The closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience was driving up to the Pyrenees in 2014.
It happened on a long flat road where suddenly I noticed a mountain presiding on high above a long line of cars at its fuzzy green feet. The mountain filled my view, then filled it up even more as I drove up, more and more until I wanted to holler. So I did. I hollered because I was all alone. I hollered because I was tired. I turned the music up and hollered because it didn’t make sense to do anything else.
I wondered why I deserved to be there. The truth was that I didn’t. I felt worthless and privileged at the same time.
Whether Henri Desgrange knew it or not when he started the Tour de France, the landscape makes the race. France contains has every type of terrain and climate, so that when you drive long distances you can see the country shift around. You can look down in one world, and look up to find you’re in another.
Desgrange’s race was designed to be maniacally difficult and to sell magazines, but the shuffled faces of the French landscape have conspired to turn his tour into the Tour. Following it has come to feel like a pilgrimage.
Even its dull stages are charmed, like the Stage 4 route from Reims to Nancy, which evolved from Indiana flats to more pronounced forests and hills, all signs that farther down the road the Vosges mountains are ready to burst from the ground.
After the finish, my photographer and I hopped in our Citroën for a two-hour drive, and saw the mountains bloom in that span. We turned bends to find villages, took descending curves fast enough to mush the shotgun passenger against his door, and lost count of shades of green.
That’s the point of the Tour de France, really. There are other ways to prove who is the fastest cyclist in the world that don’t involved those long, useless flats, or riders risking their comfort and lives to the elements, road hazards, and misbehaved fans. There are ways to race bicycles that are infinitely more controlled and precise and sane.
The Tour may not even be cycling’s best Grand Tour. Ask the sport’s aficionados, and they’ll likely tell you that the Giro d’Italia is arguably as pretty and usually more entertaining as a race. But the Tour lords over everything because it is utter spectacle. It came first, so it’s the biggest. And because it’s the biggest, it’s also the most arresting — masses on mountains under one sun.
The Tour’s power is entirely artificial in that sense — it’s important because at some point people decided it should be. Yet in another sense, the Tour is entirely organic. We fell in love with it without noticing, were surrounded when we weren’t looking. The race feels that way, too, evolving unbeknownst to us, dragging on too long up until it finishes much too quickly.
There are probably other places and events in the world that have this effect. The effect is grand nonetheless, and if anything France deserves credit for capitalizing on it so well. It’s what France does best: waiting out the moment rather than trying to force it. That way, when it comes, the dawning beauty is yours, and you keep it forever.