Each July, the French countryside becomes a spectacle, as 198 men move their suffering bodies across the landscape as part of the annual cycling race Tour de France. With an entourage of journalists, spectators, and sponsors following the riders along the roadways and a worldwide television audience watching, the race has turned into a ´mega event´ that not only impacts how the French national identity is shaped, but at the same time also evokes sentimental relationships to iconic landmarks and places in France, even for people that may have never been to the country. Through looking at fundamental anthropological ideas about the ways in which humans build relationships with land, we can begin to reflect upon how visual and narrative representations of the Tour de France create sentimental attachments to landmarks.
Since the race began in 1903, its cultural history of has been shaped by mythical, masculine, and dramatic accounts about heroes, villains, winners and losers. These accounts are ritually retold by sports commentators and journalists each year and are directly related to the different routes and landscapes that the riders pass through, particularly the mountains.
´The bald mountain” – as windy Mont Ventoux is called due to its lack of vegetation – is known for being the ´Beast of Provence´ and is a scene where the hardest struggles of the Tour de France have played out over the years. As the riders climb the mountain, commentators retell the dramatic story of British rider Tom Simpson, who collapsed and died upon his ascent in 1967 due to a combination of exhaustion, alcohol and amphetamines. The commentators may repeat French philosopher Ronald Barthes’ description of Mont Ventoux as: “a god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering”.
Similarly, the mountain passes in the Pyrenees have played a central role in stories of the Tour de France and are regularly described by sports commentators as a landscape where “the mountains preside without pity”. In 1910, the organizers introduced a new stage of the race on the mountain of Col du Tourmalet. At that time, locals called the pass ´the circle of death´, due to its extreme weather conditions. When the riders enter the Pyrenees today, sports journalists often recount the story of French climber Octave Lapize, who after being the first to ascend Col du Tourmalet in 1910, turned to the race officials and yelled: “Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!’ (‘You are murderers! Yes, murderers!’)”.
These examples demonstrate how sports commentators weave together memorable stories from past races to create dramatic accounts that are linked with the surrounding territory.
In his study of Kangersuatsiaq in Greenland, anthropologist Marc Nuttall describes how the Inuit create emotional memories and relationships to specific landscapes and places, what Nuttall calls memoryscapes. According to Nuttall, contemporary, historical, or mythical events that occur in certain places become integrally tied to those specific places for local communities. In that sense, hunting in a specific area becomes more than an activity for obtaining food, but rather an emotional engagement between the hunters and the land, where the surrounding environment gets filled with meaning and memory.
Drawing upon Nutall’s work helps us to reflect upon the mountains of the Tour de France not as mere stone, but as lively memoryscapes that humans imbue with meaning and emotions. Most of the spectators watching at home on their televisions may have never physically been to Mont Ventoux or Col de Tourmalet, but through the ritual retelling of narratives and recurring visual imagery of struggling athletes, the viewers become part of a community that shares sentimental relationships to these mountains. The mountains become alive in the imaginations of Tour de France spectators as they remember landmarks that are attached to the accumulated collective memory of the race.
In her book Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination, anthropologist Julie Cruikshank illuminates how the Tlingit and Athapaskan tribes in North America understand the glaciers of the southern Alaska-Yukon borderlands as full of life and power. In the oral traditions of these indigenous peoples, the glaciers are actors in their own right, with the moral ability to respond to, judge and punish their surroundings. They both give life and are endowed with life in the landscapes that they are a part of.
Much like the Tlingit and Athapaskan oral traditions describe glaciers as moral actors, sports commentators also portray the mountains of the Tour de France as having their own power and potential to affect the success of the riders. When they personify the mountains as being vengeful, “without pity”, and requiring sacrifice, they enliven the territory that the riders pass through. The dramatic narratives recounted by sports commentators year after year therefore resemble indigenous oral traditions and can contribute to our cross-cultural understanding of how people form relationships to land.
Nuttall, Mark (1992). Arctic homeland: kinship, community, and development in northwest Greenland. University of Toronto Press.
Cruikshank, Julie (2014). Do glaciers listen? Local knowledge, colonial encounters, and social imagination. UBC Press.
Photo by Chris Protopapas license under creative commons