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.
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?
She thought about this. "Not really," she said, pursing her lips. "But he didn't smell so bad, either."
The hostesses are strictly forbidden to get any closer to the riders than those officially sanctioned pecks on the cheek. Fraternizing is strictly forbidden. However, love doesn't listen to rules, and romance has been known to arise from those calculated kisses. Emilie Moreau caught the eye of French cyclist Christophe Moreau in 2000. Adhering to policy, they waited until after the Tour was over to start dating, and married in 2002.
Hostess Melanie Simonneau and U.S. Postal Service cyclist George Hincapie were not so discreet, however. Speaking with Armstrong's veteran lieutenant while the race was still in progress cost the 23-year-old hostess her job.
"When I first saw her I thought, 'Wow, she's beautiful! And I wanted to ask her out on a date to have this beautiful girl with me," Hincapie told the Associated Press recently. "But that was it; I didn't think it would go anywhere." It went somewhere. The two are now engaged and expecting their first child in November.
The man who fired Simonneau says he is now very happy for her and Hincapie. As the "responsable du sponsoring" for Credit Lyonnais, Daniel Isaacs is in charge of the hostesses. And no hostess under his watch is going to fool around with the talent.
"They're not paid for that," he said. "What I want is that they represent Credit Lyonnais -- period. To be agreeable to the public. They're not there to flirt. To have a love affair -- I can't allow that." Isaacs is a stickler for rules. His hostesses must be no older than 30, and tall enough to stand nearly even with the cyclists, who are one step above them on the podium. Most important, he said, they have to be gorgeous.
He selects them from a cattle call in Paris every year, to which modeling agencies across the country send their top candidates. Only four are chosen by Isaacs to present the yellow jersey. The race does have other categories of winners, for example, the polka-dot jersey, which goes to the best climber, and the green jersey, for the best sprinter. These, too, are presented by hostesses, sponsored and chosen by other corporations. Isaacs, however, insists that his hostesses are the prettiest.
The corporate hostesses have been used only for the past 15 years. Before then, the race winners were saluted by selected sweet lasses of whatever village hosted the finish line. This made the podium ceremony more charming and spontaneous, said Gilbert Costes, an innkeeper in the tiny town of Montsegur, nestled into the Pyrenees Mountains.
Now, he says, the hostesses are "more stereotypical . . . they have no passion." Costes sees the corporate podium girls as further evidence of the increasing commercialization of the sport.
"It's the sponsoring that keeps cycling alive now," he said. With the investment of corporate money in the sport, the bikers' salaries have soared, and they have become too pampered, he said. "That's why they're less biting, less aggressive. They don't want to hurt themselves." Indeed, much of the Tour de France is a huge advertisement for the event's corporate sponsors. Bike racing, many observers complain, is secondary. The teams themselves are corporate, not national, named for sponsors such as the U.S. Postal Service, T-Mobile, Gerolsteiner bottled water, the above-mentioned bakery chain Brioches la Boulangeres, even a hearing aid manufacturer (Phonak Hearing Systems). Each team uniform is a billboard for half a dozen corporate logos, with prime real estate being those places the TV cameras are likely to linger. Watch closely as a cyclist comes across the finish for a stage win. Even if he had opened his jersey to cool himself during the race, the well-schooled rider will zip up just before pumping his fists in triumph, ensuring that his sponsors get their logos -- neat and unrumpled -- in the photo.
Winning the mountain climb of Plateau de Beille under a broiling sun Friday, Armstrong was zipped up for the money shot. Coming in just behind him, the French rider Voeckler completed the grueling course fast enough to hold onto the overall lead. He finished with an ecstatically happy smile -- and his shirt unzipped to his waist. The next day, as his photo graced the covers of half a dozen French newspapers, opinions varied on whether he had simply forgotten corporate protocol or if he was deliberately showing off his chest hair. In the Tour de France, the marketing doesn't stop with the team uniforms.
"The ads, the ads, the ads!" Jacqueline Montazaud said as she waited for the start of the ninth stage last week in St.-Leonard-de-Noblat. The Parisian, passing through on vacation, was exasperated by the stream of floats in the publicity caravan that slogs through each town on the tour route ahead of the cyclists.
"I had imagined a lot more sport," said Montazaud, "but this is nothing but publicity." In fact, it's like a mini Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: There are the Disneyland Resort cars crowned with huge Goofys and Minnies, enormous plastic loaves of bread bursting out of bakery trucks, candy company trucks bearing huge plastic figurines of beaming children, minivan-size bottles of Aquarelle water on wheels, even a truck publicizing the "Spider-Man" film sequel.
There are also a slew of bright yellow Credit Lyonnais cars, one of them towing a mammoth stuffed lion, the bank's mascot, as well as that of the Tour.
But nothing gets that bank name into the public's living rooms like the podium ritual, with its svelte, coolly sexy hostesses.
And of course it's a heck of a motivation for the cyclists to know that if they win the race, they'll also win the embrace of two of the prettiest women in France.
"Yeah, for sure it's good; they are beautiful girls," said Hushovd, the Nordic sprinter, recalling his quickie kisses on the podium. "But I was just happy to be there to get my jersey."