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Perspective is everything. And when it comes to cycling’s grandest of the grand tours, the Tour de France, perspective shifts to a very particular angle and focus. Yes, on the surface, the Tour has all the customary elements of the other grand tours: the best riders in the world, the varying contours and challenges of the natural terrain, vast numbers of fans lining the road, shifts in weather, inevitable crashes and mechanical mishaps, podium ceremonies, jersey classifications, swarming media, and an array of motorcycles and support cars. But here, during the most important three weeks of professional road cycling during the year, the sport not only takes on the color, shape and size of France itself, but the sensibility of its people—and for that reason, there’s nothing quite like the Le Tour.
Journalists from around the globe descend on France to comment on the race, but their reporting usually emphasizes the more measurable, tangible elements: general classification, category point leaders, stage profile, and finishing times—it’s the nature of popular, fact-based reporting we are all accustomed to. However, the French view of the Tour may be informed by a more philosophical influence, even in popular reporting, which searches for meaning beyond the surface of things, thereby elevating the significance of the race to something far greater than an extreme physical undertaking. An excellent example of such a view is Roland Barthes’s short essay, “The Tour de France As Epic,” published in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (1957). To get a sense of this French philosophical perspective I am referring to, all one needs to do is read Barthes’s first two sentences: “There is an onomastics of the Tour de France which in itself tells us that these races are a great epic. The racers’ names seem for the most part to come from a very old ethnic period, from an age when the “race,” indeed, was audible in a little group of phonemes (Brankart le Franc, Bobet le Francien, Robic le Celte, Ruiz l’Ibère, Derrigade le Gascon).”
As a distinguished and widely influential French intellectual in the areas of philology, structuralism, semiology and post-structuralism—from the early 1950s until the publication of his last book in 1980—it is Barthes’s exploration of discourse (language/text, image, music) in terms of its function, action and narrative (in naming, symbols, signs and signifiers) that ultimately guide his more comprehensive commentaries on culture, language, meaning and belief. Given Barthes’s academic background, it is no surprise to read the first sentence of his essay and be confronted with a word like “onomastics” (of, relating to, or consisting of a name or names) and the idea that the very phonemes within the riders’ names could correspond to the creation of a certain epic that depicts the Tour. His view begins on the most micro level (what he calls “a kind of phonetic pointillism”), but it is through this very narrow lens that Barthes can point out that, “In the cyclist’s diminutive there is that mixture of servility, admiration, and prerogative which posits the people as a voyeur of its gods.” As always for Barthes, the diminutive (the rider’s name) provides the basis for the much greater, all-inclusive context for the epic, here viewed as the rider as god.
These “gods” are, of course, placed in a particular environment that further defines the epic nature of the Tour. It is this man-versus-nature struggle that we all recognize as significant on a physical level, however Barthes sees an interesting complex of transformative forces within the struggle—all relating to mortality, perception, personification and language:
The Tour’s geography, too, is entirely subject to the epic necessity of ordeal. Elements and terrain are personified, for it is against them that man measures himself, and as in every epic it is important that the struggle should match equal measures: man is therefore naturalized, Nature humanized. The gradients are wicked, reduced to difficult or deadly percentages, and the relays—each of which has the unity of a chapter in a novel (we are given, in effect, an epic duration, an additive sequence of absolute crises and not the dialectical progression of a single conflict, as in tragic duration)—the relays are above all physical characters, successive enemies, individualized by that combination of morphology and mortality which defines an epic Nature. The relay is hairy, sticky, burnt out, bristling, etc., all adjectives which belong to an existential order of qualification and seek to indicate that the racer is at grips not with some natural difficulty but with a veritable theme of existence, a substantial theme in which he engages, by a single impulse, his perception and his judgment.
For Barthes, these are the perpetual conditions of the Tour de France: a kind of continuous integration of “anthropomorphic Nature” (“Nature-as-substance”) with the conscious willingness of man to confront the severity of the landscape in which he inhabits. It is the Tour that shines a light on this rather basic fact—(that we are vitally connected to our own surroundings)—and magnifies its meaning to the level of epic: “Hence, it is the movements of approach to the substance which count: the racer is always represented in a state of immersion and not in a state of advance: he plunges, he crosses, he flies, he sticks, it is his link to the ground which defines him, often in a state of anguish or apocalypse.”
This may be the key difference of the French perspective of the Tour de France, and how the race manages to take dominion not only over its own people and region, but over cycling fans around the world: what we witness over the course of three weeks are various forms of athletic, cultural, psychological, historical, and literary immersion and not simply the advance of riders making their way, stage by stage, to Paris. The non-French media will inevitably comment on the Tour on the level of advance, which is a kind of a paint-by-the-numbers approach that connects together the various pieces of the race once they are played out. This is a view that is essentially static and linear, it draws a line from Passage du Gois to Paris and fills the space between with the ticking of seconds, minutes and hours of the clock. The French perspective may see things differently. Everyone involved in the race, from riders and team directors to media and fans, are themselves also immersed in every detail of the action. And when the riders are not on the road—before or after a stage, or during a rest day—the preparation, strategy, commentary and interest in how things will unfold continues. The nation becomes and lives the race.
And yet there are the inevitable moments of climax within the continuum, what Barthes calls “the strongest personification,” that contain the highest level of meaning. He speaks of the “relay” (stage) of Mt. Ventoux and how it represents this kind of immersion into the Tour as epic:
A veritable Moloch, depot of the cyclists, it never forgives the weak and exacts an unjust tribute of sufferings. Physically, Ventoux is dreadful: bare, bald (stricken with a dry seborrhea, according to L’Equipe), it is the very spirit of the Dry; its absolute climate (it is much more an essence of climate than geological space) makes it into an accursed terrain, a test site for the hero, something like a higher hell in which the cyclist will define the truth of his salvation: he will vanquish the dragon either with the help of a god (Gaul, Phoebus’s friend), or else by a pure Prometheanism, opposing this god of Evil by a still harsher demon (Bobet, Satan of the bicycle).
For Barthes, it’s not just the physical form of the mountain that dominates the stage, but its essence as dry and hellish, and its connection to salvation, survival, and truth that we are most deeply immersed in. The beauty of the Tour is that every stage offers a new collective of essences with which to contend; as riders move through them, we watch to see who will best handle the challenge and emerge in tact, fully alive, fully human. This is the Tour in the mind of the French, specifically in the mind of one French intellectual. Barthes writes:
“The Tour expresses and liberates the French people through a unique fable in which the traditional impostures (psychology of essences, ethics of combat, magism of elements and forces, hierarchy of superman and servants) mingle with forms of a positive interest, with the utopian image of a world which stubbornly seeks reconciliation by the spectacle of a total clarity of relations between man, men, and Nature.”
Another essence, hidden to the eye but nevertheless a relevant factor in determining the outcome of the race, is something Barthes refers to as “jump,” “a veritable electric influx which erratically possesses certain racers beloved of the gods and then causes them to accomplish superhuman feats.” It’s what enables Contador to attack two, three, four times on the steepest climb; it’s what enables Chavanel to somehow hold off the peloton and solo for the stage win. Jump is that quality which allows the rider to “work wonders,” but it can also be easily seen as something else. As Barthes says,“Jump has its parody, which is called doping: to dope the racer is as criminal, as sacrilegious as trying to imitate God; it is stealing from God the privilege of the spark.” Unfortunately, toady it’s the media’s attention to the “parody,” doping, that may largely determine what cycling means to the masses. And now, with Andreau, Landis and Hamilton speaking out about their experiences with Armstrong on U.S. Postal, it will be interesting to see where the sport will lean in future days. In the eyes of those watching, natural ability (jump, the “spark”) versus its parody (doping, the “criminal”): cycling hinges on this critical point.
A complex combination of factors (expression/intention, form/essence, man/nature, attacking/waiting, and natural/artificial), the Tour de France is a language unto itself, a chain of signification, ever evolving, ever changing, taking shape like a novel, toward a final conclusion, sentence and period. The text is there, but so are the many various subtexts—all charged with meaning. Roland Barthes was not the first to write of the Tour’s varied and subtle complexities, but as a French academic and great fan of the sport, his perspective is unique. Written more than 50 years ago, “The Tour de France As Epic” is as valid today as when it was written. Change the names/phonemes to Schleck, Haussler, Hushovd, Contador, Cavendish and Goss. Watch, wait and listen for the essences within the race to reveal themselves. Become immersed. And you may be stepping into the heart of France itself during this year’s Tour de France.