When I was a kid watching the Tour de France in the late Eighties, my rider allegiances often switched with whichever was my favourite jersey design. I would find myself supporting Renault one year, PDM the next, Z-Peugeot the year after that. As with football a few years earlier (and in the very same way as my young children today) I was something of a itinerant fan. I would pick a jersey, a haircut or a battle between two big stars and plump for one of them. The following year I could very well pick the other guy and have him as my favourite. This certainly happened in 1990 when my support switched from Laurent Fignon the year before to Lemond. Even though my football allegiance had very quickly solidified into one team over the others (mainly due to the fact I that I outgrew the Tottenham shirt – and the associated desire to be Steve Archibald – that I had been given and which caused much confusion in my Manchester-leaning mind) cycling remained ever thus. Unbiased. Unencumbered. Un-tribalised.
And so it went on. I would support Pantani in the mountains and the Abdu on the flats. I would look for Ullrich one year and Armstrong the next. I remember having a Rasmussen year – not ‘that’ year fortunately – and even an Andy Schleck year. I never took to Contador – though I hugely admired his riding style – but that didn’t really matter as all were fleeting fanships. It was whoever was riding hardest, racing bravest. It’s only now that I realise I wasn’t supporting any of them at all. I was just enjoying the best cycling.
A part of the reason of course, is that I had no greater personal attachment to Ullrich than Pantani. No greater emotional investment with Fignon than Lemond. All were alien characters to a degree. They came once a year, did battle with each other and disappeared again. They didn’t bother the rest of my year. Lance changed things a bit by being so dominant and by spilling out beyond the sports pages with his charity work and rock star girlfriends but I still felt no ‘obligation’ to them.
And then Team Sky happened and things changed. “A British rider to win the Tour, clean, within 5 years.” Of course I got on board that bus. And what an amazing ride it was. Standing amongst the crowds on the Champs Elysees in 2012 with yellow-jersey Brad leading out Cav in the final run across the Place de la Concorde for his historic fourth win was as about as good a day as a British cycling fan could ever wish for. I’m not ashamed to say that I cheered along with every other British fan in Paris that day. But when you start getting disappointed with races because of the lack of a performance by a particular team, rather than being able to enjoy the spectacle that has gone on at the head of the of the race, it’s time to take the blinkers off.
I don’t remember a single moment when I stopped wanting to ‘support’ Sky and just start ‘watching’ them again. The Sky vs OGE video shorts earlier this year certainly awakened a seed in my mind that cycling was in danger of being tribalised like football but even during the 2012 race I was aware that I was more ‘worried’ about Brad losing than I was about ‘excited’ about the prospect of him winning. When I watch my football team play I bite my nails with nervous tension and often find it hard to enjoy. Cycling (and not just the Tour, mind) was becoming like that. An ordeal to get through rather than an event to relish in.
The most striking thing about this second week of racing in the 2014 Tour has been the absence of my own ‘nervous tension’. My nails are in quite reasonable condition and I have been jumping up and down in my seat celebrating endeavour, rather than sitting on the edge of it awaiting disaster. Chris Froome’s exit last week, and (despite protestations to the contrary) Sky’s lack of a Plan B has liberated my Tour experience. I feel like a kid again.
I don’t mind which of Romain Bardet (AG2R) or Thibault Pinot (FDJ) comes higher in the standings but by God I do care about enjoying the two of them go at it hammer and tongs to work it out. Their uphill finish line sprint at Risoul on Stage 14 was a magnificent spectacle. Similarly I wouldn’t be upset if Nibali (AST) either wins by 10 minutes or does a Rasmussen (him again) in the final time trial and chucks it all away – from this point right here both would be enormously exciting. I don’t even care if peloton pantomime villain Valverde (MOV) stays on the podium or not as long as he is made to robustly defend his position rather than be gifted it somehow. It’s a brilliant feeling of freedom that I had slowly lost over the past few years. I’m thrilled to be experiencing it again.
On the face it, it could be argued that there is little to be expectant about in the final week of the Tour. Nibali has been so imperious in all terrains and weathers that barring disaster - not unknown in this Tour – or external intervention – again not a stranger to his Astana team – that it is hard to predict anything other than the top step of the podium. Likewise for the green jersey competition, which Sagan has bossed so comprehensively that he has actually taken to chastising other riders for thinking that they might have a go too. But neither statement is to say that watching the denouements of those competition will be any other than thrilling. Nibali is enlightening the race with a masterclass in Grand Tour stage riding and Sagan will continue to shine in his quest for a stage win.
The King of the Mountains and Best Young Rider competitions will to and fro a few more times before the end I think. Both are finely poised and being fiercely contested. The fact that the Young rider contest is so deeply linked to the final podium standing is unique in my memory. It’s pretty gripping and a rare ‘viewing tunnel’ into what the race might look like five years from now. In the KOM competition Joaquim Rodriguez (KAT) and Rafal Majka (TCS) are now tied on points and will be looking to get into the breaks for the early climb points during the brutal Pyrenean stages this week. Majka has given an awful lot in the past two days though and the Spanish rider – known for getting stronger as Grand Tours go on – may have the advantage over his younger rival.
And then there are just the unforgettable moments of winning or losing a stage. Tony Gallopin’s ecstasy in Oyannax has been more than mirrored by Jack Bauer’s (GRS) agony at missing out by just a few metres in Nimes. After being in the a two man break for around 200km he was caught at the very last breath by the pack and robbed of the stage win. Likewise Tony Martin’s (OPQS) show of strength at Mulhouse contrasted Riche Porte’s wilting in the sun up to Chamrousse. I can’t say it enough; every day has been utterly riveting – and without any of the ‘biggest’ names in the sport in the race.
With all the talk of British interest in the opening part of this piece, we should that note that, with Simon Yates’ (OGE) withdrawal today, that Geraint Thomas is now the sole British survivor of the race. Yates is being withdrawn by his team to protect him rather than a result of injury. He has been to the fore in a number of stages and was called up late lacking the usual preparation. I suspect he will be back for the Vuelta, along with a host of other British names.
As a kid, the Tour was otherworldly, and even the British riders who rode it those days like Robert Millar and Sean Yates were otherworldly. Boardman, Cav, Wiggins and most latterly Sky & Froome have brought cycling home – and I’m massively grateful for the extended interest and coverage which that has also brought along – but ‘cheering on the home team’ shouldn’t be the limit of our connection with this most open of sports. Like the folks who said they would turn their back son the Tour as it passed just because Wiggins had been omitted, we are all in danger of missing the bigger picture if we only focus on one set of results.. Open your eyes and take a look: it’s a bloody magnificent view.
Oh, and, despite devoting the last 32 years to Man Utd, I still think that that early Eighties Tottenham kit, the one with the dark blue V-neck & sleeve hems, the simple club crest and the shiny and matt all white pin-striping that I had a seven year old, is the classiest club kit ever produced..