“There’s no sniggering now”, wrote this newspaper’s cycling correspondent Alastair Fotheringham on the eve of this year’s Tour de France.
Commenting on the realisation by the European press that Team Sky could actually fulfil their much sniggered-at aim of producing a British Tour de France winner within five years, Fotheringham could not have been more succinct.
When Bradley Wiggins stepped up to the podium on Sunday in Paris with his First-Lieutenant Chris Froome standing next to him, sniggers of derision had turned (for the most part) into cheers and column inches of admiration. Only minutes before his teammate Mark Cavendish had been launched into the history books too, in a thrilling sprint finish to mark his fourth victory on the Champs-Elysee. “La Promenade Anglais” had begun, and “Le Gentleman Wiggins” and his team won the hard fought respect and recognition they so richly deserve.
It was an emotional end to a surreal three weeks. From the madding crowd in Liege to a rousing, badly sung rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’ in the Paris sunshine, each day has exhilarated and exhausted me in equal measure.
To borrow another suitable cliché, the Tour de France really is more than just a bike race. I’ve never seen a sporting event so wholeheartedly embraced by such a variety of nations (or costumes), massed together in a heaving throng to cheer on their heroes as they race through the mountain passes towards Paris.
We’ve had the pleasure of driving along the race route a few times this year, seeing delighted groups of Vikings sharing an aperitif with Australian Kangaroos, or perhaps a little smorgasbord with a passing group of British pirates in the almost endless sunshine that bathed this year’s Tour.
Once the preserve of cycling-mad French families out for a picnic and groups of lycra-clad locals, the Tour’s roadside has evolved into a far greater international stage. Camper van disciples on a pilgrimage to Paris and champagne-quaffing grandees in hospitality tents populate much of the 3,500 or so kilometres of the race. Indeed, many congratulatory sentiments were voiced by those sitting in comfortable hospitality areas on Sunday, praising from a distance the thronging masses at the roadside that had made the journey to Paris from as far away as Sydney and Hong Kong.
Amongst the cosmopolitan masses, the new generation of British cycling fans and ubiquitous ‘mamils’ had made their way to Paris by any means possible, packing out the available trains and planes to get to the Tour finale.
The congregation gathered around the Team Sky bus was a testament to the dedication of the new British Tifosi. Excitement was at a fever pitch when the victorious archbishop Wiggins arrived, dressed in his finest yellow robes for the occasion. The resultant roar could have echoed up to the heights of the Eiffel Tower as the mod from Kilburn saluted the crowd, clambering atop one of the team cars to give the crowd a better view of their first British Tour champion.
This was the first day of the rest of his life, and who can blame him for savouring the moment. Voices shouted out to fix their next date with the riders, confirming their places on Box Hill and the Olympic time trial route after that. To take a double gold now would surely be one of the best achievements by a British sporting generation, and confirm Wiggins an even more comfortable home in immortality than the one he already occupies, perhaps stealing a few hard-won bricks from the great citadel still occupied by Eddie Merckx.
Cycling store owners throughout the UK may well be rubbing their hands with glee too, as cycling’s future in this country has never looked brighter. Its present has also rarely been more exciting, attracting new riders in their droves. Those who think little of spending £3,000 on a new model, or even £10,000 on a new custom Pinarello Dogma 2 (perhaps a yellow one sir?) are helping to take cycling into the luxury end of the sport and lifestyle market, a long way from its proudly working class roots.
The owner of the great HTC – Highroad team Bob Stapleton was prophetic when he stated that cycling was quickly becoming the new golf. Just how accurate that statement was is still being defined, and cycling still has much room for development. I can guarantee that a decision being made between a new set of clubs or new bike just got harder though.
Lesser men than Dave Brailsford would now delight in a little cold revenge against the nay sayers of 2010. However, the proverbial “I told you so” aimed at the cynics would be excess to requirements. Excepting a few understandably frustrated outbursts from Bradley, Team Sky has silenced its critics by putting heads down and stamping on the pedals as if their lives depended on it.
“Tour de Force” is one of the many hackneyed clichés surrounding winners of La Grande Boucle, but in this case it might just be accurate.
The team has displayed the fruits of their monk-like approach to training on every stage of the race, and it’s a thoroughly deserved win. To coin a new phrase, Sky Was The Limit. One would readily forgive Brailsford of looking beyond the clouds now, and into the cycling stratosphere. Chapeau, David. Chapeau, Bradley, and Chapeau, Team Sky.
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