For bicycling aficionados, the centennial Tour de France is heading for a nail-biting end Sunday, pitting four-time winner American Lance Armstrong against German Jan Ullrich. But for many ordinary French, the biking race is simply good entertainment, either on TV or live for those lucky enough to watch the bikers whizz by. Lisa Bryant went to Cognac, in southwestern France, to see how one town welcomed the tour.
This riverside town, famous for its salt and alcoholic spirits, was celebrating long before Lance Armstrong and the other tour cyclists were scheduled to sweep through. Cognac has just opened its annual music festival, and strains of jazz and Mississippi blues float from the town's public gardens and bars.
Tourists sip lemonade and wine in outdoor cafes. Some are here for the biking tour, but others like New Yorker Guy Davis, who is part of a band called The High Flying Rockets, are here for the music.
"I know what they do during tours. They peddle real fast. And I have seen people come out of the crowd and get run over by bicycles. So I am going to wish them all great luck. But I am going to just cool out," he said.
But unlike Mr. Davis most people in Cognac were eager to see the tour. By midday Friday, police had lined the main artery with metal roadblocks. Small children and retirees sat on the sidewalk in deck chairs, waiting patiently for the bikers to arrive. And veteran cyclers, like 84-year-old Andre Chenu, had staked out particularly good watching spots.
Mr. Chenu once biked alongside tour racers in the 1940s. Cycling was much simpler then, he said. There was no money and no promotion. Racers were much slower, he said, but amateurs and professionals shared much comraderie.
Robert Berthe, a 77-year-old French biker, agrees. Mr. Berthe participated in four Tour de France races in the 1940s, placing roughly in the middle of the 100-men packs. During the off-season, he would set off on 60-kilometer cycling trips, fortified by a breakfast of horse meat, eggs, and port wine. After that meal, he said, he could go a long way.
This is not the first Tour de France to pass through Cognac. The 1999 race zipped by here, with Mr. Armstrong then holding a commanding lead. The first ever Tour de France also passed through Cognac, before dawn, one July morning in 1903.
The passage of this latest, centennial tour marks a bright spot for the southwestern French region.
Cognac earned an international reputation manufacturing fine brandy, but today only about half the region's production is sold. Now a drought has hit the Cognac region and the city's mayor, Jerome Mouhot, says that means more bad news because, paradoxically, more grapes will go to producing more cognac, instead of wine.
But during this tour season, Mr. Mouhot put his economic worries aside. He says he has no personal favorites to win the Tour de France. But generally, he says, French like the underdog, the person least likely to win.
Across town, Cognac residents and foreign tourists offered mixed assessments of race.
Jean-Jaques Moreau, from Cognac, says he enjoys watching cycling. He says he is rooting for Lance Armstrong to win because the biker has worked hard and deserves it.
But Daam Roalrandschap, from the Netherlands, knew who he did not want to win. "I do not hope for Armstrong to win. Somebody else would be nice. Ullrich is nice. There are many favorites," he said.
But Lance Armstrong could count on at least two fans in Cognac. Americans Kathleen Miltiadous and her friend Andy Rogers, have been following the Tour de France by car. Now, they stood on the city's sidewalk, brandishing U.S. and Texan flags. Mr. Rogers, said he was sure Lance Armstrong would win.
"I think he has got a lot of reserves. It is surprising he is not further ahead, given his previous wins," he said. "But more than ever, he understands you can not kill yourself on the first day."
Just a few minutes later, a pack of bikers rounded the corner. In the middle, wearing a yellow jersey, was Lance Armstrong.
In less than a minute, defending champion Armstrong and his fellow racers had disappeared from view. And the Tour de France, for Cognac at least, was over.