When cyclists in the 69th Tour de France race six times up and down the Avenue Champs Elysees Sunday afternoon, Frenchman Bernard Hinault may not be leading the pack, but--barring accidents--he will be the winner.
Since its start July 2 in Basel, Switzerland, the 21-leg, 3,740-kilometer race has moved counter-clockwise around France, edging into Belgium and Luxembourg before arriving today in the suburbs of the capital.
Winner for three of the last four years, Hinault, 27, has been the favorite from the beginning, even though he did not earn the coveted yellow silk jersey of the overall leader until the 11th stage on July 14.
He has paced himself carefully in the field of 170 starters, not wanting to chance a spill, injury or exhaustion. Two years ago, after a victory in the Tour of Italy, tendinitis in his right knee forced him to withdraw midway in the French race even though he was overall leader. At stake this year is not only the winner's prize money (he won an estimated $70,000 last year plus a $20,000 vacation home), but his chance to join cycling greats Fausto Coppi of Italy (1952), Jacques Anquetil of France (1964) and Eddy Merckx of Belgium (1970, 1972, 1974) in winning both the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) in the same year.
Theoretically, the overall winner doesn't have to win any of the legs, but he would have to complete the course--a mix of individual and team sprints and grueling mountain climbs in the Pyrenees and Alps--in the shortest elapsed time.
By Friday, after descending from the last of the three most demanding stages around hairpin curves in Alpine altitudes, traditionally the real proving ground for racers, Hinault was 6 minutes 21 seconds ahead of his closest rival, Zoop Zoetemelk of Holland. He maintained that lead today on the 20th leg, which ended within five kilometers of Paris. To Tour de France fans, even a two-minute lead at midrace is considered decisive.
After Friday's win, his second individual time trial of the tour, Hinault said, "I took it pretty easy at the start of the race, and I wasn't disturbed when I realized I was nine seconds behind. I am very familiar with the circuit, and I knew that on the flats and with the wind three-quarters behind me, I would be able to make up the difference."
From the start, this year's race has been considered a battle for second place, but that hasn't dimmed enthusiasm in France, where 15 million people--one-third the population--are estimated to turn out along the route. They line village and city streets or pack up wine and cheese, beach umbrellas and lawn chairs to camp out on an Alpine meadow, waiting for a glimpse of the panting riders and a chance to race along the road for a few yards, dousing riders with cooling mineral water.
The Tour de France was started in 1903 and run every year except during World War I and World War II. In 1962, national teams were replaced by teams sponsored by mail-order houses, cigarette companies and auto manufacturers, making the tour the world's longest billboard. The only American in the race, Jonathan Boyer, is on a 10-man team under the banner of a fertilizer company.
Money is what makes the wheels go round. Sponsors, usually three to a team, collectively spend about $3.5 million each year on the Tour. Riders are salaried, with Hinault earning about $125,000 a year and his teammates about $50,000 to $80,000. Salaries are determined not by how individuals finish but how well they do their specialized jobs on the team.
This year's record prize money of about $500,000 will be spread out enough to make all of the pedaling up tortuous mountain roads worth the sweat. Just about everyone who finishes (and not everybody does) wins something. Daily awards are made to the best young rider, the most elegant competitor (worth $50), the friendliest competitor, the most outstanding fair play. Even the lowest-ranking team last year divided $6,000.
The competitors risk their lives pedaling madly down mountain passes at speeds sometimes exceeding 90 kilometers an hour. Spills and broken bones are common, but in 69 Tours de France only one racer has died during a race. The cause of death was heart failure, although drugs may have contributed (the use of antifatigue drugs and stimulants is prohibited but not unknown).
For the first time in its history, the tour this year had to cancel one leg after steel workers in northern France, protesting increases in unemployment, refused to budge from the route. The race was also detoured and delayed by antinuclear demonstrators and farmers unhappy with France's Socialist policies.
The hoopla continues around the Tour de France even if some Frenchmen have become disenchanted with the grand spectacle.
"The pedals turn, the bikes turn, the racers turn, the organizers' business turns," wrote the France Soir columnist, bored with the race's predictability 10 days from the finish. "Nighty-night and goodnight. We will wake you up when the Champs-Elysees is in sight."