The Tour de France is a battle of champions. It’s also an archetypal journey, out to the limits of the world, fastest back, across burning plains, over huge mountain ranges where the snow still lies in summer, through great and ancient cities. It’s a complex story as it unfolds over three weeks and more than 3500 kilometres, and it has the spirit of an epic. It’s not just about the ultimate winner. There are other heroes, the mountain climbers, the sprinters, each with their own story and their own prize; and good guys and bad guys, rivalries and alliances, mind games and technology, which can hold the attention of we aficionados from day to day as we wait for the glorious set pieces; the solitary escapee, the slight human figure crouched over the even more minimal machine against the massive landscape, alone all day battling the laws of physics, maybe to be ridden down in the last few hundred metres by the tsunami of the massed peloton engulfing him within sight of the finishing line; the elbow to elbow fifty mile an hour thrash of the sprinters, where to win by less than a tyre’s width is as good as an infinite distance, and to make a mistake is to break bones and tear flesh off along the tarmac; the heart-bursting-climbs where the greats must grind each other into the dust. All this before the home-coming, the last night on the Champs Elysée, like a Roman chariot race on a hippodrome. We Brits have our heroes; Mark Cavendish, one of the greatest sprinters of all time; and Sir Bradley Wiggins, aka Wiggo, knighted for that amazing attainment, the first British winner of the Tour de France in its hundred and one year history.
All good then. But a question arises. The conjunction, in the person of Sir Brad, of English and Tour winner would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. What’s changed? Our English culture has traditionally despised the bicycle, gutter-crawling totem of the inferiority of foreigners and the poor. In the 1930s cyclists were referred to by motorists as “road lice”.
Now we are transformed. As summer comes, bicyclists on a whole range of machines, costing from a hundred quid or so to a hundred times as much, throng the English landscape, in lycra, skirts, baggy shorts, crop tops, billowing tee-shirts, no one cares, we seem to be, if not wholly converted, all in this together.
What is it about cycling, that has gripped the rest of Europe for more than a century, which is so suddenly turning us into a nation of sceptical acolytes, if not quite roaring enthusiasts? Traditionally in this country racing cyclists were forced to slip singly through the dawn dressed in black alpaca in order to avoid prosecution. Now they flaunt themselves in brightly coloured second skins while police on motorbikes close the road for them as if they were Royalty. Where’s the appeal?
It’s in our genes. There is the race. For our distant hunter-gatherer forefathers the alpha male was the one who ran furthest, fastest, hurled the spear, pierced the hide, splashed blood out on the earth and was first home with the prize. And there is the battle. Others of our long distance running species might appear, armed, fired up to kill us and take our hunting grounds for their own unless we do the killing first and keep our wealth.
These narratives are yet with us, painted on cave walls twenty, thirty thousand years ago, and we still watch their shadows on TV, cars going round in circles, occasionally changing position; humans doing the same; humans hitting coloured balls on a green rectangular plane into little pouches with the end of a stick; or into a distant hole, the stick swung and with a bulbous weighted end; or two troops of humans running about a grass rectangle trying to kick a head-sized ball between pillars which face each other across adjacent territories, or slam it into the earth of the opposing sacred ground.
Sure those topographically constrained arenas can produce time-stopping tension, cliff-hangers, tragedy and triumph. And oh how we do care about who wins and loses. Our team’s result affects us measurably, our existential poise, our morale, our hormones. But the ultimate stature of a contest is a matter of narrative development which needs time and space. That’s what bike racing possesses that no other sport can touch. Its theatre is the landscape unfolding across miles and days, and the drama has room for a beginning, a middle, and an end, for establishment, delineation of character, back stories, sub-plots, climax and denouement.
And its dark side. What of drugs, and sin, and moral turpitude? What of them?
Drugs in sport are pernicious. The grandchildren of old friends of mine in Italy joined a small town cycling club in their teens, and “health” was one of the components of their induction. No compulsion, just ubiquitously on offer. They withdrew, but the club thrives. Different theology, different mores.
On the other hand I think we should be clear eyed about where our more rigorously puritan code comes from. It has the guise of the Nineteenth Century British Public School, clean living, honour, and an exact knowledge of what is right. But in practice, outside the upper reaches of government, we’re long past that sort of thing.
Humans have always taken drugs. Religion, visions, shamanistic knowledge, all have their druggy history. We live in a world saturated by drugs.
In practice athletes are not the same as saints. They have always used fraud and trickery when they can. Look at Odysseus in the Iliad making his body slippery with oil before the wrestling match with Ajax. Up until the last few decades of the last century, drugs in cycling were standard practice. A few resisted but as they recount, their resistance meant their rejection.
One significant thing has happened. A negative is impossible to prove, but I believe that both Wiggins and Froome won the Tour de France drug free. They were already within a whisker of the apex of genotypical perfection, but in addition training régimes and techniques have evolved which make it possible for athletes to reach their absolute potential without recourse to synthetic substances, ana- or metabolic.
There is a downside. These training régimes demand of the trainee their dedication, for a large part of the year, to a programme of monastic isolation and physical stress which, if it wasn’t voluntary, might be considered cruel and inhuman. Wiggins has implied that such expenditure of self costs more than it’s worth. It turns human beings into near-machines. Successful dopers of yore, often from poor peasant backgrounds, were drawn towards the good life, lobster, champagne and extravagant sex. Wiggins suggests that spending your nights in a hypoxic tent in the spare room so that you can’t cuddle a crying child is not life, not quite.
Meanwhile, let us celebrate a miracle, that the Grand Départ of the Tour de France will happen on 5 July 2014, in Leeds, in Yorkshire, the greatest sporting event in the world, and it will have its thrills and its dramas and its rip-roaring climaxes, in little towns, on the glowering massifs, on the Elysée by night. It will be a complex drama, sunshine and storm, heaven and hell, of which, like any epic, we can give no simple interpretation. But it is a drama of which we British are at last a necessary part.