The Wednesday Comment


Saturday’s stage of the Giro d’Italia, as the strade bianche turned to brown sludge and the riders fought their own individual battles to reach the finish, was one of the finest days of racing any of the grand tours have produced for years.

Thanks to the rain, it was epic stuff well before they reached the dirt tracks. The three Liquigas riders who held the top three positions overall – Vincenzo Nibali, Ivan Basso and Valerio Agnoli – all fell on a seemingly innocuous corner on a steady descent. They must have hit a patch of diesel or something because the curve was certainly not the cause.

After that all hell broke loose. To start with, Alexandre Vinokourov – shedding his cloak as pantomime villain – urged the others riders who had got clear to slow down rather than exploit the race leader’s misfortune.

Then they raced in the truest meaning of the word, grinding through the mud, getting covered in a film of brown slime, and grimmacing. There was lots of grimmacing.

It was difficult to put the stage into the context of a three-week race, especially when there is such a long time between the two ‘rest’ days. Because of the need to transfer back to Italy after the opening weekend in Amsterdam, the first rest day came very early, on the first Tuesday. It means there are 12 days of racing before the next break on Monday. And, before that break comes the leg-breaker, the Zoncolan, on Sunday.

But no one was thinking about any of that during the stage to Montalcino. This was racing at its best, with everyone concentrating on the here and now.

For the armchair viewers it was one of those days of racing that gets thrown up every now and then when everything was shaken up. La Plagne 1987, Paris 1989, the Tour at Liège in 1995 spring to mind, as does the day to Brignoles last year. Angelo Zomegnan gets a lot of criticism but on Saturday he made the race the star of the show.

In the space of ten days, Britain’s riders have delivered success after success on the road.

Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins won his first grand tour stage in Amsterdam to take the maglia rosa in the Giro d’Italia. The following weekend, his team-mate Ben Swift won a stage and closed out the Tour of Picardie in northern France – a very decent win for a second-year pro, and Sky’s first overall classification victory.

A few hundred kilometres south, Lizzie Armitstead won the opening stage of the Tour de l’Aude to take the yellow jersey.

Across the pond Mark Cavendish took the opening stage of the Tour of California and pulled on the golden jersey. And yesterday, Emma Pooley, Armitstead’s Cervélo team-mate, got in the break that catapulted her into the lead at the Tour de l’Aude. Without tempting fate, Pooley looks in a very strong position to become the first British winner of the longest-running women’s race.

Outside of an Olympic Games, has there ever been such a run of British success? Looking back in the history books there was the weekend in Heerlen, Holland in 1967 when Graham Webb and Beryl Burton won world titles in the amateur and women’s road races.

But this run of success confirms the strength in depth Britain now has. Wiggins was one of the first to benefit from a structured, well-funded British Cycling programme. And the others have all come through an established system that identified their ability and worked to improve it. In a way, it proves what the likes of Dan Coyle and Matthew Syed have sought to demonstrate in their recent books – that when it comes to sporting excellence, nurture rules over nature.

Several Julys ago, when the Tour de France was on, I went for a ride on a Saturday afternoon and stopped at a Hertfordshire pub for a refreshing pint of shandy on the way back.

There was nothing on the telly, so I asked the bloke behind the bar if they had Eurosport and if they minded putting it on. There I was, contentedly watching the Tour stage when three men came in, regulars, I presumed, and without so much as a word, they switched the channel over. To British Open golf.

Unlike in France, where every cafe with a television will be showing the Tour de France in July, there is not a culture of watching cycling in public. Until now.

Last Friday, my colleague Andy McGrath and I visited the Rapha Cycle Club on Clerkenwell Road near Farringdon tube station in London. We were there to do Cycling Weekly‘s live text coverage of the day’s Giro stage.

It struck me how far cycling has come in recent years that there are now two cafes within a mile of each other in London dedicated to cycling. The other is Look Mum No Hands on Old Street, where CW will be doing live coverage of today’s Giro stage.

Throughout the afternoon, people popped into the Rapha Cycle Club to watch the racing on television, flick through the newspapers and magazines and have a coffee. It was somewhere dedicated to cycling. It wasn’t hidden away. The windows were not blacked out and no one felt peculiar spending the afternoon watching a bike race.

In fact, cycling has become so socially acceptable it’s almost worrying. In recent days, I’ve seen a programme about the former Housemartin, Paul Heaton, who has been cycling between every gig on his UK tour on a proper race bike, in Lycra.

And then Sir Alan, sorry, Lord Sugar, was on Jonathan Ross’s prime time chat happily admitting he rides his bike. They even showed a picture of him in full Garmin-Transitions kit which he’d been sent gratis because Garmin provide the GPS units for his planes.

Wonder whether Lord Sugar’s Team Sky kit will be in the post. After all, he did sell Amstrad’s satellite dish business to Mr Murdoch.

Sky Wall

Was this what Rupert Murdoch meant when he said he was introducing a pay wall?

Team Sky’s riders warmed up for the Giro’s opening time trial in Amsterdam and the team time trial back in Italy, behind this large black wall, designed to ensure the area is a ‘sterile zone’. That means the riders won’t have their focus disrupted by lots of fans and journalists gawping at them.

I can see both sides of the story when it comes to the need for this wall, unlike the fans who arrive at the start of a time trial stage expecting a glimpse of their heroes.

Cyclists are unusual among sports people. In that they are expected to mingle with the public and fight their way through crowds of people to get to the start line. They don’t let the fans into the tunnel at a football stadium, for example.

Having dozens of sets of eyes staring at you while you’re trying to warm up and get into the right frame of mind for a time trial must be a bit disconcerting. Perhaps it’s one of those marginal gains that will help the riders in their quest to be the best they can be.

But is it a step too far? It’s interesting to note that as cycling seeks to become more professional, following in the footsteps of more media-savvy and sensitive sports, one of the element’s that made it so popular in the first place is in danger of being lost – its accessibility.

The next few years are going to be economically difficult times and already this season we have noticed a trend. Crowds at the Classics were huge, noticeably bigger than in recent years. This could perhaps be attributed to the recession. Cycling offers people a superb – and free – day out. There are no tickets to buy, no expensive food and drink to stump up for. You just need your car and a picnic.

A slick media operation is fantastic but perhaps this is a time when cycling needs to engage with its followers out there in ‘meat space’. That’s where fans will be won over.

Fortunately Tuesday’s stage of the Tour of California was an improvement on the first two because the decision to go up against the Giro d’Italia was starting to look like a bit of a disaster judging by the opening day’s ‘action’.

No matter how much Lance Armstrong and others try to tell people that the Tour of California is the second biggest bike race in the world, the claim does not stand up to examination. The opening stage was held on roads so long and straight I thought I’d stumbled across some footage of a particularly dreary day at the Vuelta.

There were lots of fans out, though, and they loved it, so perhaps that’s the point but if the Tour of California is really to rival the Giro, it needs to be more accessible to people in Europe.

One of the problems the grand tours have is that, no matter how much you try to schedule the important days at the weekend, the bulk of the action takes place when most of the viewers are at work.

Because of the time difference, the Tour of California could exploit this in future if they tinkered with their scheduling.

The stages are timed to finish at around 4pm local time, which is midnight in the UK and 1am in Europe. No one but the hardiest of fans is going to stay up that late, even if the racing is brilliant.

However, if the Tour of California’s organisers could be tempted to schedule their race so it finished at 10.30pm in Europe, they might be onto something.