Did this herald a new beginning for cycling? If Paris is the most romantic city on earth, its familiar landmarks, bathed in the gloaming, were now rekindling a tempestuous affair. The Arc de Triomphe, illuminated against the night sky, the sequins on the maillot jaune shimmering as a gentle breeze drifted down the boulevard of broken dreams, it was easy to be lost in the moment. And what a moment. Chris Froome, a second successive British winner after a century in which les rosbifs failed to get it. An African heritage too, an inspiration to all those Kenyan children pedalling battered old mountain bikes on roads to nowhere. A time to look forward to a multitude of possibilities. The Tour de France is a venerable institution, so many cherished memories but so much it is desperate to forget. The podium oration of its latest champion struck a poignant chord. Standing the test of time; it is an expression grappling with its own limitations.
How will posterity judge this hundredth edition of the greatest race on two wheels? Only last week I wrote of how the loss of trust coloured everything. Integrity was struggling to keep its head above the water as the waves of scandal threatened to dash it fatally against the rocks. For that very reason, is it possible to tentatively detect a turning point? No, I don’t mean that just because the first three over the line, as well as the green jersey, are all unsullied by past misdemeanours. History tells us that can change. Nor do I hold much store by the riders’ own assertions that some miraculous transformation has occurred within the peleton. There are too many unrepentant or ambiguous presences and too many echoes of omerta to buy that line. What has changed though is perception. Where once the doping issue was swept neatly under the carpet, the taboo has exploded in the post-Armstrong world. The governing body has been slow to confront reality so the watching public, fed up with being duped, has taken on a policing role for itself.
Once, the likes of David Walsh and Paul Kimmage were regarded as troublemakers, rogue journalists stirring the honeypot, threatened with litigation but bravely fighting their corner. Without efforts such as theirs we may still be ambling along in ignorance. Now, as the barrage of questions hurled at Froome and Team Sky indicate, no longer will the evidence be taken at face value. That vigilance might be the defining feature of the past three weeks, though it would be nice to think that it would extend beyond the yellow jersey, and indeed the race itself. I personally find it difficult to listen now to the smug commentary of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, still continuing as if nothing had happened. Their unswerving complicity was the soundtrack to the nightmare. After applying the airbrush they are asking us to believe in it all again, sugared with some benign asides on behalf of the French tourist board. Not now, we see straight through the veil.
So if I were the organiser I would be encouraged by this development, a healthy scepticism which might, if applied with vigour, chip away at the façade of disgrace that has cracked but not completely fallen away. To be effective though it mustn’t simply descend to the worst depths of cynical sniping so, whilst holding my breath, I will attempt to accentuate the positives. Froome, on the face of it, is a more rounded and appropriate victor than Bradley Wiggins. Off the bike, the latter wins hands down, his star quality contrasting with the ex-pat reserve of the man who succeeded him. But he is a time trialist who just about gets up the mountains well enough to defend his gains. He could not have won this year when a more aggressive, instinctive ride was required, and this is where the Nairobi born 28 year old, spider-like and ungainly, chooses to express his personality. And didn’t that line about his mother soften his rather dour image?
If he’d ridden away from his team-mate last year he might no longer be at Sky and would have forfeited all the goodwill he is now receiving from his adopted nation. He’ll never get the affection that Wiggins generated partly because he is a man of no place, but as such he reflects the new cycling landscape. It should make ASO think hard about the recipients of their wildcard invitations for next year. Rather than hand the usual domestic teams a free pass, what about casting the net wider, to the Africans of MTN-Qhubeka, or to the popular Colombia outfit for instance? A new generation, from Quintana to Kwiatkowski, Talansky to Kennaugh, offered up the shape of future instalments, hopefully free of past scourges. I expect I was hardly alone in taking pleasure from Contador’s ejection from the podium on the penultimate day. Strange how they never come back from their bans quite so invincible. Likewise, Valverde’s puncture which left him at the mercy of the echelons.
I don’t think Mark Cavendish ever looked in top shape. He had the mileage of the Giro in his legs and an illness in the preceding week, but to some extent he was a victim of his own reputation. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and now several teams have sprint trains to mimic his own. It makes for a more chaotic finish than before with supremacy difficult to establish and component parts peeling off in all directions, but Marcel Kittel emerged as a challenger of real substance, four stage wins and the most prestigious one among them. I certainly don’t think Cavendish is finished but he may no longer have it all his own way. That competition can only be beneficial for all concerned. Should Kittel have worn green? Undoubtedly yes, though that is a flaw in the scoring system rather than a reflection on Peter Sagan. The Slovak, who dyed his hair and beard to match the attire, is just what the sport needs, a wheelie-pulling maverick with a glint in his eye.
Other highlights included Christophe Riblon, arms aloft at the top of Alpe d’Huez after a second ascent, having flirted with a hillside stream en route. How the French needed that. And what of Geraint Thomas, bravely nursing a cracked pelvis picked up on day one all the way to the Champs Elysées? The spectacular denouement, its light show and aeronautic display with tricolore vapour trail, reconnected some of the magic of this unique sporting event, which the spectators watch for free but where the love is not unconditional. Chris Froome may prove the perfect ambassador looking ahead. He has faced not only the harshest of terrain, but the talons of the vultures. If he turns out to join the ranks of the charlatans, there will be no bicentenary. Let’s hang on to our faith for now. Next stop is Yorkshire, and that’s a place where fools aren’t suffered gladly.