The Last Word: The ghosts of Tours past still haunt Chris Froome
If he wins rumours will persist and if he loses then Contador, a convicted cheat, will benefit
Sunday 14 July 2013
The Tour de France's longest day will end today at the summit of Mont Ventoux, the spiritual resting place of tragic Tommy Simpson. Questions will recur, and acquire fresh relevance. Memories will remain as forbidding as the surrounding moonscape.
The peloton, preoccupied by the pain of a fabled ascent, will pass the polished granite monument to Simpson, the British cyclist whose final words, before lapsing into a fatal coma on 13 July 1967, helped to create the myth of drug-induced martyrdom.
"Put me back on my bike," he told spectators shortly before he lost consciousness. The post-mortem, which confirmed traces of amphetamines in Simpson's blood after drugs were found in his hotel room and his pockets, is his legacy.
It had enduring consequences. Cycling immediately banned the use of performance-enhancing drugs and ushered in an era of superficial concern and unilateral deception. It is still a sport at war with itself. While truth remains a nebulous concept, reconciliation is impossible.
This year's Tour has been intemperate, intense and compelling. Yet it continues to be defiled and devalued by a climate of cynicism, and echoes of the ancient code of omerta. Suspicion, fuelled by envy and resentment, provides the subplot to today's pivotal stage.
Team Sky's emergence, through Bradley Wiggins's win in last year's Tour, was a cultural and philosophical challenge. That it was presented as a victory for clean sport, and proved to be a precursor to the Lance Armstrong revelations, added to the sense of provocation.
Some rivals, such as Britain's David Millar, have welcomed Sky as a positive force, in the best sense of the term. It suits others to overlook the specifics of their success: a big budget, impeccable talent identification and a remorseless attention to detail. Chris Froome will come under unprecedented scrutiny today as he seeks to reassert his authority on the race. For all its heritage and symbolism, the yellow jersey on his back must compete with another colour scheme, created by those seeking perspective from the power he exerts in the mountains.
Antoine Vayer, a veteran coach with influential allies in the French media, has analysed historical climbing performances in an online dossier that is a conspiracy theorist's delight. They are colour coded: yellow is deemed "suspicious", orange "mirac-ulous" and red "mutant". The inference, that riders are pushing the boundaries of believability, is clear.
Dave Brailsford, Sky's team principal, refused a pre-race request to release data on Froome. He cited the competitive advantage this would surrender, and the dangers of misinterpretation by "pseudo scientists" who "produce a lot of noise".
Vayer insists he merely employs the laws of physics. In layman's terms, he uses the weight of a rider and his bike, and the height he ascends, to calculate how much energy he expends. Average power output is derived from the time taken.
Froome understands the nature of such scrutiny, and insists he is clean. He takes particular issue with Vayer's estimation of his average power output, 446 watts, during the final climb of his breakthrough win on Stage Eight, eight days ago. Such numbers are, he contends, "far, far from what I think is possible."
His problem is the thought process of others in a sport which is rudderless because of the power struggle for the presidency of the UCI, cycling's global governing body. This with depressing inevitability has degenerated into an arm-wrestle between PR men. Pat McQuaid, the discredited incumbent, is increasingly desperate and slinging industrial quantities of mud. His British challenger, Bryan Cookson, advised by Olympic spin doctor Mike Lee, is dull but reassuringly worthy.
Today may signal one of the savage ironies of Cookson's potential inheritance. Should Froome falter, Alberto Contador, convicted cheat and Armstrong apologist, is likely to benefit. If Froome wins in Paris next Sunday, the ghosts will rise from their graves.
Equality means stick for the girls
England's footballers succumb to pressure in a major tournament. They are listless, tactically naïve and wasteful in possession. An avoidable defeat results in their manager tap-dancing through the minefield of a live TV interview.
Ritual assurances that the spirit in the squad is unquenchable follow. Every-one waits for the endless cycle of underachievement and self-loathing to intensify.
All very familiar. Why, then, hasn't the herd instinct to condemn been triggered by the dismal start of England's women in the European Championships? It surely cannot all be sexist condescension, that the little ladies are giving it their best.
Perhaps their lack of pre-tension, and evident earnestness, register with those bored with the excuse culture in the men's game. They refuse to hide from areas of weakness, such as goalkeeping, a failing summed up by a calamitous own goal from Karen Bardsley left, against Spain on Friday. France, England's next group opponents, are strong and technically adept. If elimination is greeted by calls for manager Hope Powell to resign, the women's game will have come of age. They deserve the respect of being judged on the same terms as more prominent teams wearing those accursed three lions.
Jacko must go
The Jacksonville Jaguars' owner Shahid Khan, who has added Fulham to his portfolio, is sufficiently plausible to survive a fine comedy moustache. But let's not get carried away by his supposed benevolence. This is strictly business, quite possibly the first step towards the implantation of an NFL team in the capital. If he wants to make an immediate impression, he should confirm his new club's future at Craven Cottage, and dynamite the Michael Jackson statue. Immortality would beckon.
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