Le Tour de France is more than a race. It is a lifetime of emotion lived out over three weeks in July, with the vineyards, mountains, rivers, villages, towns, cities and the people of France as the backdrop. At the heart of this spectacle are 198 of the fittest men on the planet willing themselves to victory, or at least to the finish line. It lasts longer than the Olympic Games and this year runs for 3,607 kilometres (2,241 miles) - roughly the distance from Bordeaux to Moscow. Completing it is a feat of emotional and physical endurance, which even American six-time winner Lance Armstrong describes as "a contest of purposeless suffering".
Spend time watching the Tour and you will soon realise it is not a straight dash to the finish line. The yellow jersey which denotes the race leader, will change hands, there are days of bluff and counter bluff and races within races. The favourites don't stick their necks out in the early stages and challenge the pack to follow. They take measure of their rivals, search for their weaknesses, keep in touch with the leaders of the peloton (as the main pack of cyclists is known) and plan their attacks. Each year there are only a few contenders and some of the riders will be hoping for the glory of a stage win or two. The mountain specialists know they are only going to make their presence felt in the thin air of the Alps or Pyrenees, so they'll be competing for the polka dot jersey. The sprinters live for the time trials and compete for the green jersey. Riders under the age of 25 will be fighting it out for the white jersey. The eventual winner has to compete in all sections, although he may only win a few stages. It is the overall time that matters.
The Tour de France started life as a marketing ploy for L'Auto-Velo magazine. In November 1902, L'Auto proprietor Henri Desgrange sat down for a Parisian lunch with two colleagues. By the end of the meal, they had formulated a plan for a crazy road race that would link the major cities in France. Each of the six stages would last about 400km, with a few days off in between each stage. But most importantly, L'Auto would get lots of free publicity and sell extra copies to the cycle-mad populace of France who sought to keep up with the race.
While France was home to plenty of competitive cycling events, there was nothing that compared to the scope of the newly named Tour de France.
Entries to the first race were sluggish, but eight months after the idea was first conceived, 59 riders lined up at the start in Paris and rode off for the first 467km stage to Lyon. Some of the competitors were disqualified for cheating, some gave up and others simply disappeared from the race. Only 21 riders from the original line-up made it back to Paris on July 19. The winner of the inaugural event was the favourite, Maurice Garin of France, who covered the 2,428km in 94 hours, 33 minutes and 14 seconds - three hours ahead of his nearest rival. The race captured the collective imagination of the country from the start and 10,000 spectators turned up to greet the riders at the end of the race. A relieved Henri Desgrange said: "I have dreamed many sporting dreams in my life but never have I conceived of anything as worthy as this reality."
It became an annual fixture of French life, but was suspended between 1915 and 1918, during the First World War, and again between 1940 and 1946 for the Second World War. German occupying forces were keen for the event to continue but Tour organisers decided that the race was a symbol of "peace in July" and suspended it for the duration of the war. On its return, the event became synonymous with the post-war re-construction of France. If the Tour was coming to town, the roads and the infrastructure had to be in good shape to accommodate it.
Noblesse du muscle
It has always been a contest of cyclist against cyclist and man against nature. But, particularly in the early years, the race resembled a battle for survival. Riders had to bump along dirt and cobble-stoned roads, use steel bikes almost 50 per cent heavier than they are today, carry their own spare tyres and even sort out their own punctures. If they reached a mountain and needed to change gear, they had to get off the bike and turn the wheel around. It could take up to 36 hours to complete a stage.
They also had to compete over greater distances. From 1909 the organisers began to crank up the kilometres so that by 1926, riders were expected to complete a 5,745km route. Today's races are usually a distance of 3,500-4,000km.
Despite the spread of tarmac and advances in bike technology, it still takes a certain type of masochist to compete in the Tour. Saddle soreness is the least of it. It's not just a case of survival of the fittest; the ability to push your body, day in, day out through the pain barrier is as much an essential skill as pedalling fast for hours on end. If you have a high-speed pile-up, you just jump back on your bike. Dying on the mountain? Hang on until you reach the top and come down in an ambulance. If you've exhausted your last ounce of energy, you know someone will be there to help you off your bike at the finish line. When you've suffered to your limit, get up the next morning and repeat. Former Tour rider Bob Roll describes it as "three weeks of pulling your brains out with tweezers".
There are 21 stages in the 2005 race, with the longest stage running for 239.5km, but it is the mountain stages where the intensity peaks. On an "easy" day a Tour competitor will use up 6,500 calories - compared with the daily recommended calorie intake for a sedentary man of 2,500. During the mountain stages the riders are burning off around 9,500 calories a day.
Having already ridden for several hours the individual climbs can last for more than 20km and a mountain stage around 200km, with gradients as steep as one in ten.
Even with these imposed hardships, riders still find a way of upping the agony. In 1951, yellow jersey-wearer, Dutchman Wim Van Est fell off his bike twice while negotiating hairpin bends. He was finally finished off by a rock at the bottom of a ravine estimated by one eye-witness to be at least 100m deep. Brit Tom Simpson was similarly foolhardy. The thermometer had hit 100C as he was climbing Mount Ventoux in 1967. He collapsed on his bike but persuaded spectators to help him back in the saddle. He soon keeled over again, dying from a heart attack on the spot - probably induced by the use of amphetamines. In 2003, the "hard man" title went to America's Tyler Hamilton who came fourth despite breaking his collarbone during a collision early in the race. A quarter to a third of riders don't make it to Paris and race lore says that every year on the Tour takes a year off your life.
Esprit de corps
When you consider the ruthless competitiveness and the closeness of some of the races (Greg LeMond won by eight seconds in 1989), it is surprising that the peloton manages to stick to an unofficial code of honour. The rider who fails to follow the rules and respect the ways of the Tour will attract the ire of the knowledgeable spectators and fellow riders. If a contender for the General Classification (first place) falls, instead of taking advantage, the leaders of the pack will stop or slow down until he's back on his bike. If the pack is having a roadside toilet stop, you don't choose that moment to make a break and if a rider is going to be cycling through his home village, why not let him cycle in ahead of the pack if it will have no effect on the outcome of the race? If your closest competitor is showing any general sign of weakness, annihilate him. This chivalry, however, doesn't always extend to the spectators who line the route. By the second Tour in 1904, the behaviour of unruly spectators left race patron Desgrange convinced that it would be the last. Fans were abusive to their favourite's rivals, knife attacks and beatings were planned and nails scattered on the course.
In the 1950s, a strong Italian team of riders incensed local crowds with their dominance. They started by hurling insults. The insults gave way to stones and bottle tops. Finally, close to the finish line, the leader of the Italian pack Gino Bartali was pushed off his bike and the race director had to wade in with his walking stick to restore some sort of order. And there's the sinister tale of Eddy Merckx. In 1975, attempting to win his sixth Tour he was making his way through the Alps when a spectator leapt out and gave him a good whack in the kidneys. He still came second but only medication kept him in the race.
Illegal drugs are an ever-present problem on the Tour and road racing generally. The drug scandal of the Festina team almost ended the Tour in 1998, but doping has been an issue for decades. In 1966 the riders went on strike when Tour organisers introduced random drug tests. The following year, the aforementioned Tom Simpson died with traces of amphetamines in his system. In 1998 drugs were found in a team car driven by a Festina team trainer. Customs officers on the FrenchBelgian border found anabolic steroids, 250 doses of erythropoietin (EPO - a hormone that enhances the transport of oxygen in the blood) and syringes. No one believed him when he said it was for his own personal use. The fall-out almost devastated the Tour with cyclists being jailed, stage cancellations, strikes and six teams eventually withdrawing from the race. Riders are still getting caught and rumours persist, but after the Festina affair the cycling authorities are more rigorous with year-round testing. Scandals are part of the history of the Tour and although its reputation was damaged it survived.
The Tour de France may have started life as a PR stunt but it grew into a national love affair that became a worldwide phenomenon. Images of the hunched and sweaty peloton, as it sweeps down the Champs-lysees or grinds in the shadow of L'Alpe d'Huez is as much a symbol of France as the Tricolore or the Eiffel Tower. Yet despite being the most famous cycle race in the world with estimated TV audiences of two billion and roadside crowds of 12-15 million, winning it won't make a rider rich. For all those miles and mountains, sweat, pain and tears, calories and years of physical and emotional dedication, the winner will receive pound;400,000. That's pound;110 (or pound;73) per kilometre. Thank goodness for that thing called glory.
Tour de France 2005, July 2-24 www.letour.fr
* To get inside the mind of a road racer, read The Rider By Tim Krabbe Bloomsbury pound;6.99
* To keep up with this year's Tour, pick up a copy of Tour de France Companion By Bob Roll and Dan Koeppel Workman pound;7.99
* To become a Tour aficionado, sit down with The Official Tour de France 1903-2004 By L'equipe Orion, pound;16.99 Websites www.tourdefrancenews.com
http:team.discovery.com www.t-mobile-team.comcmstmoteamen www.uci.ch
Engineered for speed - The modern racing bike
the narrow, sharp shape is more comfortable than it looks and is ideal for freer and faster pedalling. riders often have their own individual woven designs in the top of the saddle.
Nob-5 Frames very light but capable of withstanding the huge stresses imparted by riders' powerful legs. a strong steel alloy or aluminium frame is often used for the ordinary flat stages and titanium in the mountains. light carbon fibre frames with moulded aerodynamic profiles are used in the time trials.
a lightweight dual pivot system evens out braking power across both rims.
a humble cable links levers and brakes
20 gears using a derailleur system.
Riders flick shifters inside their brakes to change gears - a safe and quick method.
Racing bikes can cost pound;3,000 or more. With spare machines for a team of nine riders it's an expensive business.
the forks of the bike are a compromise between weight, flexibility and strength. carbon fibre is the favoured construction material, being extremely light, but it also has the disadvantage of being brittle. In the 2001 Giro d'Italia race, one rider's forks snapped completely, hurling him face-first into the ground.
Chain and pedals
The lightweight chains do still snap, so mechanics clean and lubricate them daily. The gear ratios are very different to those found on leisure or mountain bikes - a double chainring at the front delivers twice as many gears.
Feet are attached to the pedals by a system similar to that used by skiers, allowing riders to push a lump of metal or "cleat" on the bottom of their shoe into a slot in the pedal. this helps the rider gain extra power by pulling on the upstroke as well as by pushing down. Feet can be quickly released by twisting the feet out sideways.
Wheels and tyres
Aerodynamic wheels often cost more than pound;1,000 each. A normal bike will have more than 30 spokes but racing bikes have fewer than 20 and you can get wheels with just four. knife-sharp to cut wind resistance, they can cause serious injuries to fingers.
in the event of a puncture the entire wheel and tyre can be replaced in a split second by team mechanics who follow the riders in support vehicles.
The tyres are no more than 2cm wide and inflated to a rock-hard 150 pounds per square inch. the pressure in a family car tyre, by comparison, is approximately 25psi. Damaged tyres (which can cost up to pound;60 each) are thrown away.
HOW TO WIN
It takes a super-fit human, the right tactics and a strong, selfless team to win the Tour de France. There's usually one contender in each nine-man squad and the other riders, who are outstanding competitors in their own right, include a mix of all-rounders, mountain specialists and sprinters, who are there to ensure the number one gets the best shot at the yellow jersey. The climbers will pull their lead rider up a mountain, letting him sit in their slipstream until he has to go it alone, and the sprinters will push him during the time trials.
Then there's the domestiques who do the donkey work such as chasing break-away rivals to try to wear him down, slipping back to the support car to pick up food and water or giving up their bike when their leader has a puncture. The support riders may not win the individual prize, but they can still compete to win the team race.
Everyone in the team will be in constant contact with the race director who will have a television on his dashboard keeping them up to date with race situation. The riders don't just act on gut instinct, they'll be taking instructions through tiny earpieces or, at least, advice from the director who can see the whole picture. The riders are also wired so that their individual performances can be monitored as the race progresses with everything from their heart rate, speed and power output available onscreen for analysis. Alongside the race director, there is a mechanic, a roof stacked with spare bikes and a backseat laden with energy drinks and power bars. The rest of the back up team which travels behind by coach includes trainers, a team doctor, masseuse and cook.
Titans of the Tour
Maurice Garin (pictured right) won the first Tour by winning three of the six stages. He claimed the yellow jersey again in 1904, however, the French cycling union later disqualified him for breaking race regulations. The race was handed to his fellow countryman, Henri Cornet.
Until 1923, most winners came from France, Belgium or Luxembourg. The Italians began to make an impression in the late 1920s with Swiss, Spanish and Dutch riders occasionally taking the honours. The European stranglehold was ended by American Greg LeMond, in 1986, who went on to win three times.
While France still claims the highest number of Tour winners (36), the last national winner was Bernaud Hinault in 1985. Despite attempts to create routes that play to the weaknesses of the previous year's winner, since 1989 the Tour has been dominated by Greg LeMond, Spaniard Miguel Indurain and American Lance Armstrong, who have taken 13 of the 16 titles.
Lance Armstrong (bottom) has won an unrivalled six Tours and will be attempting to win his seventh and final race this month. Like most modern-day contenders, the Texan devotes his life to one race and doesn't compete seriously in any other major event.
Eddy Merckx (left) from Belgium is considered the greatest rider of all time. In his heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s he won four cycling world championships, 32 international classics, 17 six-day trials, broke the hour distance record (49.431km), was Tour and Giro d'Italia winner five times apiece, and won 34 Tour stages in comparison to Armstrong's 23.
Six-time winner Lance Armstrong, USA 1999 to 2004
Five-time winners Jacques Anquetil, France 1957, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964
Eddy Merckx, Belgium 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974
Bernard Hinault, France 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985
Miguel Indurain, Spain 1991 to 1995