28 Jun 2013

‘In France, it’s a big thing…’ Tour de France (1963)

As the Tour de France prepares for its 100th race, Channel 4 News Picture Researcher Ian Searcey delves into the archive to reveal how ITN broadcast the race fifty years ago to a bemused Britain.

On 25th June 1963, as part of ITN’s Roving Report series of documentaries, John Whale visited Roubaix Stadium in North Eastern France to witness the end of the third stage of the 50th Tour de France and to examine the appeal of cycling to our Continental cousins. With the sport incredibly popular with millions across Europe, cycling is “a big thing” in France explains Whale, and the Tour “the Cup Final, the Boat Race and the Grand National all rolled into one.”

Along with the rest of the European press, radio and TV crews, ITN joins the crowd to watch the 130 riders (split into 13 teams) sweep into the stadium for a couple of laps to end the third race of the three week Tour. As British sport at that time seemed largely free of the overtly commercial approach favoured by the Tour organisers, (no sponsor names on football shirts in those days!) Whale appears to find the amount of sponsorship and advertising around professional cycling amusing if not a little distasteful. A pre-race motorcycle acrobatic display is provided by “a liquor firm”, huge flies on bikes are chased by large aerosol flykillers, and a gas company sponsor the marching band.

The Jambes to Roubaix stage was won by Seamus “Shay” Elliott (actually making history that day as the first Irishman to win the coveted yellow jersey) and having been presented a bouquet by a “shy blonde” who is also “advertising men’s trousers” according to Whale, and wrestled into the yellow jersey, he is rewarded with an interview with our man from ITN about his chances of winning the tour (he admits he has none) and then the playing of “God Save the Queen” for the, no doubt bemused, Dubliner.

While the final notes of our national anthem are still ringing out, Whale also interviews professional cyclist Alan Ramsbottom, originally from Lancashire, on the strains of the Tour, how cyclists make a living, about life on the continent, the chances of Jacques Anquetil retaining his title and how the French cycling superstar makes his money.

As the stadium empties and the “girls selling headache remedies and trousers” disappear, Whale points out to those who find the excitement around the Tour de France hard to explain “it is worth remembering that to a Frenchman a Test Match must seem an equally strange observance.”

Jacques Anquetil was to take his third successive Tour title on July 14th 1963 when the race ended in Paris on Bastille Day. Ramsbottom finished 16th while Elliott was the last Irishman to wear the Yellow Jersey until Sean Kelly led the Tour in 1983.