The Tour’s dirty little secret rears it ugly head
By now, the image is standard on posters in dorm rooms, bike shops and offices all over the western world: The peloton of the Tour de France zooming across the sunlit country roads of France, weaving its way through fields of golden sunflowers; bright, beautiful and precisely the tone of the legendary maillot jaune.
The image is a classic, emoting visions of idyllic country life, families peacefully enjoying France’s spectacular summer, interrupted only by the momentary passing of the world’s greatest bicycle race.
Sadly, a Thursday news conference in Paris underscored just how much of a price France’s rural population has paid to deliver the Tour’s most beloved image to an unsuspecting worldwide audience.
A seemingly innocent offer
Pierre Varineau’s hands shook with anger as he stood at the podium in front a group of reporters at the La Plaisanterie hotel in downtown Paris.
“The promises made have never borne fruit,” Varineau. “We have mortgaged our futures – the futures of our children – and all for what has turned into a painful lie!”
Unfortunately, Varineau’s story is all too common, a tale that dates back some 20 years and exemplifies the tragic collision of French pastoral life with the demands of modern global marketing.
Varineau, now president of Syndicat National des Fermiers , is a tenth-generation farmer from Rieumes, a small village outside of Toulouse.
“Throughout the history of this region, my family has been a known and respected presence,” Varineau said. “My ancestors lived rich and fulfilling lives… that is until ‘The Englishman,’ arrived.”
Varineau said he “still remembers the day like it was yesterday,” a quiet afternoon in the early spring of 1985, when a soft-spoken Englishman, carrying cameras and light meters, arrived on the back of a motorcycle.
“My father and I were preparing the fields for planting,” he recalled. “It was to be a simple crop that year, wheat, some barley and we had plans to flood one field to raise frogs. It was as we had done for centuries.”
But that day, the still unidentified British photographer made an offer Pierre’s father, Jacque, could simply not refuse.
“He offered good money to plant the fields with these flowers – these sunflowers,” Varineau explained. “He said he had an idea for a photograph that would ‘establish a new aesthetic standard’ for sports photography. He gave us the seeds! He paid in cash! He wanted acres and acres of them and they had to be ready and mature by a given day in July.”
“We didn’t see him again until late June,” Varineau said. “He and his driver arrived; he looked at his watch, walked around with a light meter and was gone. In July, we saw him in the fields again on the day the Tour passed right by our front door… and then he was gone.”
It seemed innocent enough until a few weeks later when the Varineau family went out to harvest their “crop.”
“At first we tried to do it by machine,” he said. “The empty film canisters jammed up the gears of the harvester. We had then to do the work by hand. That, too, was a waste.”
Sadly, the seeds, Varineau later learned, were “absolutely inedible and, we soon discovered, sterile, too.”
“Nothing grew,” he proclaimed, “and in the ensuing years the soil itself was worthless. It took nearly a decade before our fields produced even a fraction of their earlier levels. We are at the edge of bankruptcy.”
Varineau’s presentation was then interrupted by Dr. Philippe Farceur, director of the Département de l’Agricole Génétique at the Sorbonne.
“To us it was a complete mystery,” said Farceur. “The flower appeared to be a typical sunflower of the variety Helianthus anomalus. Why would something like this wreak such havoc?”
“It was a mystery that plagued us for these many years,” he added. “Each year, the problem worsened. Each year, more fields died after producing an essentially useless and sterile crop of these ‘sunflowers.’”
Farceur said the laboratory’s first real clue came in the summer of 2002 when a researcher – a dedicated cyclist in his spare time – remarked that the flower of this mystery species happened to resemble the color of the yellow jersey of the Tour de France.
“It was more than coincidence,” Farceur noted. “The color match was exact! Over the ensuing two years we examined in detail the genetic make-up of what we now call Helianthus Magliagiallanus. We also went back and re-traced the infestations. They all mysteriously corresponded to the routes of Le Tour!”
“This species is a remarkable example of genetic manipulation,” Farceur said. “We are barely matching the level of sophistication, even today. Sadly, the science seems much more developed than the ethics that accompany it.”
“The tragedy,” noted Farceur, “is that in order to attain the exact color match, the genetic changes made to the species H. Magliagiallanus also made it especially susceptible to the fungus Sclerotinia. Not only is H. Magliagiallanus susceptible, it serves as growth medium for this devastating pathogen that affects more than 300 plant species. As these ‘yellow jersey’ sunflowers die, the soil is saturated with fungal spores. Other plants die before they have a chance to get beyond germination.”
Farceur said it is unlikely that the developers of the flower variety “had any idea” what they unleashed, “but by now they must know and simply do not care. The posters, the books, the post cards, even coffee cups – all of the images that have resulted from this 20-year-old idea – have spawned a very, very, profitable industry.”
“You never saw an image of the Tour with such flowers before then,” Farceur pointed out. “You never saw Eddy Merckx waltzing through fields of golden flowers… but one can hardly think of Monsieur Armstrong or Indurain or Riis without thinking ‘sunflower.’ Sure, it is beautiful, but at what cost?”
Varineau and Farceur said that their two organizations are embarking on a nationwide campaign to warn farmers about the risks involved in accepting cash, seeds or other considerations to plant flowers along the route of this year’s Tour.
“This year, it may be too late,” said Farceur. “Our only hope now is to discourage planting and work to prevent such abuse in coming years.”
Meanwhile, the mysterious “Englishman” continues to make unexpected appearances across France. Varineau has but an old photo that he snapped with a cheap instamatic nearly a decade ago when he saw him at a bicycle race in Toulouse. Varineau saves the picture only to show others, because, as he says, “the image of the man is burned into my soul. I shall remember him until the day I die.”
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