There have been thrills and spills aplenty, even though the Tour de France only today ventures into the mountains.
It’s the highlight of my weekend – even with Mr Murray reaching the Wimbledon final. And the inclement weather means I can settle down at 2pm to watch the live coverage without a slightest twinge of guilt.
There are some out there who do not “get” the Tour, so in an attempt to win some new converts to ITV4’s outstanding coverage (though Eurosport is also good), allow me to try to seduce you by explaining the allure of the Tour.
It’s about the endurance. Each day, riders set out to cover an average of 200km on a bike. They spend hours in the saddle, and arrive at their destination, only to get up the next morning and do it all again. Over three weeks with a handful of rest days. Along the way, they face cross winds, torrential rain and scorching temperatures criss-crossing their way through France and dipping in and out of other countries too. It is the best tourism advert for France and not a single creative near it. And as if this wasn’t enough, they throw in a couple of time trials too – just for fun (and points of course).
Then there’s the mountains. Today’s stage, the seventh, finishes on what is known as a category one climb: despite that, it’s only a “medium mountain stage”. There is worse to come. After cycling over 200 km, the Tour competitors are expected to climb a mountain where the gradient is 1 in 7 at some points in order to reach the finishing line. It’s madness but it will also sort the men from the boys, the contenders for the overall yellow jersey from the pretenders. And there is nothing like it.
For it’s also where tactics play a huge role. After yesterday’s crash – the scariest he’s ever been in, according to David Millar – several contenders were left nursing bruises, cuts and a time deficit. If they want to get back into it, they have to attack today, no matter how sore they feel. So watch out for the likes of Frank Schleck, who for years has sacrificed his own aspirations for his younger, slightly more talented brother, Andy. At the same time, riders like Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans, the reigning Champ, will want to start showing off their alpha male credentials.
I remember watching how Lance Armstrong used to boss the peloton simply with his presence. When he moved up the ranks, it was like a curtain parting. Jan Ulrich was always touted as the prince poised to steal Armstrong’s crown but when Armstrong threw down a challenge on mountain stages, often Ulrich’s wilting was visible.
Yes, the Tour is all about the physical, but the mental agility and intelligence of individuals, as well as all the backroom staff, who plan each stage with military precision, is vital too.
Then there’s the bravery. Andre Greipel, winner of two sprint finishes in this year’s Tour, tried for a third in a row yesterday. Despite coming down in three crashes. Despite being caught up in the big one that separated the peloton. Despite having to work, with the help of his team, like a trojan to get back into the leading group. Despite nursing a dislocated shoulder all the way through that effort. And managing to finish second.
These are men with almost superhuman powers and an insatiable will to win. There are no other athletes like them. Another rider finished a stage earlier this week with a fractured hip. They don’t give up easy.
Garmin’s team, led by our own David Millar, has been decimated with its main contender, Ryder Hesjdal and the equally talented Tom Danielson withdrawing after being injured in yesterday’s big crash. Not before Hesjdal completed the stage, nursed all the way to finish by Millar.
Which brings me to the team ethic. This is a race that is won by an individual but only if his team is good enough. Cadel Evans is being protected all the way through the chaos and carnage. It’s like watching a regal procession. But he isn’t so arrogant not to take his turn – as he did yesterday – at the head of the peloton to give his team’s sprint contender a shot at a stage win. These boys work for each other, and none are more self-sacrificing than the domestiques.
Much as I love the Maillot Jaunes, I love them more. Riders like Millar – who every year I hope and will to have a stage win in him – and none more so, than George Hincapie. Last year, the big old powerhouse, who had been instrumental in Armstrong’s success found himself on a breakaway that nearly took him all the way to glory. I was jumping up and down and willing it to happen.
Of course, there’s the taint of drugs. But anyone riding this Tour with dope in their systems will be caught. And in fact, I suspect, that thanks to the efforts of trailblazers like Millar with his Garmin team – and others – pro-cycling is probably one of the cleanest sports there is this year. For anyone tempted, the testing rules are so rigorous that few slip through the net.
Need another reason to love the Tour? There are old favourites and new faces. Peter Sagan bursting onto the racing stage this year suggests – if he can survive the mountains – that there’s a potential Tour de France de force in the making. His tactics betray his years – this is a wise head on young shoulders – with the power and talent to match. So long as he is clean – and there’s nothing to suggest he isn’t – he’s definitely one to watch.
But in the Tour, nothing is guaranteed and team shifts can play havoc with plans. Take note, Mark Cavendish. The switch to Sky might make sense on many levels but he’s definitely missing his lead-out train, which last year, when he was with HTC-Highroad, was like watching poetry in motion. It was the perfect combination of man, machine, tactics and teamwork.
Which is why David Millar’s inclusion in the Olympic GB road race team is crucial. Forget the controversy over his lifetime drugs ban being overturned – he’s served his time and more. And deserves to be there, because if Mark Cavendish is to lift the gold medal, he needs the experience, intelligence and talent of Millar to help him do so. And Mark Cavendish will have proved without a shadow of a doubt that he is one of the greatest ever cyclists and sports stars to hail from these islands.
Millar was a contender once. The fact that he has come back, has stayed the course, is prepared to work for others, to bring on new, fresh talent, to speak out when others do not and do what is asked of him, speaks volumes for his character.
Cyclists like him capture the allure of le Tour and all its glory. There is no other show on earth like it. And one year, I will go and watch it for real.