It is something of an annual rite at the end of the cycling spring. The three week Tours hove into view when the Giro d’Italia starts on the second weekend of May, and without fail doping scandals past and present bubble up to form a murky background during the build-up to the Tour de France, centerpiece of the cycling year. This year is the same, with a new twist: the Giro looks harder and more mountainous than ever, and the drugs issues are more worrying.
Let the cameras roll, and quickly. The news that British film maker Shane Meadows – of This England fame – is interested in the tale of Major Tom prompted headlines and made waves on Twitter, but that’s no surprise. The surprise is that it has not already happened. A few years ago one such project fell foul of that old villain, budgetary issues, but this time round, perhaps the involvement of a major figure such as Meadows will tip the balance or perhaps one of the other projects that are bubbling under may get the go-ahead. Let’s hope so.
To be among the Great Britain cycling team on three nights in Manchester in late March was to share a single feeling: can it really be this good? For once, the term gold rush was not overblown: this was a collective surge of emotion that mounted steadily as each lump of the precious metal was put in the bag, as each vignette of victory was stored in the memory.
Rebecca Romero’s yell of triumph on taking the women’s pursuit race; Chris Hoy’s incredulous look on taking the men’s sprint; Victoria Pendleton’s burst round the final banking to defend her sprint title; Bradley Wiggins, three gold medals in the endurance disciplines to his name, showing his son how to raise his arms on the podium after the crowds had gone.
British specialists in the art of single-day Classic racing have always been rare creatures. Compared to the number of Britons who have shone in the Tour de France, there have been few successful English scholars in the Belgian school of racing on dirty cobbles through spring snow showers in a northerly gale.
July 23 2006.
Discovery Channel directeur sportif Sean Yates is at Paris’s Gare du Nord on his way home to England after completing the Tour de France. From the ticket queue he sees a man sitting on the ground, who looks vaguely familiar. Yates goes over and recognises Graeme Obree, Scotland’s double hour record holder and double world pursuit champion. He is wearing a floppy hat and a dishevelled look.
“Graeme, what are you doing here?”
“I’ve been on a stag do. I was standing on my wallet and passport so that I wouldn’t lose them, but then I walked away and I’m not sure where they are now.”
In the long term, the years 2005 and 2006 could well come to be seen as a watershed in the evolution of the Tour de France. Most obviously, 2005 marked the end of the Lance Armstrong era, a period which covered seven Tours and culminated with the establishment of a winning record which is unlikely ever to be matched.
They are mad, aren’t they? Let me give you the facts. Every July, up to half a million people congregate on a mountain to watch 150 guys on bikes on one given afternoon. Let’s call the mountain l’Alpe d’Huez, let’s call the bike race the Tour de France. The people on the mountainside make long journeys through vast traffic jams to make the pilgrimage, and at the end many of them have to walk up the mountain, although just as many ride their bikes up the mountain, putting themselves through physical suffering and indignity that the guys they have come to watch are paid millions of euros for.
There was never an issue when it came to tyre choice until the early 1990s. You raced on tubulars, you trained on “high pressures”, unless you were a pro or a top amateur, in which case you trained and raced on tubs. If you were Robert Millar, however, you did it differently: you raced on tubs, and you trained in winter on high pressures with a tub inside taking the place of an inner-tube for a virtually puncture-proof if somewhat harsh ride.
There are some deaths that make an indelible emotional impact on us. By and large, we can remember where we were when we heard. In Marco Pantani’s case, on Valentine’s night 2004 I was in Paris, out drinking. It wasn’t a romantic date, but a journalists’ night out during the Six Nations. The phone call came, from a radio station: then I turned my phone off. I knew there would be more calls, but I wasn’t going to discuss this one. It cut deep.