Saturday, July 11, 2009


I have watched the Tour de France on TV for about 25 years now. I am not a cycling person, far from it, but from the day I turned on the daily report on the Tour goings on, watching Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault battling away, the almost human amoeba-like writhings of the peleton, looking at the luscious French countryside, the enormous mountains, and the blood, sweat and tears that are all part of the Tour, I was hooked.

The TV commentary to start with was a bit “off the wall”. You’d be looking at a titanic battle of men straining everything, and then, in an instant, they’d be off, talking about the cheeses that are made in the village or town you’ve just passed through, or admiring a 13th century Chateau. As a family, we used to visit France every year for our summer holiday, and to see on TV the places we’d visited gave a real edge of pleasure to it all. One year, I watched on TV as the peleton blasted down a hill in the Alps past a small chalet where we’d spent two weeks the previous July. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it did.

As a sporting event, I can’t think of any other which grabs a nation so completely. It is watched by more people than any other sporting event in the world – upwards of 3 million each year. Some of the classic climbs, Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez can each be lined by up to 500,000 people clinging to the vertiginous slopes and making the narrow mountain passes almost solid with humanity on the day they climb them.

So often with television, it can sanitise the picture in front of you. The size of the vista, the slope of the gradients, the simple enormity of the whole place can disappear when you watch it on the box. But if you actually go to these places, you begin to realise just how remarkable they are. I’ve driven up the climb to Ventoux, and also Alpe d’Huez, and you simply can’t believe that men can actually race up them the way they do. I could not get my car out of second gear up the 22 Alpe d’Huez hairpins, and yet, in the blazing heat of the July sun, the cyclists race up it under their own power. The word awesome is way overused today, but here it is absolutely le mot juste.

Over the years however, I’ve become a bit ambivalent about it all. The constant stream of drug and doping revelations, at the top, in the middle and at the bottom of the peleton, has caused me to look at it in two ways. For a couple of years recently, the passion for it has faded a bit, tarnished by the hypocrisy of it all.

Sport is or should be, in my mind at least, one of the last Corinthian activities. At its best it’s man against man, each straining everything to succeed, and when it really happens, the joy you can take out of it is immense. You look on at some of the great set pieces and just marvel at what you see. But then occasionally, the feet of clay replace the reaching for the stars, and it all comes crashing down. Think, for instance, Ben Johnson. The whole world watched him with utter amazement for just under 10 seconds, and then, a couple of days later, it all tumbled in on itself, and I, for one, felt hugely and personally cheated.

The Tour has had far more than its fair share of that. 1998, and the Festina affair, David Millar, Marco Pantani, the Simeoni affair, Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, the 2006 winner Floyd Landis, Michael Rasmussen, Alexander Vinokourov and Jan Ullrich to name but the first 10 or so that come to mind. That list is not a few up and comings, people trying to get onto the bottom of the ladder of cycling success. It’s the crème de la absolute crème, and they’ve all been caught out. So, if you’re in a cynical frame of mind, you can’t help but think that it must be endemic among all the riders, and the fact that the rest of the names in the pack are not in the list, is only because they haven’t yet been caught.

The name of Lance Armstrong always crops up in this situation. Does he, doesn’t he?

I’ve watched most of his 7 wins to date, and as a sporting story, you couldn’t dream up a more amazing tale if you tried. And yet, with many of the people in that list of fallen names above, cycling for the same team as he did, with his disturbing relationship with the very dark and intriguing Dr. Michele Ferrari, the way his entourage seems utterly paranoid and ruthless in the way they fight off any suggestion of a drug taint, one’s mind is left to ponder. It’s all circumstantial, the no smoke without fire argument, but I can’t put it out of my mind completely.

I’m not sure I would actually LIKE the man if I met him, he’s so driven and focused that I think his whole way of life is beyond the understanding of us lesser mortals. But I do utterly admire him. Watching his exploits over the years has been one of the most inspiring pieces of sporting action I’ve ever seen. Have a rummage on YouTube and look at Armstrong vs Ullrich on Alpe d’Huez in 2001 and the same pair in 2003. Stunning, stunning stuff.

And then, Armstrong retires with 7 Tours to his credit. And the storytale ends.

Except this year, he’s back, and the tension and the excitement of the Tour is with us again. Watching Armstrong up against Cantador in the climb to Andorra yesterday brought it all back. The man is 37 years old, and he looks as fit as he’s ever done. Except this year, the other “Team Leader”, Alberto Contador, took Armstrong on, man to man, on the massive climb at the end of yesterday’s stage, and showed him a clean pair of heels. Some said that Armstrong was cycling to a team plan, but the look on his face and his utter speechlessness at the end, said some thing totally different to me.

It was a fabulous piece of televison, and who knows what it will mean to the Armstrong machine. Never lost for words, Armstrong was transfixed at the end of the stage, and simply didn’t know what to say, having just been beaten on a level playing field, to screw up a metaphor, into second place in the Team Ascana battle. To my limited knowledge, no-one has ever taken Armstrong on it the way Cantador did yesterday, and the ramifications for Planet Armstrong could be immense. Is this the year he comes back to earth, and is shown, after a decade of total domination, to be fallible, to have an Achilles heel? Is 37 just too old for even him to keep it all together? I can’t think of any sportsman with a more burning and long lasting desire to dominate and win in his chosen discipline, but, well, the next two weeks will tell us.

All I can say is that it’s great to watch. You can say all you want about the drugs thing, but watching the last half hour of the 7th Stage yesterday ripped all the spin, the PR and the politics away, and showed just what terrific entertainment the Tour is when it visits the mountains.

And just think, there’s a couple more days around Andorra, then a crossing of the Pyrenees, and right at the end, the Alps, culminating in Mont Ventoux (up the difficult side!!) on the last stage before Paris. That’s never been done before, and I can’t think of a more exciting and brutal finale to end the Tour.

Just look at the profile of what faces them on Saturday week, after 3,000 kilometers.

Can’t wait!

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