I can’t remember exactly when my love affair with the Tour de France started. We went on many family holidays to France when I was a child, staying in Eurocamp tents all around France from Brittany to Bayonne and many places in between. So, by the time I was 17 (in 1986 – ouch) I was already familiar with the images of unfeasible crowds clinging to mountainsides, or the full force of the peloton streaming past fields of sunflowers.
That summer I spent a few weeks staying with a family near Paris, apparently to improve my French for my ‘A’ Level studies. What time that wasn’t spent talking about English slang to the French teenagers was spent in front of the television, watching an amazing sporting contest play out over 3 weeks. The Godfather of French cycling, Bernard Hinault, was seemingly reluctant to concede the Tour to his team-mate Greg Lemond.
In 1985 Lemond had accepted team orders to work on behalf of Hinault, when in fact he probably could have won the Tour himself. Hinault then claimed he would work for Lemond in 1986, but he had a strange way of going about it. During the 1986 Tour he won three stages (more than anyone else), the King of The Mountains title and was awarded the Combativity Award for being the most aggressive rider. The brutal mountain stage to Alpe d’Huez defined the end-game for the race.
A few days later I was in Paris to effectively see Hinault’s retirement. It felt like half of Brittany had turned out to salute their hero. The parades and marching bands lasted for hours before the peloton arrived, and when it did streak up and down the Champs-Elysees, I’d never seen anything like it; the speed, power, control. I was officially hooked.
In 1991 I spent the summer working as campsite rep for Eurocamp, based at ‘Camping International’ in the Pyrenean spa town of Luz St-Sauveur. It didn’t dawn on me until I arrived the Tour was about to pass right past the campsite, on the climb up to the legendary Col du Tourmalet. I watched the riders speed past, going faster up the hill into town than I could even imagine, and they had already ridden almost 100 miles in the day. More importantly, they still had more than 11 miles of gruelling, unrelenting climbing to go.
This evening I’ve watched my recording of Stage 17, which again went past Luz St-Sauveur to the summit of the Tourmalet, where mist and cloud made for even more dramatic pictures. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador fought out a battle like gladiators, neither giving an inch, battling against each other and against their own bodies’ screaming fatigue.
Last night I watched the excellent documentary “Thriller in Manila”, about the personal and sporting rivalry between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier during the 1970s. The footage of their final bout in Manila was compelling, but bordered on horrific.
I can’t help making a comparison with Schleck and Contador. Two men, seemingly oblivious of the screaming spectators, their own teams and indeed human common sense, fought their own duel against each other; no quarter expected or given. And despite everything that had gone before, at the end there was an immediate respect and acknowldegement of their achievements. Andy Schleck showed more composure, maturity, perspective and professionalism in his interviews after the stage today than any sportsman I can remember.
Tour de France riders are a breed apart. They make ‘normal’ athletes look like couch potatoes. These amazing pictures from The Big Picture give a flavour of what I’m talking about. Jens Voight, a team-mate of Andy Schleck, suffered a nasty crash earlier this week, but his attitude afterwards exemplifies the courage and determination required to complete over 2,200 miles in 3 weeks…
I’m doing 70 kilometres an hour on the first descent when my front tyre explodes. Before I hit the asphalt I actually manage to think that this is going to hurt,” said Voigt. “Both knees, elbows, hands, shoulders and the entire left side of my body were severely hurt.
My ribs are hurting but hey, broken ribs are overrated anyway,” he added. “Fortunately, I didn’t land on my face this time and I’m still alive.”
I love the Tour de France. There are just three stages left this year. Saturday’s time trial could be tremendous: Contador want to win a stage and cement his victory; Andy Schleck has one last chance; Bradley Wiggins needs consolation for a disappointing 3 weeks; Lance Armstrong is riding his last race…
I think next year I may have to arrange to be in France during July…