I wouldn’t go so far as the three-time world-champion Óscar Friere, who reckons that the Tour de France is “the most boring race of the year” — has he ever watched the Tour of Qatar? — but this year’s race did make me wonder how many more like it the old institution can take. Institutionalization is the Tour’s great burden, or at least its double-edged sword. For the casual fan it is the ‘race of record,’ cycling itself. Those who follow the sport more closely understand that while the Tour is undeniably the most competitive, and therefore the most prestigious, among the three Grand Tours of Italy, France and Spain, it often not the most interesting.
Unlike movies or the performing arts, architecture is not seasonal. There is no year end rush in which all the Gehrys and Koolhaases are “released,” no popcorn summer in which the Barangaroos and Ground Zeros of this world try to blow out our eye sockets with their empty spectacle. Cities just go on and on; one must make an effort to pick a moment and look back if we are ever to figure out just what on earth is going on.
Le Tour de France, comme un voyage à la lune ou une mission de la navette spatiale, est une espèce d’art performatif. Le parcours est dessinée, mais un scénario imprévisible se déroule toujours sur les routes de France. La plupart des Tours de France depuis j’ai commencé à faire attention en 1989 étaient dominés par les grands champions comme Miguel Indurain (cinq maillots jaunes) et Lance Armstrong (sept), avec les brefs interrègnes. Le Tour de 2011, possiblement le meilleur, est peut-être le Tour qui rompra cette modèle de “star-système.” C’est le premier Tour vraiment post-Armstrong, post-Armstrongiste.
Grace peut-être au dessin supérieur des routes français, le parcours du Tour n’est pas le plus difficile des trois grands tours (de la France, l’Italie et l’Espagne). Si le Giro d’Italia, incroyablement dur dans les années recentes (deux ascensions de Mt. Etna dans une journée!?) est une sorte de free jazz, le Tour de France est peut-être un big band de Glenn Miller: structuré, populaire, avec ses conventions familières et ses variations subtils entre les éditions qui se produit des énormes différences de scénario. Le parcours et les ambitions des 198 coureurs créent des histoires grands, petits et insolites, surtout cette année.
The Tour de France, like a moon landing or shuttle mission, is a kind of performance art. The route is predetermined, but the scenario which plays out on the roads of France is always unpredictable. The majority of the Tours since I started paying attention in 1989 have been dominated by the likes of five time winner Miguel Indurain and seven time winner Lance Armstrong, interspersed with brief interregnums. If we are lucky, the 2011 edition, the greatest I have seen without a doubt, will be remembered as the Tour which broke this “star-system.” It is certainly the first truly post-Armstrong, and post-Armstrongian, race.
What follows are highly subjective opinions about the highly subjective subject of bicycles.
One recent morning I witnessed a rare sight; two children, almost certainly brother and sister, were riding their bikes to school. They wobbled along the sidewalk of a busy road. The boy pedaled ahead on his BMX while the girl’s bike was too big for her, its chain rusted to the point where, rather than shift gears, she walked the slightest rise. Commuters alone in their cars sped by on the way to work, their kids’ schools, gym or supermarket. This being outer Sydney, the street made not the slightest accommodation for the two kids and their healthy, intrepid mode of transportation.
It was a childhood case of chicken pox which first introduced me to the Tour de France. The year was 1989, fortunately a very choice vintage indeed, in which Minnesota’s Greg Lemond clawed back 58 seconds between Versailles and Paris to defeat the hapless Parisian ex-dental student Laurent Fignon. I remember my confusion, a common response among those new to the Tour, as to which of the two was actually the Frenchman.