If I had been cynical/skeptical/jaded about this Tour de France over the first two weeks, yesterday’s stage with its double ascent of Alpe d’Huez cured me. With riders leaping off the front and dropping off the back, there was so much going on, so much chaos, that I found myself riveted. I have always been a fan of the epic climbing stages, and this one delivered enough thrills to qualify for the four-ticket bounty at the state fair.
And though Chris Froome and his Sky minions have controlled the race with well-calculated and muscular performances whenever and wherever it’s been necessary, so too have his rivals taken ample opportunity to attack. The race has been anything but a stately promenade to Paris.
I was wrong in my initial belief that the green jersey competition would be more interesting than the GC. Peter Sagan is riding away with the points competition, despite not dominating either in the intermediate or finishing sprints. On the other hand, once you look past Froome, the next four GC riders are within 47 seconds of each other. With one last mountain stage to ride, podium spots are anything but assured.
The preeminence of Team Sky in three-week races seems confirmed now, though Bradley Wiggins failed to impress (or finish) the Giro. Still, the short reign of Alberto Contador is clearly over, and it remains to be seen whether racers like Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez can translate Giro and Vuelta performances into French success.
Sagan has stolen Mark Cavendish’s thunder, and even Andre Greipel is finding ways to win stages. The lack of real dominance is good for the sport, both from a fan’s perspective and from a credibility standpoint. It says something powerful that Froome’s ride in France has drawn so many questions, while the seeming parity of his rivals speaks volumes about the possible cleanliness of the top tier competitors. Maybe, just maybe, this has been a good Tour de France for cycling.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what have you enjoyed about this 100th Tour de France? Did it live up to your expectations? What were the surprises? And what does it say about the current state of Grand Tour racing?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
My takeaways from the first week of the 100th Tour de France are as follows: 1) Corsica is beautiful, and despite the narrow, nervous, crashy, not-altogether-organized nature of the opening stages there, I need to put it on my “Places I Need to Ride My Bike” list; 2) As always, there are some tough sons-a-bitches in that peloton, including three of my favorites, Ryder Hesjedal, Ted King and Geraint Thomas; and 3) the sprint competition is going to be more fun to watch than usual, with Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Peter Sagan, Simon Gerrans and Mark Cavendish all taking sprint wins (and intermediate points) through the first week.
When you toss in that Daryl Impey has just become the first African to wear the yellow jersey, it is hard to argue that this version of the Grande Boucle lacks for drama, grit and flair.
You will note that I have not yet even mentioned the GC competition (Impey is in yellow, but he is not in the GC mix). On that score, rather than attempting anything resembling expert prognostication, a task better left to the right honorable Pelkey and/or his Irish partner in crime, I will only say that Nicolas Roche, Roman Kreuziger, Alejandro Valverde and a whole gaggle of Garmins are still comfortably within touching distance of the top.
That means, to me, that weeks two and possibly three will have more real players involved in the struggle for the jaundiced shirt than past iterations of this race have allowed. So that’s cool.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what is the story of this Tour for you so far? What are the surprises? What magic is yet to come? Take this wherever you want, the Tour does not submit itself to easy reduction. We could, quite possibly, talk about this all day. So start now.
I don’t know whether my belief that only Peter Sagan can win this weekend’s Milan -San Remo comes from my unabashed admiration for his swashbuckling style, or from an accurate analysis of the race and the current form of the top favorites. The guys here at the office pointed out for me that completely writing off Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert, not to mention Matt Goss, is the work of a fan boy, not a commentator.
So sue me.
Let me tell you what I think. Mark Cavendish is still the fastest man on two wheels, despite Sagan beating him to the line in Stage 3 at Tirreno-Adriatico just last week. But the Cipressa and the Poggio will put paid to Cavendish’s hopes of sprinting for this one. Sagan and his Liquigas cohort are too smart not to push the pace high enough to eliminate the Manxman early.
Fabian Cancellara is the fast man in the world on any stretch of flat road, and he’s got a good sprint on him. But he doesn’t have Sagan’s top end speed. If the two come to the line together, the Slovak wins every time.
Philippe Gilbert, current World Champion, shares Sagan’s love of punchy uphill racing, but like Cancellara, who both Sagan and Gilbert can drop on the Poggio, Gilbert won’t beat Sagan in a sprint. He’ll have to get away earlier…but won’t.
That leaves Matt Goss. Matt Goss is maybe the third fastest guy mentioned in this post. He’s a canny racer and a worthy contender, but he doesn’t have the team to manage the end of this race successfully.
Sagan will win this race because he can climb with anyone and sprint with the best, but also because he has a great team, who could, if Sagan falters or is over-marked, put Moreno Moser on the top step of the podium instead.
This week’s Group Ride dares you to disagree with me. If not Sagan, then who will win 2013 Milan – San Remo? Explain your reasoning. How will they win? Or why will Sagan lose?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
In refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks unwittingly ignited a revolution in how the United States treated African Americans. It was a pretty simple act of defiance as things go, but by staying seated, Parks ripped the scab off long-simmering tensions between blacks and whites in the U.S.
In the decade that followed President Lyndon Johnson signed into law what was arguably the most radical and sweeping civil rights legislation since the Nineteenth Amendment—which gave women the right to vote—was ratified in 1920. African Americans were given the right to vote, protected from discrimination based on their skin color or national heritage and protected from discrimination in housing. What gave the civil rights movement its power was a societal epiphany, a collective dawning of consciousness about the inherent wrong of discriminating against anyone for their skin color. For reasons that we may never fully understand, sufficient numbers of Americans made their voice heard, a voice that said in effect, ‘This doesn’t work; we’re not going to accept this anymore.’
Of course, the road to equal rights wasn’t smooth or easy. There were murders, boycotts, riots, more murders and deployments of the National Guard to keep the status quo when the cops couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves.
I offer that as a backdrop to the recurring themes of today’s news. A majority of the American people have concluded they’re okay with gay marriage. What they’re not okay with anymore are priests and school teachers sexually abusing minors. They’re not okay with the Boy Scouts discriminating against gays. And they don’t seem to be okay assault weapons on the streets. The public not only wants change, they see it as necessary.
In our collective rejection of this old status quo I see a parallel to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. We aren’t willing to turn a blind eye to these crimes. My sense is that we’re approaching another societal epiphany, a large-scale sea change, one that will define us as a society that rejects discrimination of any form. Naturally, I hope that this movement isn’t marked by the violence that threatened to overshadow all the progress we were making.
So what’s this got to do with cycling? That’s easy: I see cycling confronting the same issues. I now think Travis Tygart’s pursuit of Armstrong affair is the precipitating event to wake cycling fans from their complacency about the problem of doping, much the way Parks’ defiance was the precipitating event in sparking the civil rights movement. I’ll admit, it took me a long time to see the case in this light, but there can be no doubt that the public at large is now aware of just how deeply ingrained doping has been in the sport.
Most of the cycling public ignored nearly all of the accusations against Armstrong and instead chose to believe the fairytale until the release of USADA’s Reasoned Decision. Through that I hear echoes of white America’s tacit approval of segregation. Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen are little different from the Southern politicians and police chiefs who resisted the new laws, insisting they weren’t going to change how things had been done for generations. Indeed, considering how McQuaid and Verbruggen denounced both Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton once they decided to unburden their consciences by confessing the details of their doping, they are no better than Bull Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner who directed the fire and police departments to turn fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s demonstration in the spring of 1963. Connor, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, became the public face of Southern bigotry, the quintessential example of the old guard that was standing in the way of the equality we all now take for granted.
If it seems like a stretch to compare segregation with doping, consider that there was a time when seemingly reasonable people saw nothing wrong with separate facilities for blacks and whites—it was the law of the land thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Similarly, there was a time when taking performance-enhancing drugs just to get through a bike race wasn’t the least bit scandalous. Times change.
Could it be that the new generation of riders are analogous to what my generation was to the acceptance of African Americans as equals in school and on the playground? I think so. In their outspoken denunciation of doping, Taylor Phinney, Tejay Van Garderen and Mark Cavendish are a lot like the whites who linked arms with blacks and staged protests in the South. It may also be that riders like Levi Leipheimer and Thomas Dekker aren’t terribly different from Southerners who went with the flow until they recognized the tide had turned.
In shutting down the investigation by their independent commission, McQuaid and the UCI have proven to all but those with the most reptilian of brains that learning the full scope of doping in the sport has never been their primary interest. They lack the vision, the institutional spine and sufficient love for the sport to show real courage by allowing the commission to do the job they were charged with. After being booed by the crowd assembled at the recent Cyclocross World Championships, it seems impossible that McQuaid could somehow be unclear on the will of the people, yet he persists with the obstinate bearing of a smoker who won’t give up his cigarettes even after learning he has lung cancer. In that regard we can draw yet another comparison, this time to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. It was Faubus who called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. You can’t help but wonder what he was thinking as he tried to prevent school integration.
It would be obscene to suggest that the issues cycling faces are as serious as the fundamental issues of equality that the United States wrestled with 50 years ago. But because sport is aspirational, a place in which we invest our loftiest dreams, the drama unfolding as a result of doping has held many of us in a disproportionate crisis. Sport is supposed to be a realm free of the clutches of corruption.
Democracy has a way of pushing aside tyrants in favor of more reasonable forms of engaging the citizenry. History remembers Faubus and Connor as villains who stood in the way of equality for all Americans, men who clung to outdated ideas and refused to change with the times. McQuaid and Verbruggen have denied any wrongdoing during their tenures, instead pointing crooked fingers at the riders, the teams and even the fans. They are our Faubus and Connor. History will show them no quarter.
So what might we expect from the future? It’s not unreasonable to conclude the UCI will be freed of the misguided leadership of McQuaid and Verbruggen following their next election. Of course, that is no more likely to put an end to doping than the civil rights movement put an end to the Ku Klux Klan. The difference is that the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t a fringe organization in the first half of the 20th Century, while today it is far outside of the mainstream of social thought. Likewise, drug use was a once widespread practice, but the day is coming when athletes will see doping for what it really is—
the most basic of lies.
This week we have learned that Brad Wiggins won’t lead Team Sky at the 2013 Tour de France, that he’ll focus his energy on a Giro course more suited to his skills. Instead, Team Sky will give Chris Froome the leash his talents scream for, empowering him to power up the Grand Boucle’s litany of climbs.
Last year, this intra-squad conflict looked a bit different. Froome was so strong he had to be made to wait for Wiggins on one occasion, lest he strip the jersey from his captain’s shoulders. There was a real feeling he might have won the race himself, instead of finishing second. That he only managed fourth place at the Vuelta was surprising, but it’s hard to say how the miles pile up closer to the end of a season, and Sky didn’t give him anything like their best grand tour team for that race.
Now we get to see what the Kenyan/South African/Brit can do with all the prettiest horses harnessed to his ambitions at the Tour. Given the return of Alberto Contador, there are no foregone conclusions, as would be the case even if Wiggins were returning to defend his title.
Team Sky got off to a slow start in the pro peloton in 2010, Juan Antonio Flecha’s win at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad highlighting their 22 wins, but they have risen to the top in the intervening seasons, and, especially now that Mark Cavendish has moved on to a team (OPQS) more inclined to stage wins than overalls, must be seen as the pre-eminent grand tour squad in the world.
This weeks’ Group Ride asks: Can they do the double? Can Wiggins win the Giro while Froome sweeps the Tour? Is the blueprint that worked last summer, the one that saw Sky sitting on the front of the peloton day after day to grind down the pure climbers with a brazen outpouring of watts, still a winning strategy? Or is six weeks of high intensity racing too much for a team, even of Sky’s clever construction? Bonus question, now wearing Rapha, will there be any team more handsomely turned out? If so, who?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Long considered the orphan child of European cycling, Great Britain has finally established itself as a leading international force thanks to the brilliant 1-2 by Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome at this year’s Tour de France, the stunning string of gold and silver medals won by the country’s track and road teams at the London Olympics, and the burgeoning status of the sport within the British media and general public.
Newcomers to cycling tend to think that the recent successes by British cyclists represents a sudden breakthrough, but it’s more as if the sport has come full circle. Britons developed the first modern bicycles (along with chain drive and pneumatic tires), won the world’s first organized bike races in the 19th century, and staged the first six-day track races and road time trials. There was a bleak period for British cycling in the first half of the 20th century, mainly due to a ban on road racing and professional cycling, but the country has since gradually shed its orphan status to re-emerge stronger than ever in this 21st century.
Countless individuals have contributed to Britain’s cycling revival over the past several decades, including all those who won world championships in the second half of the last century: Beryl Burton, Tom Simpson and Graham Webb on the road, and Reg Harris, Cyril Peacock, Hugh Porter and Tony Doyle on the track. And even before this year’s explosion of British victories, the upward path was accelerated in the past 10 years by a slew of British world champions headed by Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Wiggins on the velodrome, and Nicole Cooke and Mark Cavendish on the road.
While massive publicity was being given this year to Tour winner Wiggins and the home country’s Olympic medalists, three of the men who paved the way for them quietly passed away. Track racer Tommy Godwin died earlier this month two days short of his 92nd birthday; time trialist Ray Booty died from cancer three months ago at age 79; and road racer Brian Haskell died in March at 83.
Godwin, who won bronze medals in the kilometer time trial and 4000-meter team pursuit at the London Olympics of 1948, was honored as an ambassador and torchbearer at the 2012 London Games three months ago. He was working as an electrician when he won his two bronze medals, and he went on to own and run a bike shop for 36 years in Birmingham, England’s second largest city. During that time Godwin became his country’s first paid national coach (he was in charge when Burton and Webb won the women’s and amateur men world road titles in 1967), and he later served as president of the British Cycling Federation.
Last year, in a televised Olympic preview, the nonagenarian rode his 1948 Olympic track bike around the Herne Hill track and showed off the knitted-wool Great Britain team jersey he raced in 64 years ago. Godwin clearly remembered the enthusiasm generated by his bronze-medal rides, telling the BBC: “It was unbelievable. The crowd was fantastic. After we won the race for the bronze medal in the team pursuit, a cycling magazine reported, ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
The team pursuit was the one track event that remained from that previous London Olympics, and Godwin was on hand this past August to see the British quartet annihilate the world record with their winning time of 3:51.659—which was just about a minute faster than the time set by Godwin and his British teammates when they took bronze at the 1948 Olympics!
While Godwin’s various positions made him one of the most influential people in the development of British cycling, Booty was a pure amateur cyclist who could have made as big an impact on the world scene as Wiggins had times been different. Instead, Booty did his national service in the army before becoming a chartered electrical engineer, first with Ericsson, then Westinghouse and Rolls Royce—and always riding his old race bike to work until retiring at 60.
Booty came to national prominence in August 1956 when, two years after Roger Bannister became the first athlete to run a four-minute mile, he became the first cyclist to race 100 miles in less than four hours in an out-and-back time trial. The day before his record performance in the classic Bath Road 100, to the west of London, Booty rode his bike the 100 miles from his Nottingham home. He raced the time trial on the same bike, using a fixed gear of 84 inches (50×16), to record a time of 3:58:28 and beat runner-up Stan Brittain, a British international, by almost 12 minutes.
A month later, right after his 24th birthday, Booty used a hub gear to break the point-to-point 100-mile record, taking advantage of favorable winds to set a time of 3:28:40, a record that stood for 34 years.
Booty was also an adept road racer. In 1954, he won the top British one-day event, the hilly Manx International; in 1955, he raced for the GB team at the prestigious, two-week Peace Race in eastern Europe, helping teammate Brittain finish third overall; and in 1958, on wet day in Cardiff, Wales, he rode away from a strong field at the Commonwealth Games road race to take the gold medal by some three minutes.
Brian Haskell was a contemporary of Booty and Brittain, and raced for the same cycling club in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, as Brian Robinson—who went on to become the first Brit to win a stage of the Tour de France. Haskell had similar ability, being a strong climber and stage race specialist. He twice won the Tour of Ireland, he was national hill climb champion multiple times, and he won the King of the Mountains titles at both the Peace Race and Tour of Britain.
Haskell competed as a semi-professional for the Viking Cycles team that dominated domestic racing from 1957 through 1961, and he raced another 30 years as an a amateur, winning national veterans titles in both road racing and time trialing. In 1973, he founded a precision sheet metal contracting firm that grew to employ 35 workers, and he was still working as company chairman until his death eight months ago.
Godwin, Booty and Haskell are not be names as well known as those of Hoy, Wiggins and Froome, but without their lifelong love of cycling, memorable performances and continued inspiration, Britain’s modern heroes may not have even emerged.
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Imagine that the Olympic Games happened—or next week’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge took place—and no one came to watch. There’d be no applause as the racers came through the towns, no camper vans massed on the climbs, and no one banging the billboards along the finish straight. You might say, so what? Ninety percent of the world’s racers don’t have crowds watching them; they just ride for fun. But at the elite pro level, it’s the synergy between the riders and the spectators that creates the event. Without the fans, a race would lack the energy and excitement that we tend to take for granted.
Take the Olympic men’s cross-country race last Sunday at Hadleigh Farm in the Essex countryside east of London. A capacity crowd of some 20,000 spectators lined the challenging course that gave rise to one of the best mountain-bike races in the sport’s history. As with every other event at the London games, the home fans were hoping that a British athlete would be on the podium, but when their best hope, Liam Killeen, crashed out with a broken ankle they warmed to a superb race between pre-race favorite Nico Schurter of Switzerland, world champion Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic and Italian dark horse Marco Fonda.
The roar of the crowds all around the course undoubtedly inspired the three Europeans to ride harder than they’ve ever ridden before. The faster they raced, the louder the cheers. And the louder the cheers, the faster they raced. Without such great support, Fonda may not have been so doggedly brave, after he lost his seatpost, to ride the whole final lap out of the saddle to hang on to the bronze medal. And Kulhavy may not have kept chasing back when Schurter kept on accelerating and the Czech may not have been ready to jump past the Swiss in the dying seconds to take gold.
That was the perfect example of how a crowd can both make racing more thrilling and influence an event’s outcome. Other crowds, including the wall-to-wall mob that lined the barriers from start to finish of the Olympic time trial two weeks ago, can add tremendous enthusiasm to an event and increase the enjoyment level for both themselves and the riders. Top time trialists normally operate in a world of their own, focusing totally on their pedal cadence and power output, the next bend in the road and the rider they’re catching. But having crowds urging you on adds a major element to your performance.
Around the Hampton Court Palace course on August 1, the constant encouragement of the hundreds of thousands spectators was an element that transcended a rider’s internal forces. Gold medalist Brad Wiggins said, “The noise was incredible. I’m never, ever going to experience anything like that again in my sporting career.” And his British teammate Chris Froome, who claimed the bronze medal, said the crowds “weren’t just cheering, they were screaming our names.”
There was an informal comparison of sound levels at the various Olympic venues. Not surprisingly, the decibel counts were loudest at the indoor arenas, with one or two bouts at the 10,000-capacity boxing arena just out-scoring the most exciting races at the 6,000-seat Olympic Velodrome. Judging by the huge popularity of the track cycling in London—despite the lack of the individual pursuit and the often harsh application of arcane sprinting rules—this branch of the sport is making a strong comeback. Indeed, world road champion Mark Cavendish, who was on the BBC television commentary team at the velodrome, was so enthused by the racing that he said he will make an actual comeback to the track with a view to contesting the team pursuit and six-race omnium for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
It was instructive that the track racing in London lasted for six days, the same as traditional six-day races, which may have lost much of their luster in recent decades but remain one the most potentially popular branches of bike racing. Anyone who has attended a European six-day race (including London’s Skol Six that introduced many British fans to track racing during the 1980s) knows that a well-staged “six” that’s contested by a variety of two-man teams, including sprinters and stars of the Tour de France, can be more entertaining than any other form of racing.
Today, few remember that road riders such as Eddy Merckx gained a lot of their finishing speed by racing on the six-day velodromes, while both Wiggins and Cavendish won Belgium’s prestigious Ghent Six in an early phase of the pro careers. So, following the track’s massive popularity at the Olympics, six-day races could be added to the track racers’ still-limited annual schedule of World Cup races, world and continental championships, and the occasional specialty events such as the Revolution races held at British velodromes.
The interplay between the racers and the fans is a vital part of track racing—no one would want to race in any empty arena! Everyone wants the crowds to be as big as those that watched the London Olympic road races and the ones that we’ll likely see on Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain and Denver’s time-trial circuit at the USA Pro Challenge in a few days’ time.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Is it just me? It felt like the Tour (grand as it always is) was somehow lessened by these Olympics. Riders who might have gone harder in France saved themselves for London. Tom Boonen comes to mind immediately. Even Mark Cavendish, who was always going to take a back seat with Team Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins in yellow, used the Tour as training for the road race in his home country, rather than going full gas for another green jersey. A further cadre of riders pulled out of the Tour consoling themselves that the Olympics might still define their season, Thor Hushovd (he missed both races in the end) among them.
So what do we think of that? Has the Olympics, the road race and time trial, been worth it? Did you care when Alexandre Vinokourov rode off with the gold medal? Was Wiggins’ ride in the TT a valedictory, a simple victory lap or a true coronation? Did the Olympics turn you on?
I will say that I was tremendously disappointed in the road race. Team GB didn’t execute the plan for Cavendish. In fact, having watched Wiggins and Chris Froome both medal in the time trial, you have to ask if they were even the right guys to have in the road race. Were they saving themselves for their own event at Cav’s expense?
And then watching Vinokourov, one of the enduring faces of the sport’s doping past, cross the line, arms aloft, turned my stomach. Here is a guy who hasn’t won a race all year, but suddenly he has the legs to take a gold medal. When Rigoberto Uran turned to look over his right shoulder I immediately thought, “NO!NO!NO!” And it was over.
On the flip side of the coin, Marianne Vos’ road race win over Lizzie Armitstead was nail-bitingly dramatic, and certainly helped the pro women get some much deserved camera time. Kristin Armstrong’s gold in the TT a few days later was also good. Watching her with her son, on the podium, made me all emotional. And I abhor time trials.
So this week’s Group Ride asks: Was it worth it? Was Olympic cycling (and yes, I know the track events are still in progress) a worthy distraction from our normal program? Did London 2012 lessen the Tour, or was it another marquis event that will bring lasting attention to the sport? My British friends are thinking the latter, but how does this all look from your corner of the globe?
Photo: © Surrey County Council
Perhaps the most amazing fact to emerge from the first week of the London Olympics was the size of the crowds watching the cycling road races. Last Saturday, the men’s event drew upwards of a million people. That’s said to be the largest number of spectators for any Olympic event ever—which may not be so surprising for an event starring Britain’s top two sports personalities, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, a matter of days after their crowning achievements on the Champs-Élysées. But what about the women’s race on Sunday? If you were cognizant of cycling’s history, you wouldn’t expect too many fans to show up for a stand-alone women’s race. But what happened? Despite no Tour de France stars being on the start line, and despite the race being held in mostly pouring rain, another million people showed up. Incredible!
From the British perspective, the men’s race was a disaster. Cavendish was widely heralded as a shoo-in to win gold after five-star assistance from Wiggins and their three powerful teammates, Tour runner-up Chris Froome, Tour stage winner David Millar and national champ Ian Stannard. But trying to control a race that was as long as Paris-Roubaix with just four riders, however strong they were, was always going to be a near-impossible task. And so it proved.
The GB boys boxed themselves into a corner with their all-for-Cav strategy. An early, powerful breakaway forced them to ride too high of a tempo for hour after hour to keep the break’s lead to bridgeable proportions, and they didn’t have enough gas left to stop three waves of riders making that bridge to the front over the final two laps of the demanding Box Hill circuit. Perhaps it would have been smart to let Cavendish surf one of those waves; he said he had the legs to do it.
In the end, it was extraordinary to see the 2012 Tour de France’s top two finishers, first Froome then Wiggins, ride themselves into total exhaustion trying to bring back the 26-strong breakaway group. That they didn’t succeed was disappointing for Cavendish and his supporters, but the Brits were heroic in defeat. The ultimate victory of anti-hero Alexander Vinokourov bemused the British public (and their media!), but the men’s race did make it to the front page of at least one major newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, which ran a huge photo of a solo, head-down Wiggins trailing in to the finish 1:17 behind the winner, with the headline: “Never mind, Bradley! There’s another gold medal chance on Wednesday.”
Perhaps the Tour champ would recover in time for Wednesday’s Olympic time trial, but a gold medal then would not change the public’s disappointment in the result of the road race. An inkling into just how the British media would have reacted had the gold gone to Cavendish came the next day when the women’s silver medal was claimed by Lizzie Armistead, an iron-strong Yorkshire lady from the same cycling club as the late Beryl Burton, who was probably England’s greatest-ever cycling champion. As the home country’s first medalist of these Games, Armistead’s photo graced page one of every national newspaper in Britain, with the most spectacular one being a double-page shot of the finish appearing in The Times—the iconic 227-year-old newspaper affectionately known as The Thunderer.
The Times headline read “Elizabeth the Second”—an allusion to Queen Elizabeth II, whose palace was the backdrop to the road-race finish, and to the fact that Armistead placed second. Not much play was given to winner Marianne Vos, the Eddy Merckx of women’s cycling. The Dutch woman’s victory salute was cleverly hidden on the back of the wraparound cover, with Armistead on the front page, smiling through the rain as she crossed the line. On this occasion, the British media and public came through for women cyclists; but the racers’ oft-heard cries of being treated like second-class citizens were borne out by the coverage in mainstream Europe. The Continent’s leading sports daily, L’Équipe of Paris, didn’t even report the women’s Olympic road race. It just printed the result in small type, deep inside the broadsheet’s cavernous pages.
But the women did get an unprecedented chance to show the quality and excitement of their racing in hours of live television around the world. And, after a slow start, they put on a great show of aggressive racing, particularly Vos, Armistead and sprinter Shelley Olds—whose ill-timed puncture when in the winning break robbed her of the chance to become the first American woman to medal in an Olympic road race since Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg placed 1-2 in the 1984 inaugural women’s event. Perhaps, almost three decades later, the excellence of the women’s racing at the 2012 Olympics will help them take a major step in their quest for equality.
We’ve heard a lot in the past year about the lack of parity between the men’s and women’s branches of professional cycling. Female racers have expressed their frustration that while, relatively speaking, money pours into the men’s side through multi-million-dollar sponsorships of teams and events (albeit with exceptions in austerity-ravaged economies such as Spain’s), women’s racing has stagnated, with even the top teams existing on shoestring budgets.
At the center of the parity storm is the world’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, even though the UCI willingly acceded to IOC demands that there be the same number of events for men and women cyclists at the London Olympics.
When UCI president Pat McQuaid was asked at last October’s road worlds whether there were plans to legislate a minimum wage for women racers, he said, “We have an agreement in men’s sport, but women’s cycling has not developed enough that we are at that level yet.” When his words were shared with the top three finishers in the women’s road race in Copenhagen, world champ Georgia Bronzini politely disagreed. Runner-up Vos said, “Of course, it’s a younger sport than the men’s sport but…with a minimum salary it can only be more professional.” And bronze medalist Ina Teutenberg added, “I don’t know why guys would deserve a minimum salary and women don’t.”
The debate heated up this past weekend, when Armistead, Britain’s brand-new Olympic silver medalist, said the things that bugged her about the inequality of the sexes were salary and media coverage, “but certainly I think we could get more help from the top—which is the UCI.” For now, let’s just hope that the dignified and delightful performances by Armistead, Vos and company in London makes the world of cycling, especially the media and the UCI, pay far more attention to women’s racing. At least, for the million or so Brits who stood in the rain last Sunday, the women’s race was just as much a spectacle as the men’s. And that can only turn up the volume in the women pro cyclists’ call for a minimum salary.
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Bradley Wiggins is Tour de France champion. Let that echo for a minute, as if from a carnival loudspeaker. Let it doppler out to the outer reaches of the crowd and then come rippling back in whispers and muted applause, building to a crescendo. Let Wiggins have his moment.
Because he earned it.
Even when winning the Tour de France appears easy, a branded group ride with prize caravan and soigneurs in tow. Even with your team sitting on the front day-after-day, your rivals cowed into submission, a couple of monster time trials sealing the deal, winning the Tour de France is not easy.
First of all, it is hard to ride on the front for three weeks, even in the slipstream of an able teammate. The simple concentration necessary to hold the wheel for hours on end, staying out of trouble, always being in the right place, makes the winner worthy. It is a Chinese water torture of a task. To succeed you must not crack.
There is a tremendous amount of calculation that goes into grand tour strategy. It is one thing to say, we will ride conservatively, cover attacks and then let Bradley win the time trials, but Bradley has still got to win the time trials. Timing the effort and then producing it is a feat beyond imagining, and this too makes the winner worthy.
When the road turns up, things get unpredictable quickly (including the disposition of certain climbing domestiques). When you are a diesel engine, like Wiggins, and the stop/start of sudden attacks doesn’t suit your style, you’ve still got to hold your nerve. The man who can watch Cadel Evans go up the road, bridging to a teammate, and slowly grind out the gap deserves to win the Tour de France. It is a bluff with no aces in the blind, unless there are aces, but who knows? That is the nature of the bluff. That is the power of it.
Every day the yellow jersey performs the ceremony with podium girls and flowers, kisses on cheeks, autographing one hundred versions of the same shirt for sponsors and charities and posterity, submitting to interviews and drug tests. This is a labor on top of the labor, both physically and mentally draining. The longer you hold the jersey, the more of this you must do. Any man who can wear the jersey, perform its duties and ride into Paris still in yellow deserves to win the Tour de France.
That Wiggins had the temerity to lead teammate Mark Cavendish out for the final, winning sprint was a display of pure class. It is necessary to have class to claim the jersey.
There is more, though. First, he was a champion on the track. He rode right to the pinnacle of that discipline and had the audacity to think there was something more. Then, he remade his body in the image of a grand tour champion, beginning with that track racer’s power and then stripping away kilograms of weight and muscle to build an entirely new kind of machine.
There is finishing fourth, just off the podium, and learning that not only has the change worked, but the podium is a possibility. But then there’s still so much more. More work and more calculation, an early season of stellar form, holding, holding, holding that form for the big moment, and then executing, pulling it off and standing there while people tell you it was boring.
A true champion will always bear insults.
This Tour win was not boring, but neither did it happen in a flash. It is not easily digestible in highlight reel or in the nut graph of a newspaper story in French. It’s an epic poem in a stilted meter, a wandering tale like the Odyssey or the Aeniad, with contrived beasts and long stretches where not much transpires, but make no mistake, it is not boring.
No. Bradley Wiggins is Tour de France champion. He earned it. For the sake of the man and the sake of the sport, let’s let him enjoy it.