurs and handlebars, I didn’t pick up the magazine but simply thought to myself, before turning back to the counter display, How nice that someone has arranged a bicycle tour of France. But this is when I learned that such a thing exists.

Why that moment remains in my mind at all I don’t know, since I usually forget my initial encounter with such things. My bedroom wall was decorated with a poster from the Formula One car race in Monaco, but I have no idea where I got it or how I first heard of that race or any of the others of its kind, just as I can’t tell you when I first heard of Mars, or anthropophagi, or submarines, or the French Revolution. (Like my glimpse of that magazine, I have an insistent recollection of hearing the sound of the Sputnik satellite, but that was an event, not a thing.)

I kept riding, got a second bicycle when I was in high school, grew a little and somehow got rid of both of them, grew a little more and got another one, lost it to a thief. The handwritten draft of a book review for a daily paper was in the handlebar bag of that bike when it was stolen, which I was sure sounded like an unbelievable excuse to the books editor. Another bike, more riding. It took years, but eventually I found out that the Tour de France is no tour but a race. It’s a strange kind of race; it doesn’t happen all at once but spreads over three weeks, and many of the people in it aren’t trying to win it. It does, however, pretty much run around the country of France. In case you hadn’t heard, it’s going on now.

I began watching it on TV in the 90s and began taking pictures of it—of the TV coverage, that is—sometime in the naughts. Sometimes, the distortions introduced by a cheap digital camera are appealing; sometimes, I just get a good shot. Below are two of the results. Others can be found in my Flickr album “TV dreams of the Tour de France.”

You may wonder: Have I been there? You bet I’ve been there. Only in my mind, but that’s where we do most of our traveling.


From Stage 16, 2006: I’m not absolutely sure now, but I think this is Mickael Rasmussen as he nears the finish line, having been alone and in front for much of the day.


Left, James Earle Fraser’s sculpture The End of the Trail. Right, Michael Rogers, ending his ride on Stage 8 of the 2007 Tour. He had been the virtual race leader earlier that day, before suffering a crash. (Right image from coverage by the U.S. cable channel Versus.)

[Updated 7/21/17: added a phrase.]


2 thoughts on “Tour de France, Tour de France: A recollection and two images

  1. Nice, whimsical post. I actually saw the Tour de France in 1972, when I was on a summer immersion program in France. They passed through Auxerre and my host family there insisted on taking me, although it meant standing for hours in the rain, watching a parade of advertising vehicles pass by, wondering if the riders would ever arrive. Suddenly there they were, speeding by us in a clump. Then it was over.


    • So you’ve seen it! But now that you’ve seen it, what can you say you have?

      That’s another thing that makes the Tour strange—or maybe two things. An ordinary spectator can barely see it at all, yet crowds assemble, sometimes vast hordes, to watch it go by. All along, it has been helped by journalism, and in fact it was founded as a promotional event for a sporting publication. In some sense, the Tour de France is a virtual event, or a mediated event anyway, but I decided not to go into any of that.


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