Monday, 23 July 2012

The 'British' Tour De France

Each year I present my views on the Tour De France, though this year in the English language commentary has grown at an exponential level.  This is because all the ambitions for British cycling in the race were realised and more.  It was clear back in 2008 when the British cyclists won 12 gold medals that the sport had come of age in the UK.  This unfortunately owes a lot to the Sky Procycling Team.  The reason why I say 'unfortunately' is because Sky is a Murdoch-owned company and James Murdoch, deeply involved with all the immoral activity of phone hacking had connections to this element of the empire.  That is the one sour aspect of the achievement.  I am just glad that I have not encountered any of the Murdochs or their criminally-intended cronies commenting on UK cycling.  With that nasty piece of business out of the way, I can turn to the British glory.

Wiggins is very self-effacing which is a nice contrast to last year's winner Australian Cadel Evans.  As regular readers will know, I have always disliked Evans quite purely for how he behaves in public and his comments.  He comes over as a very small-minded, incredibly bitter man and that takes the shine off even when he has achieved great things.  He can be a winner, but not one you feel comfortable in looking up to.  Other significant winners of the race have other attitudes that are better than this, but made them difficult to love.  Lance Armstrong is a decent man and a gracious winner.  However, he was always put on the defensive and still is and that has almost compelled him to go down the path to Evans-like harshness.  He is an incredible athlete and on the road has shown gentlemanly/sportsmanly approaches, yet the constant speculations and challenges have nibbled away at that too much.  I would love to see an interview in which he could talk about the cycling rather than being cross-examined.  My view is that any man who has faced infertility let alone death in the face and survived is going to be an incredible man; an appreciation which is only heightened in me as I fail to face up to physical and mental health issues myself.  Combining such strength with a clear athlete was always going to produce someone outstanding, there is no need for any other explanation.

Wiggins's hero, Miguel Indurain had a lot less difficulty in being a sustained winner than Armstrong.  However, the price was that he comes over as a machine.  He seems to have softened since retiring.  Yet, you cannot really cheer on a man without emotion,  Victories are great because you see the challenges, not because they are foregone conclusions.  This was why watching Armstrong was always better than watching Indurain.  In turn, though Wiggins had a comparatively 'easy' tour, anyone, no matter what their nationality, knew they were watching a human and that allows us much more affinity with him.  It is the same reason why I enjoy seeing Thomas Voeckler win.  He took two stages and won King of the Mountains in a tour which with a few minor changes could have been the first 'French' Tour de France for ages; five stages were won by Frenchmen.  The pleasure and pain is apparent in Voeckler especially in one of the slowest sprints to the line I have ever seen in a race and Phil Liggett commented much the same and he has seen hundreds more than me.  To spectate a sport, you want to feel that there is an element of the winner that speaks to you, that they are a person like you, even if immensely stronger and more skilful.  Sport is about celebrating being human and if the participants appear less than human, then we are cut off from something.  Maybe this is simply a British attitude, but I feel it has a wider application.

Wiggins's career has been very strong and the slips off this have been very much about his self-effacing attitude.  In comments during the race, it seemed that he found it difficult to accept that what he was witnessing was actually happening.  His grin when he came over the line in third place on Stage 17 with Alejandro Valverde winning just seconds ahead showed, as he commented later, that he had been hit by the sense of living the dream.  That again made him see very human.  In many ways we see the connection back to the boy who dreamt of winning the Tour De France and of course for so much of the audience we have nothing but such dreams.  Thus, so explicitly connecting into that aspect brings Wiggins again closer to his fans and general cycle racing fans.  It distinguishes him from the rather too cool or too bitter professionals like Evans and Indurain.

The other aspect which added to Wiggins's victory is his gentlemanly behaviour.  Slowing to wait for Cadel Evans and others on Stage 14 might not have been a hard decision, but it is certainly one that I know many wearing yellow, probably, I feel, even Evans himself, would not have taken.  Wiggins was in no danger of losing, and yet many sportspeople would have hammered home their lead by continuing despite the sabotage of tacks on the road which affected 30 riders.  Interestingly, without them, the situation could easily have been reversed as Wiggins had clear difficulties with his bike which he threw into the ditch in the end and got a replacement.  One thinks back to the different behaviour of Alberto Contador when Andy Schleck's chain came off during the 2010 tour.  The other aspect of Wiggins' behaviour which has attracted attention, even on the Wikipedia entry for this tour, is Wiggins as lead-out man in yellow.  This in some ways shows that he was stronger than some of the commentators viewed him when he needed Chris Froome's help on the mountains, but also shows that contrary to the line given by the team controllers, he knows that he is a team player and he can help out Edvald Boasson Hagen and Mark Cavendish, spectacularly on the Champs Elysee.  Chris Froome is very strong and I imagine a future British winner of the tour.  We may be in the British decade for the race.  I am glad he got a stage, I think he could have had one more.  As we saw with Evans and Tejay van Garderen and have seen on many teams in the past, a group of nine men, even with a leader, is liable to see others coming to the fore and the balance between them and the designated leader is often hard to call.  Froome will have other chances and as with Mark Cavendish who similarly had to play second fiddle to Wiggins at times, they have a better leader in Wiggins in terms of remembering and helping them, than would be the case if they were in this role on other teams, BMC being one example.

The British connection to the 2012 tour would be secured by Wiggins's victory alone.  However, it was given depth by the fact of how far British riders outstripped other nationalities this year.  Mark Cavendish with 3 stage wins, his lowest number since entering the tour, showed real maturity in the support role he was often called on to play.  However, as the 600m sprint showed on the Champs Elysee, he remains supreme in sprints.  I was glad that David Millar won a stage too, a decade on from his last in the tour.  He has always been an ambivalent character for me and never really turned out to be the British hero that I hope at the start of last decade.  He showed in this year's race really clear thinking and had a deserved win.  His manner has softened a little.  Whilst I would have preferred if he had gone nowhere near drugs and am a little unsettled at times at how righteous he can be, he is certainly worthy of support.  I see him being a very good manager of a team in the future with a calculating mind which I believe will win stages for whoever employs his talents.  Chris Froome certainly deserved the stage he won.  It was one of the most exciting of the race.  He could have won more and he will win more, but again it added to that 'depth' of the British experience this year and was the least consolation he could have received for all his hard work.  Froome and Wiggins going head to head on rival teams would create astounding cycle racing and that in itself, shows that British cycling has 'arrived' after long last.

In a tour which had had less British acclaim, there would still be a lot of interest.  I have commented in the past on the number of accidents and how randomly they have plucked riders from the race.  However, the very narrow roads and other factors took even more this year than in the past.  I think a minimum width of road should be set for the race.  I think bringing down a ride should be an offence that leads to immediate arrest.  Similarly harming them with things like flares should lead to much harsher action than it appears to do at the moment.

More positively I would highlight the astounding achievement of Peter Sagan winning three stages in his first Tour De France.  His strength on the road to win the green jersey with more points than has been the case apparently since the 1980s is in itself very worthy of note, especially given his young age.  I look forward to writing about his activities in the tour well into the next decade.  I will have to check, but this may have been the tour with the fewest number of stage winners as another rider with three wins and close on others is Andr√© Greipel.  To me he seems to be what I might term a 'tough' sprinter like Thor Hushovd, i.e. able to get to those finishes that come after stages which are not all flat and then put on a sprinter's speed.

Overall, though I would have liked a far lower casualty figure, the 2012 Tour De France is clearly one of note, both because of the immense British impact on it, but also because of the breadth of riders attracting attention and promising us some astounding races in the years to come.  In many ways I feel it has opened a new chapter in this sport and this particular race.

No comments: