Sport: Tough Tour

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High in the French Alps, thunder clouds roiled over the Col d'lzoard. Peering at the sky, the citizens of Briancon were worried. Cyclists of the Tour de France were pumping east from Grenoble on the 18th lap of their 25-day marathon, and rain could easily wash out the slim time advantage held by French Favorite Louison Bobet, 29. His rival, Swiss Champion Ferdi Rubier, 35, was an old hand at the hazards of mountain bicycle riding. A wet road might bother Bobet; Kubler might gain an unbeatable lead.

Then the clouds lifted. The slopes of the Col glared white and dusty under the sun. Pedaling furiously as the road twisted above the timber line, Bobet broke away from the pack. Rump high and nose to the handlebars, he zipped down dangerous Alpine switchbacks at better than 40 m.p.h. and sprinted into Briangon ahead of a demoralized Rubier. Briangon and all of France breathed again. With only five laps and five days of racing left, Bobet seemed to be a winner.

Sound Trucks & Spielers. For three weeks, Frenchmen had been following the Tour. Truce in Indo-China, terrorism in Morocco, even Fashion Designer Dior's offensive against the bosom all receded while the nation concentrated on the biggest bike race in the world. Nearly 20 million people turned out to see the bikes go by. It was more than a sporting event, it was a triumph of showmanship—as French as a march on the Bastille or a meal with snails.

Sponsored by two Paris newspapers, Parisien Libéré and L'Equipe, the 51-year-old classic took an anxious four months of preparation. At every stop on the route, Advanceman Elie Wermelinger, onetime Ivory Coast banana planter, had to prepare food and lodging for no competitors, plus an army of 1,400 managers, trainers, handlers, masseurs, timekeepers, mechanics and assorted camp followers. Bawling, cursing and exhorting, Wermelinger careened across France, waging a one-man war to bring temporary order out of wild, Gallic confusion.

Long before the first cyclists huffed into sight, the quiet provinces were invaded by a loud caravan of sound trucks and spielers. Everywhere, the ear was assaulted by pitchmen peddling Nescafé, Cinzano, Perrier water, soap flakes, rubber tires. L'Equipe sent a nightclub songstress to put on her act wherever the Tour stopped for the night. A few irritated sportsmen muttered that no one would have noticed if the bike riders never showed up.

Sand Dunes & Sadism. Despite all the extraneous excitement, the riders still made a race of it. Starting in Amsterdam, eleven teams from six countries pedaled across the Belgian frontier into the rolling sand dunes of French Flanders. Whitecoifed peasant women and stolid fishermen stared as the cyclists swept by along the flat, lonely roads of Brittany. Driving squalls drenched them as they raced down the long Atlantic coastline. Of the no starters, less than 100 were still at the grind when they climbed toward the Pyrenees over the rugged shoulders of the Basque country. Cyclists and spectators agreed that Wermelinger & Co. had mapped out this year's tour with sadistic ingenuity.

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