The Tour de France starts Saturday in London, one of the most illustrious kickoffs in the 104-year history of the race. Sure, the sport is wallowing in its own filth at the moment, but most fans can choose to ignore or compartmentalise that nightmare for a while and enjoy some good ol' racing. And what better way to do so than by kicking off the race in a true grand départ, in Jolly Old London?
The Tour certainly goes to great lengths to preserve its French character (don't quiz me on this please), but in modern times they often like to kick off things other countries, either to show the Tour's connection to other Cycling nations or to sell the race to a more unsuspecting public. The Tour has started in Belgium three times (including 2004); Holland four times (e.g., 1996) Luxembourg twice, Germany thrice (including Berlin in 1987), and once in Dublin (1998), Switzerland (1982), and San Sebastian (1992). Besides Grand Départs, there's also nothing unusual about the Tour passing briefly, perhaps even without stopping, through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain somewhere in the middle of the parcours, but these forays lack the celebration of the opening festivities.
A reasonable inference is that the Tour uses these occasions to celebrate itself and Cycling with its neighbors... except Italy. Italy doesn't fit the logistics well; nowadays the Tour likes to start in the north anyway to put off the decisive mountain stages for a while. But the Tour did start the 1992 edition in San Sebastian, no doubt reaching out to the legions of Basque fans who flock to the Pyrenean and Alpine stages every year. Pure conjecture here, but I think you'll see the Pope in a turban before you see the Tour kick off in Milan. There's a larger point here about Italy's very separate Cycling identity, or maybe a broader border sports rivalry, but no matter... the Tour is an international event, and there are still rumors of a Montreal Grand Départ someday.
While the Tour has stopped by England on two previous occasions, the Dublin start is the only Grand Départ across the channel in the race's history, prior to this year. Of course, 1998 is remembered for the Festina affair, so one can only hope this foray off the continent will portend better things. And how can it not? London is a fabulous city (I'm told), one of the world's great destinations. They've laid out a scenic course for both the prologue and Stage 1. Beer and gambling are a way of life in the British sporting scene, so the fans will be keyed up. And there's a significant hometown angle throughout the weekend, with David Millar, Bradley Wiggins, Charlie Wegelius, Mark Cavendish, and Geraint Thomas on the short list of stage contenders on one day or the other.
All of this serves to make Saturday a great party waiting to happen, and a great bike race as well (by prologue standards). This is infinitely better than the usual choice of a small French city like Futuroscope or Brest, where little more than the race itself will be at all unique. And being a prologue, the race itself can only hold so much intrigue. So enjoy the days abroad and London's brief moment as the world capital of Cycling.