Wednesday, 8 August 2012

French letter...

In ascending order of unbearableness, the French sports fan’s greatest nightmares are losing the Tour de France, losing it to a foreigner, and losing it to a skinny bloke with sideboards known to his friends in Chorley, Lancashire, as “Wiggo”. That an English rider actually won the Tour for the first time in its 109-year history is not just a particular humiliation for the hosts, but confirmation of a power shift that has been emerging for some time.

The British are moving up the field as one of the world’s cycling-mad nations. Success in the Olympic VeloPark and the women's road race event, plus Wiggo's outstanding time trial effort have added to the impetus. For decades the jibes have been flying across the Channel. The French would claim that our cycling talents peaked with Raleigh-mounted midwives, while our chaps scoffed that the most common banned substances among the French teams were soap, deodorant and toothpaste. Behind the sparring, a horrible truth was emerging. Victory by 32-year-old Bradley Wiggins in The Tour made it irrefutable. Wiggo clobbered them on the climbs, flayed them on the flat and drubbed them on the descents. Not only that, but he has given the Tour a lesson in sporting manners. When a rogue spectator scattered tacks in the road, causing a group of leading riders to suffer punctures, Wiggo slowed down to let the others catch up, so earning himself the sobriquet “Le Gentleman” in the astonished French newspapers.

Some consolation has been drawn from the discovery that Wiggins was actually born in Belgium and that his father was an Australian, and, therefore – according to the desperate reasoning that characterises French cultural sensitivity – he isn’t quite as English as he could be. But he is English enough for most of us. And his exploits are more English than, perhaps, even the single-minded Bradley knows himself. Over the past 10 years, we have stopped thinking about bicycling as a cheap way to get about, and begun embracing it as a cross between a sport, a lifestyle and a civic responsibility. To all this, Wiggo adds the further whiff of home-grown eccentricity in his role as the world’s foremost – possibly only – sports-god Mod. A collector of vintage scooters and early Who records, he crafted those sideburns in tribute to his hero Paul – “the Modfather” – Weller. “Very few modern-day Mods appear in the public eye, so those that do tend to be over-scrutinised from those within the Mod scene,” says David Walker of the website Modculture. “Wiggins has been under the spotlight for some years now, but there has rarely been a bad word heard about him when it comes to his relationship with 'Mod’.”

Desperate for something to complain about, the French have accused Wiggo and his all-conquering Team Sky of being boring. The tour, they say, should be about daring and romance, not the calculated, grinding efficiency of the British approach. “Anglo-Saxon teams are more organised,” huffs Yves Blanc, editor of Le Cycle magazine. “Every member has a job to do, serving the leader, but there’s no room for poetry.” And even less room for the French, who, sadly, haven’t won their own Tour since 1985.

So strong is our squad that another Sky rider, Chris Froome, finished second, while their team-mate – reigning world road race champion Mark Cavendish – was used to shuttle water bottles. To understand the scale of this achievement, it helps to know that just seven years ago there wasn’t a single British rider in the Tour. Our absence was partly down to a historical lack of talent and interest, and partly to a sense that the race was unwinnable by anyone possessed of a notional sense of fair play. Cheating has been rife since the first race in 1903 when several riders were disqualified for taking trains, and the taint of drug abuse continues to hang over the event, with star rider Frank Schleck of Luxembourg pulling out of this year’s race after testing positive, and, seven-times winner Lance Armstrong currently facing doping charges in the United States.

The attitude to the Tour began to change after Britain’s spectacular performances in the 2008 Olympics, when Wiggins, Cavendish, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton won gold medals. After decades consigned to dusty corners of the sports pages, cycling was everywhere. As, in short, order, were the nation’s risen cyclists. The explosion of popularity can have few parallels. Membership of British Cycling, the UK governing body of cycling, has more than doubled to 40,000 since 2008 and the organisation expects it to reach 100,000 by next year. A London School of Economics survey suggests that 13 million Britons now regularly cycle, and that the country’s “gross cycling product” is worth £3 billion a year. Long sniffed at as the forced option of people who couldn’t afford cars, cycling has become our most fashionable activity, primarily driven by what the industry calls Mamils (middle-aged men in Lycra), with abundant disposable income and an appetite for healthier, greener lifestyles. Unfortunately, while the pleasure of cheering Wiggo and co up the Champs-Elysées is free, our cycling obsession comes at a cost. For self-respecting Mamils, a bike is as much about image as getting you around town, and a decent one, such as a Pinarello similar to the one that Wiggo rides, with carbon-fibre frame and electronic shifting gear-set, will set you back around £9,000. A small price to pay, as the winner-less French would agree, for a taste of glory.

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