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The 1968 Tour de France and the Spectacle

Looking back at the 1968 Tour • Words: Paul Maunder Images: Horton Collection

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Call me a traditionalist (is that really an insult?), but shouldn’t the Tour de France actually be a kind of lap of the country? Or, as the French say, a true Grande Boucle? In recent years, in search of more creative racing, the organizers have disrupted the shape of the route. Look at the famous yellow maps and you will see all kinds of odd shapes. This year, the race consists of two ragged parallel lines, one across the west and north of France, one across the east and south. Gone are the days when the Tour described a circular path that seemed to reinforce the nation’s borders and identity.

1968 Tour de France winner Jan Janssen in the final time trial.

Fifty years ago, the route of the 1968 edition looked just like that. Starting in Vittel, the race headed north into Luxembourg and Belgium, stopping in Roubaix before a long trek to Brittany. During the opening week there were stage finishes in Roubaix and Lorient, which both see stages of this year’s Tour too. The 1968 race then hugged the Atlantic Coast, climbed over the Pyrénées and struck out northeast across the Massif Central before a jaunt through the Alps. The final stage into Paris was a time trial, finishing in the Vélodrome Municipal de Vincennes. The two French national teams, France A and France B, had three favorites in Raymond Poulidor, Lucien Aimar and Roger Pingeon, though Italy’s Franco Bitossi and Belgium’s Herman Van Springel and Ferdinand Bracke were also fancied.

Cycling’s spring calendar that year had been most notable for the way in which Eddy Merckx took his first grand tour win at the Giro d’Italia. In the classics, Rudi Altig, Walter Godefroot and Merckx had posted victories. And German rider Rolf Wolfshohl won Paris–Nice.

So far, so good. Things were normal in pro cycling. But the spring and summer of 1968 were not normal in the world beyond cycling, and sometimes that world explodes.

Race favorite Raymond Poulidor had to abandon after a stage 15 crash.

In March 1968, journalist Pierre Viansson-Ponté wrote an editorial in French daily newspaper Le Monde in which he claimed: “France is bored.” He was referring to the staid political situation in the country, the ultra-conservative rule of 78-year-old Charles de Gaulle, the hero of French resistance in World War II, but now an out-of-touch and autocratic military leader. In America, Poland, Britain and elsewhere, youth protest movements were erupting, challenging the status quo. But in France a kind of cultural isolationism had set in. De Gaulle criticized the Americans, while prescient French intellectuals like Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber published books about how American culture would soon speed ahead of old Europe.

Boredom is a dangerous thing. At the University of Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris, groups of students began to protest. Some groups were politically extreme, others less so. The university had uncomfortable living conditions for the students and, despite having a reputation for being progressive, in reality it was as autocratic and reactionary as most other schools. The initial protests were small and focused on relatively minor matters, but as soon as the Dean of the university made it clear he wasn’t listening and attempted to break up any gatherings, things escalated pretty quickly.

Herman Van Springel wore the yellow jersey until the very last stage.
Franco Bitossi (right) won two stages and the points classification.

Government Shutdown

On May 2, the government shut down the University of Nanterre, unwittingly shifting the focus from this suburb to the center of Paris. Students from the Sorbonne joined those from Nanterre, then those from high schools and other universities joined the movement. Within days, hundreds of thousands of students marched through the streets, occupied buildings and bridges, erected barricades and fought in running battles with police. When police brutality came to light, writers and artists joined the students’ cause and, in mid-May, factory workers showed their solidarity by going on strike, led by the Renault factory in Nantes. By the third week of May, incredibly, 10 million French workers were on strike. Negotiations between unions and government failed. A revolutionary fervor gripped the rebels.

On May 29, President de Gaulle fled Paris in a helicopter, citing as his reason a concern for the personal safety of those around him. For 24 hours, France effectively had no government and revolution looked possible. De Gaulle had secretly traveled to Germany and seemed on the brink of abdicating his responsibilities. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou telephoned him and persuaded him to return to Paris. At a huge rally in Paris, the people chanted, “Farewell, de Gaulle!” and the police made the decision to talk to the protesters rather than attack them. This was a critical moment, for a harsh response at this point would have escalated the situation just when the government was weakest. De Gaulle returned, told the workers to go back to work and called an election. The threat of revolution ebbed. In the June election, de Gaulle won a comfortable victory, partly because the opposition vote was split between the Communists and Socialists.

In late June, the Tour de France began its annual trip around France, entertaining villages from the Nord to Haute Garonne. The race itself was a rather strange affair. The first 10 days saw the usual sprints and breakaways on the mainly flat roads of Northern France, with Poulidor and Van Springel the best-placed favorites. In the Pyrénées, the Dutch national team leader Jan Janssen came to the fore, taking a stage win, but there was no definitive split between the GC riders.

That came on stage 16, Albi to Aurillac, 199 kilometers through the Massif Central, including the feared climb of Montsalvy. Symbolically, considering that the wider country was descending toward revolution, the French riders began attacking each other. Roger Pingeon, of France A, slowed to drink, so Lucien Aimar, of France B, attacked. France A chased France B, but in the end all the French riders lost major time to a group of foreigners that included Janssen, Van Springel and Bitossi.

Roger Pigeon was the top French rider in fifth overall.

While Pingeon took some time back two days later in the Chartreuse, the race for the yellow jersey was between Van Springel, Janssen, Bracke and Gregorio San Miguel of Spain. Van Springel took the jersey into the final stage, a 55-kilometer time trial, but it was Janssen who emerged the fastest, with enough of a margin to take the overall victory by 38 seconds over Van Springel, with Bracke in third. And so Jan Janssen of the Netherlands won the Tour de France despite never wearing the yellow jersey.

By the middle of July, the student protests had been comprehensively defeated. There was a resurgence of activity in Paris on Bastille Day—when the Tour was in faraway Albi—with socialist students and anarchists setting up barricades in the Latin Quarter. The gendarmerie waited until nightfall then went in hard, attacking and rounding up the troublemakers. Many were injured, including tourists and casual passersby.

So in a material sense, the Paris that the Tour returned to at the end of July was little different. The conservative authorities were unchanged. De Gaulle was still in power. But the tide had turned against him. The majority of French citizens saw him as outdated, too authoritarian and too anti-American. And, though they’d been defeated, the students created a legacy of revolutionary spirit that bled into the wider changes going on around the world in 1968.

In America and Britain, where cycle racing hasn’t been part of the fabric of the nation’s culture as it is in France, it’s tempting to see the sport as subversive. The bicycle itself is subversive, right? A technology for the common man, for artists and workers alike. And bike racing is usually competing for space with the automobile, that symbol of gas guzzling capitalism.

The events of 1968 remind us that bike racing at the highest level, in Europe at least, is not only not subversive, it is also part of the problem.

Enter Situationist International. This group of avant-garde intellectuals, artists and activists were a key influence on the events of May 1968. They existed as a group from 1957 to 1972, although there were many internal splits during that period, and many of their slogans were seen daubed on walls in Paris during the attempted revolution.

The Situationists undertook a critique of society and an analysis of Marxism. Marx, they said, had correctly seen how capitalism would develop through industrialism and control of the means of production. What he had not seen, however, was just how pervasive social alienation would become. Central to the Situationist thesis was the idea of the Society of the Spectacle. Guy Debord, in his famous book of the same name, laid out this representation of society: In advanced capitalist societies, relationships were now defined solely in terms of commodities. All human interaction is degraded because it is controlled by images, and is usually pursuing material consumption. The mass media (though not PELOTON magazine, of course!) are guilty of constructing this world. Essentially, people are too busy chasing shiny material goods to understand that their true happiness lies in deeper kinds of fulfillment. The Spectacle is an elaborate construct, a French version of “The Matrix,” shiny and enticing and fun, and we are all trapped in it.

Jan Janssen enters Paris on his way to winning the final time trial—and the Tour.

The Tour de France’s position in this Society of the Spectacle is an interesting one. The event has always been commercially driven. From its inception in 1903 it has been a promotional tool for every sponsor involved in it. Every surface is inscribed with advertising (to the point where the weary post-modern eye stops taking it in). The publicity caravan that precedes the race, throwing out plastic tat to partying spectators is pure capitalist excess, though in marketing terms it is also so old fashioned as to be quaint. The Tour is the very embodiment of the Spectacle.

And yet from the perspective of the riders, it looks rather different. They are present to work. The roads are their factory floor. Clock in, ride, clock off. No matter how celebrated or well paid, they are obliged to put themselves through a thousand agonies for our entertainment. The experience can be transformative. I imagine more than any other cycling experience, riding the Tour stays with you. For them it is the “real” experience that the Situationists urged us all to find.

In 1923, the journalist Albert Londres published an explosive piece in Le Petit Parisien in which he described the working conditions of Tour de France riders, famously calling them “the convicts of the road.” Long stages, extreme weather, hunger, dehydration, poor equipment and draconian rules meant that these athletes were comparable to convicts doing hard labor. It’s an image the Tour has never quite shaken off, despite all the glossy imagery.

This year, Bernard Hinault called on the peloton to go on strike, to protest the inclusion of Chris Froome—that was before Froome was cleared of any wrongdoing. Rider protests have long been a part of La Grande Boucle, traditionally against something the riders perceive as an unacceptable working condition. Hinault himself led a protest in 1978, when double stages and long transfers between stages meant the riders sometimes had to get up at 5 a.m. after going to bed at 11 p.m. But Hinault is hopelessly out of touch with the modern peloton.

Even before Froome was exonerated, there was no prospect of a strike. Whatever the other riders thought about Froome’s ant-doping case, they knew a strike would achieve nothing. We are living in a post-modern, post-industrialist, hyperreal world. The Spectacle has come so far that everyone considers themselves a brand. Riders promote their brands through social media; they are so completely enmeshed in the advertising machine that the traditional structure of worker versus employer no longer seems apt.

But let’s not lose heart. When this year’s Tour finishes in Paris, we can imagine a young man or woman sitting in a café nearby, with a pack of Gauloises and watching the spectacle with a critical eye. Perhaps he or she has a notebook full of revolutionary ideas. The spirit of May 1968 endures and is rediscovered, reinterpreted by subsequent generations. Just don’t expect to find it on the roads of rural France this July.