Monday, 1 August 2011

A Dangerous But Engaging Tour

My ego has not yet over-ruled my relative poverty and brought me to buy 'Cyclebabble' a book which collects blog postings about cycling.  I do wonder if I am in it.  Anyway, not in the search of glory, but simply because I enjoy the sport and for many reasons no longer cycle at all myself, I do enjoy commenting on the Tour De France, it is the only sporting event that I will watch religiously.  I suppose fans of football or tennis at Wimbledon find it difficult to understand why everyone does not love their events as passionately as they do and will extoll (I have found that version and 'extol' are both acceptable) the excitement of the event, I feel the same about the Tour De France which has so many different facets in terms of the different competitions within it, let alone the scenic backdrop that it takes place against, that I cannot understand why coverage of it is not watched by many millions.

This year the British contribution has reak a new peak with the involvement of the clearly British team, Sky and the participation of Bradley Wiggins of Beijing Olympics fame and Mark Cavendish such a speedy cyclist in the right circumstances that his victories in the Tour De France even make the main bulletins (not simply the sports ones) on national radio.  That is excellent and even if British involvement never gets greater than this, then I will be satisfied.  However, I do rather feel a 'ceiling' has been broken through and whilst you may not see as many riders from the UK in the race as from France, Spain and Italy, you might see as many as come from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and already we exceed Norway (though their two, Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen, have both been impressive this year: four stage victories between them.)  In fact with the first Australian to win the race and the first Briton to win the green jersey, there could be a feeling that the countries providing the victors are changing; the French have been suffering a dearth of victories for years, though there are some young riders who may shift that in the next five years.  Briton Mark Cavendish is rapidly climbing through the record tables with incredible consistency.  He has the grace to acknolwedge the strength of the team he has around him at HTC and it would be a challenge if he lost them or especially those who lead him out went in different directions.

The Tour had a range of modifications this year, the most successful seems to have been the introduction of a single 'sprint' point along each stage, with a decent amount of points for the person winning that stage, towards the green jersey competition.  This has made for genuine racing at that part of each day's race and has left the green jersey competition much more open than it otherwise would have been.  In addition, the 20 points deduction for sprinters coming in after the cut-off time when permitted to continue because they were alongside more than 20% of the field, especially in the stages in the Alps, brought an additional complication.  The lay out of some of the finishes was also interesting, with more slight inclines to break the flow of the pure sprinters.  However, given the level of Cavendish's tally, this seems to have opened up opportunities for a wider range of cyclists to win a stage without being to the real detriment of the devoted sprinters, so that must be seen as another good idea.

The unpredictability of the race this year, especially for those of us who watched through the long and sometimes monotonous years of Indurain and Armstrong's dominance (though saying that the unexpected could often happen with Armstrong even when the overall result was in no doubt; far less so with Indurain) not being able to predict the outcome made the whole competition far more engaging for the spectators.  I think this element was given extra depth by Thor Hushovd and especially Thomas Voeckler.  All sports like heroes, but in the Tour De France both the heroes (and the villains) seem to be cast much greater than in other sports, partly due to the extremity of hauling yourself across thousands of kilometres of France (and other countries) and because for three weeks we see these men having to perform for hours every day in a way that other sports are not set up for that.

As I have noted before in reference to Cadel Evans, cycling fans seem to demand that their sportsmen have a decent personality.  They like aggressive riding, but they also expect graciousness and gentlemanly behaviour.  Evans had to really work at his personality especially in front of the cameras.  I dislike the man but far less than I used to.  He worked hard and though not winning a stage clearly demonstrated the consistency day-after-day that is what it takes to be a Tour victor.  A man who can climb as well as him and time trial as well will always stand a chance and this year he seemed able to shake off the variety of things such as injury and a weak team that have hampered him in the past.  I guess if he had been luckier with those two elements in the past it would be him and not Contador with three victories to his name.  He will have to work hard to gaint he level of support that even the Schlecks get, outside his own country.

Hushovd, also seems a changed man in this respect, perhaps as he has been successful.  However, we cheer him more when he breaks away and wins than when he was being sour about Mark Cavendish.  Sensibly, Hushovd has rejigged his approach, he can sprint but will never be as fast as Cavendish but the Norwegian has a wider range of skills as he showed in the stages he won this year, involving a lot of climbing but also finishing fast.  As for Voeckler, his boy-like glee and his self-effacing manner would have made him a star even if he had only held the yellow jersey for a fraction of the time he did.  Holding on to it by 15 seconds after clambering up the mountain was the kind of thing that would only have appeared in fiction (though the Tour De France seems to be full of such incidents, should I recall a victory by 8 seconds after 3 weeks, for example?).  Such men need to be there especially to counteract the dirty, drug-taking riders that still crop up and so haunted the race in the last couple of decades to the extent that it almost seemed that the race would come to an end.

Overall the race was excellent this year, because it was so open.  At many stages it seemed that either of the Schlecks, Contador, Evans even Basso and Sanchez, perhaps Voeckler too, could have won.  It is good that there are no outstanding men who would wipe the floor with the rest, especially for a race over three weeks.  This, however, brings us to the nastier aspects of this year's race, the numerous crashes.  The greatest lost it seems, not just for the UK, but for the race itself was of Bradley Wiggins breaking his collarbone on Stage 7.  It seems apparent that he could have been in with the elite group trying to shake each other off in the Alps and Pyrenees, bringing another dynamic into the mix.  Other well-know names such as Tom Boonen, Alexander Vinokourov (one of the villains of the past due to his drug taking) and Dave Zabriskie all suffered breaks from crashes amongs a very long list of those who suffered injuries, even last year's winner, Alberto Contador did not escape, so reducing his effectiveness greatly until the third week. Of course, every year there are crashes, but as 'The Daily Telegraph' noted this year they have been 'brutal'.

The case of Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha is different even though as equally unpleasant, it came from the sub-contracting of a driver who had not received the specific training needed to be involved in a cycle race. Hoogerland, like Voeckler, raised the standing of the race this year by showing the decency of the best professional cyclists. The Hoogerland-Flecha incident suggests that control of the numerous vehicles on the road is not as tight as it should be. No-one was killed, but there did seem to be unnecessary injury. I think a lot of it comes down to the roads that are picked. I do not subscribe to the Schleck view expressed in a juvenile way that people do not want to see stages ending in a downhill race. We want to see a wide variety of different stages, so that the widest range of different riders can be showcased. I know the Schlecks do well on long climbs but that kind of stage is not of interest to all spectators, others like bunch sprints or chances for breakaways to win. However, too many roads selected this year were far too small for even three riders to be abreast let alone them plus all the support cars, the camera motorbikes and spectators. I believe these days especially as this year's race was so fast, that a minimum criteria for the roads used must be introduced. This will not eliminate crashes but it should reduce them the level and severity of what we saw in the first 1.5 weeks of this year's tour.

Overall I feel the 2011 Tour De France has shown the best that the sport can offer in terms of excitement and importantly, sportsmanship. For me, however, it will be leavened by the number of bloody accidents along the way, many of which could have been avoided with some careful planning.

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