The Tour de France: a French institution. Visit and you'll soon find out why...

 
Oliver Gill
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Pictures tell the story - the country, the pain (Contador) and the victory (Cavendish) (Source: Getty)

It is carnival time in Normandy. Yes, France is still hosting the football European Championships, but many believe there is no sporting event that captures the hearts and minds of the French public better than the Tour de France.

The event isn’t just a bicycle race. Aside from being pinnacle of professional racing, it gives the opportunity for the French to show-off their country in the full the glare of the world’s media.

As has been a tradition for a number of years, the first three stages (known as the Grand Depart) take place in the same area. This year it is the turn of the La Manche region in western Normandy - an area famed for its milk production and cattle rearing, as well being a area steeped in World War Two history.

The week leading up to the start of the Tour de France is laden with the kind of razzmatazz that divides the opinion of visitors. This year, for example, there were somewhat bemused faces on the riders as they were transported to the presentation stage on Thursday evening in military vehicles, a nod to the D-Day landings and the fact that the first stage finished at Utah Beach.

Injecting the festivities with a hearty dose of banality, the team press conferences run on the Thursday and Friday before the Saturday start. These are fairly prosaic affairs with little that can be gleaned from the riders. Benign questions are countered with pre-rehearsed responses.

Without exception, nearly all the riders reference a desire to “get through the first week” unscathed. The first seven days are well-known for crashes as the peloton travels at higher speeds over comparatively flat stages. But this knowledge has led in recent years to a strange self-fulfilling predicament.

The teams know that the safest place to be is at the front of the peloton. If they are anywhere else in the bunch when there is a crash, then the concertina effect means they are likely to hit the deck, or at best, get stuck behind and have to wait. This leads to a frustrating and ironic situation. Many riders push to get to the front of the group. The result? There are more riders moving round and the pace is driven up, making everything even more dangerous and increasing the chance of a crash in the first place.

This year, the first stage of the 3,500 km journey starts in picturesque Mont-Saint-Michel - an island commune dating back to the eighth-century. With a registered population of just 44 people, the town is located 600 metres from the mainland and can only be accessed by a newly re-opened causeway - completed in 2014 at a cost of €209 million.

So where better to kick off what many consider as a three week advertisement for France than against such a picture-postcard backdrop?

Often the Tour de France eases into things with a short time trial or prologue that runs to just a handful of kilometres. But this year we are straight into the action with a 188 km flat stage to Utah Beach. In fact it isn’t lost on the riders how much distance is to be covered in the first week - 1,400km to be precise - meaning that 40 per cent of the total race distance is covered in just a third of the time.

While the riders roll out, so the wheels are set in motion for those that follow it. There are some 3,000 accredited journalists, photographers, VIPs and marketing representatives that follow the Tour.

Despite living out of a suitcase, dotting between numerous hotels and being among the action for three weeks, many journalists at the Tour spend their time watching it on a TV screen in the dedicated press tents rather than waiting on the finish line.

Yesterday in the tents, ‘oohs’ emanate from a Spanish contingent of journalists as Alberto Contador crashed with 70 km to go, while the British media let out a cheer in seeing Mark Cavendish cross for the line for his 27th career stage win.

But the French general public celebrate Cavendish’s victory not simply because of who has won a the stage.

Naturally, the home crowd would prefer to have one of their 37 riders in the race to be the stage winner; but in a way, the person who crosses the line is almost secondary to a greater the pride of being the host of such an event.

You can see the pride on the expectant faces of the crowds that line the length of the course. Stray off the course and there is no-one on the roads that run adjoin the route. Local shops are shut. Nearby towns are deserted.

The fact that the race is underway is sufficient for celebration. A nation is ready to show-off its wares - not in an arrogant or domineering way but one that is underpinned in pride for history and tradition.

And it is for this reason that the Tour de France is so ingrained into the national psyche of the French public and why one wonders whether the European Championships could really ever match it - it really is ‘their’ Tour.

It was with a heavy heart that I left festivities on Utah Beach and headed back to the UK yesterday. But I will be rejoining the festivities from 12 July to give you some more insight into what is going on behind the scenes at the most famous bicycle race in the world.

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