Like most things French, the Tour de France starts and ends around a lunch or dinner table.
In 1903, when Geo Lefevre told Henri Desgrange, his boss at sports newspaper L’Auto about his idea of a cycling Tour de France, Desgrange summoned him to explain the details of his plan at Zimmer’s, one of Paris most famous Alsacian brasseries.
The deal was struck between cheese and desert and the crazy idea, probably fueled by a little bit of wine, was so good that it celebrates its 100th edition this year.
The start of the first Tour was in front of a bar, Le Reveil Matin in Montgeron, near Paris, and several of the race’s most famous episodes took place around a good meal or a few glasses.
The greatest cycling show on earth lost its innocence in 1924 in a restaurant in Coutances, in Normandy, when the Pelissier brothers, and among them defending Tour champion Henri, decided to call it quits in protest at what they believed was the harsh treatment imposed on them by Desgrange.
At the table was also renowned French reporter Albert Londres — he gave his name to the most prestigious journalism award in the country — who listened to what the Pelissiers had to say.
While the menu and wine list have been long forgotten, the contents of the Pelissiers’ bags have not: strychnine, cocaine and various doping substances to help the riders face their ordeal.
“We ride on dynamite,” Henri Pelissier told Londres as the world discovered doping, 80 years before the Lance Armstrong scandal.
In 1998, doping almost cost then-Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc a presidential invitation.
Leblanc was about to attend dinner with then-French president Jacques Chirac in his family castle in Bity when news broke that Festina team director Bruno Roussel had confessed to organized doping within the French outfit.
“We decided to kick them out of the Tour and I arrived at the presidential table at 11pm. Chirac still insisted on cooking me a big steak to hear all the details of the case,” Leblanc said.
Food is, and always has been, a vital part of the race. Decisions are made over a glass of wine at dinner or a cup of coffee at breakfast.
Gastronomy is such a part of the way of life in France that a tour of the country’s regions has to reflect the diversity of the cuisine.
Every morning at the Village Depart, riders in their racing gear, VIPs in suits and journalists in shorts and T-shirts gather around huge buffets for a taste of the local specialties and wines — the cheese of Corsica, the oysters of Cancale, the foie gras of the Pyrenees or the fondue of the Alps.
And every evening, when the race is over, the whole Tour crew — known as suiveurs or “followers” — stage their own race to make it to the best local restaurants before closing time.
It cannot be totally fortuitous that Michelin Guide editor-in-chief Jean-Francois Mesplede used to be the Tour de France correspondent for Lyon daily Le Progres.
Culinary surprises along the road are often delicious, but sometimes less so. One year, French novelist Antoine Blondin, arguably the best writer the Tour has known, found himself treated to guinea fowls at three dinners in succession.
“We should give this bird a bike and a bib,” he said.
Riders, by contrast, are supposed to follow a strict diet and rely mostly on omelettes and pasta. They should be happy to reach Mont St Michel home of France’s most famous omelette at restaurant La Mere Poulard.