On stage six of the 2017 Tour de France, soon after the roll out from Vesoul, the bunch passed through the tiny village of Combeaufontaine. As the TV helicopter hovered above, it panned on a sight far more striking than the three-man breakaway that had been given leeway by the bunch.
The camera showed a big watch face on a field, its hands powered by humans, horses circling the perimeter. For the farmers of Haute-Saône, one of the country’s most easterly departments, it was time – literally, seeing as that was the 2017 theme of the FNSEA competition “Farmers love le Tour”. It’s the annual contest put on by France’s national farmers’ union that pits local agriculteurs against one another throughout the race.
Weeks of planning led to these few seconds of nationwide coverage. First, they had found the right field on the route, helped by a surveyor. A colourful watch face, 31 metres in diameter, then took shape, with tarpaulins placed above and below it to form a strap. Hemp straw spelled out their message: Les Agriculteurs de Haute-Saône enchantent vos saisons (The farmers of Haute-Saône delight your seasons) while the dial was divided into four parts: white tarpaulin for winter, brown bark to evoke autumn, mixed straw adding a yellow hue for summer and bare pasture for spring. And a treble clef for that final flourish.
On the morning, they carried out a dress rehearsal before the publicity caravan arrived. Then, the crucial moment: putting it all into motion as the race passed. A man under the minute hand was holding a mobile phone, was told that they were on telly and instructed his fellow farmers to start pushing. Seventeen horses were simultaneously led around the clock face – the one at seven o’clock was trying to trot off, but who are we to nitpick? Their masterpiece had impressive attention to detail: the time was set to 12:50, the predicted arrival of the peloton.
While riders fought on France’s roads for three weeks, 18 regions did battle on adjacent fields with similar flair and competitiveness. The farmers of the Landes intricately fashioned a chicken from hay bales and different coloured covers. Elsewhere, tractors were artfully assembled and in the Haute-Loire, a giant hourglass was made from straw, with a dog herding a hundred sheep into its bottom half to show time ebbing away.
However, there could only be one winner. The farmers in Haute-Saône won the prize last time the Tour passed through the eastern region in 2014, and they did it again this time round, beating the Ardèche and Vosges/Dordogne onto lower rungs of the podium. As the Tour organisation’s subsequent press release states: “The harmonious combination of a treble clef and the characteristic chestnut coat of Comtois draft horses hit all the right keys!”
Meanwhile, Haute-Loire’s hourglass snagged the jury prize, voted for by a prestigious seven-strong panel that included Christian Prudhomme and Bernard Hinault. The Badger clearly knows a good farming fresco when he sees one.
While EU subsidies, soaring taxes and plummeting food prices threaten an industry that was once France’s lifeblood, it’s nice to see France’s farmers and its national race in greater harmony. In the late 20th century, the paysans were partial to the odd disruption on the Tour route. In 1982, an Alpine stage start was delayed by farmers blocking the road with their tractors, angry at a breakdown in talks with the government. Eight years later, a strike in the southwest nearly halted the Tour altogether, as protestors burned tyres and felled four trees over the road. The peloton was stopped kilometres before and led on a diversion through local lanes.
Keep an eye on your TV screens for more agricultural artistry. Farmers love le Tour, and farmers, we love your work.
This article was originally published in Rouleur 18.4