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.
The island of Corsica plays host to the opening stage of the Centenary Tour de France this afternoon and it may witness another milestone in the remarkable career of Mark Cavendish. Unusually, the event begins with a sprint stage in which, inevitably, the Manx Missile is the man to beat. Victory would allow him, for a short time at least, to sport the coveted maillot jaune, one extra memorable image for his retirement scrapbook. There are certainly no thoughts of packing in yet though, not when there are plenty more wins to be plundered as he closes in on the few names left above him in the all-time list for this great race. It’s not yellow but green which is his main focus, and though the points system allows for General Classification contenders to figure prominently in this competition too, the Brit has few peers when it comes to a bunch finish. Which begs the question, is a further collection of podium celebrations inevitable over the next few weeks, or does anybody have the quality to stick it up to him?
There are those who might regard a week in the Ardennes as a fairly relaxing way to unwind at the end of a hectic spell, and then there is the professional cycling peleton. Here, thoughts of taking it easy are anathema as the spring Classics campaign ends with a flurry of punishingly sharp climbs and a last chance to make a mark before attention diverts to the bigger stage races which punctuate the summer. When Dan Martin cruised across the finish line at Liège-Bastogne- Liège to secure the most satisfying moment of his career, he could reflect on a job well done. For others though there were pangs of frustration. Much attention has settled on Team Sky; some will have taken perverse gratification from the poor returns of their supposedly revolutionary preparation schedules. They may have to think again but they remain a squad essentially constructed around the Grand Tours. At Omega-Pharma-Quickstep however, emerging empty handed had not been considered an option. This was meant to be their territory, their roster expensively assembled and laden with expectation. So how come they too were left licking their wounds?
Legs pumping like pistons, mouth agape sucking in the oxygen, there are few finer sights in sport. The Manx Missile has been launched, the opposition strewn across the road, lost in his vapour trail. Mark Cavendish is the fastest bike rider in the world. He knows it too, straddling the line between confidence and arrogance with a disarming insouciance. This Tour de France has turned into a British benefit but he was in danger of becoming a footnote. Subjugated in the pursuit of the yellow jersey, which now seems certain to be duly snaffled by his team leader Bradley Wiggins, the sprint king had fed on slim pickings thus far, but the final kilometre into Brive-la Gaillarde, stage 22 of this year’s race, reminded us of what we had been deprived. This was no conventional finish. This was an explosion of raw power. It took the breath away.