It’s not the rubbish weather or even Wimbledon that tells you summer’s here if you have a drop of French blood in you. The real clue is the Tour de France and this year highlights are on ITV every night. What a joy! Not just for the excitement of the race itself but seeing the French countryside roll past day by day in all its splendour. From the flat lands to the impossible mountains, from the coast to the inlands, it’s such a beautiful country.
And the Tour has an almost magical relation with the people of France, despite scandals and drugs. That’s why the route is lined with people of all ages, cheering and waving and sometimes getting in the way. Cycling is a national obsession even if you’re no longer fit enough to do it (though the number of people of all ages out cycling on the road at the weekends is impressive) – that’s why cars respect bicycles and always give them a wide berth.
The route changes every year and there’s nothing more exciting than having the Tour come through your village. I remember it twice, once as a child in my mother’s village and once as an adult in the mountains of Provence. The first time, I must have been eight or so; we sat on chairs outside the house and waited all morning, then the publicity cars came past throwing out hats, sweets and small prizes. You knew the cyclists were coming because you could hear the cheers from further down the village. And come they did, in a blur of wheels and colour, past my grandmother’s house in about a minute. We were thrilled.
Later on when I lived in Provence, they came through not quite so quickly and left by the steepest mountain road out of the village that was hard to walk up, never mind cycle. We could see them coming from miles away, little coloured dots on the landscape and then they were actually in the village and then gone, the sound of applause and cheers ringing in their ears and every tiny house on the route out on the roadside cheering and waving.
It’s a moment and enthusiasm that unites the country and reminds me that my French side is alive and kicking (though a bit feebly at the moment). Allez les gars!