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  • Vacation Notes: Haute-Tech in the Hautes-Montagnes
  • Jim English

Even to a fan like me, the Tour de France seems a pretty weird sporting event. By the standards of contemporary spectator sport, there is something almost laughable in a three-week-long bicycle race that is so elaborately staged and involves so much apparatus and so many people, yet offers so few moments of real excitement. Race organizers are aware of this, and have lately been attempting to bring the event better into line with the contemporary sporting scene. But to judge by this year’s Tour, which two friends and I followed during its final week through the Pyrenees, these attempts to improve or normalize the race are only making it stranger. While we certainly enjoyed the race as a race, we found ourselves enjoying it even more as a sort of comedy of cultural contradictions. The recent efforts to “modernize” what remains basically an old-world, pain-oriented, macho sport (its traditional off-season counterpart is boxing) have created some bizarre incongruities. The commercial packaging and the “look” of the Tour have been dramatically altered by the introduction of new technologies, but the mythology of the sport, along with the activity itself—the actual physical demands made on competitors—have scarcely changed since the turn of the century. More and more one is confronted with disconcerting asymmetries between the “modernized” Tour de France and a cycling culture whose material and mythological elements resist modernization.

One such material element is the bike rider’s derriere. For the second year in a row, an apparently secure victory was imperilled in the closing days by a saddle boil, reminding everyone that despite impressive recent developments in clothing and hygiene technologies, there has been little success in containing eruptions of the lower bodily stratum: a rider’s sore bottom can still become the focal point and the decisive factor of the whole colossal production. It’s easy to be misled in this regard by today’s aerodynamic, miracle-fiber uniforms, which have a cleaner, zippier look than the old suits and, with their shiny surfaces, make far more effective billboards for team sponsors. But the fact is that inside this state-of-the-art gear there is not only perspiration, blood, and puss but also sometimes urine and even diarrhea. Seven consecutive hours of racing will induce unhappy effects in even the best dressed of competitors.

Like the uniforms, the bikes too keep getting sleeker, more reliable, more specialized and rational in design. But this only accentuates the extreme unreliability of the riders, who this year seemed more than ever uncertain of their abilities and confused about their roles. Consider Claudio Chiappucci, a second-rank rider for the struggling Carrera Jeans team. Judged a non-contender, Chiappucci was permitted a substantial lead on the opening stage, and then spent the entire race losing time to rivals while hurling insults at them for lacking his “panache.” Yet this apparent mediocrity held on for an impressive second place and very nearly became the first rider in modern times to “steal” a Tour de France. Pre-race favorite Raul Alcala, a brilliant natural climber, was all bulked up this year to improve his strength on the flats. His weight training seemed to be paying off, and for the first week everyone was in awe of the new, more muscular Alcala. But as soon as the race hit the mountains, this aura of invincibility dissolved and, as one rider remarked at Mont Blanc, Alcala suddenly just seemed “big and slow like a dirigible.” The other rider who came to the race with a new and more robust physique was defending champion Greg LeMond. But in this case no one was intimidated by the extra poundage. With his cutting-edge aerodynamic equipment and flawless position on the bike, the blimp-like LeMond had been a comical sight all season, putting in performances that can only be described as embarrassing. “I worry more about my grandmother,” 1987 Tour winner Stephen Roche said at one point this spring. Yet LeMond proved against all evidence to be the fittest rider in the race, and produced a beautifully economical victory...

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