Zoe Williams on The Tour de France starting in England

London Cyclist columnist, Zoe Williams - so the Tour de France is kicking off in England  again - but should we view this as strange?

The Tour de France is coming to Leeds. Going through Yorkshire, maxing out at Hebden Bridge, whistling through Cambridge and proceeding — probably not down the M11, but I could be wrong — through London, past the Olympic Park, to the Mall. I went up to Leeds to do some ‘vox popping’ about the event, which isn’t til 2014, but was announced last month.

A vox pop, as I’m sure you know, involves going up to a stranger and asking them a question that they’re almost never expecting, and as a result usually don’t understand first time. Then you have to ask it a second and maybe third time, by which time its sheer inanity bellows out into the world like a gunshot across an empty sky. “What do you think of the Tour de France, starting outside your town hall?” “Er, well, that sounds quite nice...”

It is commonly agreed by the people who do this that you have to be pretty young, like, almost a teenager, to get away with it: when you’re nearly 40, people assume you’re from the Inland Revenue, or you’re going to ask them to set up a direct debit for street children. And yet, here I am, outside Leeds town hall, asking people what they think of the Tour de France. Most people think it sounds quite nice.

Then someone sounds a note of suspicion. “How come they’re having it here anyway?” asked Sarah. “Isn’t it meant to be a tour de France?” What I loved most was her tone of voice; it wasn’t questioning, so much as, “let’s keep our wits about us here, people… they say they’re coming for a cycling competition, who’s to say they’re not going to invade on the way out?”

It is strange, you’ve got to admit; it would be like us having part of the Jubilee in Limoges, or maybe the after-party of the royal wedding in Aix. I’m not saying those would have been bad decisions. They probably would have had better weather, but it would also have been slightly weird.

The truth is, however, the Tour is no longer French. The French don’t mind that it’s no longer French, because the reason is that it’s the tops, it’s the tower of Pisa, it’s the smile on the Mona Lisa (which actually is still French); once you reach the pinnacle of sporting endeavour, you transcend national borders. The Yellow Jersey is the world’s prize and the battle for it could commence anywhere.

Le Tour in Leeds?
The route was announced in the middle of January, the night before Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was about to air. Opinion in Leeds (I know, I’ve asked them all, three times) is divided about Armstrong and the tour. Did he bring it into disrepute? Or was his dishonesty his own business, and the sport just another of his victims, alongside an unsuspecting fanbase and an exploited sponsor list? (I feel least sorry for the sponsors, maybe because they are the most vocal on how their trust was abused; as they always say about acting, you get most sympathy when you don’t ask for it).

One of the voices of Leeds (a guy called James, who works for Evans Cycles; I must commend this shop, by the way, everybody in it knew a heap about cycling) said that the economics of professional cycling were unlike any other sport. Basically, the whole thing is just a rolling advert. It makes sense with the caravan — a three-mile procession of advertisers’ floats and which you really couldn’t miss — but it makes no sense at all with the competition itself, wherein the advertisers spend millions plastering their names onto the bodies of men going so fast that they’re basically just a blur. And yet, the faster they go, the more the advertisers want to advertise on them, so there’s this mind-frying contradiction at the heart of the sport, where ultimate visibility comes from being practically invisible.

Paradoxes like that are enough to drive anybody to drugs, though in fairness, if you’re looking for mental peace from a conundrum, there are better drugs to take than those that boost your red blood cell count. I don’t think Armstrong did shame the sport, I think the opposite happened — that, in abasing himself to win this competition, he boosted its claim to be truly global. He was an American superstar and yet he trashed his own good name, for a competition halfway across the world, which most people don’t understand the rules of. Whatever you think of him, you
have to admit that’s pretty cool for the Tour. It’s like Marilyn Manson turning up to your birthday party. Ok, so maybe the police get involved… it’s still a good birthday. Anyway, welcome, International Tour de France; welcome to London (via Leeds).

Zoe Williams is a freelance journalist and columnist who contributes regularly to publications including The Guardian and New Statesman

This article first appeared in the Feb-Mar 2013 issue of London Cyclist magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months