Cycling: Tour de France; Tour de sauteed prawns and boiled behinds

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The Independent Online
"I'M NOT fascinated by the Tour de France at all. Not that it's not a big event or a big priority, but I didn't grow up aspiring to be a Tour de France champion or contender. I never felt that."

Who said that? Anybody, you would think, but Lance Armstrong, who, barring a mishap as big as the Hindenburg, will be contre la montre this morning on the last but one leg of his giant's stroll towards the podium on the Champs-Elysees.

He was speaking on a videotape given away with Procycling magazine a couple of months ago - called, with wild inventiveness, Lust for Life - which I dug out as it became increasingly clear that he was taking Le Grand Boucle by the throat. It charts the hard road back from testicular cancer, up to this year's Paris-Nice race. His remark comes towards the end of the tape, and, to be fair, earlier on he's more positive, if circumspect.

"For [his team] US Postal Service, the Tour de France is so important - it's the only bike race they know," he says. "And for the American public, the American sports media, it's the only race they know. So it's obvious that it should be the most important race of the year for us. And so..." - and there's a long pause, which hindsight charges with meaning - "we'll see. I'm a little anxious, a little nervous, but why not? I've had five years of focussing on the spring, and maybe it's time to focus on a good Tour de France."

And did he ever. For me, the Tour is the most compelling sports event of the year, and though Channel 4 and Eurosport both struggled against their different constraints - for the former, cramming it all in; for the latter, stretching it all out courtesy of commentators blessed with all the articulacy of a sauteed prawn.

David Duffield on Eurosport really does give his profession a bad name. You may think Peter Alliss is bad (I'm mystified, incidentally, why critics have suddenly taken to savaging the old codger. Why now, after decades of homely waffle?) Compared to Duffield, Alliss is a supercomputer processing information at zillions of bytes a nanosecond.

At one point, during a particularly exciting Pyrennean stage, Duffield was burbling on about somebody's cat. "Here, pussy pussy, here pussy," he intoned as a climber attacked, only for Armstrong to rein him in with a superhuman effort.

On Channel 4, Phil Liggett isn't averse to doing his bit for the Alan Partridge Appreciation Society (one of the fictional commentator's finest moments was over aerial footage of a peloton: "And from above they look strangely like cows - cows on bicycles...")

Liggett's best Partridge moment was in the Alps: "And there it is - the road up to L'Alpe d'Huez, looking strangely like a piece of string laid out on the mountainside." Or there was his description of the big boys slugging it out "Mano o mano".

But by and large Liggett, ably assisted by the former Tour rider Paul Sherwen, was equal to the task of conveying the drama, the epic scale of this crazed undertaking. Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (memorably played by Klaus Kinski), who carried a ship over a mountain, would have some idea of what it must be like to be involved with the Tour.

The first week was dominated by the Kinski-like Italian sprinter, Mario Cipollini, who won four stages in a row. Watching each stage on tape afterwards, it was possible to replay over and over the awesome sight of his team-mates leading him out.

Two would be ahead of him, the three of them carving their way through to the front of the pack in their red gear, like sharks in Manchester United shirts (mind you, most cycling teams have sported one Man Utd change strip or other in their time). Then the front man would peel off, risking imminent catastrophe as he avoided the oncoming missiles. Down to two, and then, as madmen like Tom Steels surge forward at roughly the speed of sound, the second lead-out man would melt away into the shadows like Harry Lime, and in an explosion of legs and wheels, "Cipo" would cross the line, eyes ablaze.

Later, against the watch and in the mountains, Armstrong took over, a god in yellow (a god who takes corticoid cream for boils on his bum, but a god none the less). On the road to Piau-Engaly in the Pyrenees, as he left the best riders in the world floundering in his wake in pursuit of Fernando Escartin, Liggett roared, "the only other rider I've seen ride like this is Eddy Merckx, who I put down as the finest cyclist ever!"

Armstrong not fascinated by the Tour? Who was he trying to kid?