Louis Malle’s Vive le Tour provides a fascinating snapshot of a very different Tour de France

As the Tour de France kicks off this weekend, we’ve taken this as encouragement to revisit Louis Malle‘s superb documentary Vive le Tour and the wonderful insight it gives us into a very different race.

When Malle turned his cameras on the cyclists in 1962, the Tour de France was almost six decades old – with a couple of pauses for two World Wars – but it was still far from the rigorous, regimented and highly regulated race that it is today.

Despite Vive le Tour‘s very slim running time of just under nineteen minutes, Malle manages to give us a real taste of what the Tour was like. He doesn’t waste any time in recounting what occurred that year in the actual race, like who won or who lost, and he doesn’t bother with any details at all about who the cyclists we’re seeing actually are. Instead this is a look at the Tour itself and the insanity it entailed.

In this Tour, riders literally cycle until they drop, bloody wounds to dependably helmet-free heads are patched up by medics whilst the cyclists are still furiously pedalling, and speedy stops are made at cafes to grab wine and beer to be stuffed in jersey pockets and knocked back with much gusto as the race goes on.

Scenes of this quick-stop refuelling make for some of the most memorable moments in Vive le Tour, as cyclists leap from their bikes, crash through tables and chairs and grab bottles from behind the bar. They don’t pay for what they take but we’re informed that the bills were often submitted to the Tour Director for payment following the race.

And they don’t just want wine and beer because they’re thirsty. Alcohol, and many other substances, were used to numb the intense pain that the cyclists experienced in the gruelling mountain stages.

Substance testers at the Tour de France did not arrive until 1965 and by this point the Tour had already become synonymous with all kinds of doping, from alcohol, strychnine and ether for the pain and, towards the beginning of the sixties, amphetamines and hormones for greater speed and endurance.

The competitors didn’t just knock back booze, though, they did occasionally drink water too, but even this was procured in a rather unusual and ramshackle manner. Support cars with bottles and domestiques delivering precious water seem to be absent in Vive le Tour, and whilst musettes are handed out, these don’t seem to be sufficient. We see cyclists by the side of the road, desperate to supplement their water supplies, frantically clamouring to fill their bottles from the hose pipe of a local spectator.

But what goes in must come out. Malle amusingly captures a cyclist at one point as he takes a rest break by the side of the road. This is definitely something that still happens during today’s Tour de France, but it’s no longer something that will make it on screen.

What makes Malle’s film so thoroughly fascinating is that it’s so unvarnished, without restraint or any attempt to make the Tour look good.

Even still, the extraordinary abilities of the men taking on one of sport’s most challenging competitions still shines through. Despite the rough edges that Malle leaves in view, or maybe even because of them, we’re left with the definite sense that this is one tough race.

Malle manages to get us incredibly close to action with his handheld cameras, and at one point gives us an astounding point of view shot of what the cyclists will see as they whizz through the thousands of assembled spectators.

The Tour de France kicks off in the UK this weekend for its first three stages, before heading to France on Tuesday. Whether you can’t wait for it to start or didn’t even know it was just round the corner, I would heartily recommend checking out Malle’s Vive le Tour for a gripping and eye-opening microcosm of a very different time.

Vive le Tour is included in The Criterion Collection’s excellent Eclipse set, The Documentaries of Louis Malle.