The Tour as a Cultural Artifact

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07/9/2004| 0 comments
by David Cohen

The Tour as a Cultural Artifact

The Tour is a sort of epic poem that annually increases in length with each new race.

The Tour de France begins with a ?prologue,? a fancy term for preface or introduction.  Tour publicists, beginning with Henri Desgrange, have always tended to a high-blown style.   <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /?>

 

But there may be some justification in invoking a literary device at the start of every Tour.   The Tour de France is a bicycle race that resembles a long-running story, a sort of epic poem that annually increases in length with each new race.

 

New heroes come to the fore, but the old ones are not forgotten.   (Witness this year?s homage to Raymond Poulidor.)   Incidents from races that took place in the earliest years of the race ? for example, the story of Eug ?ne Christophe and his bike woes ? get told over and over again.

 

Roland Barthes (1915-80), the great critic, was a French intellectual who took the Tour seriously as a cultural artefact.   In the mid-1950?s he wrote an essay with the title ?The Tour de France as Epic.?   It remains one of the best appreciations of Tour?s significance beyond its importance as a mere sporting event.

 

The Tour is an epic, Barthes wrote, because its very route ? its geography ? is ?entirely subject to the epic necessity of ordeal.?

 

?The Tour ?possesses a veritable Homeric geography.   As in the Odyssey, the race is here both a   [circuit] of ordeals and a total exploration of the earth?s limits.   Ulysses reached the ends of the Earth several times.   The Tour, too, frequently grazes an inhuman world: on Mont Ventoux . . . the racers have already left the planet earth, encountering here unknown stars.   By its geography, the Tour is thus an encyclopaedic survey of human space?.

 

Barthes had a rather interesting take on form, still invoked as the quality that determines a rider?s strength and hence his performance.   Barthes defined it as a ?state more than an impulse, a privileged equilibrium between quality of muscles, acuity of intelligence, and force of character.?  

 

But he contrasted form with what he called jump ? ?a veritable influx which erratically possesses certain racers beloved of the gods and then causes them to accomplish superhuman feats.   Jump implies a supernatural order in which man succeeds insofar as a god assists him?.?

 

Jump?One thinks of the Eddy Merckx in 1969 when he won the Tour by more than 17 minutes. Or of Lance Armstrong on the Pyrenean climb of Hautacam in 2000, when he put his main rivals well behind him in the general classification.

 

But Barthes pointed to another, not-so-nice side of jump:   ?Jump has a hideous parody, which is called doping:  to dope the racer is as criminal, as sacrilegious as trying to imitate God; it is stealing from God the privilege of the spark.?

 

Barthes added ominously (well before, incidentally there were doping tests):   ?God . . . knows how to take revenge on such occasions.?

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