Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Eve of Le Tour - mimitig

So finally, after months of anticipation, we are on the verge of the 2008 Tour de France. For many this is an occasion to be savoured – casual fans only hear of cycling’s dark days, but this year, thanks to the authorities and national bodies that run cycling, we look to a Tour cleaner, and provenly cleaner than for many years.

Sadly, when cycling gets minimal coverage at any time in the media, today the big articles are still about doping and also about the politics that run rife in the organising bodies. Instead of acres of print about the great riders who, tomorrow, will be setting off from Brest in the greatest of all bike races, the papers dwell on whether the ASO will set up a separate tour from the UCI. This is nonsense.

It cheapens and demeans a sport that has done more than any other in trying, and mostly succeeding, in addressing problems with performance-enhancing drug-taking.

What the papers should have said today is that we are about to see the most open and drug-tested Tour de France that has ever been. Dodgy teams have not even been allowed to enter – that’s Astana – meaning that last year’s winner is not going to be able to defend his win. Not that he, Contador, has been found guilty of any infringement, but ASO don’t want to taint the Tour by letting a team with “history” be there.

In my view, the mainstream media would do well to stop picking up second-hand stories about what is wrong with Professional Road Cycling, and spend the next three weeks watching a peloton (that has pretty much whole-heartedly signed up to the bio-passports for proving itself to be drug free), and that has, collectively ridden brilliantly this season, prove itself.

This may be the last chance for cycling to show the world that it has cleaned up its act – something athletics manifestly hasn’t done (cf Dwaine Chambers and his last ditch chance to go the Olympics by taking his case to the High Court of Lawyers with Lots of Money vs Those Who Want Drug Cheats to be Banned for Life).

Eagle-eyed readers will recognise a dichotomy there. I have publicly supported the return to cycling of “former drug-cheat” David Millar, and it is a position I find hard to justify. BUT, and there is a big but. Not only did Millar admit his guilt straightaway, but then did all he could to expose suppliers and the system that had led him into his errors. Chambers has not.

But I did not intend this to be an article about performance-enhancement – I had to take that small diversion to explain why I am prepared to accept Millar riding the Tour this year.

My intention, and thank you if you’ve stuck with me this far, was to whet your appetites for the biggest sporting event of the year. That’s a fact. Even in the most troubled years, Le Tour attracts more spectators than any other event (live). The football, at its highest point, only gets maybe 100,000 in an arena. Le Tour has several million throughout its route through France and neighbouring countries. Last year that included Britain – more than three million turned out to watch the men in lycra duel in the opening Time Trial Prologue and then watch them on Stage One through Greater London and Kent.

I don’t think anyone has added up the television audience for Le Tour. But one of the amazing things about the people who line the routes from Prologue to the finale in Paris, is that so many are actual cyclists. Loads of people either do the pre-Tour ride, taking the same route as the Pros, but quite possibly walking their bikes up the steepest parts in the Alps and Pyrenees or follow the peloton. It is unprecedented in sport.

A pal of mine warmed up for watching Le Tour this year by riding from John O’Groats to Lands End and back to Elgin in a week. A team of four, with one support vehicle, did this in a week. Yes, just seven days. Today Gary told me that he had pushed it further than he thought possible. With terrible weather in Cumbria, the Borders and motorists swearing at them as they traversed the dual-carriageways around Glasgow, they kept going. And for why? Yes for charity, but also because each and every one of those four men had grown up with the legends of Jacques Anquetil, the cannibal Eddy Merckx, the badger Bernard Hinault, Tommy Simpson (RIP) and the inimitable Big Mig Indurain.

Lance Armstrong was mentioned, but in a different breath. He is, unarguably, the most successful Tour rider ever. There is no question about that. However, he sacrificed being great in other races to his Tour dream and so in my mind, he is not as great as some earlier greats, and obviously not to such as my pal.

Well, less than 24 hours to go, and yet again Le Tour’s first day will be competing with tennis at Wimbledon, qualifying for the British Grand Prix and Essex v Yorks in the second semi-final of the Friends Provident Trophy.

Thank Dog there’s no football then!

Me – I’ll go for a gentle warm-up ride along the coastal cycle path, have a little bit of tennis on a home-made court and read a lot of cricinfo. Then I’ll settle in for Brest to Plumelec – 197.5 km on the flat and have no clue who will either win Stage One, or be the favourite. It’ll be Tuesday before anyone shows their hand, and what other sporting event keeps you on those sort of tenterhooks?

Join me next week to see if we have a race or a political intrigue. My money is on the race and I wouldn’t bet against the Manx Express, Mark Cavendish, taking the sprint win on Day One.

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