22 Jul 2012

What is it about the Tour de France that so beguiles?

I recall 1994, as a pipling student in Brighton, joining crowds said to be 2 million strong that cheered the peloton up Ditchling Rise. Not quite the dreaded Tourmalet or Alpe D’Huez, but a thrilling sight nonetheless.

And of course Le Grand Depart of ’07, set at is was against Big Ben and Trafalgar Square in the very heart of London.

Maybe it’s a bloke thing, but just like my pre-programmed inability to ignore a ball kicked or thrown anywhere in my general being, there’s something about all the kit and paraphernalia of a bike race that rather tickles my fancy. Then again perhaps it’s the lycra.

My reference points for these massed scenes of shaved male legs and sweat are the great figures of British cycling. Names etched deep in my consciousness that command admiration and awe – for all of them were or are somehow connected with the greatest global endurance event of them all.

“Le Tour”.

Tom Simpson, the first Briton to don the maillot jaune back in 1962, when riders would routinely use ether and alcohol to survive the tour’s 2175 mile 3 week privations.

Robert Millar, who finished fourth in 1983, earning the red polka dots worn by the king of the mountains.

Chris Boardman, the next Brit to sport the yellow – for a full three days – in 1994, the year I watched le Tour captivate Brighton.

David Millar – before his fall from grace for doping – wearing yellow at the turn of the century after winning the prologue.

And now ‘le gentleman’, the modfather on a ten grand bike, wearer of Britain’s most famous ‘rouflaquettes’ (sideburns).

Bradley Wiggins.

The superlatives are many, but one stands out for it’s sheer brass tacks.

Sir Chris Hoy, odds on to become Britain’s most decorated Olympian, and he of Britain’s most famous thighs, proclaimed that should Wiggins win le Tour (which, given one of the event’s many unwritten codes is that the race leader on the final day should be allowed to triumph unchallenged) it will rank as the nation’s greatest ever sporting achievement .

And surely now only the most committed hermit can be unaware no Brit has won it before.

Which makes Wiggins’ cobble strewn procession up the Champs Elysees notable for myriad reason.

Of all the possible British sporting gongs this year it is certainly the most timely – less than a week out from the start of the London Olympics. And this is supremely significant. To be judged alongside and many would attest superior to what would have been, had England won the European Football Championship for the first time. Or indeed, had Andy Murray vanquished Roger Federer on Wimbledon’s fabled centre court. For unlike other nations, the Brits have never really warmed to either football or tennis as Olympic disciplines. Cycling is quite different.

It is firmly entrenched in the British psyche as a valued and honourable Olympic endeavour. And assuming all goes as predicted today, with Wiggins pedalling up the Champs Elysees enjoying an unassailable three minute lead, not only will he be an only Olympic gold medallist but he will also earn the biggest accolade ever in world cycling.

But it is not merely the fact, but the manner in which Wiggins’ and his team have dominated le Tour that is deserving of Sir Chris Hoy’s hyperbolic praise.

Because let us not forget that shortly behind Wiggins in the general classification, riding home second out of a total 198 riders, will be Team Sky mountain specialist Chris Froome. And looking to be the first rider to pass under Le Tour’s Arc De Triomphe finish line today, with a third 2012 stage win, Team Sky sprinter Mark Cavendish.

Froome already being mentioned as a good option for Team Sky leader in next year’s Tour. For it’s 100th incarnation is likely to be an amalgam of the route’s most iconic ascents – where the Kenyan born Brit excels.

And Cavendish, who’s explosive speed has been harnessed largely for team duties during Le Tour, but will in just 5 days be attempting to add an Olympic road race gold to the World title he earned last year.

Bradley of the sidechops will of course also be competing in London – in both the road race on Saturday, and his specialist discipline of the time trial. Potentially adding to his freshly minted Tour title and the 6 Olympic medals he already owns – 3 of them gold.

Which kind of brings us full circle.

This time last year I was one of a handful of British journalists to make what turned out to be a foolhardy pilgrimage to le Grand Depart, from the aptly named Puy du Fou, otherwise known as madman’s hill.

Team Sky was making it’s first serious bid to earn Bradley Wiggins the Tour’s coveted yellow jersey. But his race was over within days after a heavy fall smashed his collar bone.

Last year’s bad luck though may have turned out to be serendipity. For a win today will be the best conceivable tonic for the next few weeks of British sport. Make no mistake. A British cyclist, riding for a British team, winning the Tour de France, is simply massive.

Follow Keme Nzerem on Twitter: @nzerem