A relationship that could once have been described as "amour fou" is back, after a messy divorce. The rekindling of the love affair between Germany and the Tour de France is a boost for the country, says Joscha Weber.
Sunday mornings in Düsseldorf are normally calm affairs. In the upscale Grafenberg district, where mansions jostle for coveted hillside space on the edge of the forest, you might see an older gentleman walking his dog and a few times a year, a well-heeled audience gathers to have a flutter at the nearby racecourse. But this Sunday was different.
Early on, hours before the main event, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of spectators craning their necks to get the best possible view of what's happening further down the hill. Who would've thought it? Germany and cycling, Germany and the Tour de France - it was once a passionate love affair, set ablaze by Jan Ullrich's victory in 1997. Then, the "amour fou," as the French would describe it, ended after a decade of doping scandals took their toll - television numbers fell and fans became less enamored with their sport. Le Tour. C'est fini.
Düsseldorf surpasses its own expectations
But now the Tour is back on German soil and the natives have once again found their love for the race. As it worked its way through the city, about half a million people braved the constant rain to line the route. The noise was so overwhelming that crowd favorite Tony Martin could not hear instructions from his team. All the German riders were deeply moved by the atmosphere, organizers were delighted and the international press were suitably impressed. Düsseldorf exceeded its own expectations, despite the weather.
It is also a victory over the doubters. The "Grand Depart Düsseldorf" project had plenty of opposition. Lord Mayor Thomas Geisel got the proposal through by a single vote and there were widespread concerns about financial costs and road closures. In fact, at one stage, the entire project seemed to be teetering on the brink. It seemed, after Olympic bids from Hamburg and Munich, the German public had lost its appetite for hosting sporting events. But it would be such a shame if regulations, finance and complaints from local residents meant Germany was reluctant to host such spectacles.
A plea for the sport itself
But the second day of the Tour de France seemed to render those concerns moot. Hundreds of thousands took their place on the route, from Düsseldorf via Mettmann, Mönchengladbach and Aachen to the Belgian border. In every city, every village, people stood several rows deep to catch a glimpse of the peloton.
In fact the relationship between Germans and the Tour has developed into something new. It's no longer the naive hope and faith of the Ullrich era, nor the toxic fallout that followed. Instead it is mature and realistic, enthusiastic but able to cast a critical eye. The mood of those watching on should show Germany that sporting events outside of football also have their place. This feeling should linger long after the residents of Grafenberg return to their sleepy Sundays.