Monday, 14 July 2008

Why I Love the Tour de France

I know that this blog is full up with the problems that I encounter in my life and the things that annoy, scare and anger me, so I thought that I would throw in something more positive and current. As I have said before if I had started this blog ten years ago (well, I only got internet access from home in 2001, so it would have been tough), a lot of it would be about cycling. You would have found a blog with hand-drawn maps and scanned in photographs of my various trips in parts of England and northern France. I have never been a strong cyclist, I could never make the 15mph sustained over 50 miles which was necessary to join the local club in Milton Keynes, but I enjoyed seeing places and it gave me a great sense of achievement when I had few things in my life to give me that. In London it got me out from the very urban East End and in Milton Keynes as in Oxford before, I got to see many beautiful parts of the English countryside and visit stately homes and eat in nice pubs. Much the same in France where I cycled through areas which are beautiful now but had been key regions in the battles of the Middle Ages and 20th century and I ate very well in a whole host of restaurants and had the 'little adventures' as I called them that you cannot avoid when cycling. The little adventures are things that are not insurmountable but create a decent anecdote like almost being hit by a deer jumping from a bush, stopping to help rescue a man who had fallen into a canal or almost being wrapped up in a security van heist on a wooded road in Normandy.

Now of course all that is behind me as I have aged and live in a town which is almost impossible to get out of on a bicycle due to the busy roads and motorways which ring it. I have only been on my bicycle once since 2005. So you have a very different blog. One enduring thing from my cycling days is my interest in the Tour de France. Most countries of western Europe have a national bicycle race and there are many other 'classic' shorter races too. Other parts of the world, notably the USA, Australia and Malaysia have races that attract the World's best road racers. Central Asia and South America are increasingly home for leading cyclists who ride alongside people from the longer establish cycling nations like France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg with leading names from Australia and the USA having appeared in recent decades. The most famous of all these races is the Tour de France which has been running since 1903 and for a minority interest sport (well in the UK it is) receives surprisingly large coverage in the news, though in the UK you still have to hunt out actual coverage of the race on obscure channels (currently ITV4) and at odd hours. This year is not bad as it is shown at 7pm but in the past it has been on after midnight. There was a golden era when you got 30 minutes each night on Channel 4 in the 1990s but that was really the last it was seen on the main terrestrial channels. Coverage in the newspapers is far better. I first saw the Tour de France at school, in 1982/3. A French teacher had recorded a stage going up to the Puy de Dome. He was a keen cyclist but where he had got this from I had no idea. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the stage which I remember was a lone breakaway from a cyclist who had been injured. However, it was not until the mid-1990s that I was able to watch the race regularly.

What is so special about the Tour de France? Well, unlike a football match which lasts only 90 minutes, the Tour goes on for 3 weeks. It is a stage race so there is a winner each day. It is like getting 19 or 20 winners (they have a couple of rest days) in a competition. The winner overall is the man (there is women's cycling too, but it gets far less coverage, though you are likely to see it as part of the Olympics, it got good coverage in Sydney and Athens) who gets around the course in the least time. Sometimes even after three weeks of cycling and covering 3-4000 kilometres a man can win by a matter of seconds. So, you have three weeks of tension and the standing of different competitors can alter day-to-day. Having 180 cyclists going along French town or country roads is hazardous so there can be crashes and the weather can be very varied from baking hot to very windy and storms. In previous years there has even been snow in July when they reached the height of the Alps and Pyrenees. The terrain is another factor. France has it all from flat countryside to some of the highest mountains in Europe and different stages are to the advantage of different racers. On flat or urban stages you find the 'sprinters' often from countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, though also Australia who charge in the mass of the 'peloton' (as the main group of cyclists on the road is called) to snatch a victory. On other days in the mountains it is men from Spain, Italy and Colombia who manage to sustain and win often thousands of metres above sea level. On any day there is a chance that one man or a small group will break away and win personal glory. There are also time trials in which either individuals or as a team they race against the clock rather than each other and the winner is the one who turns in the best time. So, within a single competition you get a whole variety of different road racing.

There are also different 'jerseys' for men who are leading in the different competitions. Normally they wear their bright team colours but put on a different coloured jersey if leading in one of the competitions of the Tour. The man leading the overall time competition wears the yellow jersey and this is the prime one that people focus on. However, as the cyclists proceed different sections give different points. There are sprint points and the man who crosses ahead of the rest picks up points (with others going to second and third place) and this contributes to the green jersey. There is also the red polka dot jersey for the so-called 'King of the Mountains' every hill or mountain that the cyclists cross has points for the men going first over the summit. Each summit is categorised and so high mountain tops give more points than low hills. The green and the red polka dot jerseys, thus give credit to the two types of specialists in teams. There is also the white jersey for the rider under 21 who has the best time and recognition is also given to the 'most aggressive' rider always trying to get to the front or breakaway, though there is no jersey for this.

There are teams, which like those in motor-racing are sponsored by commercial companies selling everything from telephones to insurance to clothing, in the past ONCE the Spanish lottery for the blind sponsored a team. Each team has nine members usually of different nationalities. They also have different expertise and teams aim to have at least one sprinter, one mountain climber and one man good in the time trials. There are also the 'domestiques' who are less renowned cyclists who help support the stars of each team. They pick up food and drink supplies and bring them to other cyclists of their team. If one of the stars drops back because of a puncture or an accident, they ride with them to help them get back into the peloton. For mountain climbers they can be pacemakers; for sprinters they are the 'lead out' men who create the slip stream through the bunch for the sprinter to follow safely. If their star's bicycle breaks often they will give up their own bicycle so that they can ride on. The whole race is followed by an armada of team cars, doctor's cars, food, spare part and referees' cars. Motorcycles carrying information and filming the race mix in with the cyclists too while an aircraft and a helicopter fly overhead to relay the pictures. Along the roadside often creating a hazard themselves are thousands and thousands of spectators many local but many who travel from across the world to see the cyclist hurtle past.

Every day you can tune in and see how your favourite racer is doing and as they close in on the finish line it is as exciting as watching a horse race and in my view far more exciting than Formula 1 as all the leaders can be shoulder to shoulder and the winner win by centimetres on the line. Last week a man who had been out for over 200Km was caught within 2 seconds of crossing the finishing line. You can imagine the drama of watching that. Even the commentators (and the British ones are far more reserved than the French ones) got very excited. I find the race most exciting when there is no single dominant cyclist. In the early 1990s and early 2000s it got rather tedious as Spaniard Miguel Indurain won every year 1991-1995 and the American Lance Armstrong won every year 1999-2005. The other thing which has plagued the race is drug taking by the cyclists. Last year the man leading the race, Alexandr Vinokurov was kicked out for taking drugs and then Michael Rasmussen who later took over as leader was kicked out for lying about where he had been when he was supposed to be being tested even though they found no traces during the race. This year Manuel Beltran who was a standard cyclist has been removed because he had a drug called EPO in his bloodstream which helps the blood carry oxygen. Hopefully this is the last of the doping scandals because it is so disappointing when people are cheating and cycling seems to have been even worse at it than athletics despite the stringent controls that have been in place for many decades now.

This year, the UK has a particular interest. We are not renowned as a cycling nation. Chris Boardman was the leading light in the early 2000s but was stronger in the velodrome than on the road and was very unlucky with crashes. David Millar has always been hovering near the top but again has been unlucky, he just missed out on taking the yellow jersey this year. His very public school boy aloof manner is very off-putting for viewers too. The new star is Mark Cavendish, from the Isle of Man, who is only 23 and has won two stages of the Tour so far this year. He is an incredibly fast sprinter and though is currently 45 minutes behind the fastest time overall, he is very impressive and hopefully will encourage more British people to take an interest in the sport.

If you have never watched the Tour de France I do recommend seeing at least one programme. There is a lot going on to interest you, tactics and strategy to mull over. You see very strong and skilled athletes at their best and all against the backdrop of beautiful French countryside and towns. I always love it when they cycle through a town I have ridden through. As with the best sport there is human action and drama and sustained over a much longer period than for something like football or even tennis with the ability for things to change in an instant as you see in motor-racing, but it is humans making the difference.

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