The Tour de France in England?

For only the second time in its 111-year history, the Tour de France will kick off on British soil when Leeds plays host to the Grand Départ on Saturday, 5 July. Teddy Cutler, The Independent

The great race is shared around

By Roger Childs

tour de franceThere will be three stages in England before the race heads across the channel to the home country. Then later in the event there will be incursions into Belgium and Spain.

It is the biggest annual sporting event on the planet and it attracts huge interest around the world. Millions of spectators watch the event from roadsides and vantage points along the route. On the 2013 Mont Ventoux stage in Provence, there were an estimated 300,000 people actually on the mountain!  Last year’s winner, Englishman, Chris Froome is the favourite and will doubtless feel comfortable with the Yorkshire start.

Humble beginnings and dubious tactics

GarinLe Tour started as a publicity stunt for the Parisian sports magazine L’Auto in 1903. Commercial interests were involved from the start and prize money and bonuses were on offer. There were six stages in this first tour which covered 2428km.

There were seven much needed rest days; the rest was an odyssey of suffocating dust, blinding sun, buffeting mistral winds, bone-breaking vibrations, not to mention punctures falls and losing the way. Cycling writer, Serge Laget

Out of 60 starters, the winner was chimneysweep Maurice Garin, also known as The White Bulldog because of his white coat and aggressive riding style. Over 30 riders were disqualified for cheating and two simply disappeared during the race!

Race rules evolved as time went on, especially after the 1904 tour when a bizarre range of tactics were used by riders and their supporters, anxious to win the prizes. The nefarious strategies included

  • catching trains on the longer stages
  • booby traps made of nails
  • abuse and debris thrown at rival cyclists
  • even a plot by the supporters of French rider Faure, to knife his opponents!

In 1905 new rules and closer surveillance by race referees resulted in a cleaner and more peaceful tour, even though an estimated 125 kg of tacks and nails were strewn on the largely unsealed roads!

Hugely popular but soaked in drugs

The race attracted enormous spectator interest from the start and in this year’s event tens of millions will line the route to watch the cyclists flash by at speeds at anywhere between 20 and 90 kph. Over the years, unfortunately, the desire of teams, managers and individuals to win at all costs, led to drugs becoming a huge problem and, inevitably, there were casualties and fatalities.

In 1967 English cyclist, Tom Simpson, tragically died after coming off his bike on the gruelling 21km Mont Ventoux climb. A combination of amphetamines and alcohol, on top of exhaustion, caused his death. Many other cyclists in this and other European races were involved in systematic drug taking, injections and blood doping, and many would die later from health complications.

Sadly the cycling community and the tour organisation turned a blind eye to much of the doping. However, after the 1998 tour, when police and customs seized large quantities of illegal substances, serious efforts were made to clean up the sport.

Coming clean

ArmstrongIn the twenty-first century, drug testing has become a regular feature of the event and many cyclists have been thrown out of the tour. A number of past riders have been stripped of their Tour title, with the most notorious being the seven time ‘winner’ Lance Armstrong.

The Tour de France did not have drug or doping issues in 2013. Chris Froome represented the new image and spoke for his fellow cyclists, shortly before stepping on to the podium in Paris to receive the winner’s accolades.

… the sport has moved on. And we as a peloton are standing together against it (drug taking) and we will not stand for it any longer.

Everyone will be hoping that the 2014 Tour is a clean one.

Plenty of excitement and superb coverage coming up

Tour sceneryA huge global audience views the event stage by stage on television and the official website gets millions of hits daily. The visual and verbal coverage is brilliant and the camera work from helicopters and motorbikes gives viewers amazing angles and perspectives not only of the race, but also the farmland, landscapes, historic buildings, villages, towns and cities along the way.

 

This year Le Tour

~ has 198 riders in 22 teams

~ covers 3644km in three weeks

~ includes 21 stages, six of which include mountains with five summit finishes

~ has an individual time trial over 54km where each rider races against the clock

~ finishes on the ChampsElysees in Paris.

During the event the bike riders compete for the right to wear four jerseys: the coveted yellow – maillot jaune – for the overall leader and

  • the green jersey for the best sprinter
  • the red polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains
  • the white jersey for the best rider 25 and under.

There are two Kiwis in the field: Greg Henderson and Jack Bauer, both of whom rode last year. Henderson has a key role for his Belgium-based Lotto-Belisol team as the lead-out man for their sprinter, Andre Greipel who will be major contender for the green jersey.

Picking a winner

cobblestons crashChris Froome is the favourite as the course will suit him. He won comfortably in 2013. However the best in the world are in the field, and there will be strong competition from Spaniards Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck Australian climber Richie Porte, Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali and France’s Thibaut Pinot.

One of the big unknowns is survival, especially as crashes and punctures are common and top riders can be forced out because of injury. A particular worry this year is Stage 5 from Ypres in Belgium to the French city of Arenberg, Porte du Hainaut.

It has a highly technical cobblestone section and in the words of Matt Pacocha, American cycling writer:

Anything can happen; you might crash, break your bike, lose your bottles, flat four times…

PS Sadly a crash in the finish straight in Stage 1 has seen ace sprinter Mark Cavendish drop out of the race with a broken collar bone.