The first day of the Tour de France. In times past, when our children were at school, our holidays were taken for the month of August and Le Tour was a countdown to our departure. Perhaps it was a sense of anticipation that invested the race with a sense of mystique, each stage bringing the reality of France bathed in August sunshine a day closer, but there was always something more.
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 no question of being an aspirant racer. Even in teenage years, a decade 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 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. Perhaps France was a no happier place, hadn’t it had its own problems in 1968? But for someone growing up in a small rural 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.
Moving to Ireland in 1983 and holidaying in France for the first time in 1986, the triumph of Ireland’s Stephen Roche in 1987, made the Tour an event that was both of “local” interest and recalled summer weeks away. Channel 4’s coverage brought into our living room glimpses of places we would never see in our 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.
Thirty years on and France has not lost any of its mystique, there is still a scanning of the ITV 4 schedules to check Tour de France coverage. 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. All that would be needed to recapture the feelings it evoked forty years ago would be the name of Barry Hoban among the stage winners.