WHILE most of my remarks for This French Life are likely to be about wine and food, surely such an iconic French spectacle as the Tour de France must warrant an exception, writes Vino Veritas.
Many consider the Tour to be the world's greatest single sporting event.
First run in 1903 as a publicity stunt by a newspaper, and with a Paris bar as the starting point, today's Tour attracts 15 million spectators over its three week duration (in a country of 62 million), and additional hundreds of millions of television viewers all around the globe.
The Tour is truly international. Twenty-two teams and riders from 31 countries are participating.
The 2011 Tour began near Nantes on 2 July, and as this article goes to press will continue for another 12 days (each day's race is called a 'stage'), concluding on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Sunday 24 July.
If you live anywhere in southern France, then the Tour is likely to pass within an hour of you sometime over the next two weeks.
Towns that will host the Tour this year over its remaining two weeks include Figeac, Pau, Lourdes, Montpellier, Gap, Saint Gaudens, Limoux, and Grenoble, as well as numerous smaller villages in the Alps and Pyrennes where the race is likely to be won or lost on steep mountain climbs.
While watching the tour on television is quite enjoyable and efficient, with excellent real-time helicopter and motorbike camera coverage, there is nothing quite like seeing the Tour in person.
Yes, the bikers whizz by at an average speed of 40km/h (25mph), and up to 80km/h (50mph) on descents, but seeing the world's greatest athletes in person, if only for a few seconds, is an unforgettable experience.
The other part of the Tour that you enjoy in person but never see on television is the sponsor's caravan that precedes the actual race, dispensing goodies to fans on the sidelines.
Sponsor's vehicles drive along the race route about 30 minutes before the racers pass, laden with samples and handouts which, typically, attractive females toss to the fans.
If you attend the Tour in person, who knows, you may find a coupon fluttering to your feet that adds a tidy sum to your bank account.
If you are tempted to see a stage of the Tour this year, do your planning on the excellent official Tour de France website, which offers both French and English versions and gives details on each day's stage, including route and estimated times of arrival at various milestones.
If television coverage is more appealing, we can happily to report that both French and English TV offer excellent coverage and commentary, which will make you feel like an expert in no time.
Until this year, for the past several years French Tour coverage was led by the legendary French cyclist (and the author's personal favourite French cyclist), the pony tailed Laurent Fignon.
Fignon was the winner of the 1983 and 1984 Tours, but subsequently sidelined by knee problems. After a return to top form in the 1989 Tour, Fignon held a 50 second lead over American Greg LeMond going into the final day's time trial in Paris, only to lose the Tour, by not using the same aerodynamic equipment as Lemond, by a mere eight seconds.
This is the smallest margin ever in Tour history.
Fignon subsequently became perhaps the best known modern day French cycling spokesman, and even though gravely ill gave incredibly insightful commentary throughout the 2010 Tour before passing away from cancer six weeks after last year's race.
Fignon's grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris now receives more visitors than Chopin's or Jim Morrison's.
English television coverage of the Tour is equally renowned, led by the announcer duo of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, who have been providing Tour coverage since the late 1980s.
Both commentators have a keen insight into the intricacies of professional cycling, and set a standard of excellence that their counterparts in football, rugby and cricket can only hope to achieve.
Why is the Tour de France such an epic contest among the world's best athletes? There are no other sporting events where the competitors are subjected to such superhuman challenges day after day for three weeks.
This year's tour covers 3,430km (2131 miles), with the longest daily stage being 226 km/140 miles.
Every day during the race, beginning around lunchtime, the approximately 190 competitors continuously engage for up to six hours in what can only be considered uninterrupted vigorous aerobic activity.
It is not a stretch to compare competing in the Tour to running a marathon every day for three weeks. It is a small wonder that despite a 9,000 daily caloric consumption, the exertion rates are so high that Tour riders typically lose about 3 or 4 kg during the entire race.
While the 190 Tour riders are in theory competing against each other, in practice the organizational structure is much more complicated. Each team has up to nine riders, with one member designated as the team leader.
The team leader is the rider thought to have the best chance of winning the overall Tour. Other team members can be specialists, such as sprinters or time trialists, but the majority are what the French charmingly refer to as domestiques. These riders carry the water bottles and generally support the team leader.
The differences are substantial, and professional bike racing is not exactly egalitarian. A Tour winner can expect an annual salary of in excess of two million euros and additional multiples in sponsorship income, whereas the domestiques earn only around €80,000 for about ten months a year of arduous labour, albeit in a profession they love.
The rider that the popular press refer to as the Tour leader or winner is the wearer of the maillot jaune, or yellow jersey. While this is the rider with the lowest cumulative race time, in fact there are three other competitions within the Tour.
The green jersey is worn by the best sprinter, which is determined by a complex point system. The so-called polka dot jersey, white with red dots, is worn by the best climber, the King of the Mountains, also determined by a seemingly arcane point system.
The all-white jersey is worn by the best young rider, which in cycling means less than 26 years old. So demanding is professional cycling (and difficult on the body) that at an age when tennis players can retire, bike riders are considered to be completing their apprenticeship.
The first week of this year's Tour has been marked by numerous accidents and retirements due to injury, including to several pre-race favourites. Broken collar bones, femurs and pelvises have caused riders to withdraw from the race, and crashes have been caused by spectators, camera motorbikes and even team cars.
The Tour is nothing like the leisurely Sunday bike ride you or I might enjoy.
Although the Tour is France's showcase sporting event, because of its international fame and participation, there has not been a French winner of the yellow jersey since 1985, when the Tour was won by Bernard Hinault.
The French are yearning for a home grown winner, and as of this writing the maillot jaune does indeed rest on the shoulders of a Frenchman, the Alsatian Thomas Voeckler. Every French newspaper heralded him as a FRENCH Tour leader.
With gruelling climbs in the Pyrennes and then the Alps in the two weeks to come, this year's podium finishers in Paris are anyone's guess.
But one thing is crystal clear: if you would like to see daily exhibitions of extraordinary courage, endurance, speed, stamina, heartbreak, exhaustion, drama, and for a lucky few, eventual triumph, then by all means watch this year's Tour de France. There's nothing else like it.
Vino Veritas is a pseudonym for a passionate Francophile, wine collector and foodie currently living in southern France. For purposes of this particular article, Vino Veritas admits to being a mediocre, if passionate, recreational cyclist.
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We did the tour "in person" when it passed near us a year or so back. Yes, I guess, if it comes near you, take a day and "do" it. It's quite fun to see as a spectacle. The "Caravan" with all the fancy-dress cars, freebies being hurled... But don't expect to see much actual racing. After sitting around for a couple of hours waitint for the caravan (if you don't get there that early you won't get a space, and you won't even get in as the roads are closed) then waiting a while longer, then "whazz", that was it, time to go home. :-) IT's a great social event though, everyone's chatty and friendly, including the gendarmes dealing with the road closures etc. Cross your fingers fora nice day however, I should imating it's miserable in the rain.
Posted by: Chris Comley | 13 July 2011 at 10:46
Great article. The Tour is a fantastic spectacle. We take it in every year it comes close enough to us. This year it went through our village of Nouzerines. I've blogged about it. It's definitely something to see at least once when you're in France.
Posted by: Stephanie | 14 July 2011 at 06:23