Update, 22 July 2012: Bradley Wiggins has now won the Tour de France. Another Briton, Chris Froome, came second.
The times – as ever – are a-changin’. If things progress this year as expected, the unthinkable will come to pass: Bradley Wiggins will cross the Channel with le maillot jaune, the first British winner of the Tour de France. The days of the French hegemony of cycling are over and unlikely to return. Cyclists from France have won the Tour 36 times; but the last was Bernard Hinault in 1985. Since then, there has been a shift from the historical dominance of Continental riders (the Mediterranean and Low Countries) towards anglophone riders: American, Irish, Australian and soon, perhaps, British. Greg LeMond, Stephen Roche, Lance Armstrong and Cadel Evans have all worn yellow in Paris.
Armstrong – who has the greatest palmarès of all in the Tour – was feared and loathed by the French press. His grip of the event for seven years was all the more extraordinary for his dismal grasp of the French language. This led to distrust and dislike. Many in France would consider it disrespect, the sign of an Anglo-Saxon (albeit Texan) who had no interest in the country other than as a good place to loot and plunder.
The accusations of le dopage against Armstrong may in time bear fruit; but the hypocrisy at the time was breathtaking, as the French public applauded the doped (and, by comparison, trivial) successes of its darling, the befuddled and tearful Richard Virenque.
It is notable that both Wiggins and David Brailsford, manager of Team Sky, are very fluent French speakers from their time spent with French racing teams. This is important, because the Tour de France is a three-week celebration of the country’s landscape and culture. It is rooted in its terroir, just as a French wine is. Even when stages are held outside of France – in London, Dublin, Barcelona or Luxembourg – the terroir comes with the Tour, as a Burgundy drunk outside of the region brings with it the sense of the land in which it was cultivated. Other countries may have a dégustation of the Tour, gurgle and marvel at the aroma of this spectacular country, and then watch wistfully as it returns to its homeland of Pyrenean and Alpine passes, sun-baked vineyards, windswept shorelines and Parisian boulevards.
Now, however, Wiggins – enduring the challenge of two Pyrenean mountain stages – is very likely to become the first British maillot jaune. A Briton has never finished higher than fourth in the Tour (Wiggins in 2009 and Robert Millar in 1984). This will be unpalatable to the French. Already there is resentment of the British star: he doesn’t attack in the mountains, he doesn’t win stages with panache (or combativité), he’s not as strong as his domestique, the Kenyan-born Brit Chris Froome.
This is to overlook Wiggins’s achievements: his three Olympic gold medals on the track, where his mastery in the now-discontinued four-kilometre pursuit was absolute; his wins in the Tour de Romandie and the Dauphiné Libéré; his outstanding time-trialling. Miguel Indurain won the Tour de France five times on the back of his excellence in time-trialling and his ability to hold his own in the mountains – and attracted little but criticism in the French press for doing so.
Wiggins is likely to win in a similar fashion. He sets, with his team, a relentless pace in the mountains that few can maintain. In any case, only
one rider has ever had the all-round capability to attack and control a race from the front in all terrains – the freakishly brilliant Eddy Merckx.
New model army
A British winner of the Tour de France is one of those great sporting incongruities, as unlikely as the remarkable major victories of Vijay Singh (a Fijian) in golf. The likelihood is that, under the leadership of Brailsford and with the income from Sky, there will be more to follow. This has taken time: a decade ago, road cycling was (and always had been) riddled with drugs. It was seen as folly to try to win without them.
Brailsford, using his meticulous scientific approach to human physiology and physical capability, has produced a new model army of lean, dynamic track and road cyclists who have been assembled into a formidable machine. This will be the template for professional cycling for the near future, far removed from the club ride, in which a handful of masochists hammer, sweat and expire along the roads every Sunday morning.
His ambition was to see a Briton win the Tour. It was considered ludicrous. Now, with his vision and attention to detail, his “numbers” for monitoring performance capability (and health), that ambition will surely be realised. The Tour de France has become an international event, open to marauders who are running away clothed in the most precious maillots that France has to offer – green, polka dot, white and, best of all, yellow.