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.
I’m enjoying the Tour de France. There, I’ve admitted it. The euphoria of a first British success twelve months ago could only partially mask the fact that it really was a rather dull procession. Not this time; we have another home rider out in front but a little more precariously so, despite what might seem and should prove to be an unassailable advantage going into the crucial last few days. Of course you don’t want it to be easy, you want to see Chris Froome suffer all the way to Paris. But not predominantly for the spectacle itself. You want to see human frailty, weakness and fluctuating levels of performance as that’s how you feel it should be. On Mont Ventoux the ghosts were all around, and not just because Tommy Simpson breathed his last on its slopes. He killed something that Armstrong bloke, and what he killed was innocence.
“Allez, allez!” The bespectacled madman thumped his outstretched palm against the side of the car. His grey hair swept back off his face by the breeze as he stuck his head out from the open rear window of the hurtling vehicle, he shrieked encouragement for all he was worth. “Allez, allez!” The young cyclist alongside rode like fury, grimacing with the effort. Marc Madiot bristled with passion, pumping his fists as he realised the chasers were too far back. Thibaut Pinot raised his arms; relief, exhaustion, elation. The crowds at the roadside roared. This is what it means to the French, and this was just a stage win. But we knew what they were thinking. Almost thirty years since Bernard Hinault rolled into Paris clad in yellow they had surely found his rightful heir. Again.
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?
Bradley Wiggins’ whole world is about to change. The image many thought they would never see, that of a British cyclist standing atop the podium on the Champs Elysées proudly clad in yellow, became a stunning reality yesterday. A nation which once treated the Tour de France, a global sporting monolith, with casual indifference, hailed a new hero. In achieving victory in this remarkable test of endurance, the spindly lad from Kilburn with a penchant for sideburns and mod culture, has exploded on the public consciousness. For much of continental Europe, where this two wheeled pursuit is almost a religion, he was already a household name. Britain has been slow to appreciate the allure of bike racing. Now, in the wake of this landmark triumph, nothing short of a revolution has been unleashed.
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.
The Tour de France is a harsh and unforgiving test of stamina so it is spurious to make outlandish predictions before the highest summits range into view. It is, however, difficult not to get just a little bit excited that Britain could be about to provide the winner of this great race for the first time. Bradley Wiggins, already a national cycling hero for his previous exploits on the track, is resplendent in yellow on the resumption following a rest day. Not only that, but his lead over rivals including last year’s victor Cadel Evans suggests he may not be headed again before Paris. There is another possibility here though and it is one that few had anticipated. Current form and recent history point to an intriguing subversion of the anticipated plot. Team Sky will be doing everything in their power to secure top place on the podium, but the first British winner of Le Tour might just not be Wiggins after all.