Amid the thorny peaks of the Alps, a British sportsman is on the cusp of making history. Serious history too – if Bradley Wiggins continues as he’s been going over the past two and a half weeks, he will be the first British rider to ever win the Tour de France.
This majestic race has never quite made it into the British sporting consciousness however, and this achievement is likely to go, if not ignored, then certainly devoid of the full panoply of celebration it surely deserves. Part of this lack of interest bears a direct relationship with the lack of British success.
Track racing, come Olympic time, is seen as one of the marquee events – due no doubt to the dominance of Chris Hoy and Wiggins himself over the last two Games. Indeed, Mark Cavendish’s exploits last year (winning the sprint competition in the Tour, as well as capturing the World Championship) landed him the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award.
Well, it largely drifted by me as well until this year. I had heard of Wiggins and Cavendish of course, and before that was vaguely aware of the Tour, mainly through the vast presence of Lance Armstrong and the frequent doping scandals – the only two avenues through which it seemed cycling seemed to make the papers.
But this year I decided, what with Wiggins now in the ascendency, now was the time to give one of world sport’s mega-events a go.
I’ve haven’t looked back: it’s taken less than two weeks for me to turn into a cycling bore, and I’m here recruiting. Full immersion is the best strategy to get to grips with an alarming array of terms of art and names from all over the globe.
Once you’re initiated it’s captivating viewing. There’s no comparison with the torpor of track racing – the Tour is alive in a way that other forms of racing like the keirin or madison somehow fail to be.
First and foremost it’s a forbiddingly tough test of physical and mental endurance. Two thousand miles and twenty-one days are the key figures to bear in mind here. Spurious comparisons to marathon-series are often made but the feat is phenomenal enough to stand alone, and the attrition rate of the Tour speaks to this as finishers are always a fair number fewer than starters – and this from those at the very peak of endurance cycling.
There’s a great deal of variety too. Stages, and riders, are not identikit: there are the long flat rides; cruel, thigh-pummelling mountain stages (although the mountains aren’t unique in punishing the thighs – the whole event could’ve been designed as a cosmic joke on quadriceps) scattered across the Alps and Pyrenees; and shorter individual time-trial stages that provide the fast men like Wiggins a chance to rack up a lead.
Diversity in riders comes from excelling at different styles of stage – Cavendish is a sprint man, for instance, his weakness at the climbs meaning he can’t challenge for the overall prize, the famed maillot jaune or yellow jersey, instead gunning for the sprinters’ green (the king of the mountains wears a tasteful red polka dot number).
France has rarely looked better than filmed in HD from helicopter as the race traverses it, and then back again. The course changes each year, providing ample amounts of landscape shots to keep the tourism board of each department happy.
The French, on the other hand, don’t come out of the race altogether positively. Full points for enthusiasm: the sidelines of the race are thronged at almost every point, providing what must be an inimitable atmosphere as normally there are no barriers between riders and crowd.
The lack of barrier leads to the issue though, because encroachment is common. Vast swathes of the French youth population seems to have no higher ambition for the month of July than to run alongside Vincenzo Nibali and knock him off his bike.
So what are Bradley Wiggins’ chances? He has enormous obstacles ahead of him and there’s no shortage of high calibre opposition either. But the man from Kilburn is currently in the overall lead, and with a crack team behind him (or more accurately for most of the race ahead of him) he seems odds-on to march down the Champs-Élysées, claim his umpteenth kisses from the good ladies of Carrefour, and win the whole thing.
So tune in now or risk missing the opportunity to miss genuine sporting history being made. Look out for the acerbic Brit in yellow with the ludicrous sideburns. He could well be the country’s next sporting hero.