If you’ve looked at my twitter feed over the last three weeks, you might’ve noticed that most of the ‘action’ has centred around this year’s 100th edition of the Tour de France. I make no apologies. It’s one of my favourite sporting events and what I consider to possibly be THE most extreme competitive test of sporting human endurance and willpower.
My love of ‘Le Tour’ was born and then fostered over the years during the period of time when every footballer faces their own annual battle of body and mind; pre-season. The timing of the race coincides with the three to four week period when most British footballers are pushed close to their own limits; mentally and physically preparing for the long season ahead. For the clubs that can afford it, this often means going abroad on tour (Austria was a particular favourite during my time at Dundee United and Swindon Town), embedding in a training camp and basically just eating and sleeping football for a week or two and drinking in the often beautiful scenery. Double sessions are ‘de rigueur’ and the time in between is for recovery and relaxation. This is when I became intimately acquainted with the greatest bike race in the world.
I’m not one for sleeping in the afternoons like a lot of footballers do. If I have an hour or two in bed, in between sessions or post training, I don’t sleep at night, so my options when I’m on tour are limited to reading or watching T.V. with the sound down while my roommate catches a few z’s. Back in the late nineties, when this love affair began, my choice of reading material was what could best be described as limited. While the books I devoured on the SAS and other special forces kept me occupied, the Tour de France had me engrossed. Although, I’ve got to admit that at first, I wasn’t watching it entirely out of choice. Daytime telly abroad is possibly even worse than in it is in this country. It might just be because I couldn’t understand what they were saying on their version of Wheel of Fortune, and even though the presenters were easier on the eye, the one saving grace was always Eurosport. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what the commentators were talking about, it was the standard channel for a brit footballer abroad.
That’s when I started watching this amazing bike race. The gratuitous helicopter shots capturing the colour and fluidity of the peloton as it made it’s way through the breathtaking scenery of the French countryside was a tourism board’s dream – and I was sold. Crazy fans in fancy dress or a pair of Speedos waving flags of every nation involved, running alongside the riders, desperate to give their heroes a push up impossibly steep mountain stages and sometimes receiving a firm shove when their enthusiasm and support got too close for comfort. Kamikaze descents from riders eager to gain back a couple of seconds lost on the way up or to increase a gap in the hope of snatching that all important stage win. And the crashes. I shuddered when someone hit the deck. I’ve still got scars from falling off my Raleigh Burner onto my cul de sac’s unforgiving surface as a boy, I can only imagine how hitting tarmac feels when travelling at almost 60km per hour with a rider centimetres from your back wheel and others all around you. But these warriors, with lycra and skin peeling off as one, got back up! And if they hadn’t broken a collar bone or dislocated a shoulder, they raced to the finish…and got up the next day and did it all over again.
If I was tired during a running session or a fitness test, I often thought that no matter how bad I felt, these guys were feeling at least ten times worse. I would then dig in and grind out a few extra doggies on a yo-yo test or will myself to concentrate harder towards the end of a tough football session. When I woke up early the next day with stiffness in my legs, wondering how I was going to get them moving again without a bit of WD-40, all I had to do was open the curtains for motivation. The Austrian Alps were often the incredible backdrop to my pre-season and looking at the jagged peaks surrounding the training base, it was easy to imagine the riders of the Tour tackling the lunar like summit of Mont Ventoux or the steep switchbacks of l’Alpe d’Huez and realise that compared to this, my day was going to be a walk in the park.
There were times during those afternoons watching the race when I did feel myself nodding off, almost hypnotised by the constant high cadence the riders somehow managed to apply for over four hours in the saddle. I don’t claim to be an expert, but the more I watched, the more I learned about the intricacies of the race – the team tactics, sprinters, climbers, domestiques, time trials, GC riders, breakaways, attacks, summit finishes and the unwritten rules of the peloton. And also Lance Armstrong.
He’s largely responsible for my appreciation of the race. Ironically it was the Festina, Cofidis and other doping scandals which constantly plagued the sport that actually gave me a growing sense of disillusionment during the latter part of the last decade. However, it was a chance encounter with the final time trial stage of the 2009 Giro d’Italia while on holiday in Rome and Bradley Wiggins‘ and Mark Cavendish’s incredible performances in the Tour de France a few months later, that played a large part in rekindling my love of the greatest road race in the world.
With the emergence of Team Sky and a new breed of clean British cyclists, under the tutelage of Dave Brailsford, I’ve not only fallen back in love with the Tour, I’m almost obsessed by it. I didn’t think it could get much better after last year’s incredible race when Wiggins, Froome, Cavendish and Sky dominated, but this summer’s 100th edition has had everything. Stage one in Corsica set the tone. Race favourite, Chris Froome took a tumble before it even got properly started and then farcically, the Orica GreenEdge team bus got stuck under the finish line! A bad crash six kilometres from the finish scuppered Cavendish’s chances of wearing the yellow jersey, but introduced us to Marcel Kittel, the next big challenger for the Manx man’s sprinting crown. In the pile-up, Sky’s Gerraint Thomas suffered a hairline fracture to his pelvis, but incredibly, managed to complete the race – all twenty one days of it. With all this drama in the opening stage, you already got the feeling the it was gearing up to be a bit special.
There are many memories and highlights from this year’s centenary Tour and it somehow feels fitting to have so many iconic moments to look back on. It’s maybe because it’s still so fresh in my memory, but for me, Chris Froome’s performance is probably the best I’ve ever witnessed. His stage 8 win on Ax 3 Domaines to claim the Maillot Jaune (which would subsequently never leave his shoulders) was his proper introduction to the race and then his devastating acceleration to take victory on Mont Ventoux was as much a statement of intent as it was a tactic to win. The way he dealt with the subsequent attacks on the road and in the media showed the class he has both as a cyclist and a person. I admire Bradley Wiggins, but I’ve never warmed to him. I feel that his confidence borders on arrogance whilst Froome lets his cycling do the talking.
But it wasn’t all about Chris Froome. My living room window in Devon might not afford me views of the Alpine scenery that I associate with past tours, but ITV 4’s insightful coverage fronted by Gary Imlach, with Chris Boardman, and Ned Boulting, and colourful commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, elevates the racing further. The tour organisers also played their part in designing a route that was not only interesting on a technical level, but included all the set piece elements and scenic stages the 100th edition deserved.
The early rolling stages in stunning Corsica made sure there were a few riders and teams who felt they had genuine claims for high finishes and so helped to lay the foundations of a competitive race. As the tour reached stage 11 with the imposing Mont Saint Michel in the background, not only were the Normandy tourism officials rubbing their hands with the amount of free advertising their region was receiving, but I was trying to work out if I had mistakenly pressed play on an old episode of Game of Thrones instead of the time trial highlights show. And a double ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez, won in emphatic style by Frenchman Christophe Riblon squeezed in before the conclusion – a first ever night time finish on the Champs-Élysées, well what more could you ask for? How about Ritchie Porte’s tenacious and unselfish riding to protect Froome from sustained attacks, Mark Cavendish being sprayed by urine the day after a controversial crash in a sprint finish, Peter Sagan’s wheelies, Jean Christophe Péraud’s brave/crazy decision to ride with a broken clavicle sustained in an earlier recce, only to sickeningly fall on the same body part again. Nairo Quintana making climbing look like an art form, the epic battle for the podium places, Peter Kennaugh falling into a ditch, the thousands of dedicated fans including my particular favourite; a barefoot, middle aged man in shorts carrying a stuffed boar under one arm and waving it’s broken front leg with the other. I dare you to name me another event that can cram in that amount of pure theatre.
Next year we could potentially see Froome and Wiggins battle it out for supremacy. Throw in Vincenzo Nibali, an on form Cadel Evans, a more experienced Nairo Quintana and many others who will attempt to peak at the right time and I challenge anyone not to fall in love with the Tour de France…even just a little bit.
Just in case you’re interested, here’s the mad man with the boar: http://gamedayr.com/gamedayr/gif-fake-pig-carrying-man-chases-tour-de-france-bikers/