The Tour de France reaches the finish line today with its traditional procession along the Champs Elysées, as we savour the sight of Paris in all its resplendence - just as we have delighted in the country as a whole throughout these three weeks in July, the most beautiful month of the year. What a marvellous creation the Tour has been. It was begun for commercial reasons, by the way, by the journalist and organiser Henri Desgrange, who could not get himself a space in the cycling magazine Le Vélo to advertise the races at his velodrome, because the publication's owner also had one. So he set up L'Auto-Vélo, which soon became just L'Auto, and was the forerunner to what is now L'Équipe. To help raise its profile, he created the challenge, at the time deemed crazy, of cycling the length and breadth of France.
The people of France have done their bit to make the Tour what it is
And the rest is history. As a nation, France plays its part in making it the celebrated race that it is, despite not having supplied a winner for so many years (now 33; the entire lifetime of Jesus and Alexander the Great). The people line the streets to applaud their heroes and, in the odd instance, to make their feelings heard to those under suspicion. This year, the man under the cloud has been Chris Froome, who has handed over his crown to his team-mate, the Welshman Geraint Thomas. Sky wanted Froome to win the time trial yesterday, and clearly told Thomas to ease off; but in the end the stage went to Tom Dumoulin after what amounted to cycling's answer to a VAR review. I was pleased about that. I don't like the excesses of Sky, who have a massive budget to play with. Double that of Movistar, for example.
Seeing what the Tour means to the riders is quite something
But the Tour can withstand Sky, can withstand the lack of a French winner... It has even withstood doping, which is starting to abate. It is, among many things, a collective memory bank. Seeing the riders racing through the Pyrenees on Friday, I was taken back to the years of Federico Bahamontes and Julio Jiménez. Watching Primoz Roglic descending at breakneck pace, you could see what even just getting themselves onto the podium means to the competitors in the Tour. As we witnessed the suffering of three-time world champion Peter Sagan, the highest-paid rider in the peloton, you could really feel how much he wanted to finish the race and claim his fifth green jersey. Three stages of this year's Tour have been the day's most-watched TV broadcasts in Spain. All I can say is: Merci, Monsieur Desgrange.