Few U. S. schoolboys know or care who won Manhattan's last six-day bicycle race. Nine out of ten French schoolboys know who won the Tour de France last year and care very much who wins this year. And many a French sport lover in the provinces may see the Tour de France cyclists without undue effort because the race, starting and ending in Paris, is a four-week 2,600-mile, clockwise grind around the mountains and seacoasts that fringe the country. One day last week 60 grim-faced entrants, jockey caps pulled low and rumps raised high, whizzed north down the slopes of Montmartre, bound for Lille, end of the first day's 162-mile run in France's sport-event-of-the-year.
L'Auto, Paris sportpaper, founded the race in 1903 as a circuit of the Auvergne highlands, enlarged it by stages to its present scale. L'Auto foots the bills for meals & lodging, furnishes to each contestant his bicycle, as many tires as he can wear out, $2.64 per day for pin-money. This year publicity-seeking merchants have scraped up 800,000 francs ($52,800) for prizes. The winner of each of the 23 daily laps gets 1,.000 francs ($660).
The race is not open to any young man with stout legs, strong lungs and a fondness for an energetic vacation at someone else's expense. Entrants must all have proved their mettle in other major contests. The 1934 field is composed of five national teamsFrance, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Spain-Switzerland of eight men each, and 20 independents (les isoles). Since the war Belgians have won the race six times, Frenchmen five times, an Italian twice, a Luxembourger twice.
The flock was hardly out of Paris last week when many among them began to munch bananas, eggs, chocolate, harlequins which they produced from the pockets of their sleeveless sweaters. At meal stops they are handed knapsacks of food & drink to consume en route. The Tour de France is marked by few grisly spills such as punctuate the Madison Square Garden grinds. As a rule the riders bowl along in a good-humored cluster, sprint near the end of the run for the daily prize money. On the windy seacoasts they take turns riding on the windward side of the pack. One race was so swift and grim that after the finish a rider was reported to have bought a train ticket over the route so that he could inspect the scenery.
Because France has won the last four races, one of her sons is confidently expected to repeat this year. Chief French hopes are Georges Speicher, last year's winner who has enough spare breath during the race for a steady stream of quips and japes; Roger Lapébie. bashful young Bordelais who won seven major events in 1933; Antonin Magne, laconic Auvergnat farmer who is called "The eternal runner-up''; Charles Pélissier, cameo-profiled idol of schoolboys. Dashing, excitable captain of this year's French team, Pelissier has won important races for ten years, never the Tour de France. Half of France hopes he will come in first; the other half prays he will finish last.
Pélissier, Lapébie and Speicher are sprint specialists. Best climber in the race is Vicente Treuba, "Le Roi des Montagnes,'' a minuscule Spaniard who propels his 110-lb. body up the steepest slopes without leaving the saddle.