The 1962 Tour de France was won by Jacques Anquetil in a time of 114 hours, 31 minutes and 54 seconds—a total of 6,872 minutes in the saddle. It was his second win in a four-year winning streak in Paris, from 1961 to 1964. By contrast, a typical American football game (unquestionably our most popular and profitable sport) contains approximately a total of just 11 minutes of actual action—the time from which every play in the game begins and ends—the rest of the three-plus hours of “game time” being allowed for players standing around, commercial time-outs and referees reviewing plays. Remarkably, the time Anquetil spent working on the bike during his 1962 Tour corresponds to the actual playing time of 624.7 NFL games today—that is, the equivalent of every regular season game played for two-and-a-half years! And most Americans still believe football is the toughest sport in the world.

Words: John Madruga
Illustration: Matthew Burton

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With such a great amount of time to deal with—not to mention having to contend with the continuously moving and diverse parts that make up the Tour on a day-to-day basis— countries, cities, roads, fans, media and support—the Tour may just be too big to adequately capture creatively on film. However, 1962 was also the year that French filmmaker and lifelong cycling fan Louis Malle was able to do just that—in his documentary short film, Vive le Tour! At just 18 minutes in length, Malle manages to reveal both the special quality of the Tour’s outer spectacle, as well as the internal energy that drives France’s fascination with its own race.

In an interview published in 1993, just two years before his death, Malle reflected on his process: “I had a camera and, with two other cameramen, we followed the Tour, and came up with a lot of footage. I left that alone for a while and went back to Algeria. Eventually, I think three years later, I decided to put the Tour footage together. I had a first cut of forty-five minutes; I thought it was too long and very difficult to release as such, and I ended up with a short.”

What we often cherish about a Grand Tour, and particularly the Tour de France, is how it progressively unfolds. It takes time, and cycling fans appreciate the way the race defines itself over the course of three weeks. Like an epic novel, the Tour’s narrative is revealed slowly, and along the way protagonists may change or fade away, foreseen or expected endings may be overturned or never realized, and intriguing subplots arise and disappear with each passing day. It’s as if Malle himself took the same approach to the making of his film. Waiting three years to work on the footage and editing out what he felt to be unnecessary allowed him the time and space to uncover what was essential about the Tour. As he said: “I try to address the sense rather than the intellect. I want, through visuals and sound, to create a world almost tactile. I feel this strongly.”

From the outside, the peloton as a whole seems stable and uniformly organized, a mass of human energy and color moving toward a shared destination, but within the mass is a kind of ever-evolving change that holds our attention. It’s from this view inside the race where strategies are played out, moves are made and the race is decided. Through these traces—the perceptible but somewhat hidden essences of the Tour—and an insuppressible human will to continue on in the face of a most daunting physical challenge, Malle is able to portray his feeling of the Tour de France.

Cycling and the Tour were very much a part of Malle’s own personal world, having been born in Nord (just 40 km from Roubaix), being an avid cyclist and living in the midst of the race. “I do a lot of bicycling myself, I always have, and the Tour de France is really a part of my childhood,” Malle remarked. “The Tour’s something that has always fascinated me.” And so, what may be most intriguing about Vive le Tour! is to see the ways in which the Tour was particularly fascinating to Malle, how he saw the race, and how his perspective (a Frenchmen in France filming his country’s most beloved sporting event) reflects a uniquely French point of view.

Of course, the Tour is many things to many people—a mix of sport, history, landscape, pageantry, color, culture, media and corporate branding—but what Vive le Tour! shows is that it is pervasive, unrelenting and human. Not unique to the 1962 Tour, or any version of the race before or since, Malle seems to make the statement that these are the defining characteristics of every Tour, regardless of the riders, the year, the route or the equipment—the lifeblood that makes this race so revered. And so while the characters, conditions and team colors change, the race is always, at the heart of it, very much the same. Hence, the name Vive le Tour!

It is pervasive

“It’s a very strange event, not only as a sport but also as a social phenomenon, Malle said about the Tour. “The whole of France stops for three weeks and now, especially with television, it has become huge.” How the film depicts this idea is through various interesting vignettes that are rarely shown to the general audience—Malle’s intention being to show how every need (of the riders, journalists and spectators) is met only in relationship to the race; the Tour’s force and flow takes precedence over everything and those involved must adapt to it. And so, the scenes of writers and photographers working, eating, even sleeping on the back of motorbikes as the race moves forward, all show how the Tour blankets France, covering everything and everyone it passes over. The early images in the film of the peloton, in a blur of light and color, moving past spectators in the background, beautifully illustrates this idea.

Malle is also very calculated in showing various faces in the crowd early in the film: nuns in their white habits, children wearing paper hats, people picnicking on hillsides or along the road, a priest with white collar. The effect of these images is more than just to reveal a diverse cross-section of fans, it is to also infuse a definite religious connotation to the scene—not in terms of a particular doctrine or theology, but simply as belief. For three weeks out of the year, the Tour becomes a kind of religion for the people, a way of acknowledging what the country as a whole is proud of and believes in, as if to suggest that the French believe in this race as they do their god: with devout, unwavering attention.

It is unrelenting

“When I shot Vive le Tour! what struck me was the violence, the suffering— it’s probably the toughest sport that exists,” Malle said. “So I filmed that: the accidents, the falls, the incredible effort when they climb mountains and how it’s seen on their faces.”

The film moves from lighthearted scenes of riders being handed their musettes and later stopping along the road to pee, to scenes of “drinking raids” as riders converge on cafés and take whatever they want, to more serious racing footage of the race’s top contenders, Rik Van Looy, Federico Bahamontes and Jacques Anquetil. With every example, Malle shows his audience how the Tour is unyielding, how it never weakens or eases up. This is both a characteristic of the race and of those who ride. Even in the midst of the most sever situation (crashes, complete exhaustion or dehydration) Malle makes the point: “What is terrible is that as soon as they see a bike, they can’t quit and off they go.” The footage of the complete unraveling of one rider, Giuseppe Zorzi of the Ignis-Moschettieri team, proves the point. We see Zorzi, completely lifeless and disillusioned, lying on the side of the road. He is helped to his feet, and takes a sip of water as he is walked to his bike. His brow is furrowed in pain and his limbs are rubbery and weak. He mounts the bike and begins to ride; there seems to be some signs of life in his legs, however his pace begins to slows to a crawl and then … stops.

Some riders abandon because of injury, some crash out, others medicate themselves into a state of oblivion and can no longer continue. As the Malle points out, “Contrary to popular belief, doping does not give you extra strength, it simply suppresses the pain. The doped-up athlete no longer knows his limits. He’s nothing more than a pedaling machine.” Combine the physical toll the Tour takes with the extreme changes in weather (“They climb from an altitude of 600 feet to 6,000, descend to 800, climb again to 9,000. It’s awful.”) and the stakes are raised even higher. And yet, the Tour continues, it never waits.

It is human

Vive le Tour! begins by focusing on faces in the crowd, and ends by focusing on the faces of the riders. The look of enthusiasm and joy on the faces of those who watch is beautifully offset by the look of fatigue and pain on the faces of those who ride. In closing, Malle gives his viewer an up close, into-the-eyes look at the heart of the Tour de France—the expressions, the sweat, the stares of the riders. There is, of course, a relationship there between those who watch and those who race—a human connection between effort and appreciation—and the knowledge that that relationship deeply matters. Vive le Tour!