Thursday, 11 September 2008

'It's Chess On Wheels!': The (Cycling) Tour of Britain

Cycling fans out there will be aware that the Tour of Britain started on Sunday. It has now grown to 8 days, reflecting the quite abrupt upswing in the popularity of cycling in the UK as a sport. We have had a few abortive bursts of enthusiasm around Chris Boardman in 2000, but his unfortunate accidents in the Tour de France to some extent meant that was not sustained. Now, though it is not just one man, it is a number. Mark Cavendish winning four stages of the Tour de France and three in a row on the Tour of Ireland; Bradley Wiggins (who looks terribly like Rhys Ifans) who won gold in 2004 and two golds this year, Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny, Jamie Staff, Ed Clancy, Paul Manning and Geraint Thomas all winning. Wiggins and Thomas are in the Tour of Britain, Cavendish is not, but other Britons like Ian Stannard, Rob Hayles and Ben Swift have been very prominent. This means that there will be stars of cycling to carry it on certainly to the next Olympics and hopefully beyond.

A lot of the British success reflects finally feeding through state funds into sports training. The UK does not have to be a success at everything, but it is nice to have some specialities. These have tended to be elitist sports such as horse showjumping and sailing. Cycling is a much more democratic sport and actually, though often you would not know it, actually has numerous clubs and an strong amateur backing across the country. Schemes to bring on young riders are clearly being vindicated in our home race. I know that the Tour of Britain is never going to rise to the level of the Tour de France or even the Giro d'Italia, but I would be very happy if we had 2 weeks of cycling round Britain drawing leading teams from across the world. We have Agritubel, Barloworld, Team Columbia, racing all teams that were prominent in the Tour de France, though here they send only 6 riders rather than the usual 9.

The tours are not only about cycling, but also drawing the attention of the World to the country. This was clearly a goal of the recent Tour of Ireland. However, I think it probably had the opposite effect. The weather was so dreary that after 5 days you began to feel that Ireland is just a grey and windy country. The weather for the Tour of Britain is turning out to be even worse with seemingly incessant rain. What is interesting is that though both Ireland and Britain lack mountains of the calibre of the Pyrenees or the Alps, they do have very nasty climbs. This was shown when so many riders were blown away just circling the city of Cork and is appearing again in Britain. This is because the UK tends to permit much sharper rises on roads than in say France. The other noticeable thing in Britain and to some extent in Ireland, is how narrow the roads are not only in rural areas but also in towns. Thus, racing in these circumstances brings its own challenges. Also noticeable is how in contrast to France where the roads seemed to be relaid anew when the Tour comes and are very smooth, is how bumpy and pot-holed the road surface is in British towns. Milton Keynes, a new town, had a reasonable surface, but coming into Newbury you could see riders caught out by having to bump along the road at speed. Anyone who has cycled in the UK knows how bad the road surfaces are and it is quite embarrassing to have this exposed to the World.

The growth in the number of TV channels in the UK is helping sports like cycling to get coverage as with the Tour de France and the Tour of Ireland, coverage is on ITV4. However, the funny thing is rather than Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen who are experts at their commentary, relaxed, interesting but never foolish, we have two others, Hugh Porter and Anthony McCrossan, who is incredibly knowledgeable but comes across rather like the Gordon Brittas or Arnold Rimmer geeky characters portrayed by Chris Barrie with classics of commentary howlers like 'the cacophany of the crowd', 'the corrugations of Shropshire will break the hearts of many riders', 'The bunch are boring down on the breakaway group' and this 'it's chess on wheels' which just completely cracked me up with laughter. Porter's best one was 'he's going to unseat young Ben Swift from his jersey'. Ned Boulting doing the off-commentary discussion is fine and his co-discussant, Paul Manning himself a cycling gold medallist, seems rather lacking in experience on screen, but I imagine will improve in time. It can be tough going from sportsman to television presenter and as Cadel Evans has shown, good screen presence does not go hand-in-hand with strong cycling abilities.

The editing is poorer on the Tour of Britain. When breakaways are caught, you do not see it and you come back from a cut to find not only were the people who were leading by 4 minutes been miraculously swept up but a completely different set of riders have opened up a huge gap. This makes it difficult to follow. As commentators notice they are settling into the job and seem to calm down. Their enthusiasm is great if sometimes with hilarious consequences.

So, having boycotted watching the Beijing Olympics on moral grounds, I am glad to see exciting cycling in Britain and I hope that it will build and improve and very soon Britain can be a cycling nation cycling alongside France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Australia, Colombia and even Kazakhstan.

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