France's tour de force


Jane Shortallswells with pride when the Tour de France comes past her village in the foothills of the Pyrenees each year

THE GREATEST cycle race on earth takes place each July. I live in the Couseran hills, the foothills of the Pyrenees, so I get to see all the colour and excitement of the Tour de France when it comes through our department every year.

We are one of the smallest departments in France, but Ariège Pyrénées has one obvious big advantage: no matter what route the race takes – and it changes each year – at some point the cyclists must tackle the high cols of the Pyrenees.

The Tour comes through the little town of St Girons, out past our hamlet in the hills and on to one of the most daunting stages of the race, riding in temperatures quite possibly up in the high 30s.

Huge numbers of race followers in camper vans drive up and stay at the high levels, in fierce heat, to cheer on the riders as they battle their way up the high cols, a spectacular part of the challenge. It is on this gruelling stretch that the strongest and the most powerful climbers excel. As they cycle higher and higher on one of the most demanding, seemingly endless sections we can only wonder at their strength, their sheer courage.

The countryside here is spectacular, and the TV commentators almost run out of superlatives to describe the untamed beauty of the Ariège Pyrénées. Now that I feel this is my area I swell with pride on the day the stage comes through our department. It’s a very special feeling when the helicopters are overhead and we know that our little quartier will be one of the sights on that day’s TV coverage, as it is relayed to millions.

The race is covered live on French TV; for three weeks it is difficult to resist watching some of the world’s fittest men compete for the yellow jersey. But the cycling is only one aspect of it. Yes, the riders are brave, fearless even, and glamorous, but the French countryside is a star of the show, too: the picturesque villages and towns, every lamp post and roundabout decorated with flowers; sometimes a long stretch of palm-fringed coast road with the sea sparkling in the background; great swathes of pastoral countryside; the fabulous chateaux of the Loire Valley, with its huge tracts of ancient hunting forests; the vineyards in so many parts of the country; fields of yellow sunflowers against a blue sky; and France’s network of canals and rivers all make for enthralling viewing, especially on afternoons too hot to be outside. All this beauty for weeks before the stunning finish, with Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, as the backdrop.

The Tour de France brings an upbeat festival atmosphere not only to each area it comes through but to the whole country. In the weeks before the start the papers were full of stories telling us not to mind the weather – it was awful – to forget the financial crisis, put our problems aside: the Tour is coming. And it’s true: it lifts the spirits. Vast numbers of people line the route as the cyclists come pedalling through the towns and villages.

People living along the route organise lunch parties in their gardens or picnics in fields along the way, making a day of the event, even though the riders actually flash by.

It doesn’t matter. The publicity caravan, an enormously popular part of the event, arrives anything up to two hours ahead of the race. It is a wonderful multicoloured procession of 180 vehicles, and it takes 45 minutes to pass. The giveaways – hats, whistles, food, toiletries, sweets, huge gloves, small toys – all add to the gaiety of the day.

Knowing how much I love it all, an old madame asked me what more I could want in life: good food, good wine every day and, in July, the Tour de France. I couldn’t help but agree.