Lee’s Lowdown: The Pre-Tour Hullabaloo
At last it’s Tour time baby! So it is also time for Lee Rodgers to give us his lowdown on the up and coming French Grand Tour and look back at how the Tour inspired him to get out on a bike in his local mountains. The dream of a Tour win will have got most of us into bike riding, but eventually most of us can only dream of getting home in time from work watch the Tour on TV….Lee’s Tour Lowdown:
Wipe clean your TV screens, get the Belgian beers in the fridge and de-grease your suspension of disbelief: Le Tour is coming to town. The world’s most epic sporting event is back again, with its accompanying circus of journalists and commentators, its blaring, garish caravan heralding its imminent arrival and the sea of onlookers who holler and hoot as it rolls by.
What does it mean though, the ‘Tour de France’? Much like the Olympics, its reputation is not what it once was. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we’ve had a peek behind the curtain. We’ve had the veil lifted, been exposed to the dirty machinations of the men previously lauded and paraded as our champions and heroes, culminating in the fall of Lance Armstrong and revelations of doping on the team bus as fans milled about outside.
We’ve had our eyes opened and our minds blown by the blasé attitudes to chemical cheating and blood doping and been shocked by the depth and reach of the Omerta. We are told still that the sport is cleaning itself up and yet the cases keep coming as regular as clockwork, with many left dispirited and disillusioned by a UCI that seems powerless to put into effect the changes that its president says that this sport so badly needs.
Amidst all this, here comes Le Tour. On certain levels it functions as entertainment at its most basic and, it should be noted, its most rewarding. Lots of noise, color and excitement, the riders as actors in a play that we need not take too seriously, a kind of WWF on Wheels, if you like.
Many fans out there watch it and don’t care about who might be cheating or not, others believe that everyone is doping and that you have to take it as it comes. Sadly, there is a sizable minority of cycling fans – and they still are fans despite what they may say, as once this sport is in the blood it never truly leaves – won’t tune in to the Tour this year, or any year in fact. Battered and bruised by what they see as the betrayal of the sport itself, they have simply given up, unable to derive any enjoyment from it at all.
My first Tour de France experience came in 1987, sat flicking through all four channels that we had then on English TV, in our living room in the north of England. I was 15 at the time. I turned over to Channel 4 to hear the voices of two men that would become synonymous with the Tour for millions of cycling fans, Paul Sherwen and Phil ‘Too Liggett To Quit’ Liggett. I was instantly mesmerized. Roche was battling Delgado through the mist that day on La Plagne, Liggett’s voice cracked in astonishment as the Irishman clawed his way back to stay in touching distance of the Spaniard, Roche was taken away in an ambulance, so exhausting was the effort he’d put in, and one 15 year old had just fallen in love.
It’s Roche…It’s Stephen Roche….
As an eager participant in any sport I could find and enthralled by tales of sporting endeavor, by stories of overcoming the odds and achieving greatness, cycling, and very specifically the Tour, revealed itself immediately as the greatest thing I’d ever laid eyes on.
Uncategorically and without any sarcasm, I can say it was a drug to me. I was a cycling junkie from that moment on. I read everything I could about cycling and about the Tour, which in the days before the internet required some determination. The names of the greats and the tales of their derring-do flowed from the books and became images in my mind, little film snippets I replayed by myself out on the roads of north-west Lancashire.
The short, steep Pendle Hill became Ventoux, the flat stretch by the old Roman viaduct in the valley turned into the Champs d’Elysee, and I won every single sprint by an imaginary bike length. I was alone out there but I also wasn’t. Hundreds of thousands of kids just like me – maybe you were one – were out there doing the same thing. When my mum asked me what I wanted to do with my life, there was only one answer:
“I want to ride in the Tour de France.”
I bought the jerseys. First was 7-11, then Fagor, later on a PDM jersey. Posters went up on the wall: Robert Millar, Delgado, Kelly. I pinched my sister’s Nair and burned my legs smooth, bought a pair of Sidi’s and learned to change bartape. I met older cyclists who fed my addiction with more stories of the greats, of fabulous-sounding races like the Tour of Flanders and Lombardia.
It was all as fantastic as it was all-consuming. The Tour de France was the greatest sporting event on the planet, pitting man against man, will against will, embracing sporting endeavor and championing the ethics of that endeavor that make bike racing so – perfect. And yet… we know now that this is not always the case. In fact, some will argue that it never was, with doping in cycling as old as the sport itself. For those like me who fell so in love with the Tour and were devastated – I do not think that is too strong a word – to learn that our heroes were cheats, the yearly return of this storied race stirs up emotions like no other.
There will be 15 year olds watching the race for the first time this year too. I wonder whether the exposure of riders like Armstrong, Hincapie and Leipheimer et cetera, will take the edge off their own addiction, should one develop?
Will I be watching this year? Well, if I don’t I am not sure how I can write my Tour Lowdown! But I would be watching anyway. Why? That I cannot quite explain, but I know that just as being a bike racer is hard and demands sacrifice, the very same can be said of being a fan of the Tour.
The Tour is the Tour after all, and she can be a bewitching mistress.
Lee Rodgers is a former professional road racer on the UCI Asia Tour circuit now racing MTB professionally around the world. His day job combines freelance journalism, coaching cyclists, event organizing and consulting work. You can keep up with his daily scribblings over at www.crankpunk.com.