French sortie charms cycling romantics again
Gavin Brown @gavbrown_metro
First, a disclaimer: the last time I rode a bike on a regular basis I had a fluorescent orange bag on my back stuffed full of Daily Telegraphs and Daily Mails.
Clearly I’m not a regular cyclist, yet suggesting my lack of hours in the saddle somehow means I can’t appreciate the professional sport is like telling an armchair football fanatic their opinions on the Premier League lack any validity.
Granted, an early-morning paper-round has little in common with circumnavigating France, but my days as a paper boy coincided with the start of a 20-year love affair with the Tour de France that, unlike most passions, is only growing stronger with age.
But I know my limits. I love professional cycling, I understand it to a degree, but I would never claim to be an expert. I’m breaking my unwritten (no pun intended) rule to never write an opinion piece about a sport I only partially “get”.
Yet it is this mystery, the constant discovery of fresh nuance and folklore, that fuels the obsession and, besides, the whole ethos of The Sport Collective is about great writing and great passion, not necessarily great expertise. Rest assured, one of those will be found here at least.
So, why do I love the Tour de France? For me, the answer is such a no-brainer, it’s like asking me why I like beer.
It’s the glamour, the mystique of impenetrable unwritten codes of honour, deference and sacrifice among the riders. It’s that, in an era when an Easyjet flight will take you to a provincial French city for £20 and half the footballers in England appear to be French, the Tour de France remains emphatically foreign. Not exotic, but certainly different.
To the armchair enthusiast, the Tour is long, hot summer days, fields of sunflowers, awesome Alpine vistas, a good lunch followed by an afternoon nap in the Massif Central, topped off with a stroll up the Champs-Élysées.
It’s also the knowledge that while you’re soaking up the rich culture and the luscious scenery, around 180 of the world’s top cyclists are pushing their bodies to the limits of their physical capabilities. And then coming back to do it all again tomorrow. And for the next 18-odd days after that.
And these modern-day Tourists follow in the wheel tracks of the greats. Men from the history books such as Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil, whose perceived penchant for Pernod and pills to mask the pain resonate as much as their achievements in the saddle. Monsters like “the cannibal” Eddy Merckx, whose dominance was so great his rivals might as well have been paper boys.
But for this paper boy, the heroes of the past are characters like Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, “the Tashkent terror”, a kamikaze sprinter for whom the maxim “death or glory” almost came true on the Paris finishing straight in 1991 (you can watch the footage through your hands on YouTube) and the troubled but prodigiously talented Italian climber Marco Pantani, who won the drug-addled 1998 Tour and died just six years later after a tragic descent into cocaine addiction.
But the real heroes of the Tour are not always the men who, like Pantani, finish in the yellow jersey. An obvious complaint from most non-believers (aside from doping – and, don’t worry, I’m coming to that) is that the bloke who wins overall rarely crosses the line first. Or, to turn it around, why is it Mark Cavendish can win six stages but finish nearly dead last overall?
Now’s not the place to tackle such issues, but if you pay attention for long enough to learn, the sport will reward you with far more than enjoyment than the enjoyment of knowledge alone.
You’ll discover that the winners – of the general classification and the sprints – are to be admired. The small and wiry climbers who can crest the Pyrenean peaks ahead of the pack will also earn your respect and support.
But perhaps the real kings of the road are the supporting cast: hard, loyal men like Jens Voigt and George Hincapie, who sacrifice the chance of individual glory to serve the needs of their teams.
Or romantic gamblers like Thomas Voeckler and David Millar, the modern peloton’s eternal optimists, always prepared to launch a daring, solo bid for glory miles from home, when years of experience and cold hard statistics tell them they are almost certainly doomed to fail.
The speed bump in the road of total Tour enjoyment has long been the issue of doping. To try and explain your love for a sport with a history and, in all probability, a present of doping is a curious feeling. It’s apologising for a crime you didn’t commit yourself, making excuses for someone you care about, but who just keeps letting you down.
A good friend of mine is a respected sports scientist with a background in endurance events. He’s convinced most leading road cyclists are using banned substances. I don’t want to believe him, and I don’t think I do.
To say cycling exposes more dopers because it carries out more tests is a well-worn line. To point out that every walk of life, sports included, attracts its share of cheats is more cliché. But what they say about cliché is often true.
And besides, one heartening thing about cycling is that, often, it doesn’t need a blood test to expose a cheat. Sometimes, the evidence is all too apparent. If it looks to be good to be true, it probably is.
The Tour de France produces amazing feats of endurance every day, but if the effort appears to be superhuman, the likelihood is it’s just that.
In 2006, Floyd Landis lost eight minutes, the race lead and any hope of victory on one bad day in the Alps. Just 24 hours later he rode away from the field and back into contention with an incredible solo effort.
It was unbelievable, and the positive test for testosterone announced days after the Tour had finished proved as much. The American, who went to win the race, was later stripped of his title.
In 2007 Michael Rasmussen entered the Tour as a highly talented climber considered incapable of winning the race due to his inferior time-trialling. Two weeks in, the Dane led the field after producing form against the clock to match his talent going uphill. Rasmussen had clearly been working on his time-trialling in the off-season.
Sadly, confusion about his pre-race whereabouts suggested he’d also been avoiding the drugs testers. After stage 16, which he won to all but ensure overall victory, the Dane was sacked by his Rabobank team and thrown off the race.
Whatever the arguments about positive tests proving the system is working, evidence of doping can only damage the Tour, and the sport of professional cycling as a whole. But behind every story of a failed test is the chance of a tale of redemption.
Some cheats, like the disgraced Italian Riccardo Ricco, are serial offenders, destined to err again and, hopefully be banished for good from the sport they tarnish. Others, like Millar, use their downfall as a fork in the road, and take the correct path.
After admitting EPO use in 2004 the Briton rebuilt his career and reputation, reconnecting with what made him fall in love with the sport in the first place, and becoming a leading anti-doping campaigner within the peloton, reacting to new offenders with pragmatism rather than the evangelical belief of the converted.
Millar has since turned his story into a critically acclaimed autobiography, but perhaps captured his love for cycling best in his introduction to Michael Barry’s book Le Metier.
Team Sky’s Barry won’t be on the Tour this year but, if he was, he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t notice, the loyal domestique, and selfless worker but, above all, the fan on the bike. To Millar, the Canadian is a kindred spirit, former team-mate and training partner.
“As I’ve grown older,” writes Millar, “I have fallen deeper in love with riding my bike. I will always be a pro cyclist, but no longer is cycling just about training and racing. It is now about something profound and will always be my passion.”
I’ve rarely ridden a bike in anger, but I think I know how Millar feels. When the Tour starts again on Saturday, one of us will be in the saddle, the other on the sofa, but the bike fan in both of us will come alive.
If you enjoyed this, then please check out Gavin’s first-person view of the London Marathon