There is much that is unique about Kazakhstan, but it must be the only country in the world where the coach of the national football team has been heard to complain that the nation’s cyclists enjoy a higher profile and greater financial resources are available to the athletes pedalling on two wheels than their counterparts kicking round balls.
Court report, Alf Engers v establishment, 1959-present day
Milords, I present to you the case for the prosecution. The aforesaid Engers was a nuisance and his influence remains pernicious. His crimes include the following: bringing into the daylight that sport which we love to keep hidden from the public eye. Riding at high speed down the middle of the road with ever-lengthening tailbacks of cursing motorists behind him. Inspiring generations of promising British junior riders to knacker their knees, by using the biggest chainring known to mankind. Drilling said item of equipment and other associated componentry until they resemble bits of wood that have had a nasty encounter with a plague of worms. Popularising what the road racing establishment dismisses as “dragstrips”, main roads used for time trialling which are not only dangerous but focus the mind unhealthily on pure speed. Making it possible for said road racing establishment to dismiss we time triallists as “bloody testers.” Being a personality in a sport that curdles up in disgust at the very use of the term. Wearing a fur coat to race starts rather than black alpaca.
So how lucky do you have to be to win Paris-Roubaix, or any bike race? Look at those cobbles, gasp at those crashes, and you could jump to the conclusion that you have to be pretty damn lucky, with the degree of good fortune depending on the degree of danger and the number of riders in the mix: more luck required for Paris-Roubaix or the Dengie Marshes, or any race ending with a bunch sprint; less luck for something hilly and decent surfaced where a strong rider will make a difference.
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.