Despite some popular myths, the Channel 4 theme tune is not by Kraftwerk, but by Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks.
With the first few notes of that synthesiser theme – it’s suddenly July twenty odd years ago. On a warm summers evening it’s dinner time so Dad has to set the VCR to record the half hour highlights show on Channel 4. Sometimes the timer cuts off the start, other more infuriating times it cuts off Gary Imlach’s closing round up of the day’s events and the preview of tomorrow’s. But as consolation we get to fast forward the ad breaks.
The Tour de France was briefly mentioned during French lessons at school, but no where else. Kids didn’t talk about it in the playground, it wasn’t covered on the 9 o’clock news. It was foreign and exotic, and all slightly baffling. My sisters and I would ask Dad about the different jerseys, what each one meant. Why the sprinters crossing the line first wouldn’t be in Yellow the next day.
The television pictures were often poor, in the mountains the screen would crackle with static, interlaced with horizontal bands of interference. It made the race seem tougher somehow, the mountains more remote where TV technology struggled to penetrate. In that half hour show we’d only ever see the action, the decisive moments of drama, as if the race was constantly uphill with the riders grinding away under the beating sun. Or alternatively a constant manical bunch sprint in a provincial French town, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov weaving at the front between the advertising hoardings.
The riders’ names were European and lyrical – Bugno, Chiappucci, Fignon – but amongst them was the rarity of something more familiar. Yates, Millar, Kelly, Roche. Our interest was in the Irish riders, the reason my Dad followed the race in the first place. I remember the year Stephen Roche entered Paris wearing the yellow jersey and feeling nervous – what if he lost the lead now, what if he crashed? I didn’t quite understand the ceremonial nature of that closing stage.
The Tour de France still feels as special as ever, more so than any other race. It might not always be the most exciting, often marred by drug busts and positive tests, but it has a tradition and stature that elevates the event onto the world stage and that transcends its failings. That original Channel 4 theme captured something intrinsic about the Tour – the modernity, but also the human idea of glory through suffering. It feels hopeful and optimistic. Nothing has quite come close to it since.