Well folks, it’s that time of year again. For three weeks of the high summer we have, depending on your point of view, either days and days of fit young men with muscular thighs and calves, clad in skin-tight lycra defying sanity and reason, racing for over 2,000 miles round France and neighbouring countries, or a bunch of crazed drug-loonies racing for …..
Call me naïve, call me a fool, but I go for the former. Unlike last year, the start of this year’s Tour de France could not have gone better. Of the 190 riders due to start, only one did not – and the drug-related reason for Petacchi’s disqualification could hardly be more shaky if it were a sand-castle falling down as the tide comes in. As an asthma sufferer, he is registered with the authorities for the use of salbutamol, and it would appear that only the weather conditions caused him to present an illegal sample of about a nano-gramme. This is a far cry from the dramas of 2006, which saw leading contenders falling by the way-side before the Grand Depart in the wake of Operacion Puerto (still unresolved).
Waved off in the Mall yesterday by London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, in beautiful sunshine and with crowds of about one million lining the route of the 8K Prologue course, the world of professional cycle racing breathed a sigh of relief. London had scarcely looked more stunning – for once, as commentators Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett noted – there was no scaffolding masking the architectural treasures of the capital, and all was set for the most exciting of time-trials that I have seen for many a year. Early on Andreas Kloden set a stunning time, just over the 9 minutes and for ages this looked unbeatable. Our own Brad Wiggins rode his heart out and only missed out on a podium by thousandths of a second. At the very end, World Champ Fabian Cancellara made them all look slow, dipping below the 9 minutes and showing the world just what Swiss sportsmen are made of (or maybe just making sure Roger knew what he had to do in SW19 the following day!).
As I watched the scenes in London – so many happy people and such calm organisation, it seemed unreal that only a week before, this country had been on the highest of security alerts due to thwarted terrorist threats. It was a triumph for Ken, the public and the men in lycra. When Christian Prudhomme was interviewed by Gary Imlach and Chris Boardman at the end of the day, he could not stop smiling. His first year as Directeur – what a start.
They rolled out of Town this morning – more stunning TV shots of London (and let’s not forget that it is the French who control the broadcasting) – as our lycra-clad heroes pedalled slowly to the race start in Greenwich. Ken got to wave them off again at Tower Bridge and after a couple of Ks – covered faster by these boys than most commuters manage in cars – the race real began. It didn’t take long for Saunier-Duval’s (and Scotland’s own) David Millar to take on the pack. He led a sole breakaway for what seemed like most of the race. He was joined by a couple of Frenchmen and two others and they led the peloton through the Kent countryside. The peloton stopped off for a communal slash at about the only point on the route when the roads were not lined by an astonishing hundreds of thousands of spectators, while Paul Sherwen got all his words muddled up describing the orchards and hopfields of Kent as the “bread-basket of London”. Phil, who has commentated on the Tour for more years than I care to remember was convinced, as was I, that we’ve not seen crowds like this in the French countryside in recent years.
As the kilometres were covered, the breakaway was pulled back – the sprinters’ teams got themselves organised. Quickstep for Tom Boonen, Credit Agricole for Thor Hushovd and predictably, Predictor Lotto for the Pimpernel aka Robbie McEwen. T-Mobile should have been in it for Mark Cavendish, but a nasty crash (hitting a spectator) had put paid to the young Manxman’s dream, and one didn’t give much for the chances of the Australian either. Robbie had punctured at the start of the race, got back, only to crash – or be crashed into – a scant 18K from the finish. With only 5K to go, although his team were working feverishly, Robbie was pretty much stone last.
But this man is a wonder to behold (he had already 11 Stage wins in his Tour career), and less than 200m out, suddenly, there he was. Blazing up the right-hand side – just as we were thinking little Robbie Hunter would steal the glory – and just swept everyone away. It was one of McEwen’s best wins, and with skin torn from his leg and a damaged wrist, one could only laugh at the irony as he described himself as a “light-weight”.
David Millar got his due reward for a courageous breakaway, and canny riding for the intermediate sprints and climbs, so starts tomorrow in the Polka Dot Jersey of King of the Mountains, and in third place in the General Classification. Brad Wiggins’s brave ride in the Prologue leaves him fifth – the first time I can remember two Brits in the top 10. Robbie is resplendent once again in green and who would bet against him winning tomorrow in Ghent? It is, after all, his adopted home. Fabian stays in yellow – he now has two of those cute cuddly lions this year.
I love Le Tour de France, I love men in lycra, I love the sight of French gendarmes on duty in the streets of South London. As Phil said: “it doesn’t get much more bizarre than that.” For the Tour and for its English hosts, it doesn’t get much better than the last two days.