July is the the month when football goes to sleep, rugby too. A very short breather. Friendlies start getting hyped midway through the month, by the TV machine. There’s the tennis and the cricket of course, and the British Open golf. But the sport that really keeps me going in this fallow month is the cycling, the Tour de France. Here, nine days into the current Tour, are 10 (plus one) reasons why I love it so.
1. The cyclists on the Tour must be the toughest sportsmen going. A hundred or so miles a day, over 20 stages (and the prologue). 3497 km in total this year, 2186 miles. Sometimes along flat territory, but then other times up and over the most hideous mountain slopes. When I’m battling up a quite steep slope in Ealing, or some other place nearby, I always think, the Tour guys wouldn’t even blink at this one.
2. They come through some horrible crashes. This Tour has had a whole series of disruptive crashes which have put some riders, like Frank Schleck, out of the running for the yellow jersey. But unless they have broken bones, they get up, have the bike fixed, and get going again. Cycling through the pain. Stoics.
3. It’s such a fantastic advertisement for France. the variety of scenery, the beautiful towns and villages. Visit this country now!
4. The enthusiasm of the fans. Some of them are close to being a danger to the riders, but it is amazing to watch the riders fight their way up the mountain slopes, or through the time trials, egged on by those fans.
5. The sprint finishes. Extraordinary for a start that you don’t get crashes when the top guys surge for the line, centimetres from each other’s wheels. Last year the Mark Cavendish team, HTC, in their V formation, was a thing of wonder, as they led the race on the flat stages, placing Mark for that catapult finish. He doesn’t have that support this year, riding with Sky, and possibly his focus is on the Olympics. But he won the second stage, magnificently. There is a more even competition this year, more depending on the individuals themselves. Smaller support teams, if any. One reason, it is said, why there have been so many crashes. everyone is vying, but not leading.
6. The way that the peleton somehow catches and sucks in the breakaway groups on most stages. I find this remarkable, as I watch the highlights on ITV 4. You know the breakaway group will be caught. They know, the peleton knows. But why? And why break away if you know you’ll just be destroyed close to the end? A little bit of glory, I guess. But why do teams allow one of their riders to break away, given that it does them no good? No idea. But that moment when the mouth of the peleton opens and devours the breakaway riders is always a thing of awe.
7. The technology – the helmets on the time trials, the new chain wheel which is not quite circular, so that it maximises thrust from the pedal force… apparently. Everything, basically. A nerd’s delight.
8. The mystifying accumulation of points for the Green jersey and King of The Mountains – especially the latter. I think I’ve just about got the idea of the intermediate sprints, which garner points. And the TV has started showing them a lot more. But King of the Mountains truly is a mystery. To win the Tour you have to be brilliant in the mountains, and in the time trials. So how come the winner of the Tour, or maybe second or third, isn’t the winner of that fabulous polka dot jersey? Makes the title a misnomer. But then, if the King was just the Tour winner or runner up, why have the polka dot jersey? Hey, who cares, it’s a great thing to be… King of the Mountains. I’d like that.
9. The respect shown as the likely winner becomes clear. At some point, usually after the Alpine or Pyrenean stages (depending on which comes last) after the battles to break each other, the peleton acknowledges the winner. There seems to be a massive respect from thereon in. An acknowledgement, I guess, of the shared effort and pain in reaching those final stages. Mutual respect. I love that sense of fellow feeling and respect. A truly honorable sport.
10. The way that new stars emerge, so quickly, at least to us non-experts, whose focus each year is really only on the Tour de France. This year it is the young Slovak rider, Peter Sagan, who has swept all before him on the flat stages and won three stages in his first ever Tour. That is an amazing achievement, especially as he doesn’t seem to have much of a team in support. And closely rivaling Sagan, the Team Sky rider, Chris Froome, who won a mountain stage, is helping Bradley conquer the big slopes, and came second in the time trial on Monday, edging out the legendary Fabian Cancellara, who takes yellow until the mountains kick in.
Crank it up to eleven!
11. And finally, the fact that our own Bradley Wiggins, the Mod, the Jam and Who fan, the lad, who crashed out with a collarbone fracture last year, but who is being supported brilliantly by Team Sky, this year, is favourite to win. It’s not certain – it only takes one bad day to set things back. But after the Monday time trial, he opened up a gap of almost two minutes on the feisty Aussie, last year’s winner, Cadel Evans. That will be hard to claw back.
That’s another amazing thing, really. After thousands of miles cycling, it all comes down to a couple of minutes difference. The fine margins of top sport…