I have been more than mildly obsessed with the Tour de France in the past three weeks. Now that Bradley Wiggins has become the first Briton to win this epic sporting marathon, especially devastating his rivals in the time-trials, and Mark Cavendish proven himself to (still) be (probably) the fastest sprinter in the world, and both Chris Froome and David Millar also won stages, apparently the whole of the UK has taken the sport to its heart. I can genuinely hardly wait for the Olympic Road Race this coming Saturday and Time Trial next Wednesday.
Life is so busy at the moment that I’ve barely had time to gather my thoughts or compile anything more coherent. But with the Olympic Games ready to start on Friday, please accept this slightly haphazard but honest collection of reasons why I still think the Tour de France is the greatest sporting spectacle of them all.
Team SKY… much as it pains me to shower adulation on anything sponsored by Rupert Murdoch’s money, I have nothing but admiration for everything Dave Brailsford and his teams, and especially the awesome riders of Team Sky have achieved.
The spirit, teamwork & discipline they all demonstrated during three gruelling weeks of this last Grand Tour is astonishing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, from Chris Froome waiting for his team leader when he quite clearly was the strongest man on the mountain to Mark Cavendish, the reigning world champion and TdF Green Jersey (remember?!), taking turns to collect drinks and food for his team-mates, and accepting there would be no lead-out train for his sprint finish.
The collective ability and execution of a plan was breathtaking. Team Sky utterly dominated the race at virtually every stage, dictating how stages might be won, and usually by whom. They were the Chuck Norris of this year’s race. Maybe it got predictable, but it was truly awesome.
Bradley Wiggins is a champion. Having made his mark with Olympic medals on the track, it has taken him 4 years to become the leading force on the road. Fastest in the time trials by a country mile, he has also become a fearsome climber. He doesn’t have the explosive change of pace, but he does have the ability and confidence in his ability to stay with almost anyone, and more importantly, to pace himself at such a rate that he can outlast anyone. And then on the final two days of the tour, when previous champions would be staying out of trouble, he led out the sprint train for Mark Cavendish.
The final stage finishes with a helter-skelter series of 8 circuits around the Champs-Elysées in Paris, and it’s always a bun-fight of teams fighting to get their sprinters to the front for the last frantic charge for the line. TV coverage showed the Team Sky instructions from the car: get Bradley on the front from 1km… And so, at 1,100m from the finish, Wiggins took charge, leaving the other teams for dead, taking Cavendish and his team-mate Edvald Boassen-Hagen in his wake. EB-H (the Norwegian national champion and a mean sprinter in his own right) negotiated the two final corners, slipstreaming Cavendish into a clear lead before he even started his final sprint.
Cycling is an team sport focused on individuals. Wiggins is the Team Sky ‘leader’, and the team is entirely geared to his success; getting him in the right place, protecting him from peloton crashes, pacing other teams and their leaders out of the race, helping up the difficult climbs. In what other sport do world-class athletes recognise themselves as “domestiques”, whose job is to follow orders, ‘bury themselves’ for their team and do a job that goes against all their natural self-instincts. Froome could have won the final mountain stage, but stayed to ride with Wiggins. Mark Cavendish stoically remarked “it’s like playing Wayne Rooney in defence…” of his team role. I doubt Mr Rooney would accept that role with such good grace, commitment and sacrifice.
Jens Voight. I’ve waxed lyrical about his attitude representing everything I love about pro cyclists. Nearly 41, he’s the oldest man in the peloton, but towards the end of the 3 weeks, and indeed in the final few laps of the Champs-Elysées, he was leading a break. He knew there was little chance of success, but he did it anyway. Time and again he stretched men 10 years younger with lung-busting, leg-crippling power. More than these physical exploits, I love his searing honesty. Halfway through the Tour, he gave a brilliant interview. Barely 48 hours later, his team leader, Frank Schleck tested positive for a prohibited substance. The spectre of doping leaves a heavy, heavy shadow over the Tour. Effectively door-stepped outside his bus, Jens said the only thing he could say. In this 90 seconds you can hear all his personal conflicts as a long-time friend is under suspicion. As Ned Boulting says “there’s never a bad time to talk to Jens Voight”.
ITV’s coverage is simply brilliant. With decades of experience, commentators like Phil Ligett, Ned Boulting, Chris Boardman and Matt Rendell provide a fantastic, on-the-ground view of the event. Interviews with riders moments after finishing, in-depth access to the more arcane arts of road racing which never talks down to the novice viewer but is constantly interesting enough for the experts.
The Tour de France has the best arena in all sport. Forget the Birds’ Nest Stadium, Monaco Grand Prix or London Marathon. France is an astonishingly dramatic country, and the organisers of the Tour know they have a job to promote its regions. Everywhere the regions turn out for the Tour and pay large sums to be a prestigious host town for a stage finish. Most impressively, I love all the efforts made by farmers…
Seriously, I think my perfect summer job might be to be a cameraman inside the Tour de France helicopter. That would be a great way to spend July…