Tour de France: London is just the start for British cycling

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The Independent Online

It is no exaggeration to say that after 3pm this afternoon, as the first rider of the Tour de France rolls down the starting ramp in Whitehall, things will never be the same for British cycling.

For decades it has been a minority sport here, only ferocious support from a handful of grassroots fans allowing it to survive. Bradley Wiggins, Britain's best prospect for today's prologue, said yesterday that time-trialling - the one speciality permitted by arcane traffic laws to flourish -, is "a bit like a sect". Nobody disagreed. But the word is about to be spread to the masses. The arrival of the Tour, with its 5,000 race followers, 2,400 vehicles and a prologue running through the heart of London, has given cycling a huge opportunity to show the British public why 12 million French fans line the route each year.

The Tour's first visit to England, in 1974, was hardly indicative of such a high-profile future. Which genius decided to send 180-odd riders up and down a dual-carriageway in Plymouth and give race leader Jos Bruyere a basket of artichokes as a prize? But even the success of the Tour's second visit in 1994, with two million on the stages from Dover to Brighton and a circuit round Portsmouth, is expected to pale into insignificance compared to this year's two-day English incursion.

For the first time, all the lengthy build-up has taken place on English soil. And despite the doping scandals, the level of media coverage (1,700 journalists this year and an estimated TV audience of 4.5 billion) is far higher than 13 years ago.

T-Mobile's young British sprinter, Mark Cavendish, said: "Hopefully a lot of the people who turn up - I've heard there might be as many as 1.2 million - will be new to cycling and they'll appreciate what a huge, beautiful sport this is. An event of this magnitude can only increase the awareness of the sport."

Not all has been sweetness and light for the Tour's London visit. Riders have griped - quietly but persistently - at the traffic problems they have encountered while training in the London suburbs. As ever in England, there is a question mark over the weather. And following last weekend's foiled terrorist attacks, security is not the least of the organisers' concerns.

Nor, given its location, has accessibility to the prologue circuit itself been easy. Wiggins was forced to check out the route at three in the morning to avoid traffic problems. Even Britain's David Millar, rarely an early bird, told reporters yesterday that he had dragged himself out of bed at 7am one morning to ride over its eight kilometres.

"The good news for the foreign riders who haven't seen it is that it's not all technical, there's maybe one corner where you'll have to touch the brakes," Millar said. "Plus it's a fast, uncomplicated course, which is not too necessary to see beforehand."

That kind of course normally would suit the Scot, but Millar was not keen to play up his chances for this afternoon, saying his form since early May has been inconsistent. "I have never spent so long feeling so terrible on the bike," Millar said. "The only good thing is that in the last few weeks I've had a lot of help from British Cycling coach Matt Parker tapering off my form.

"I'm riddled with self-doubt, my confidence is not good. I've been under-performing recently and I'm not sure why. Fatigue maybe, not getting over an injury from early May very well. Or perhaps I'm just getting too worried."

Such self-doubt continues to afflict cycling in general. On Thursday one of the double-decker buses placed in the Tour's press room to symbolise the race departure from London was "hijacked" by eight team managers after they walked out of their association, the AIGCP. Their protest, which ended up with the eight holding a meeting on the top deck of the bus, was over cycling's great scourge: doping. Presumably this was not one of the uses Transport for London, backing the Tour start, had in mind for one of their most emblematic vehicles.

But the brutal truth is that for all the razzmatazz and radically increased anti-doping controls the sport's singular ability to shoot itself in the foot whenever the subject of banned drugs comes up remains undiminished.

Team managers in double deckers apart, the latest of the interminable scandals arose when the race favourite, Alexandre Vinokourov, recently revealed that he works with the controversial Italian trainer, Michele Ferrari.

Slated by the press for his association with a doctor who once said the banned drug EPO was no more dangerous than orange juice, Vinokourov has refused to recognise the near-inevitable - that if he wins overall, his victory will be tarnished, for some to the point of near-irrelevance, by his collaboration with Ferrari.

"Nobody asked any questions when Lance Armstrong worked with Ferrari and won seven Tours," Vinokourov argued in a press conference - as ifunaware of the criticism Armstrong received over Ferrari. But the Kazakh's stance was an uncomfortable reminder that certain professionals still not do not realise their sport is in such a deep credibility crisis; like Caesar's wife it must not only be good, but also appear to be.

Even though cycling may be holed below the line by doping scandals, it continues to be hugely popular. According to race director Christian Prudhomme, no less than 223 towns or cities are requesting Tour starts or finishes. "Cycling is suffering but it has deep roots," he said.

So once the last rider has clambered aboard the Eurostar on Sunday afternoon, will the level of awareness of cycling as a sport among the British public return to its usual twilight zone - barring when a local rider wins an Olympic medal or yet another former champion tests positive? "No way," says the Irishman Pat McQuaid, president of the UCI, cycling's governing body, who was in Dublin when the Tour began there in 1998.

"From a local point of view the Tour was a huge success, but not just for the one weekend. The Irish government set up the Sports Tourism group as a result, which now brings in many other sports events - like the Tour of Ireland. I imagine the same kind of process will happen here."

With the Tour in London, there could hardly be a better starting point.