I’m going to tell you a little about Walter Wingfield. I don’t care if you have 50 punctured inner tubes that you suddenly have an unquenchable urge to repair, sit down and listen.
He was one of those Victorian men with moustaches who Got Things Done. He was also an enthusiastic cyclist.
During the 1890s high-society cycling craze he invented a game. In it a team of cyclists used golf clubs to hit a tennis ball through the hoops of a croquet court. He reasoned that this was a sure-fire hit, because it used the implements of the four most popular toff sports to produce a version of a fifth, polo.
His new game died on its ass, as it so richly deserved to. Among other things, this demonstrated that it’s very difficult to use logic to invent a sporting event that works. You have to deal much more with the question of getting the stupidity just right.
To wit, the Tour de France that has just finished was an outstanding edition of an outstanding idea. Yet the idea came about not because of any logic, but because someone was trying to think of the stupidest publicity stunt he could (“Let’s have a bike race all the way round France!”) and everyone else agreed because, while they were sure it would fail, they were curious to see exactly how. (I generalise, but only slightly.)
When the monster 400km stages didn’t prove stupid enough, they added mountains, despite the near certainly that existed in most minds at the time that this was a recipe for killing bike riders. It was the days before Health and Safety, and if killing bike riders was what it took to boost newspaper circulation, then so be it. (See numerous previous columns about the Daily Mail.)
I was thinking of all this while watching that 100km stage to Foix the day after the Bastille holiday. This was the much-praised ‘short’ stage — lots of attacking, lots of action, and generally a grand entertainment. The implication is that there will be more stages like it.
I don’t suppose I’d object. But I wouldn’t want to see the Tour guided entirely by what makes sense, since more short, lively stages would inevitably make sense from the point of view of entertaining the audience and boosting the value of the TV rights.
I’ve mentioned the long sprint stages several times recently, mainly because they were televised from start to finish, something which has doubtless saved the NHS a fortune on sedatives. The logic of demand-led entertainment would cut them down to about 5km, and probably make it best of three. That’s clearly what we say we want.
Logic and sports finance would probably move the mountain stages to a purpose-built mountain in the Middle Eastern desert, where broadcast facilities could be designed in from the planning stage, and all the descents could be watered to ensure lots of crashes.
We certainly wouldn’t have the general classification decided on cumulative time, as it is at the moment, because no one understands it — can you all remember back a few years to the “How did Mark Cavendish win six stages but not win the race overall” conversations with non-cyclists that we all got trapped in for hours at a stretch? The Tour would be some sort of points-based 21-stage omnium. There’d be an elimination race, almost certainly.
I’m not being entirely facetious. There is no way anyone would ever invent something as perfectly daffy as a three-week, 3,500km Grand Tour now. It would either be a TV product, as above, or it would be a non-stop horror like the Race Across America. While I like flag-to-line entertainment as much as the next fan, I also want the race to remain very much in touch with its beginnings.
It could be a slogan. “The Tour de France: a damned stupid idea.”