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Analysis: Tour historian Christopher Thompson reflects on 110 years of French culture

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Jan. 11, 2013
  • Updated Oct. 30, 2014 at 1:35 PM EST
The Tour's relationship with technology has changed from visionary to conservative since 1903. Photo: AFP

Spurning technology

In 1993 and 1994 Thompson spent a year in Paris as assistant and speechwriter to the U.S. ambassador to France. That was during the reign of Miguel Indurain, and Thompson recollects that while the Tour did not play a role in the everyday Franco-American affairs, the race’s presence was there, thanks to Greg LeMond’s historic first-American Tour victories. He often had meetings at the ambassador’s residence near the French president’s palace, and Thompson recalls walking into the cobblestone courtyard at the entrance of the mansion where high up on the right is a painting of a cyclist in a yellow jersey that was hung after LeMond won the Tour.

LeMond’s use of aero bars to help him snatch victory from Frenchman Laurent Fignon at the 1989 Tour introduced an era of rapid technological advancement in high-level cycling. This is also theme that plays a significant role in Thompson’s research.

In “The Tour de France,” Thompson discusses Desgrange’s paradoxical dedication to both adopting industrial-era scientific progress and his adoration of ox-like human performances. Though it was invented in 1887, Desgrange banned the derailleur from the Tour until 1937. He scolded the riders to “leave gear changes to women and the old, you are the kings, the giants of the road, you must vanquish the obstacles with which it confronts you by your means alone, without recourse to subterfuges unworthy of you.”

Thompson says Desgranges, “in his determination to make the Tour as hard as possible and the racers ‘legitimate’ — in his mind — heroic models, especially for French boys and young men, denied racers a well-established technology for three-and-a-half decades.”

While today these types of stresses manifest themselves as struggles between UCI caution and technological advancements (such as constraints on frame weights, seat angles, disc brakes, radios, and on-board cameras), the incongruous rejection of popular mechanical advancements has been an element of the Tour from day one. Thompson writes that “the tension between advances that made cycling easier and the need to preserve the Tour’s unmatched difficulty would repeatedly confront the organizers, sponsors, racers, and media.”

At the close of the 19th Century, the bicycle represented the promise of industrial era; it could be mass produced, was obtainable on proletarian wages, and made the compression of distance accessible not just to those wealthy enough to afford horse and carriage (or the still-rare automobile), but to an unprecedented spectrum of social classes and genders.

“By 1909 one could purchase a new Clément bicycle in the northern mining community of Longwy-Bas for 150 francs and a used one for only 50,” Thompson writes. “Even the humble workers and junior shop clerks, who were unlikely to make less than five francs a day, could now afford a bicycle.”

The bike was very much “an emblem of modernity.”

This was also a time when the scientific management and efficiency theories of American Frederick Winslow Taylor were creating a buzz among Industrial Revolution managers in Europe. Racing observers were fascinated by the applicability of these exciting mass-production methods to riders. In his book, Thompson refers to French writer Colette’s 1913 description of racers in locomotive terms, with legs as “two minuscule and indefatigable connecting rods which suffice to move this mechanical tempest.”

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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