THE first time the Tour de France visited Britain was in 1974, when, perhaps still smirking with pride at their new motorway system, the brass in their wisdom decided the best way of showing off our sceptred isle was to have riders plough up and down a colourless stretch of dual carriageway near Plymouth.
Twenty years later the Tour returned and lessons seem to have been learned, the race visiting Dover, Brighton and Portsmouth and the crowds turning out in number. After a thirteen year absence from these shores, the opening time trial prologue rolls out in central London today, with Trafalgar Square, The Mall and Buckingham Palace offering a sublime stage backdrop.
Despite such grandstanding from the capital, however, attitudes towards road cycling here remain lukewarm. Since the Tour last visited British Cycling’s Premier Calendar Road Race Series has much reduced in size – in Scotland alone the Glasgow to Dunoon classic has disappeared as has the Tour of the Kingdom stage race in Fife. Motorists might wail and gnash about congestion charges and speed cameras but on Britain’s roads the humble cyclist is firmly fastened to the bottom of the food chain. Closing a stretch of road for half and hour to allow a cycle race through is felt to be the height of leftie, tree-hugging madness.
When it comes to the Tour de France, it is a perennial mystery to those of us enthralled by its majesty that Brits on the whole just don’t, well, get it. For a start terrestrial TV coverage in the UK is now pretty much non-existent and it has become increasingly difficult for the novice to get a handle on the sport’s many subtleties. Riders compete for themselves and a team, egad!
It is perhaps its refusal to dish itself up in nice bite-sized portions that makes the Tour an ill-fit with British television schedulers. Over the next three weeks, 21 teams of nine riders each will cover a total distance of 3,550km, split over 21 stages. Each stage is an individual race in itself, although stage-winners often have no chance of winning the yellow jersey, given to the rider who completes the course in the lowest time. Overall winners tend to be able to perform well in the mountains and ride time trials, of which there are three, but there are two further jerseys up for grabs – a green one for the ‘King of the Mountains’ and a white and red polka dot one for the top sprinter.
Yet while all these events are won by individuals, a strong Tour contender must have a strong team to shield him from the wind on flat stages, fetch him drinks and food from the team car, or ward off would-be attackers by setting a good pace in the high mountain stages. The British are said to admire a plucky loser but in the Tour de France the loser is no loser at all. The ‘lantern rouge’ is the rider who is last overall, but he will have suffered a great deal to complete the course and may well have sacrificed much of his energy at the service of his leader early on in the race.
All of which gets to the heart of what sets the Tour de France so utterly apart from other sporting events. The cycling supporter is as much in awe of the race itself, its promise of heroism, the ritual of man defying both geography and his own body, as he is of particular riders. And that is why, despite the doping scandals of 1998 and 2006, the Tour remains unbowed. In France, millions buy L’Equipe every day to read detailed analysis of the race and its riders. In Britain we may yet discover that bicycles aren’t just for coming over all green.
This article appeared in The Herald