Using a comparative historical approach and drawing upon rhetorical analyses of media texts and popular literature, this paper traces the symbolic economy of competitors in the annual Tour de France bicycle race during the twentieth century.
Founded in 1903, the Tour quickly captured the French public’s imagination. Inspired by the superhuman feats and seemingly limitless energy of the “Giants of the Road,” as Tour heroes soon came to be known, media texts and popular literature portrayed the Tour rider as a “human motor,” a utopian synthesis of human willpower and muscle with technological innovation. Moral principles such as loyalty, sacrifice, and merit also informed representations of Tour heroes. The moral example of Tour cyclists exemplified Coubertin’s voluntaristic dream of “muscular force employed in the service of good.”
By the 1990s, the “exemplary” Tour hero was in crisis. Cycling’s increasing commercialization had slowly substituted materialism for heroism. Rationalized approaches to equipment and preparation had transformed the rider’s image. Helmets and sunglasses hid the rider’s face and thus his suffering; aerodynamic equipment invested his image with disturbing machine-like qualities. In 1998, the Festina Affair generated spectacular revelations of systematic doping by Tour cyclists, and the Tour rider came to be portrayed as a dystopian “human monster,” scientifically and pharmacologically programmed to win.
Because the Tour is both a product and mirror of French society, the Festina Affair was more than a mere sports scandal. It resonated deeply because it subverted the illusion of the Tour and its heroes as a form of secular sacred, a “pure” space in which loyalty, sacrifice, and merit reign supreme. Also, this Affair provided compelling evidence that by the end of the century, positivist notions of productivism and the scientific application of technology had come full circle and given way to profound ambivalence toward science without conscience.
|Keywords:||France, Cycling, Cultural History, Media|
Associate Professor, Modern and Classical Language Studies, Kent State University, Kent, OH, USA