July 2, 2010 4:50 pm

Images from the Tour de France

Thousands stand for hours by the side of the road to cheer and clap for the few minutes their heroes take to pass – and then they go home. Monarchs, heads of state and religious leaders are among the select few who receive this treatment – and cyclists on the Tour de France. The extraordinary photographs shown here provide some clues as to why these elite athletes merit such fascination.

The first hint is the road snailing through the mountains, humans swarming along its length. This is humankind leaving its mark on nature, but not dominating it. It is the spectacle of men going beyond their apparent limits, but not overstepping them; ambition and achievement without hubris.

The bicycle is a reminder of a fleeting phase in human development when a genuine harmony of people, technology and nature was still possible. It is a machine powered by nothing more than the sculpted, rock-like muscles of the rider. Though it enables us to travel further and faster than we can by ourselves, it blends with, rather than stains, the landscape – unlike the trucks which speed down motorways or aircraft that scar the skies. Romantic nonsense, perhaps, in an age of doping and computer-engineered bicycles. But it is a romance based in a truth: that the harmony of tour cyclist, bike and road is a human achievement that exceeds that of even horse, rider and field.

Julian Baggini’s latest book is ‘Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests’ (Profile Books)

This year’s Tour de France starts on Wednesday in Rotterdam

Project Le Tour exhibition, Los Angeles, July 17 to August 31 www.clark-oshingallery.com

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