The winner of the Tour de France gets the yellow jersey. He gets money, endorsements and the praise of cycling's worldwide fans. And, as millions of male viewers look on and envy the charisma of that skinny little guy, he gets a kiss from the podium girls.
Actually, he gets anywhere from two to four kisses from each of the two beauties who stand next to him on the podium. They also zip him into his jersey and hand him flowers and a stuffed animal, like he's a kid in a hospital. And they clap and smile beatifically, noses level with his armpits, as the man who has just finished racing more than 100 miles of hot road throws up his arms in a victory salute.
U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong received flowers, a stuffed animal and kisses from the two French hostesses at the 16th stage of the Tour de France yesterday.
(Christophe Ena -- AP)
Cycling's podium girls are part of the cheerleading tradition in sports, a connection between combat and sex that goes back to Helen of Troy. NASCAR has its babes, boxing has its navel-baring round-card girls and the Tour de France has its hotesses. (The term means "hostess" in French, not "hotty," despite the resemblance.) Girls, contests, winning -- it all blends into basic urges. You win the trophy, you win the girl, you win it all.
But this being France, the podium girls are not the pneumatic hot-pants-wearing mascots that you see at car races. They are tastefully attired in navy-blue tunics, daffodil-yellow miniskirts and pumps. Their most important asset is a brilliant smile and classy, somewhat untouchable allure. France, after all, has a reputation to maintain. This nation's leggy, high-cheekboned angels have been bewitching men for centuries. Beautiful women are formally endowed with an elite status here: Professional models have been among the select cadre of professions entitled to a sizable tax rebate.
The hallmarks of the Tour hostesses are glamour and sophistication, and Nessrine Mousli has both to spare. Tall, with large dark eyes under a fringe of bangs, she looks something like a dewy, brunet Brigitte Bardot.
Before one recent race she was passing out newspapers and wide, warm smiles at the Credit Lyonnais kiosk. The bank, one of France's largest, is a principal sponsor of the Tour and a primary funder of the yellow jersey (meaning its logo has pride of place on the coveted shirt). Asked if she had a moment to talk, Mousli immediately moved over to the adjacent coffee bar and poured a cup of espresso for her interviewer. The podium routine that follows each day's stage race is simple: "First of all, we have to agree about how many kisses," Mousli said with a laugh. Thomas Voeckler, the tough French cyclist on the team Brioches la Boulangeres who wore the yellow jersey for more than a week, chose four. The Italians, she said, always choose four. But Thor Hushovd, the Norwegian sprinter who wore the yellow jersey at the start of the Tour, chose three.
Asked to confirm this bewildering news, Hushovd set the record straight. "I think I had two," he said, pushing his bike toward the starting line at Carcassonne last Saturday. "Two is enough, isn't it?" Kissing Voeckler has been so much fun, Mousli said. He's funny, relaxed. He likes to joke with the girls. The first time she zipped him into the yellow jersey, "his eyes were glittering and he was very excited," she said. "But then one day he was bitter, you know? Sour. He said to us, 'Maybe this is the last day I'll have it.' "
Mousli and her co-hostess tried to comfort him. "We said, 'Oh, no, I'm sure you'll get it again tomorrow.' "
Wouldn't you know, he did. He didn't lose it until Tuesday, when Lance Armstrong buried the field in the race up this alpine summit.
Just how does Mousli hold onto her sweet smiles as the winning cyclist raises his arms to acknowledge the cheers, after biking all day and, perhaps, peeing in his shorts?
"They have five minutes to prepare themselves, so they are very clean," Mousli said. "Thomas especially. I said to him, 'I don't understand how you can have bicycled hundreds of kilometers and you don't seem to be tired.' He was very fresh."
Is there anyone she hopes to be able to kiss this Tour? "Lance," Mousli said, flashing an especially gleaming smile. "He is a legend for everybody."
Hostess Emilie Moreau is a veteran Armstrong kisser, having accessorized the American's victories at the Tour finish on Paris's Champs-Elysees for three years running. It's a magical experience, she said. "You're on the most beautiful avenue in the world, which is closed just because of us, with the Arc de Triomphe behind, and all the honor. And then, Lance is a great champion." Did he smell fresh?