So, another Tour de France is on the road – pedaling fools racing madly, unflaggingly, for the greater glory of things you never manage to find in the supermarket at home.
It wasn’t me who first called them pedaling fools, by the way. It’s a long-known term here in Europe. And it was Henri Desgrange, back before World War I, who first talked of riders racing madly and unflaggingly.
But forget the start. That’s happened. Think instead of the finish. If you’ve been in cycling for just the past couple of decades, for you the Tour has always finished on the Champs Elysées. I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the time being ask yourself why the world’s greatest bike race, on the world’s loveliest avenue, should make a dead turn round a heap of ugly, plastic traffic barriers. Why doesn’t it make a more spectacular sweep round the Arc de Triomphe a little farther up the road?
Well, the explanation involves a Russian princess, a petulant policeman, school games lessons, a president of the republic, the Bouygues Télécom team, a daydream, and a television news reader. And now we reel back time a bit…
Paris has a ring road, the périphérique. You may have suffered the near-permanent traffic jams there. In one of its many dives through tunnels, you may glimpse a concrete soccer and rugby stadium ringed in barbed wire. The stadium is the Parc des Princes, the name it had when it was a pink-topped bike track. The Tour de France finished there every summer until, against the will of the Tour, which believed it owned it but found out that it didn’t, it was pulled down to make room for the périph and the soccer ground.
Raymond Poulidorwas the last man to win a race on it. His final stage in the 1967 Tour confirmed a death warrant already delivered. Roger Pingeon, who had won overall, pulled on his yellow jersey in a stadium in which demolishers had already started work.
Paris pulled down the track because a lawyer had found that back in the 19th century the agreement letting the Tour company run the stadium included a condition that local children would have free use of it on Thursday afternoons. If that was the case, Paris claimed in court, the Tour was neither owner nor tenant. An owner or tenant had exclusive use of what he rented. This was just a concession to use the land. The Tour de France could be thrown out without a sou being paid.
Appeal judges could see the legal argument. The Tour lost and Francis Bouygues and his bulldozers turned the Parc des Princes into the foundations of the new stadium. The track’s shareholders got not a centime in damages.
The Tour moved to the Cipale track in the woods of Vincennes, adequate but a shadow of what it deserved. It stuck with that from 1968 to 1974.
The Tour dreamed of better, of course. The co-organizer, Félix Lévitan, said: “I enjoyed getting out a big map of central Paris and designing a route that went up the Champs Elysées, went round the Étoile [the traffic circle with the Arc de Triomphe at its centre], came back down the Champs, then round Quais, turning at city hall before returning by the rue de Rivoli.”
The fact that the race makes a U-turn on the Champs Elysées and that the Arc de Triomphe isn’t on the circuit comes from petulance and a power struggle.
Lévitan mentioned his idea to Yves Mourousi, a TVnews presenter and a loverof the spectacular. His background perhaps informed his tastes. His mother was Princess Mourousi of Russia, a woman who fled the Communists and moved to Paris before the war. The Germans locked her up as an enemy alien, and she gained her liberty by denouncing Jews and other Russian emigrants. She ended up living on charity in a home for the down-and-out.
Mourousi survived this notoriety and was looking for ways to make television more exciting. Lévitan explained his dream. Mourousi was interested. He saw professional gain in it and he went to talk to the head of police, Jean Paolini. “You realize you’re proposing clogging up the traffic of all central Paris?” Paolini scoffed. Paris is an ancient city with appalling traffic.
Mourousi was set back but not defeated. One of his next broadcasting jobs was a horse competition at the Porte de Versailles. There he found himself next to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the French president. Almost as an aside, he asked about the Tour finishing on the Champs Elysées rather than a run-down municipal track in the suburbs.
“And perhaps you would honor us by presenting the winner’s yellow jersey in the world’s greatest avenue?” Mourousi added, now claiming the race as his own and knowing no politician would turn down the chance for publicity standing before the triumphs of his nation.
Giscard arranged for him to see his interior minister, Michel Poniatowski. And Poniatowski, a Giscard loyal, agreed. Mourousi went back to Paolini, the head policeman, and told him he’d been outranked. Unable to countermand the President, Paolini stormed: “Well, very well, then. But on condition you don’t go round the Arc de Triomphe.”
Negotiation is everything, and so to this day the world’s biggest bike race makes a dead turn around plastic traffic barriers instead of a majestic sweep around the Arc.
Of the men who made it happen, only Giscard d’Estaing is still alive. He is now an elderly politician, one of the so-called Immortals who slowly define the French language at the Académie Française. That day in Paris, he enjoyed himself so much that, in 1986 after he’d left the presidency, he followed the Tour up the Puy-de-Dôme on the back of a motorbike. He did it without a helmet, leading the head of the Gendarmerie, a man called Grandchamps, to debate if he had the nerve to halt a former president and hand him a ticket.
Lévitan died in 2007, his fellow organizer Jacques Goddet in 2000; Mourousi was just 45 when he died in 1998. Michel Poniatowski died in 2002.
Between them, though, they didn’t leave too bad a legacy, did they?