1960: When President de Gaulle Greeted the Tour
Words by ASO; Images from Presse Sports
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At the turn of each decade, the Tour de France has gone through organizational changes and backstage struggles that have variously turned out to be decisive or utterly inconsequential. The journey back in time proposed by letour.fr continues in 1960, specifically on the penultimate stage, when the peloton was paid a visit for the first time by a President of the Republic when the Tour passed through Colombey-les-Deux-Églises where General de Gaulle was staying. A form of mutual reverence between the statesman and the champions marked this unprecedented moment.
On the 1960 Tour de France, the battle on the road was severely hampered by a cascade of no-shows and retirements that limited the competition. Anquetil opted out, exhausted after his victory on the Giro, while defending champion Federico Bahamontes withdrew after not even completing stage two. And to add injury to insult, the French team, already in the throes of a malaise, lost any chance of victory when Roger Rivière fell tragically on the descent following the Col de Perjuret in the Lozère Department. There were barely any more combatants after the Avignon stage, one week prior to the finish, to contest Gastone Nencini. And even less so on the penultimate stage, which he tackled with a more than five-minute lead from his closest challenger, Graziano Battistini. Between Besançon and Troyes, the peloton dawdled with little motivation, but as they approached Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, rumour had it that a spectator like no other could offer an historic tone to this dreary day.
Staying in his family property of La Boisserie, General de Gaulle mingled with the public gathered on the sidewalks of the Haut-Marne village as he awaited the passage of the Grande Boucle. With no social networks or mobile phones, Jacques Goddet was alerted to this presidential surprise when he passed the support station in Chaumont, some twenty kilometres away. There was just enough time to get the message to the peloton that a stop would be observed, the absence of a breakaway allowing a quick neutralisation. When the peloton arrived and without even getting out of his convertible, the Tour boss used his megaphone to declare that “The Tour sends its affectionate greetings to President De Gaulle”. A little embarrassed by this impromptu ceremony, the president made the most of the encounter to congratulate a few riders and in particular the Italian in the Yellow Jersey, who was honoured with a handshake and the encouragement of a connoisseur: “you are going to win the Tour”.
In the past, the Tour had been stopped by a railway crossing, but never by a spectator. From a purely sporting point of view, this unique stop was a Godsend for Pierre Beuffeuil. The rider from the Centre-Midi regional team had been delayed by a puncture, but thanks to the general, this was his lucky day. Beuffeuil regained contact with the peloton in Colombey as well as his confidence. With 26 kilometres to go to the finish, he put in a solo attack to claim his first stage victory on the Tour de France. “I’ve always voted de Gaulle”, said Beuffeuil after his victory in Troyes.
With or without a suit and tie, on the roadside or in a car during the race, the presidential visit has become a ritual pioneered by Charles de Gaulle. Only his immediate successor, Georges Pompidou, did not come to meet the riders, while Valéry Giscard d’Estaing waited for them in Paris to present the Yellow Jersey to Bernard Thévenet for the first final finish on the Champs-Elysées in 1975. As for François Mitterrand, he had played the spectator-photographer card on an alpine stage in 1985 and Jacques Chirac, already very familiar with the event as Mayor of Paris, followed a stage in Jean-Marie Leblanc’s car on the 1998 Tour.
However, it was during Nicolas Sarkozy’s term of office, himself a cyclist in his own right, that presidential visits became more frequent… and better organised. A few months after his election, Jacques Chirac’s successor went to the Briançon stage of the 2007 Tour, won by Colombian Mauricio Soler. At that time, the reception of a president on the Tour began to be part of a much more rigorous process than that of Colombey, as explained by the Tour’s deputy director Pierre-Yves Thouault, who was notably in charge of preparing these special invitations: “We usually get in touch with the services of the Elysée Palace in the spring, in order to think first about a date that corresponds to the president’s itinerary, and then about a stage that sometimes comes naturally. For example, François Hollande made the trip in 2014 to the Arras-Reims stage, which went past places of remembrance of the First World War on the occasion of the centenary celebrations. But the previous year, he drastically changed his schedule to go to the Bagnères-de-Bigorre stage to support the residents of the towns flooded by the Garonne a month earlier“. In any case, the planning of this visit, which is kept secret for as long as possible, is carefully tracked to ensure the security of the president by all law enforcement agencies: “Nothing is left to chance, Thouault says. We know exactly where his helicopter will land to meet us, and then how he will be evacuated at the end of the stage. However, you have to be able to adapt to any last-minute changes.” Last year, Emmanuel Macron was lucky enough to witness Thibaut Pinot’s victory on the Col du Tourmalet, while Julian Alaphilippe continued to wear the Yellow Jersey around the country. The Tour is also a certain idea of France, as the general could have said…