I’m going to let you in on a little secret: For an American cycling journalist, historic pieces on the Tour de France are our stock-in-trade. There’s nothing easier or more fun to write. And they are even easier to sell. Why? Because the story lines are all so straightforward. You’ve got LeMond vs. Hinault in 1986. Then you’ve got LeMond vs. Fignon in ’89. LeMond vs. Chiappucci in ’90. Armstrong vs. Ullrich in ’00, ’01 and ‘03, just for starters. They are almost boxing matches in their simplicity. Despite the other 190-odd riders present, those Tours were mano-a-mano matches.
The ’86 Tour is king is this regard because of the intra-team rivalry between Hinault and LeMond. On top of the interloping Yank, you’ve got broken promises, the pressure of the media and a team that wasn’t afraid to split along partisan lines. Most burgers aren’t this juicy.
I lay that before you as a backdrop to what I have to say about the ’12 Tour. It is, for me, the most disappointing Tour de France I’ve seen since perhaps ’94 and ’95, which had drama the way Congress has compromise. The most interesting thing happening on the road is Tejay Van Garderen for the simple fact that he’s the most unknown of quantities. And this isn’t just a jingoistic yearning for the next Hampsten, which is to say a climber of such aw-shucks sincerity and tremendous gifts he is realizing he doesn’t know the world before him.
The thing about Van Garderen is that the world is littered with riders who were flashes in the pan, young riders who showed flashes of greatness only to ride anonymously for the rest of their careers. But there are also the stories of LeMond, Fignon and Hinault who showed greatness early on and then delivered over and over and that’s why Van Garderen’s ascension to team leader for BMC is a much more interesting story line than Cadel Evans’ collapse. Did he never really get in shape this year? Has he been sick for most of the Tour and the team has played coy? Whatever. Who really cares enough to read beyond the possible headline: Evans Admits He’s Over the Hill.
Off the course, all the drama is to be found in the interviews with Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. Poor Froome. He deserves credit for sticking to the game plan and pledging his support to Wiggins and his team to any microphone within range. That he has managed to keep his cool despite the obvious provocations from the media, invitations from the world’s biggest media outlets to go rogue isn’t Jesus-in-the-cinnamon-bun miraculous, but it’s as impressive as anything I saw in the recent X Games.
Having said that, let’s take a moment to parse the future, or even a couple of futures. First, once Wiggins wins this Tour, we all know he will start last and wear #1 at the start of next year’s Tour. It’s silly to suggest that he’ll be anything other than Sky’s captain, unless some calamity befalls him during the spring. Any suggestion that maybe next year would be Froome’s turn is laughable. Not if Wiggins is on-form. Now, could Froome leave and assume the leader’s role at another team? Sure. But unless that team has a history of properly supporting a grand tour champion (think Saxo Bank, not Omega Pharma-Quickstep), he shouldn’t buy that yellow watch just yet.
There. I think I’ve covered all the interesting story lines from this year’s Tour, unless you want to include all the message board chatter by American viewers who are tired of Scott Moninger’s interlaced-fingers-jabber and begging for Todd Gogulski.
Back in undergraduate school I wrote a paper for a history class in which I analyzed the rise of Moammar Gadhafi as American enemy #1. I noted that in 1985 he wasn’t much different or doing different things than he was in 1978. The big change was the end of the Iranian hostage crisis. Once Iran stopped being our biggest international problem, once the Ayatollah Khomeni stopped being the villain-at-large, we needed someone new. Qadaffi fit the bill.
What this Tour lacks is a villain. Froome is the best candidate, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to wear the black hat. And he’s smart to beg off. If he went off the res he’d be far less attractive to courting teams. The first question on everyone’s mind would be whether or not he was coachable—capable of sticking to the script. Hell, the Schlecks make it look like they are sticking to the script and they are difficult enough, Frank’s B sample notwithstanding.
Yes, we need a villain, but not everyone is up to the task. Alberto Contador has a thick skin, thick enough to play the villain and play it well. Hinault had an even thicker skin, which is saying something. To play the villain, one must understand that though you may lose the hearts of the fans, there’s a kind of satisfaction in infamy.
It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti