Monday, July 05, 2004

The three most important worldwide sports events are: the Olympic Games, the Soccer World Championship and the… Tour de France. Now, while this Tour de France has for most of its existence been an almost purely European event, over the past decade it has won worldwide acclaim because of its growing appeal to truly international sportsmen. So today’s Tours not only attract German, British and Italian champions but also Colombians, Australians, Uzbekistans, Russians and… Americans. I would be very surprised if none of you have not heard yet of your Champ Lance Armstrong, fivefold Tour Winner and as such an enigma, since such an honour was till now only reserved to, ahem, my compatriot Eddy Merckx. Believe it or not, but your Lance has a Belgian teamleader, Johan Bruyneel, whose deputy, Geert Duffeleer, happens to be a client of mine. Lance's US Postal Team has its car park in Brakel, a small town some 15 kloms from where I live.

This years’ Tour, which started last Saturday, will show us whether Lance will break Eddy’s record. Now for a little bit of history:

The Tour de France was the brainchild of a velodrome champion turned editor-of-a-cycling magazine Henri Desgranges and his chief cycling reporter Georges Lefevre, who are said to have had the following conversation at the turn of the 20th Century.

Credit for devising the actual idea appears to have come from the journal's chief cycling reporter, 26-year old Georges Lefèvre. He suggested to Desgrange, "a several-day race, longer than anything now going on, something more on the order of a track six day race, only this time on the road. All the major towns are begging for cycle races, and they are bound to go along with the idea".

- "If I understand you rightly, Géo", someone said, "you are proposing a cycling Tour de France."
- "Well, why not?", replied Lefèvre.

Thus the idea was born.

The very first Tour de France took place between July 1 to July 19 1903 and promised a five francs per day living allowance to the first fifty riders and upped the prize money to 20,000 francs. 60 riders rose to the challenge; 21 were sponsored, the other 39 a rag-bag of the poor, the unemployed and the plain adventurous. It was won by a fellow named Maurice Garin.

Folks, 1903 is a long time ago and a discussion of how the Tour de France became, well, The Tour de France over the decades would push the Fourth of July too much to the background. Suffice to say you can find it all here.

Basic Tour de France 101 is that during three weeks almost every day a ride, typically 200 km long, is undertaken. In doing so, the caravan ventures pretty much in a circular movement around France. Most of the time it’s from point A to B, e.g. this year’s ride Amiens-Chartres (200,5km); sometimes it’s from point A back to A, e.g. the July 24 Besançon/Besançon ride, which is an individual timerun. Famous cyclists throughout the 20th Century were Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Poulidor (nicknamed the Eternal Second) and Jacques Anquetil. I would almost forget your compatriot Greg Lemond, who introduced the US to the Tour. Dreaded are the cols, steep rides in Frances Pyrenées or Alps (e.g. Alpe d’Huez might ring a bell even in Maine).

Now, why do I tell you all this? Well, this year the famed Tour de France will pass right through my hometown Geraardsbergen. You may wonder whether France has annexed Belgium in some sneak attack, since the Tour de France is supposed to be held in… France, right? Well, although the CESM’s would actually like very much to attach our prosperous kingdom to Chiracland, sans King of course, no, that hasn’t happened yet. Also the mighty Belgian Army would see to it that never happens. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for the Tour, which lasts three weeks, to hop on occasion into a neighbouring country, e.g. Italy or Belgium. Well, The Tour de France 2004 actually started on Saturday, July 3rd, in the eastern Belgian city of Liège. It spends no less than four days on Belgian soil and becomes a truly French Tour tomorrow, Tuesday… but not before passing through the place where your servant spent the first, extremely exciting part of his hitherto fabulous life – Geraardsbergen. See the map below. You will also notice that Tuesday’s ride starts in… Waterloo, where Nappie got clobbered.

3rd ride Tour de France/Belgium

Why does the Tour honor Geraardsbergen on its passing? Well, my hometown sports a low hump, called the Oudenberg (literally translated as Mountain of the Elders), 111m above sea-level. With the town center at 30m height on average, this does not seem to make for an impressive climb… were it not that the last part of the slope, called “De Muur” (The Wall) leading to the Oudenberg’s summit is a 20% climb over not really inviting cobblestones.

The dreaded

The pic below shows a former German champ, Baldinger, member of the Deutsche Telekom Team.

Maoist politicians

Anyway, so tomorrow the whole circus storms through the place where I was born and raised. Unfortunately, since I have to maintain the welfare state, I will not be able to view the spectacle. But I will keep you updated on tomorrow's events, Inshallah. And of course we have rendez-vous on Sunday July 25th, when the Tour comes to an end on the Champs Elysées in Paris and when we will know whether Mr. Armstrong will have made history by being the first person ever to win the Tour de France 6 times.

No comments: