Tour de France: Flag day for Brits as the revolution starts here
To understand the full enormity of Bradley Wiggins' success, my mind goes back to the 1993 Tour de France when the Scot, Robert Millar, staged his last ever major attack, going over the highest tarmacked pass in Europe, La Bonette-Restefond. As one of five British print journalists covering that Tour, we chuckled at the sight of a Union Flag next to Millar's image and name printed across the bottom of the press room television, pointing out that this was the first time we had seen the British flag in the entire race. It was also the last.
This year, and indeed as far back as 2008, Union Flags –on the roadside and on riders jerseys on the TV screens – have been impossible to avoid. But before the Tour start in London in 2007 and before Mark Cavendish became the most consistent Tour stage winner of his generation in any speciality, and above all before Team Sky and Wiggins and Chris Froome this year had become a byword for two-wheeled success, the Britons were viewed as occasionally gifted intruders into what was a continental European sport.
Participation would be limited to two or three riders at most, their success an exception to the rule. In the 1980s, the Americans made massive inroads, not to mention Ireland's Stephen Roche, victorious in the 1987 race, and Sean Kelly, a multiple points jersey winner. We remained, essentially, outsiders.
British links to the Tour date back to 1937, when Charles Holland and Bill Burl took part in the race as part of a three-man Empire Aces team. Burl was getting over broken ribs, Holland a fractured collarbone, even before they started. There was very limited team assistance and bikes that were not in working order. Burl abandoned after two crashes in the first two days, and Holland struggled on for 14 days before quitting. It would be 19 years before another two Britons, Brian Robinson and Tony Hoar, rode and completed the race.
The Americans, although arriving much later – their first Tour rider was Jock Boyer in the early 1980s – were successful far faster. Greg LeMond's triple Tour success and then Lance Armstrong's unbeaten run of seven straight victories after overcoming cancer gave them a consistent profile. For the British, there had been flashes of brilliance like Chris Boardman's three prologue wins in the mid 1990s, or Millar's King of the Mountains title in 1984. But the first fully commercial team to race for Great Britain, ANC in the 1987 Tour, was a bankrupt shambles whose riders (like Sky's manager Shane Sutton) abandoned because of non-payment and whose one high point was a third place for Malcolm Elliot in a sprint in Bordeaux.
It is true that there have only been two Tours since 1956 with no British riders (1976 and 2004). But that means the individual triumphs shone like beacons – Yorkshire's Barry Hoban's eight stage wins, mostly sprints, in the 1960s and 1970s, Tommy Simpson's single day in yellow in the 1962 Tour, Brian Robinson's epic breakaway solo in the 1959 Tour. There were never the droves of commercial squads as there have been from cycling powerhouses like Belgium, Italy or Spain.
Part of the divide was cultural, simply that British cyclists, with no professional teams racing in Europe, rarely ventured abroad. Those who wanted to make it big had to head across, self-funded. Simpson and Robinson before him established a bridgehead in continental cycling and others brave enough to cross the Channel, riders like Sean Yates, Graham Jones, or in later years David Millar and Jeremy Hunt, had their backs, financially and geographically, against the wall.
Now, Sport UK is reporting cycling as the fourth most popular sport in terms of participation, there is the prospect of huge Olympic success, and, perhaps, a Tour start in Yorkshire in 2015. The steps forward in the last five years have been enormous. Factor them in and a Wiggins Tour win would gives British cycling a boost that, if handled properly, will last for decades.
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