kenny hodgart

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Schleck must be more ruthless

This article appeared in The Herald

One incident above all in this year’s Tour de France, which finished in Paris on Sunday, provoked obsessive debate among cycling fans: an alleged breach of etiquette by the ultimate winner Alberto Contador that allowed him to gain 39 seconds – the margin of his eventual victory – on his rival Andy Schleck after the latter’s chain came off in the Pyrenees.

The argument that had Contador stopped riding and waited for the Luxembourger he might not have been in the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees is at best a facile way of looking at a 3600km race. Schleck may have seemed like the stronger rider throughout the race – by Saturday’s final time trial stage Contador was suffering from a fever – but little has been made of the fact that his rival was not without mechanical troubles of his own during the Tour: on the cobbles of northern France in the first week, he rode 30km with a back brake rubbing against his wheel. No-one waited for him then, and indeed for all those queuing up to condemn the Spaniard, there are plenty former riders who admit observance of the convention has always been the exception rather than the rule.

In any case, it was the Team Saxo Bank rider’s own poor decision to make a big gear change when he did that caused his chain to come off, and a certain lack of astuteness has plagued the 25-year-old’s career to date. After finishing 12th in his first Tour de France, in 2008, however, he has improved year on year: this year’s gap from the now three-time winner Contador was a significant improvement on the 4 minutes 11 seconds by which the latter beat him into second last year.

Race director Christian Prudhomme has wasted no time in identifying the beginnings of a captivating new chapter in the history of big Tour rivalries. For him the pair are the new Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocana, or Bernald Hinault and Greg LeMond. “They are almost at the same level and that promises new, extraordinary duels”, he said at the weekend, throwing in the names of another pair – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – just in case non-aficionados weren’t paying attention.

One name he failed to mention – perhaps because he was later implicated in a doping scandal – was that of Jan Ullrich, one of the youngest Tour winners ever in 1997 but then never able to repeat the feat once Lance Armstrong started his run of seven wins in a row from 1999. But the Anquetil-Poulidor rivalry may be the one Schleck has most to worry about replicating: Anquetil won the Tour five times between 1957 and 1964; Poulidor was the eternal podium bridesmaid, coming second on three occasions and third five times.

Conceivably, Contador and Schleck might continue their rivalry for another decade: the Astana man is the senior competitor at just 27. But will their relationship ever be reversed? And will Schleck have a better chance of winning than he did this year? “This race has been so close not because Andy has been a lot better, but because I’ve been a lot worse,” was how Contador saw it on Sunday, his greatness now beyond doubt after his latest victory placed him in a select group of riders (including only himself, Anquetil, Hinault and Merckx) to have won all three Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain) at least once, and the Tour de France at least three times.

One reason he has given for being “worse” than last year was the fact that he was on a course of antibiotics the week before the race. But Schleck also had another mitigating factor to contend with: his team-mate and brother, Frank – whose attacks in the Alps and Pyrenees would doubtless have tired Contador – crashed on the cobbles on stage three and had to retire from the race.

The younger Schleck’s own tactical naivete didn’t do him any favours, either. He failed to sense that Contador was tired and so failed to attack until the last kilometre in the first mountain stage, Morzine-Avoriaz, and could have again made time on the stage 17 Tourmalet summit finish if he had only made another charge after he and Contador went clear in front together. “He was too clever for me”, Schleck admitted that day.

Laurent Fignon, the two-time Tour winner, gave his own assessment in yesterday’s l’Equipe. “Contador manipulated Schleck by playing with him on a psychological level,” he opined. “He compensated for his bad spells with great mental strength and by bigging up their friendship. Over the course of the Tour, he succeeded in making his rival switch off.”

The message was clear: Schleck must be more ruthless. Champions tend to be capable of learning from their mistakes. It’s up to Schleck to do so now.

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Recalling Robert Millar’s breakthrough Tour de France

This article appeared in The Herald

Twenty-five years ago this month the cult techno-pop hit Tour de France was riding high in the British charts. Europhiles may have been taken by Kraftwerk’s cycling-themed EP; the race itself, however, was nowhere to be seen on British television screens.

Here, the sport will never be entrenched in our culture like it is in France , Belgium or Italy , but at least these days one can follow the Tour – and the progress of our own David Millar, currently holding up well in this year’s overall classification – on Eurosport. On July 10, 1983 , another Scot, Robert Millar, won the Pyrenean mountain stage, Pau-Bagneres de Luchon, on his way to finishing 14th overall and third in the King of the Mountains competition, in his first Tour de France, aged 24.

Despite going on to become arguably the greatest British road cyclist of all time – his first trainer Billy Bilsland calls him Scotland ‘s “most successful Scottish athlete ever” – Millar was never properly acclaimed for his achievements.

Anonymity at home may have suited him. Now, certainly, he absents himself from any publicity – following his retirement from cycling in 1995, he wrote for a while in cycling magazines and had a spell as GB team manager, but is now believed to be a recluse.

Much has been made of his retreat from the world, but in 1983 the young Glaswegian was not averse to a little showboating. As he recounted to a journalist after that Tour stage win: “I looked round at three kilometres to go, and I could see the guy [ Spain ‘s Pedro Delgado] coming. So I put myself on the rivet again. And then at 500 metres, I took the hat out for publicity, put the hat on nice. And put the arms up. Always have to remember that.”

In the 1984 Tour Millar won a stage at Guzet-Neige and assumed the King of the Mountains throne, becoming the first Briton to win any major Tour classification. He also finished fourth overall, surpassing Tom Simpson’s British record of sixth in the 1960s. He would also finish second, twice, in the Tour of Spain – ceding victory in the penultimate stage in 1985 when his six-minute lead was eaten up following a puncture – and in the Giro d’Italia in 1987. His greatest win came in the Dauphine Libere classic in 1990.

Where his achievements were treated with indifference in Britain, Millar and other English-speaking riders who emerged in the 1980s were regarded with some suspicion at first on the continent. These included the great Sean Kelly, who in the 1983 Tour was busy winning the second of his four maillots verts – the green points jersey awarded to the best overall sprinter.

Having won the first of those in 1982, during which he also took the bronze medal at the World Championships, Kelly’s home town in Tipperary, Carrick on Suir, renamed its market square the Sean Kelly Square.

Kelly only won one Grand Tour – the Vuelta a Espana in 1988 – but was one of the finest classic riders in cycling history. He won the Race to the Sun, the Paris-Nice, seven times in a row, from 1982-1988, and following the introduction of world rankings in 1984, topped them for the next six years.

In the 1983 Tour Kelly finished seventh overall – his highest position was fourth in 1985 – and on his way to winning 33 races in 1984, earned the nickname “the new cannibal”, the original cannibal, Eddy Merckx, having retired in 1978.

When he retired in 1992, following a final classic victory in the Milan-SanRemo, and having won 193 professional races overall, he returned to Carrick on Suir for its annual Hamper race – accompanied by other greats of the sport such as Merckx, Bernard Hinault – the last Frenchman to win the Tour, in 1985 – and Laurent Fignon, who won it in 1983, and once more in 1984. There was no way Kelly, certainly a more congenial fellow than his Scots peer, would fade quietly into obscurity.

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Tour de France visits London

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