Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Tour de France - a British institution?....

As the Tour makes progress I was reading some interesting reports: The Tour de France has become a British institution?....

Despite its scandals cycling's big event is now as integral to the UK's sporting summer as Wimbledon and The Open

On it goes, this British love affair with the Tour de France. Perhaps it is time we considered it permanent. The Tour is now wedged snugly into our sporting summer, somewhere between Silverstone and grey clouds, Wimbledon and the Open, Tests and transfer sagas that loop like hamsters along a wheel and get about as far.
Over the past few days in Corsica union flags and English accents have been seen and heard. This is still a novel experience for serial Tour watchers. Cycling News' Stephen Farrand, who has been covering the race since 1998, says that until five years ago one would rarely see more than one or two British flags along a stage route. Now they stand proud and tall in their dozens.
The riders have noticed it too. When Chris Froome spoke to the British press recently he admitted that he was surprised at the swell of support. "The enormous energy and support we have had really is mind-blowing and it's great to see how many people are behind us now," he said.

So, is the Tour becoming embedded firmly into our sporting consciousness, developing roots that will endure when Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish finally retire their cleats?
The evidence is numerical as well as anecdotal. TV viewing figures for the Tour are climbing with the energy of a polka dot jersey contender. In 2012 Wiggins's final-day procession in Paris was watched by an average of 2m viewers on ITV1 and ITV4, compared with the Open's 2.4m on the BBC the same day. If we consider the Open part of the British sporting summer, then surely the Tour should be too?
Those figures were given a sharp uplift by Wiggins wearing yellow and anticipation that Cavendish would win the stage, which he duly did. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But it is worth noting that ITV4's numbers for the 2011 Tour, when Wiggins crashed out at the end of the first week, showed a 33% rise – greater than in 2012.

Meanwhile British Eurosport, which has covered the Tour for more than 20 years, has a similar story to tell. It says its figures for cycling in 2012 were not a one-year spike, off the back of British yellow jerseys in Paris and gold medals in London, but the continuation of a trend since 2007. It was in 2007, of course, that the Tour invaded the south-east of England like a conquering army. The signs were perhaps obvious then, in the hot crush of that weekend, that cycling had legs as well as wheels.
Three million people dressed the streets in bunting and chalk and then willingly invaded each other's personal space to watch the peloton speed past. Of course there will be some cycling aficionados who sniff that watching the Tour – and ignoring the rest of the sport's rich history and calendar – is the equivalent of tuning in to the World Cup and calling oneself a football fan.

It is true that many people who watch the Tour would not know Roberto Ferrari from Michele Ferrari or be able to name a spring classic. But is that any different from someone who goes to Wimbledon yet would not know a single Masters tennis event? Or a once-a-year gambler who revels in the spills of the Grand National yet thinks the King George is the one who went mad?
What is remarkable is that this growth in cycling has come while the Tour is still trying to extradite itself from the needle and the damage done. Pick your year, name your scandal. Festina in 1998, OperaciĆ³n Puerto in 2006 and the Lance Armstrong revelations last year have all seemed like crushing hammer blows, yet the sport survives and even thrives.
As Sir Dave Brailsford remarked last week: "People still love the Tour de France, despite everything that has happened. When something takes a lot of hits and still keeps on going, it shows it's got resilience."
That is certainly true. But in Britain cycling is not just showing resilience; it is undergoing a renaissance. And with the Tour coming back to these shores in 2014 to visit Yorkshire, Cambridge and all stations en route to London, one suspects it is not going away.

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