My Twenty One Year Love Affair with the Tour de France

Here’s something I drafted during this year’s Tour.  I wondered about publishing it and hesitated, then I procrastinated, then I hesitated some more.  In view of recent developments, and inspired by today’s presentation of the 2013 Tour route, I think it’s now time to go public.

Back in the dark ages of the last century, I stumbled across cycle racing on Channel 4.  It was 1991 and Miguel Indurain was destined to win the first of his five Tours de France; I’d never heard of Indurain, nor any of the other protagonists of that Tour, but from the first instalment of the daily highlights I was hooked.  Twenty one years later, as I watch the beginning of my 22nd Tour, I’m still utterly fascinated by the race.  Here are some musings on what this event has meant to me and how it has shaped my life to a greater or lesser extent since that one remarkable, memorable summer.

I’d always enjoyed cycling and fiddling with bikes, from the time I was given my first machine (a Puch with a weird split and curved top tube) when I was about nine or ten years old.  Then, one year, when I was about 16, I bought an old Falcon racer (from a police auction in Gosport) which I sprayed dark green with one of those cans of paint you can buy to touch up your car.  In spite of this general interest, I don’t recall having any desire to use a bike for anything other than leisure; the thought of wearing cycling shorts – Lycra or otherwise – would have been inconceivable.  I knew the name Eddy Merckx, but that was the limit of my knowledge of cycling as a sport.  Cycling was rarely on the television, if ever, and I didn’t get to see cycling magazines, nor do I recall ever seeing groups of cyclists on training rides.  It was a sport which happened on the Continent and had no place in the south of England, as far as I was aware.

One day in 1982, a new television channel was launched in the UK.  Little did I know, as I sat mesmerised by Whiteley’s gentle charm and Vorderman’s voluptuous mathematical geekiness, that this wilfully radical broadcaster would ultimately have so much influence on my life.  Although their coverage of the Tour began in 1986, to my eternal chagrin I failed to take notice of Channel 4’s exposure of the race until a number of years later.  I must have been doing other things; I was certainly playing a lot of cricket at the time.  Ironically, it was the channel’s desire to concentrate on test cricket which brought about the demise of their coverage in 2001 – naturally, I was outraged, both by the loss of test cricket from the BBC and by the realisation that the wonderful Tour de France theme tune would be consigned to the scrapheap.  Legend has it (okay, Goooogle has it) that the tune was composed by Pete Shelley, he of Buzzcocks fame, but it remains unavailable commercially as far as I am aware.

By chance, 1986 was a momentous year in Tour history.  I’ve recently finished Richard Moore’s compelling story of that year’s race, Slaying the Badger, and thanks to his detailed description of the way the race unfolded, I feel even more aggrieved that I did not witness the events on television.  (If you buy a copy, see if you can spot the reversed photo)

Greg LeMond became the first winner from the English speaking world; furthermore, it was a significant moment for the French since, as of 2012, Bernard Hinault, the titular Badger, remains the last Frenchman to win the race (in 1985).  That Tour had huge amounts of drama and intrigue, not to mention the episode of LeMond’s upset stomach and the relief he found on a makeshift lavatory made from some 40,000 postcards of Monsieur Hinault.

I eventually had my first taste of the Tour in the summer of 1991, just after my 29th birthday.  In truth, I don’t remember too much about the race itself; I remember a few of the names (Millar, Bugno, Chiappucci) but most of all, I remember the Tashkent Terror, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, who was the sprint star of the day.  I can’t say I have any recollection of LeMond in that year’s race (in which he finished 7th), or any other for that matter, which is less surprising as he failed to complete the Tour in ‘92 and ‘94.  One piece of information clearly made an impression on me, and I will still tell anyone who’s interested that Miguel Indurain had a resting heart rate of 28 beats per minute.  At the time I thought that was unbelievable; mine is now 48.  Aside from these minor details, the main memory I have is simply one of the whole spectacle of the race.  So many riders, so many vehicles, so much colour, so many roadside fans (especially on the climbs), so many crashes, so many riders winning stages but Indurain winning the General Classification.  What on earth was going on?  How could these men ride so far, day after day?  Why did the riders in the inevitable daily breaks almost never survive to win the stage?  Clearly, there was much to learn.  I watched every moment of the television coverage, determined to soak up whatever information Liggett and Sherwen – the Hinge and Brackett of cycling commentary – could impart.  One thing remained, if not exactly a mystery, at least incomprehensible to my little mind until many years later: the effect of drafting.  I finally experienced riding in a large group of road cyclists in 2002 when I joined the Loughborough Students’ Wednesday afternoon training ride.  A 60 mile ride was not only possible, it was positively comfortable, when compared to riding 40 or 50 miles solo.  The benefit of ‘sitting on a wheel’ was truly a revelation and by the end of my first race in the summer of 2003, I began to appreciate the magical power of the peloton.  My legs and lungs were far more capable than I had ever imagined.

Meanwhile, back in 1991, after three weeks, the Tour ended and cycling disappeared from my life again.  Why I didn’t act on my undoubted enthusiasm, I really don’t know.  I still had the old Falcon, but it wasn’t until the following June that I took it into A Hole’s (honestly!) bike shop in Burgess Hill and part-exchanged it for a Dawes hybrid, resplendent in its bright orange paintwork, 18 speeds and knobbly, narrow tyres.  It was a gift to myself for my 30th birthday.  Again, why I didn’t go for a racing bike, I don’t know.  Mountain biking was becoming incredibly popular, but I knew little about that either, so I guess I plumped for something in between.  Cycling shorts were still not even close to finding a place on the agenda, but I did start to ride fairly regularly, albeit for what now seem like pitifully short rides; 30 minutes maximum.  Perhaps my arse couldn’t take any more than that, on a cheap saddle with nothing like a chamois to cushion the pain.

Fast forward to 1994.  If you have a basic geographical knowledge of the UK, you’ll know that Burgess Hill sits in West Sussex, perhaps 12 miles north of Brighton and, even better, just five miles from Ditchling Beacon.  Furthermore, if you know me, you’ll be aware that I was born in Gosport, where my parents still lived in 1994.  If you don’t know me, trust me when I tell you that I was born in Gosport, which is a stone’s throw from Portsmouth, from where a Tour stage started (and finished, I think) that year.  In spite of the above, I failed to see any of the Tour when it came to the south of England that summer.  Once again, I have no idea why.  I remember watching the television coverage and I particularly remember Sean Yates being allowed the privilege of stopping to greet his family, somewhere not very far from where I lived.  I must have been at work and would have been unaware of the Tour route until coverage began so would have been unable to get time off at short notice.  That must be the reason.  I don’t think the Internet was present in our lives then, and even if it was, I doubt Gooooogle was around to help.  Geeks and nerds, feel free to correct this, but suffice to say that I had little, if any, knowledge or experience of gathering information on a computer about some foreign cycle race.  I have often heard the expression that it is better to regret something that you did than to regret something that you didn’t do.  I really regret not getting myself on the route of one of the two stages to grace our shores that year to witness the race first-hand.  Looking back, the Tour de France was something that happened on the television; I don’t think it had actually occurred to me that it was real and that it was criss-crossing Kent, Sussex and Hampshire.  I was still playing lots of cricket that summer and cycling was merely a curiosity.  It certainly had never occurred to me that I would one day get to race against young men (and women) who would go on to race in the professional ranks, but more of this later.

A final word on 1994; it was the year of ‘that’ crash.  You know, the one with the gendarme taking a photograph.  I remember thinking at the time that it was amazing that nobody was killed; just the thought of it still turns my stomach and I reckon it still tempers the way that I ride and race.

Undoubtedly there are some really hard men in cycling, and crashes are commonplace on the professional racing circuit, not least in the first week of any of the Grand Tours.  As a consequence of what I’ve seen cyclists go through – think Johnny Hoogerland, Tour de France 2011 as a prime example – I find it all but impossible to watch football any more, as explained here:

The example set by so many of the footballers in our so-called Premier League is appalling.  Some of the feigned injury antics are an embarrassment and I fail to understand why the football authorities do nothing about it, in spite of the high quality video evidence which is usually available.  Anyway, I digress.  Back to the important stuff.

Big Mig’ made it five wins in a row in 1995, then disappeared off the scene after cracking (a brutal cycling term!) the following year.  There followed a three year period when the Tour was claimed by three different men: Riis, Ullrich and Pantani; this period was, for me, something of a lull before the storm of the Armstrong era, although it must be remembered that 1998 also saw the race reach probably the lowest point in its troubled history when the Festina drugs scandal broke.  I think that, up until that point, I was willing to believe that there was doping in the peloton, but that it was only practised by a number of renegade chancers.  Evidently, I was somewhat naïve in this belief.  I’m not really interested in regurgitating the arguments and the history of doping in cycling; just about anyone will tell you that cyclists take drugs, and hearing this from those who have no other knowledge of the sport is rather tiresome.  I find it interesting that other sports don’t attract the same level of media attention about the use of performance enhancing drugs.  Whatever the public perception, I’m prepared to believe that the sport is now cleaner than it has ever been.  It is certainly the most tested sport, as far as I am aware.

In spite of my reluctance to give the subject yet more attention, I feel that there are a couple of observations on the subject that warrant an airing.  I recently read about Jacques Anquetil’s take on the use of drugs in the professional peloton, and while I would never condone drug use in any form, his justification (if that is the correct term) of the practice does suggest that it is possible to look at the situation from a different perspective.  As I understand it, Anquetil was unhappy with the way cyclists were being treated; he explained that cycling was his job, through which he made his living and in which he had a relatively short time period to make as much money as possible.  He then compared this to other professions, complaining that (for example) in the world of finance, the likes of a city trader would not be tested for the use of amphetamines or other substances which s/he may well be using to improve his or her performance in the business of making money.  Why should professional sportsmen be any different?  The argument is a little flimsy, if I have accurately summarised the gist of his statement, but it does suggest that we are rather inconsistent in our definition of what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable.  After all, sport is one aspect of the entertainment business.  Would we take such a dim view of an actor, singer or comedian taking drugs to heighten their performances?

The other drug-related curiosity in cycling has a direct connection to one of Britain’s best-loved riders.  Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France.  It is common knowledge that he had amphetamines in his system when he died; I believe he may even have had some pills in his cycling jersey at the time.  This in itself is not especially noteworthy.  What I find curious is that Tom Simpson retains the love and admiration of the cycling community; I’ve yet to meet another cyclist who has a bad word to say about Simpson, in spite of the widely-known facts surrounding his untimely death at the tender age of just 29 years.  There is a monument on the mountain to mark the place where he died; it is common practice for cyclists to leave offerings at this shrine to the man who put British cycling on the map.  I was in a café a few weeks ago and one old bike rider took great delight in telling me that he’d ridden up Ventoux recently, that he’d taken time to stop to pay his respects, and that he had left one of his club caps at the foot of the monument among so many other items of clothing, bidons and general cycling paraphernalia.  It is apparent that countless people do the same kind of thing every year.  The love and respect for Tom Simpson is incredibly touching, and the fact that he died with drugs in his system seems to be of no consequence.  I suspect that this is because he was simply doing what all of his other contemporaries were doing, and in that sense the playing field was relatively level.  He was undoubtedly an exceptional cyclist who was admired by fellow professionals and cycling fans alike.  He was a great ambassador for British cycling.  Drugs were an occupational hazard.

In 1999, cycling changed forever with the dawning of the Armstrong era.  I remember being in awe of this American who took control of the Tour that first year, while I marvelled at his high cadence time trialling and climbing.  Armstrong’s grip on the race was certainly impressive.  I had no reason to doubt his prowess at the time as I didn’t see how an individual with his medical history would want to prejudice his remarkable story of recovery through any form of illicit activity.  As things stand today, Armstrong remains at the centre of accusations about the use of drugs, but it is not something that bothers me. Frankly, I really don’t care whether he used PEDs or not.  I’ve since lost any respect I had for the man after I learned more about the history and antics of Lance Armstrong and his bully-boy tactics.  One particular incident, when he chased down Simeoni during the 2004 Tour was nothing more than the spiteful act of a playground bully, setting a shocking, unforgiveable example of the worst kind of sporting intimidation.  Surely, it was completely unnecessary.

Nevertheless, at the time of Armstrong’s maiden victory I was inspired to ride my ageing Dawes further and faster than ever before.  His follow-up victory in 2000 marks my own watershed moment on two wheels.  After quitting my job in banking, I went off to the USA to travel across and around the country for a while.  When in California I joined up with a small group of mountain bikers, hired a Marin for a couple of weeks and had a fantastic baptism of fire on the singletrack trails around Lake Tahoe, Marin County and Santa Cruz.  While I crashed aplenty, I found that I was fitter than I had imagined and that I really enjoyed pushing my body further than I thought possible.  I even bought some proper cycling shorts.  So, there it was.  I’d played my last game of cricket in the summer of 1998 and now I had been reborn as a cyclist.  Within a week of arriving back in Blighty I’d invested £1400 in my first mountain bike and I began to teach myself to use clipless pedals.  By chance, I then moved to Shropshire for a while, where I was close enough to make regular visits to Coed y Brenin to hone my mountain biking skills and work on my fitness, strength and endurance.

By the time Armstrong had chalked-up his third win, I’d enrolled at Loughborough University.  It soon became obvious that there are few mountains in north Leicestershire, so I found myself researching road bikes and decided it was time to treat myself again, and my 40th birthday was fast approaching.  After several visits to John Fern’s cycle shop in Coalville, I opted for a second-hand Olagnero frameset in purple, which John built up with a Campagnolo groupset and red Mavic rims, finished off with Cinelli bars and a pair of yellow Time pedals.  Not exactly the best colour combination, but undoubtedly unique.  I was very proud of my first proper race bike.  Sadly, the frame only lasted a year.  I hit a pothole and snapped the chain-stay, but it was difficult to feel annoyed about it; that same week I learnt that John had hanged himself in the back of his shop.  I didn’t know him well, but I liked visiting the shop and picking his brains on all things bike-related.  Perhaps he seemed a little world-weary, but in terms of cycling he was certainly full of life and in good humour and news of his untimely death came as real shock.

In October 2002 I ventured out on my first club ride with the students in Loughborough, as described above.  By spring of the following year I had ridden out to watch my first couple of road races – The Metaltek Grand Prix on the Harby circuit, and the Coalville Wheelers’ race at Griffydam – and then I had my first look at circuit racing when I went to support a few of the students racing at Darley Moor.  A few weeks later and I was mixing it with approximately 100 other riders in my maiden road race at Mallory Park, just days before my 41st birthday.  I finished in the bunch, not having the legs to take any part in the sprint, but the result was far better than I had expected.  That night I couldn’t sleep until the very early hours; it felt like my whole body was fizzing with a heady mix of adrenaline and endorphins.  I knew I had to race again, but I also knew that I would never watch bike racing in the same way again.  Since then, I have raced at Mallory countless times, as well as in several road races.  My proudest moment was finishing the BUSA road race, sprinting for about 20th place after 130kms on a testing, hilly circuit near Alcester.  I should point out that it was at Mallory that I raced against the likes of Dan Martin, Adam Blythe and Lucy Garner.  Meanwhile, in the BUSA time trials, I remember beating Emma Pooley on at least one occasion.  *Cough*:

Beating Emma Pooley by 29 seconds

I mention these names, not to suggest that I am worthy of special praise, but to illustrate how cycling has a relatively small circle of participants and how it remains open to riders of all levels.  By contrast, I don’t recall crossing the path of any future cricket stars during my time in whites.  (Actually, there is one exception: I was at school with Don Topley and I played with and against this future Essex stalwart in the late 1970s.  Don is perhaps best remembered for taking an exceptional one-handed catch off Malcolm Marshall during a Test match at Lords while on the field as a substitute fielder.  Unfortunately, after taking the catch, he stepped over the boundary rope.  Close, but no cigar.)  Another part of cycling which reinforces this close, but not closed, community spirit is that I have trained and raced with people who have raced against some of the biggest names in the sport.  My good friend (and occasional training partner) Jeroen Janssen rides for Team Raleigh; last year he took part in the Tour of Britain alongside the likes of Cavendish and Renshaw.  However, the Swede, Magnus Backstedt, is probably the best example of the phenomenon, because the former Paris-Roubaix winner and Tour de France stage winner is now prominent on the domestic road scene in the UK, racing against several people I know.  Can you imagine a top ex-professional footballer playing in the minor leagues in the twilight of his career?

By the time the Texan had won his seventh Tour, it is fair to say that my enthusiasm had waned.  Perhaps it was the seven year itch; perhaps it was the utter domination and control exercised by Team Armstrong, both on the road and in the media.  Frankly, the Tour had become rather dull and by 2005 it was evident that the American was dividing opinion like never before.  I think many people would have preferred that after he retired he would simply fade away into the background.  However, one unremarkable come-back Tour in 2009 and on-going allegations and counter allegations about doping suggest that he will stay in the headlines for some time to come.

The post-Armstrong era has been uncomfortable.  The names of Landis, Rasmussen, Contador and Vinokourov, among far too many others, have been indelibly linked with drug scandals.  Sadly, the pragmatist in me tended to think “well, they’re all at it” while admitting that the racing was entertaining, so what was the problem?  This is a tough race and the rewards can be highly lucrative, so I am no longer surprised by allegations of cheating.  Indeed, back in the early years of the event, riders were found on occasion to have taken the train to save their legs.  Bike racers – they’re only human.  I’ve never seen myself as an optimist, but the signs are there that this year’s race is as clean as it has (ever?) been, as witnessed in the lower power outputs being recorded in the racers’ data.  Meanwhile, Wiggins and Sky are shouting from the rooftops about their anti-doping policy and stance, although the sceptic in me wonders at the potential for something under the Murdoch Empire becoming entwined in immoral, illegal, ungentlemanly or unsportsmanlike behaviour.  Surely, that would never happen.

I recently celebrated my fiftieth birthday, but I still ride as often as domestic commitments allow.  Although the house is still half full of bikes, bits for bikes, wheels, jerseys and shorts, the available space is now being challenged by boxes full of children’s toys.  I now have a son of seventeen months, so any thoughts of selling-off old equipment have long disappeared.  I have no idea if Christopher will show any interest in my passion, but at least the bikes will be around for him to study, should he choose to explore the same.  I’d love him to share my enthusiasm for the sport, but part of me hopes that he’ll choose something less hazardous.

This brings me to the final chapter in my story.  As Bradley Wiggins looks set to become the first Briton to win a Grand Tour, cycling is making more and more of an impact on the collective British psyche.  There’s still a long way to go in the quest to have it reach the level of support it enjoys on the Continent, where it’s certainly not viewed as a fringe sport.  Undoubtedly, there are many more leisure cyclists on our roads, lanes, trails and cycle paths, and there are many more men and women training and racing. The fact remains, however, that cyclists are often seen as a nuisance; more worryingly, they are often seen as fair game for selfish, impatient and aggressive drivers.  Which of us can say that they’ve never been threatened or abused by motorists?  The more time I spend on the road, the more I fear for my safety and the safety of fellow riders.  Clearly, there are many people on bikes who wilfully flout the rules of the road, but this does not justify the often life-threatening behaviour displayed by so many drivers.  Without wishing to sound overly melodramatic, I’m pretty certain that cycling has saved my life by giving me a sense of focus, an outlet for my energy and the time to think about why I am here.  When I’ve been down and almost out, a bike ride has invariably brought me back from the brink; it’s also brought me into contact with countless like-minded people and it has now been the centre of my social life for many years.  Paradoxically, it has also put me in a really dangerous place more times than I care to remember.  So, as the 2012 Tour de France draws to an end and cycling fans across the country will drink a toast to Wiggins and his faithful team, I feel bound to campaign for a safer environment for all those future sprinters, testers, climbers and GC contenders who have yet to don their first pair of cycling shorts, and for those of us who plan to continue riding well into our retirement years.  I know road safety is not the sexiest of subjects, but I sincerely believe that most drivers simply don’t understand or appreciate what it takes to make a racing cyclist, so they need to be educated.  With the backing of British Cycling, the CTC and other interested parties, it must be possible to raise awareness, and who better to front the media campaign than the Sky Corporation?  It just needs some high-profile, charismatic interest to drive forward the funding applications.

I’d like to see the day when I can see my son off on a training ride without worrying unduly about him being hurt by some ignorant prat in an Audi.  Is that so much to ask?

I’m still in love with the Tour.  My love has matured, and I’ve come to understand and appreciate my mistress.  A little piece of me regrets that I didn’t meet her until it was too late to find out if I would ever have been good enough to really compete.  No matter.  She has made me very happy, and for the 49 weeks of the year when I cannot see her, at least I have something else to look forward to next summer.

Vive le Tour!

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