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Know Your Tour! Stage 11: Time to Raise the Bloody Banner!

Know-your-tour_mediumToday's Know Your Tour! is more of an observation than an analysis. You see, it's Bastille Day (on July 14, actually the day of Stage 10, but work with me people), and Bastille Day is the national holiday of France which celebrates the storming of the Bastille and the popular uprising which led to the French republic. The national anthem of France is kinda sorta connected as well, and gives the whole day a nice, edgy context -- chants about watering the furrows with the blood of the impure, stuff like that. Anyway, if you're a Frenchman riding in the Tour de France, it's a great day to win.

This is a bit more than a gimmick and a splashy headline. The Tour de France was originally conceived as a way to bring the sport and sporting media to the country. I know in my experience (American, late 20th C) I grew up thinking of France, Italy and Spain as whole entities the same way we think of this country (as kids anyway) as a united single entity. In reality, I am now informed that the regions of these great countries have very strong, unique identities (also like the US), and in my ancestral land of Italy sometimes the regional identities mean more than the national one.

One purpose of the Tour de France (and the Giro and Vuelta) is to bring the nation's attention on a tour of its own, sometimes forgotten, regions. The end product of this is a stronger sense of unity, or so they say. There's a famous story from the 1949 Giro d'Italia which passed into Trieste, which had been heavily impacted by the war and separated from the Italian republic. It had been technically united by 1949, but it wasn't until the Giro visited that the Triestese felt like their war experience was finally over. Supposedly it was an emotional scene, at least according to the account of Dino Buzzati, author of my favorite cycling book.

Subjects like history and national identity are obviously more nuanced and complex than we can really get into here, but this unifying feature is still considered one of the Tour's (historic) purposes, at least enough so that a win on Bastille Day carries special meaning for French riders. For a while it seemed like a Frenchman always won on July 14th, but in fact it's been since 2005 that this was true. David Moncoutie's breakaway win was the big story that day. This was France's third Bastille Day win in five years -- a trend given the paucity of French success in the Tour since 1990.

But in the last few years the Tour hasn't stacked the deck very well for them. By July 14 the race has usually been going long enough for the pack to be tired and open to the idea of a breakaway, from which a French win has its best chance. But last year the race was a sprint stage, and Mark Cavendish needed the points, so no break for you. The previous two years the Tour finished in the mountains. When July 14 is on the weekend, the Tour's need to use those bigger audiences for mountain stages overrode the desire to have a French win.

This year, as I type, the Tour is back to normal, with Bastille Day being a transitional stage of interest to nobody in particular. The climbs aren't hard enough for the GC teams, and too high to encourage the sprinters. Two Frenchmen are in the break, 11 minutes away from the pack. And at the finish the band is no doubt practicing La Marseillaise, possibly the world's most graphic national anthem. Aux Armes Citoyens!