I have recently returned from the Tour de France. Once upon a time I would have had to tell you what that was – as recently as 1919, Cycling Weekly covered the whole of the Tour in 150 words under the heading ‘Foreign Racing’. It noted that the race had been won ‘by the Belgian crack, Firmin Lambot’, and expressed confidence that a British rider would shortly pop over the channel for his summer hols and show those Frenchies how to ride a bike. How prescient was that?
(We don’t mention Firmin Lambot in this magazine as often as I’m sure we should, so in passing you might like to know that he always raced with 500 francs in his jersey pocket, so he could buy a new bike if he had to. He was not one of life’s optimists.)
I have a few rather random observations on the Tour to offer, in no particular order.
First, no matter how big you think it is, it’s bigger than that. In particular, the number of spectators beggars belief. 12 million people go to the roadside to see the Tour live. That’s the population of Greater London plus two Parises. 65% of them are men. Most of them are under 55 years old. They’re nearly all French. I saw more than one family sitting down to lunch with napkins and a tablecloth. This is picnicking as a career choice.
Apparently they typically spend six hours by the road for a flat stage, and more than nine for a mountain stage. If you drive past them in a press car at anytime after midday and beep the horn, they’re all so leathered in vin rouge that they cheer and wave. That’s a nation that doesn’t have enough to be getting on with.
Just think what the lost hours are doing to the French economy. The rest of the world should support the Tour with passion, because without it France would have had the muscle to take over the world and we’d all have to eat cheese for breakfast.
Second, Jens Voigt is one of the most obliging men in cycling. I was trying to do nothing more than politely get past him in a narrow passage between two Tour technical lorries, and as soon as he saw my press accreditation, he just started talking. I didn’t have to ask any questions, I just had to write it all down.
Third, Bradley Wiggins’s press conferences are one of the best shows in town. We all know about the sweary one. I can appreciate that many didn’t like it. But remember that a nice, polite response would have invited more journalists to ask the same and similar questions at every press conference after every stage until all he ever talked about was doping.
A couple of days later someone asked the most tentative follow-up question you could think of. Bradley answered with unswerving politeness and phenomenal length. No one heard it because everyone had their eyes shut and their fingers in their ears.
See you next Tuesday
You also have to have some admiration for who ever it was from Sky who tried to claim the word Wiggins barked as he left the sweary conference was ‘cut’. They’d have done as well to claim he’d been constructing a complicated metaphor about King Cnut trying to turn back the tide, and fumbled it at the last moment. At the very least they should have got Wiggins to shout ‘cut’ at the end of every subsequent conference.
Fourth, they’re not nearly as upset about the lack of a French win as we like to claim they are. It’s their race we’re worshipping. Culturally, they win every year.
Fifth, Chris Froome will win the Tour. Not this year, but soon.