Missing bicycles

There were withdrawal symptoms today.

The past three weeks have been filled with the Tour de France. If time permitted, I would go into Steve, my colleague’s classroom at the end of the school day. He would open the ITV hub on his desktop computer and switch on his media projector and we would spend half an hour drinking tea and watching the progress of the cycling. The Champs Elysees were reached yesterday and our viewing has come to an end.

I’m not even sure how I developed an interest in the Tour de France. It was hardly an interest in cycling itself. Never possessing more than a pushbike that might manage twelve miles an hour, going downhill with a following wind, there was never a question of being an aspirant racer.

Even in teenage years in the 1970s, a decade or so before a British television channel would bring evening by evening reports of the race, Le Tour had a fascination that was difficult to explain. Reports were not plentiful, sometimes it was necessary to scan columns of miscellaneous sports results to discover how Barry Hoban was faring (never once having seen live coverage of Hoban did not mean he wasn’t a heroic figure).

Perhaps if the race had been through another country, it would not have possessed such a capacity to fascinate, but it was France. The country through which the peloton rode for three weeks was a place altogether different from the dull England of the 1970s in which I lived.

Perhaps France was not a happier place than England. Hadn’t it had its own problems in 1968? But for someone growing up in a small rural Somerset community distant from the nearest city and without a hope of travel, France represented a glamour and a sophistication and a quality of life of which we could only dream.

Holidays in France from 1986 onward prompted a greater interest. Channel 4’s thirty minute daily coverage brought glimpses of places never seen on brief visits. The extensive live coverage of more recent times, with kilometre after kilometre of Gallic landscapes, towns and villages, would have seemed like a holiday video recording of roads travelled.

Fifty years after the racing days of Barry Hoban, the Tour de France has not lost any of its mystique. The race passes through some of the most outstandingly attractive parts of the country and the television coverage, which includes aerial views, captures a France of the imagination. Even now, it seems a place that is different.

For three weeks, that different place was not so far away.

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