It is one of the most evocative of opening sentences: “In my case I came upon the Tour de France by way of Whitley Bay and Morecambe.” To paraphrase the late Geoff Nicholson’s beginning to this book, in my personal case I came upon the Tour de France by way of The Great Bike Race. There are books that change your life and shape your life. This is one of those.
In every sport there are dead legends, in every sport there are living legends and in every sport there are the men who provide the invisible thread that binds past and present together: Jean Bobet is such a man, brother of the triple Tour winner Louison, and now a celebrated writer on the sport they enjoyed together. Here is Louison’s training partner and confidant, a man who rubbed shoulders with all the greats of the 1950s, and who was at Fausto Coppi’s funeral: a day he remembers for the fact that ‘in death as in life, others appropriated Fausto.’
The consensus is that this is the closest Tour de France ever, with one week left to the finish, but whether close equals boring stalemate or suspense-filled tension is a matter of some debate. Friday’s stage through theVosgesmountains toColmarsummed it up: there were three nasty climbs and it teemed with rain all day. Just right for someone to start sniping at Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, you might have thought. And there was gunsmoke in the air, but unfortunately it was from someone on the roadside who thought it was clever to pop an airgun at the peloton.
Alberic Schotte was the first and the last. The first of the Flandrians, because no one will ever quite match up to the man Brits inevitably call “Brick”, the last because every Flandrian is the last, or so the Flemish cycling fans worry. As a small region straddlingBelgiumandHolland, inhabited by a linguistic subgroup used to being trampled on by bigger neighbours,Flandersis a place of nostalgia tinged with paranoia. What’s coming in the future may not end up being as good as what was: hence the fact that every great Flemish cyclist is “the last of the Flandrians”. The worry is that there may not be another one about to come along…
Try to explain a professional cycling team’s hierarchy to a non-cyclist, and the reaction will always be bemusement. There is nothing else in sport quite like the relationship between domestique and star. It was Geoffrey Nicholson who best summed up the great paradox, that in cycling the stars need the watercarriers, but the bottle-fetchers don’t get the same money or status. “In any team game,” wrote Nicholson, “sacrifices have to be made and the attackers can get more than the defenders. But it’s an odd team game in which those who score the goals get the major prizes.”
Time flies. It is all of seventeen years since I went for a memorable mountain bike ride in a wild, chilly wood in easternFrance. My guide was Robert Millar, who had promised to take me to a few muddy places, get me covered in mud and, he was clearly hoping to watch me fall off, all in the interest of a good story. It was in the hoary old days when mountain biking was something new, and a road racing star who rode a mountain bike was a radical.
“The Tour de France is finished. It has been killed by its own success, by the passions it has released, the injuries and filthy suspicions caused by the ignorant and the wicked.” Not a lament over this year’s tarnished edition, but the reflection of the organiser Henri Desgrange after the 1904 race, ruined by widespread cheating, with the first three finishers disqualified and victory awarded to Henri Cornet. Desgrange was wrong, but his words may ring true 103 years on.
Phil and Paul. You can’t help but think of the double act as the Murray Walker and James Hunt of our sports, and for me, as for so many others, Liggett and Sherwen are the voices that fuelled my passion once the Tour de France and Kellogg’s Tour of Britain hit terrestrial television in the 1980s. But on my side, I suspect it all runs a little deeper and longer than for many.
In the great wardrobe in the sky where iconic cycling kit is stored, the Peugeot “chessboard” has a special little coathanger all to itself. For those who like to describe cycling as chess on wheels, there is a happy symmetry in the fact that Bernard Thevenet, Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx et al raced in a jersey that bore a chessboard’s chequered design, “les damiers” as the French called it.
It was an Italian sprinter, most probably Mario Cipollini, who drew the inevitable paralell between bunch sprints and sex. The point was that the gradual build-up in intensity in the final 50 kilometres of a major race that was ‘destined for the sprinters’ corresponds to foreplay before the adrenalin rush of the finale, with the moment of crossing the line first equalling orgasm. And, clearly, the moment when the sprinter stands proudly on the podium with a sponsor’s damsel on either arm is the two-wheeled equivalent of the cigarette savoured languorously on rumpled pillows.