I was pleased to see Mark Cavendish win BBC Sports Personality of the year yesterday. I even voted for him. He has been an outstanding athlete for many years, in one of the toughest of sports. Cycling is something that Britain is actually very good at – witness all the golds at the last Olympics. Getting tickets for the events at the 2012 Olympics was well nigh impossible. Chris Hoy got a knighthood. But still the recognition in previous years of Sports Personality was lower than it should have been, especially for the road racing, as opposed to the indoor events.
The Tour de France must be the ultimate sporting test. A month of cycling around 150-200km a day. Sometimes reasonably flat routes, but other times up the most tortuous mountains imaginable. Going up a hill in Ealing is hard enough. Doing it over miles and miles, and then descending at high speed, where any miscalculation leads to a hideous crash, has to be one of the most demanding sporting challenges.
I love the Tour de France. I love it for the challenge, the atmosphere, for the team work and for the beauty and variety of the French landscapes. It is a fantastic annual advert for the wonders of France. And yet, in the UK, it is shown only on digital channels: ITV 4 and Eurosport. What a waste!
Mark Cavendish has been the supreme sprinter for a while, but it was only this year that he won the green jersey for the overall points winner, which should reward the person who wins the most stages of the competition. Except, in previous years it didn’t, as there were all sorts of intermediate sprints during stages that racked up the points when no-one except the experts even noticed. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Tour is still exiled on ITV4 and Eurosport. Same applies to King of the Mountains, owner of the spotted jersey. How can that be anyone other than the overall winner, as you cannot win the Tour without being the best in the mountains? It is always won or lost there. But it is always someone else who gets to wear the polka dots.
Anyway, the rules were tweaked this year, and Cav, with five stage wins, won the green jersey. It is a wonder to watch him and his team, HTC Highroad, dominate the stages for the sprinters. They work as a team, cycling in line, near the front, moving steadily forward, Cavendish cruising near the rear of the team formation, keeping the pace, readying himself. Gradually they move to the head of the race, marshalled by Bernhard Eisel. Different riders hit the front and then near to the finish, the fast man, Mark Renshaw, makes a burst, stretching the field. Cav goes with him and then, like a slingshot releasing its ammunition, he shoots forward, devastating. Others attempt to go with him, but usually it is futile. He wins again. He takes the glory, but really, as he always acknowledges, it is a fantastic team effort.
The Highroad website has some good photos of the experience.
The Tour is endlessly fascinating. Most days there will be a break by two or three riders. They shoot off and build up quite a lead. The peleton, the mass of riders, stay calm, riding at the required pace, protecting the stars. And then, as the race draws to a close, they creep up, inexorably, and the breakaway riders fall back and are consumed, before the real battle for supremacy begins. The only exception to this is in the Alpine and Pyrenean stages, when the top riders may break away and establish the leads that win the top places in the grand Tour – the overall classification.
And those mountain stages are what make Mark Cavendish a true sports personality of the year. He’s a sprinter, a roadrunner. But for five or six stages of the Tour, he has to go up and down the most incredibly difficult mountain stages. He just has to survive, to live to fight another day. It’s like asking Usain Bolt to slip in a couple of 10,000 km races in between his 100m heats and the final. How would he perform then?
Yes, the Tour has been besmirched by drugs over the years, though to be honest, it is hardly surprising, given the endurance required of the riders. Winning the Tour de France, the yellow jersey, I think, may be the ultimate sporting achievement. Hopefully Bradley Wiggins may do it one day – sadly, this year, he came down in one of the many crashes and had to retire with a dislocated shoulder. Winning the green jersey is the next best thing and seeing Mark Cavendish do it this year was undoubtedly my highlight of the sporting year – notwithstanding my joy at seeing Harlequins win the Amlin Cup in Cardiff.
Cav has now joined Team Sky. Who knows, maybe he and Bradley could make it a clean sweep at the Tour before going on to Olympic glory. Fingers crossed!