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.