Why the Tour de France is the Biggest Event on Two Wheels

Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx on his way to winning the 1972 Tour de France.<br><br>
<strong>Photo: Gabriel Duval/ AFP/Getty Images</strong>

The legendary Eddy Merckx was once asked why the Tour de France was the pinnacle of a racer's cycling career. His response was, "there is only one, you know."

That explanation may seem lacking, but it speaks volumes as to the popularity of Le Grande Boucle for both racers and fans. Every July, the eyes of the cycling world are squarely trained on France, and year after year the Tour provides memorable moments—most good, a few bad--that keep everyone on their seats wanting more.

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What was Merckx talking about? There are literally hundreds of races each year on the professional cycling calendar at locations all over the world. Unfortunately, because there are so many events, most races overlap with another race, usually in another country, leaving teams with the choice of where to go.

The Giro d'Italia, the most important race in Italy, is held in mid- to late May. At the same time, the Vuelta a Catalonia, arguably the second most important race in Spain, is also taking place.

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Unlike spring classics such as the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, which require consummate one-day racing skills and overlap with stage races in Spain and Italy, the Giro and the Vuelta a Catalonia are top-flight stage races in their own right and are favored by anyone with Tour de France aspirations. The result is a dilution in the fields. While there is still great racing at the Giro and at Catalonia, the best of the best are not necessarily competing mano-a-mano.

The racing calendar in July is totally dominated by one event, the Tour, which means that the best riders in the world will be there ready to ride. This brings us to the next reason why "there is only one, you know." At most other events, only a few select riders are really contesting the win. Most of the other racers—domestique duties excepted--are there only for "training."

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For example, Jens Voigt seemed to own the Criterium International, having won the event three times and finished on the podium five times. But at most other early-season races he was invisible in the pack, riding his legs into condition or working for a teammate.

Voigt definitely shows up for the Tour, however, having several stage wins in addition to two separate turns wearing the yellow jersey under his belt. The affable German knows he isn't capable of donning the yellow jersey through Paris, but that doesn't stop him from being ultra-aggressive when the opportunity arises.

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After Floyd Landis thrashed his competitors at the 2006 Tour of California, he said, "Don't get too excited. Here there are maybe 10 or 15 riders going for it. At the Tour de France, there are almost 200 riders with aspirations." It's a way of saying that nobody is using the Tour for "training." Everybody wants to shine in France.

What about France itself? In the mid-'80s it was estimated that about 19 percent of the gross national product was related to the Tour de France. That was before Airbus Industries started building planes which could hold 500-plus passengers, but it demonstrates that all of France is affected by the Tour. There are very few sporting events of any type that can claim such a level of influence on the surrounding populace.

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Bruce Hildenbrand is a freelance journalist covering cycling and a host of other outdoor-related sports. He splits his time between Mountain View, California, Boulder, Colorado, and Europe.

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