The actual statistics don’t really mean anything. The three thousand four hundred and thirty kilometres, the twenty one stages, the twenty three mountains and the two hundred or so riders are all just that; statistics. What will make this year’s Tour de France great, like every other Tour de France, are the thousand short stories that will be woven into the overall epic narrative. For it’s the stories which make the Tour de France the world’s greatest sporting contest, not the facts and figures. The winner of the 1967 tour for example would need to be looked up. What wouldn’t need to be researched though for any British cycling fan is that the 1967 was the year which witnessed the death of British rider Tom Simpson, his body capitulating under the stresses of extreme heat while loaded with amphetamines and roughly swigged brandy as he climbed the lunar landscape of Mount Ventoux.
This year, as last year and every year since its inception, Le Tour will be a cinematic study of the very essence of sport, viewed through the close up zoom lens of modern television coverage and the wide-angle span of history. Career high-point stage wins will sit side by side with crushed dreams and broken collarbones, nursed in roadside gutters; shadows will be cast and suspicious eyebrows raised while clean athletes somehow manage to block out the messages sent by their screaming synapses; faces will grimace on heads turned over shoulders watching the swarm of the peloton slowly catch, engulf and spit out escapees only metres from a historic victory after spending hours alone at the head of the race.
In the normal run of things, winning a Tour cements a rider’s place in the roll call of greatness. This year’s pre-race favourite has won it on three previous occasions but has much to prove given the circumstances surrounding his victory last year. His decision to attack his closest rival Andy Schleck at the precise moment that the Luxembourger suffered a mechanical failure, putting unassailable time between the two riders, was seen by many as a breach of unwritten etiquette. Further dark clouds amassed around the Spaniard when it was announced some months after the race that he had tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol and while the Spanish cycling authorities have accepted his explanation that the substance was present due to contaminated meat, many who fear for the sports reputation at a time when it is striving to be free of drug use, will scrutinise and analyse his every move.
In 1975, on the slopes of the Puy de Dome, a fan punched the colossus of the sport Eddie Merckx in the abdomen.
Also coming under close scrutiny but for very different reasons will be the twin spearheads of British hopes in the race. For Bradley Wiggins, this year’s tour is a chance to put the disappointments of last year’s race behind him. An almost miraculous 2009 tour in which Wiggins, more closely associated with track pursuit cycling than the gruelling slog of Europe’s Grand Tours, managed to live with the big guns through the Alps and the Pyrenees saw him finish fourth overall. 2010 saw him struggle, the weight of expectation proving too burdensome despite now having the financial muscle of Team Sky behind him. The other point of focus for British cycling fans will be Mark Cavendish. Universally accepted to be the fastest man on the planet, possibly ever, Cavendish has already racked up 15 stage wins, 11 more than Barry Hoban, the British rider with the second most stage wins to his name. This year represents Cavendish’s most realistic opportunity yet to win the Green Jersey, the race within the race for riders who specialise in sprinting. British riders have worn the race’s famous jerseys; winning one would be a unique achievement.
And scrutinised these riders will be. At very close quarters. In an era where the relationship between competitor and spectator in other sports is at its most remote, cycling’s elite will be forced to wind their way up the punishing gradients of mountains like the giant Col du Galibier through tens of thousands of unrestrained fans, screaming their support, or otherwise, inches from the faces of the riders. Collisions do and will happen and accidents aren’t the only thing which could stand between a rider and the legendary Maillot Jaune. In 1975, on the slopes of the Puy de Dome, a fan punched the colossus of the sport Eddie Merckx in the abdomen. Merckx could only finish third that year, the spectator’s fist providing a metaphorical as well as physical punch to the Belgian’s guts.
Of course, the Tour de France’s status as the world’s greatest sporting spectacle isn’t forged solely by the actions of its combatants. Cycling is also the world’s best looking sport; sleek and aerodynamic melding of man and machine against a rolling backdrop of lavender fields and chateaux; bunch sprint finishes through narrow medieval streets and aerial shots of a stretched out peloton snaking up a series of alpine switchbacks. No stadium could ever hope to compete.
As this year’s Tour de France rolls inland from its Grand Depart on the Atlantic coast and the plot and sub-plots of this year’s story are written, fans of British sport should have their eyes firmly on the Peloton for not since the days of Tom Simpson and Barry Hoban have British riders been so prominent in its midst. To steal from the title of William Fotheringham’s book: Roule Britannia.
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