The naked truth

The French love their boules au naturel as much as their food

Later, on this windy roadside in southern Provence, the peloton of the Tour de France will pass, but first we are going to the sea. We drive past fields of black toros. White Camargue horses. The salt flats. Flamingos. Now we can hear the waves of the Mediterranean slapping at the sandy shore. Prickly blue sky. Heat. Too much sun.

They are playing boules near the dunes when we arrive. Traditionally boules, also known as pétanque, is played by old men in berets in village squares. Not here. In another group just metres from us, three or four generations of a chubby family are playing boules in the nude.

Our hostess, Chantal, has parked her camper van at the point where the nude beach officially joins the clothed beach. Chantal tells me she has chosen this spot "so that those who wish may be clothed" and also the opposite. Aside from the dearth of swimming costumes, there is no apparent difference between the people on either side of the hand-painted sign that divides the beach. Fat, thin, young, old. Couples, singles, large extended family groups. The obese, and there are many, look much better in the nude, in fact.

People come from all over Europe to summer at Piémanson. It is all wild camping, completely unauthorised, but officials look the other away. This is the same syndrome that for half a century allowed sporting authorities to ignore doping in the Tour de France.

Chantal greets us with the usual three air kisses. Then she returns to her game of boules. There are six players, both sexes, mixed ages, varying degrees of dress. The losing team will provide tonight's aperitif. The object of the game is to hurl your boule closest to the small wooden ball called the cochonnet, either by aiming well or by knocking the other players' boules out of the way. The first to score 13 wins.

Guy, the best player, tells me that he learned to play at the age of five with plastic boules made specially for children. The regulation boules, about the size of a baseball, can weigh between 620 and 800 grams.

Much later, on the roadside where the cycles of the Tour de France are due to pass, the heat is almost Saharan, despite the wind. There is suddenly a shout, bright colours in the distance, mounting excitement, and then, much too quickly, it is all over. The main pack has ridden past and on into the final week of the long endurance race.

It is clear that the French people of all ages who are cheering along the roadside did not come for the spectacle, which is minimal, nor for a French hero - no Frenchman has won since Bernard Hinault in 1985. When I raise the issue of doping, these Provençaux just give a shrug. They know better than to expect the impossible of champions.

The Tour is such a part of French culture that Le Monde, a newspaper which really is its country's top people's paper, has a journalist cycling every stage of the entire race. His pace is understandably slower, but - like the vrais champions - he undergoes the standard blood and urine tests. And just like them, as Guillaume Prébois explains in the august pages of Le Monde, he is obliged to cream up his private bits lest they be rubbed raw.

The spectators at the roadside, most of whom probably never cycle further than the supermarché or boulangerie, tell me they are here to applaud the Tour cyclists' muscle and will, the courage to ride on and on and on without much hope of victory, and with a blistered bum.

Adrianne Blue is a senior lecturer in international journalism at City University and the author of many books on sport.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?