In the global league of immense sporting events, the Tour de France is third to the Olympics and the World Cup, or so the Essex Chronicle says. So how can a narrow lane in this corner of Essex between Chelmsford and Ongar, intensely rural though hardly thirty miles from London, accommodate the event?
In 1919, 130 cyclists registered to race in the Tour de France. Only 69 turned up at the start line: the war had made rubber scarce, and many couldn’t find tyres. Riders were instructed to bring their passports with them as they’d be travelling through contested territory, and there wasn’t enough sugar around for the organisers to keep them properly fed. By the time the peloton arrived at the foot of the Pyrenees, only 25 riders were left in the race. Ten made it to the finish line. The last rider to complete the race, Jules Nempon, limped home 21 hours after the winner, Firmin Lambot. Géo Lefèvre, the tour's originator and its most breathless early chronicler, called it ‘the most beautiful Tour de France I have ever seen’.
Bicycle road-racing has never been much of a spectator sport. Its origins lie in journalism, and the first great races, the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, were designed to be read about rather than watched. The yellow jersey worn by the leader of the Tour is the same colour as the pages of L’Auto, the newspaper that first organised the race. No one really knew what was going on out on the road during those early races. Cheating was rife and Géo Lefèvre, the only journalist to follow the first Tour from start to finish (the race was his idea), was described by his son standing at night ‘on the edge of the road, a storm lantern in his hand, searching in the shadows for riders who surged out of the dark from time to time, yelled their name and disappeared into the distance.’
With the Tour de France just starting, a new round of allegations of blood doping has surfaced from the serial whistleblower Floyd Landis, himself stripped of a 2006 Tour victory for doping. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Landis admits that he paid an accomplice posing as an autograph-hunter $10,000 to deliver him bags of his own blood which he’d then transfuse himself. That’s about 3000 times more than an NHS courier gets. He accuses the US Postal team, including Lance Armstrong, of similar practices. Armstrong and U S Postal are now the subject of a federal food and drug administration investigation, and whatever the outcome it seems likely that during this, Lance’s last Tour, some of the mud will stick.