Ahh, juillet, je t’aime!
Lucky for me, my ex is a cycling nut, and back in 2007 he introduced me to the Tour de France. I’ve been addicted ever since, and – like getting lost in the silver screen – it’s got me through some hard times.
For three weeks every summer, I follow the efforts, scandal, highs and heartbreaks of 180 or so men on bicycles as they race around France. Also lucky for me, work has always been quiet in July so I am free to get completely obsessed.
I know many people find it incredibly boring, watching them turning the pedals, putting the kilometers behind them. People who don’t really have much of an interest ask who’s winning, which is never an easy question to answer. You mean right now? This stage? Overall? In the points?
Oh but you guys just don’t understand! If you know what’s happening and watch closely there are strategies and tactics, races within races within races, and of course with le Tour, legends, history and romance!
I like other professional cycling too, especially the one-day classics in the spring, and other Grand Tours (Il Giro D’Italia is actually much better in sporting terms). But the Tour de France is something else in popularity and spectacle. (And, by the way, it’s not right there’s not a similar big stage race for female cyclists.) It’s not just the cycling, it’s everything around it: the field art, decorated villages, picnickers at the side of the road, daft spectators, beautiful French countryside…
Every other year, they start the race somewhere outside France, and in 2014 it came to Sheffield. It was the height of Tour mania in Yorkshire, so the route was packed with spectators. Me and Jen were not far from the finish line at the top of a hill (Côte de Jenkin Road) and got to see the leaders ride past very fast after sitting on a grassy slope all day eating camembert. It were ace.
It’s the riders who really make it, usually with their amazing cycling and going beyond their limits, but sometimes off the bike too. Below are just a few of those I’ve thought of fondly over the years, but not to forget all those rouleurs and domestiques, the riders who work so hard but will hardly ever win any stages or get any public recognition.
Jens Voigt – charismatic German rider who was known for his humour and toughness. His catchphrase was “Shut Up, Legs!”
Fabian Cancellara – Swiss Mr Suave (my mate Rob’s man crush) and an excellent all-rounder, brilliant at descending.
Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Team Sky – the race this decade has been dominated by the British Team Sky. I love to hate them, with their extreme professionalism. They’re too good with all their metrics, riding like robots and sucking the romance out of the race. Cavendish was the greatest sprinter of his generation, though, and Wiggins riding a time trial was so graceful.
Thor Hushovd – I loved Thor! This big Norwegian was always in the running in the sprints and was once recorded going downhill at something like 90km/h. Insane.
Thomas Voeckler – always entertaining to watch, he was an expressive cyclist who pulled for the team, without basking in personal glory much (though one year he gave everything to hang on to the yellow jersey for longer than anyone thought he would).
Thibault Pinot – he’s French cycling’s current darling who heartbreakingly had to abandon 2019’s race due to injury when he was very well placed and had won spectacularly on the famous Col du Tourmalet.
Vincenzo Nibali – winner of the stage in Sheffield in 2014 and he went on to win that year’s Tour. Still going strong. A master of the descent; nicknamed the ‘Shark’ because he’s always quietly lurking before he attacks out of nowhere, but off the bike he seems like a shy, humble, family man. And he was in one of the most bizarre adverts that companies make for the Tour coverage.
So here’s to the next decade of the Tour de France! May it always happen. My Barcelona friend Nicola loves the Tour so much she goes every year to take pictures of the side-of-the-road sideshow. In 2020, she’ll be exhibiting again at the Grand Départ, which will be in the lovely city of Nice. Which isn’t too far from here at all… 😉