Sport on TV: More than just a diversion, the Women’s Tour paves the way

When cycling’s inaugural Women’s Tour (ITV4, Wednesday) styled itself as the world’s best women’s stage race before it had even begun, it was easy to feel a little uneasy about the launch. After all, some cable company was bound to rip up the road without warning anyone – “you’ll have to turn around and go down the bypass, love”, accompanied by wolf whistles.

The guest of honour, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, had to be told to wave her Union flag on the start line as the countdown reached its climax. They were wheeling out of Oundle, which no one knows how to pronounce, and heading for the “historic market town of Northampton”. Well places like La Planche des Belles Filles, on stage 10 of this summer’s Tour de France, may sound more exotic to our thick Anglo-Saxon ears but it’s probably a right dump.

Talking of belles filles, before the race ITV interviewed some hale and hearty fellow called Hugh Roberts, the chief executive of Sweetspot Group, who organised the event. It was enough to make you groan like a fat old bloke squeezing into a Lycra body suit. “They are not only great riders but, without sounding chauvinistic, they are very marketable, very photogenic, far more so than their male counterparts,” he said, sounding really quite chauvinistic, and not unlike Fifa president Sepp Blatter suggesting that women footballers should wear tight shorts. It’s not as if it matters what male footballers look like, is it? Then you remember David Beckham’s tiresome propensity to walk around in his pants.

As it happens, the British public’s enthusiasm for cycling meant that the race didn’t need to sell itself. The crowds turned out in force and were so vociferous that the home favourite Lizzie Armitstead began her sprint to the line too early, thinking that she must be near the finish.

So it’s a shame that for all ITV’s efforts to showcase the event, they were not showing it live – the Indian Premier League, a dodgy cricket jamboree in a far-flung land, takes precedence. The only similarity is that it’s where Kevin Pietersen ended up when the England selectors told him to get on his bike.

ITV were certainly trying their hardest, digging out Jose Been, “one of the only women’s cycling commentators in the world”. Presenter Ned Boulting was talking up the showdown between Armitstead and Dutch tour de force Marianne Vos as hard as he could. “You’re really trying to get this rivalry going, aren’t you?” said Lizzie as she and Vos sat happily side by side. Surely she had the advantage, being on home Tarmac. “Well I am British, but I don’t know the roads at all.” At least he didn’t say that she would understand the road signs better.

On the final sprint into Northampton a sign said that two lanes were closed up ahead and you feared the worst. But it was fine, the workmen must have been on an extended lunch break. The worst was yet to come anyway. On the podium the winners of the various categories were kissed and hugged not by the equivalent of glamorous girls of the men’s races but by a few gawky, awkward blokes who looked like they had just finished knocking up the podium.

No chiselled cheekbones and six-packs for these ladies as there will be on the women’s Tour de France this year, they had to make do with Bob the builder and his hairy buttcheeks. The lack of potholes had been remarkable but a crack or two had to open up somewhere.

So Alan Hansen’s tenure at Match of the Day comes to an end tonight, apart from World Cup specials. One wonders whether he will growl anything along the lines of “You can’t do punditry with kids”. And in the case of the Liverpool centre-half who stepped into his shoes, Jamie Carragher, he is proved right on a weekly basis.

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